What Counts as a Jewish Text?

Some case studies to help us decide.

What counts as a Jewish text changes through time. Texts that earlier generations have excluded are affirmed later. As the Psalmist says, “The stone which the builders despised has become the cornerstone.” Conversely, texts that are perfectly acceptable or mildly challenging to earlier generations can create theological problems that prompt modern people to exclude them. In the past, publishers had a role in determining which Jewish texts would survive; if the publisher thought enough people would buy a book, it would be published and survive. Now, practically anything can be published either in print or electronically. If, as Rabbi Judson asserts, communities validate texts as Jewish, which community will assess and affirm or disaffirm the Jewish texts of the internet?

In determining what “counts” as a Jewish text I would begin with a historical debate the Rabbis of the Mishnah (a primary document of Jewish law from the early third century) had about this very question. They grappled with the following:

what is a  jewish text“That day you seemed to me a tall palm tree and your breasts the clusters of its fruit. I said in my heart, let me climb into that palm tree and take hold of its branches. And oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes on a vine, the scent of your breath like apricots, your mouth good wine. That pleases my lover, rousing him even from sleep. I am my lover’s he longs for me only for me.”

The preceding quotation may seem like it comes from an erotic romance novel. But of course it is from Song of Songs (7:8-11, translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch), one of the books that comprises the Ketuvim (Writings), the last section of the Hebrew Bible. Ostensibly the Song is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover–not the kind of material one would presume to find in the Hebrew Bible.

The Rabbis puzzled over whether this poem should be considered part of Holy Scripture. The Mishna (Yadayim 3:5) records a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Rabbi Yose says there is a dispute about whether Song of Songs qualifies as sacred scripture. He does not articulate what the debate was about, but we can guess it was the sexual nature of the story. Rabbi Akiva, though, ends the debate by saying that there has never been a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs, it has always been clear. In fact he says, “The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of all.”

Commentators coming after the Mishnah tried to understand how it was that this erotic poem became part of the canon, and caused the revered Akiva to proclaim it the holiest of writings. The answer they give is that the book should not be read in a straightforward manner as a love poem at all. It should be read instead as an allegory to depict the relationship of God to the Jewish people. Ibn Ezra writes, “God forbid that one construe this as a love song or as anything but a metaphor.”

The case of Song of Songs is instructive. Song of Songs, which certainly counts as a Jewish text, is not a typical Jewish text content-wise: God is completely left out of it. However, its later interpreters claimed that it was all about the central Jewish experience of God and Israel. Which is to say that in determining what is a Jewish text, it is often interpreters who may come along centuries after a text was written who determine its Jewish status.

Take the case of the writings of Spinoza. At the time he lived, he was excommunicated by the rabbinic authorities because he rejected religious claims of eternal truths in favor of reason. But at different times and in different places, Spinoza has been resurrected as a Jewish writer. During the French revolution, for example, Spinoza’s claim that a state should not be grounded in a given religion, but should allow citizens to make the choice of what religion to believe–what we call separation of church and state–was used by Jews to claim they could be good French citizens and still be Jews.

Similar to Spinoza’s fate is the books of the Maccabees, the four books retelling the revolution that the Maccabees led to free Israel from the Syrian Greeks. The Rabbis did not include these books in the Hebrew Bible; the books of the Maccabees are included, however, in the Christian Bible. Are they Jewish texts? The Rabbis of the Talmud, famously, only bring up the holiday of Hanukkah in the middle of a discussion about Shabbat. There they do not even mention the stories of rebellion told in Maccabees, and instead they tell the story of a jar of oil that was meant to last one day miraculously lasting eight days. With historical hindsight, we can suggest that the Rabbis of the Talmud did not include the books of the Maccabees as part of the canon because the books suggest armed revolution against the authorities, and for a group of people living under Roman rule, extolling these qualities may have been dangerous. Instead, the Rabbis focus on God’s miraculous power to make the jar of oil last eight days. However, in our time, we can most certainly see the books of the Maccabees as Jewish texts.

What makes them Jewish? And for that matter what makes any text Jewish? As we have already seen, it is not necessarily the content of the writing that makes a Jewish text. Rather it is what the interpretive process does with the texts. The Maccabees have become, in our day, important historical figures, so we understand the books as Jewish texts. Early Christian writings, even by authors who may have understood themselves to be Jews, would be outside the realm of Jewish texts because of the strict division between Judaism and Christianity.

When we come across theologically difficult texts, we also see that content is not the issue in determining their Jewishness. The Bible itself is the most theologically difficult document I can think of: the strict reward and punishment system of Deuteronomy, the God of akedat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac) who asks Abraham to sacrifice his first son– this is a problematic vision of God. But we can safely say the Bible is a Jewish text. Agnostic texts are not an issue, either. Primo Levi for example, was an avowed agnostic, but I would classify his writings as Jewish writings, and his poems as Jewish texts. His experience of being in the concentration camps and writing about it from an explicit Jewish viewpoint makes his texts Jewish, even though he was an agnostic.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules to determine whether a text is Jewish. As we have seen, it is not necessarily the content of the material that determines Jewishness, but how later interpreters respond to the material. Like human beings, texts have a life, and sometimes like human beings, they can convert from outside Judaism to Jewish, or vice-versa. Texts are Jewish when a community of Jews perceives that the text speaks about the Jewish experience.

I write “a community of Jews” because in determining whether a text is Jewish, the question must ultimately be considered from a communal perspective. I spent a year working at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York, the world’s largest gay and lesbian synagogue. Were the drashot (teachings) that the Rabbi gave about acceptance of sexual orientation, Jewish texts? For that community they were, but for the Orthodox community they might not be. This is part of the dynamism of Judaism, that there is no central dogma, and as such there will always be disagreements about the outlines of the Jewish canon.

The ultimate arbiter of these disagreements is history itself.

Discover More

What Is Midrash?

These writings, which fill in gaps in biblical texts, falls into two categories: halacha and aggadah.

The Making of a Torah Scroll

Written by hand, a sefer Torah is produced according to strict specifications.

Modern Halachic Texts

In the wake of emancipation, various strategies emerged to stem and possibly reverse the tide of modernism.