Academic Year 2011-2012
Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Previously he was the Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, where he taught from 1994 through 2008. He has been a visiting faculty member at the Hebrew University, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the University of Chicago. An overarching concern of his scholarship involves the close and manifold relationships between biblical thought and later Jewish theology or, to use the Hebrew phrasing, between Torah shebikhtav and Torah shebe'al peh. For further information and a list of his publications and awards, see: http://www.jtsa.edu/x10025.xml?ID_NUM=11052
Artifact or Scripture: The Jewish Bible between History and Theology
I intend to investigate how the Bible as recovered by biblical critics can function as formative canon for a modern religion, focusing on the case of Judaism. By proposing a specifically theological approach to the Jewish Bible (which remains rare even among religiously-oriented Jewish biblical scholars), this book will disclose trajectories of thought emerging from ancient Israel to which sufficient attention has not been given. A major concern of this book will be the surprising ways in which biblical ideas and patterns are passed on, appropriated, and given new life in later Judaism. I will note how older viewpoints, after having been thoroughly reworked, appear in later Jewish thought. It follows from this diachronic study of themes and motifs from the ancient Near East, through the Bible, into rabbinic and post-rabbinic literatures that historicist methods of reading scripture eschewed by religious readers help us recover forgotten voices of religious creativity from ancient Israel. By linking diachronically-oriented biblical criticism with the history of exegesis, this book will delineate trajectories that link the earliest Israelite thought with post-biblical Jewish tradition and exegesis. This study will depart from models envisioned by earlier biblical theologians, who pretended that their work eschewed confessional stances. Because these older attempts in fact perpetuated Protestant readings, they strike non-Protestant readers as self-contradictory and (by implying that only Protestant readings are loyal to the text) offensive. Biblical theology of an overtly denominational nature can make important contributions not only to a particular group’s construction of creed or identity but also to the wider guild of scholarship. By unabashedly privileging a local context within which to read scripture, I will point out connections between biblical Israel and post-biblical Judaism that turn out to be suggestive outside Judaism. Without the local context, these connections might have gone unnoticed. My discussion of the interplay among three modes of transmission and transformation will provide a useful set of categories for the study of the history of ideas generally.