Jewish Texts 101

Why Jews are the people of many books.

Although Muslims identified the Jews as the People of the Book (i.e. the Bible), Jews have always been a people of many books. Books are not only maps that have guided Jews through living Jewish lives; while Jews have lived outside of the land Israel, the books have become the territory through which and in which Jews have traveled and interacted with other Jews.

Contents and Scope: Although some historians refer to the eras of Jewish history by the dominant books produced during a period (such as the biblical period or the Talmudic period), such a historical “map” will not create a sense of the relationships between the different texts. The Hebrew Bible and the various genres of literature within it—stories, laws, prayers, poetry, and histories—provide a starting place for most of the other genres of Jewish literature. Judgments concerning which texts are primary and which are secondary and which should not even be considered part of the “Jewish canon” flow from and inform our understanding of Judaism as a whole.

Jewish Texts as Sacred Texts: Traditionally, Jews have placed at least some of their texts somewhere along a spectrum that extends from direct divine authorship to pointing toward the Divine. The assumption that a text is holy and even divine has profound implications for how Jews treat books and the ways in which they read and study those books.

Connections Through the Generations:  Although Jews have not always lived in the same lands or even spoken the same language, Jews have communicated with each other by commenting on and interpreting the same sacred texts. The texts, and the tradition of commentary and midrash (reading meaning into and out of a text), become the basis for an ongoing cross-generational conversation.

Conversations and Debates:  The saying “Two Jews–three opinions” is not hyperbole.  Conversations about texts sometimes became debates and hotly contested arguments.  In some cases, arguments about how to understand a text or whether a text was divine or authoritative–or even part of the “canon”–led to divisions in the Jewish people, but the value of conversation has (almost) always been maintained.

Tools for Study: Ready to learn more? You are not alone.  Contrary to popular belief, this is the most educated generation of Jews in history. Most of Judaism’s primary texts are available now in modern translations; some translations are “closer to the original” than others, but all translations are interpretations.  Learning to use a translation is an important skill, even for someone who is familiar with the original language.   Similarly, many scholars and rabbis have written anthologies of and commentaries on Jewish texts; think of an anthologist or a commentator as a tour guide and choose carefully.

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