Author Archives: Benjamin Scolnic

Benjamin Scolnic

About Benjamin Scolnic

Benjamin Edidin Scolnic is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Conn. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the editor-in-chief of Conservative Judaism magazine. 

Literary Criticism

Though source criticism has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the growth of biblical traditions, by definition it ignores the literary unity of the final form of a text. In reaction, literary criticism developed, to examine the literary characteristics (including narrative technique, tone, theme, structure, imagery, repetition, reticence, and character) of the texts. In simple terms, source criticism is interested in cutting up the texts to find the different layers of tradition; literary criticism considers the text as it stands now, as a whole, not as it once may have been. Literary criticism is both like and unlike traditional Jewish commentary. It looks at the Bible as a unified whole but has no theological commitment and sees it as the creation of human authors. Source criticism is interested in the process that wove the different texts, by different authors, together. In contrast, literary criticism sees texts as coherent wholes that create meaning through the integration of their element, irrespective of the authors and their intentions.
As earlier noted, Exodus 6 repeats a great many of the elements present in Exodus 3. The sages of the Midrash and the mystics of the Zohar created stories to explain this repetition. Similarly, literary criticism does not see the two text s of Exodus 3 and Exodus 6 as contradictory but as different parts of an ongoing narrative. Moses receives a renewed call to action in Exodus 6 be cause he has become so disenchanted by his early failure to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. This new revelation completes the revelation at the Burning Bush. God tells Moses that the mission for which he was called on at the Burning Bush will occur in due time; Moses should not be dismayed by his initial failures in Pharaoh ‘s court and with his fellow Israelites. He reminds Moses that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob received revelations and promises, and yet it was not in their times that the promise to possess the land was fulfilled. As the genealogy indicates, the Israelites have gone from being a family to being a people, and so the divine promise will be carried out, the liberation from Egypt will occur, and the Israelites will return to their land.

Literary criticism finds unity and purposeful repetition where other approaches find disharmony and contradiction.

Biblical Slavery

The following article is excerpted with permission from
Conservative Judaism
, volume 51:3, Spring 1999.

Exodus on Slavery

“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.

“But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.

“And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.

“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other’s property.” (Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21).

Deuteronomy: A More Humane Version

Compare this so the parallel text in Deuteronomy:

“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

Source Criticism of the Torah

Early in the 20th century, Solomon Schechter, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, labeled higher criticism of the Torah (what is known as “source-critical study”) “higher anti-Semitism.” Lower criticism, the establishment of a good and accurate text based on the analysis of versions and manuscripts was acceptable, but dividing the text up into sources was not. A century later, when the rabbis and scholars of that same institution worked to produce a new edition of the Torah with a commentary, it is striking that a clear and sympathetic description of higher criticism is included. Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, who holds his doctorate in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote this introduction to the field of source criticism as an appendix to the new Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Torah may seem to present a unified account of Israelite history and law during the patriarchal and Mosaic periods. Detailed study of the text, however, has led modern critical scholarship to theorize that the Torah is a compilation from several sources, different streams of literary traditions that were composed and collected over the course of the biblical period (ca. 1200 to ca. 400 B.C.E.). Because the Torah, in this perspective, is an amalgam of the works of different authors or schools, it contains an abundance of factual inconsistencies; contradictory regulations; and differences in style, vocabulary, and even theology. 

The first period of Israelite history is that of the patriarchs, described in the Book of Gene­sis. Beginning with Exodus, the Torah de­scribes events of the Mosaic period.

How did the religion of the patriarchs differ from that of Moses? The Torah makes it abun­dantly clear that most of the commandments and laws revealed to Moses are new. What about the faith of Moses as opposed to that of the patriarchs? The Torah presents the idea that Moses had a more intimate relationship with God than the patriarchs did: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am the lord [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH”(Exodus 6:2-3). The patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai, but Moses will know God by His more sacred, more intimate name, YHVH.