Seltzer Interview With Dr. Rivkin

(The following composite “interview” conveys additional reminiscences about the relation of his college years and graduate school training to his mature Jewish identity and ideology of Judaism. RMS)

Q:        Just as you hold there are different concepts of God in the Bible, you indicated that there are distinct systems of authority embedded in the Bible, and that this is the key to understanding how the Torah became what it is. Would you explain this more fully?

A: I distinguish four systems of authority in the Pentateuch which could not have functioned simultaneously. The first was the early patriarchal system illustrated in the stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, centered on the authority of a legitimate son of a previous patriarch. This tribal system of leadership was based on heredity to ensure family continuity, not on demonstrated merit (however meritorious the patriarchs might have been personally).

The second was represented by an individual like Moses or his successor Joshua who had direct access to a God whose commands and teachings are not subject to human review. In principle this is a system of authority based on merit. Moses was chosen by God, not by virtue of heredity but by God’s measure of him as worthy of receiving the divine word. Moses’s authority was symbolized by the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, a place of revelation that had no sacrificial appurtenances. The Joshua who cared for the Tent of Meeting in Moses’s absence was not a priest; he was a potential successor of Moses by virtue of his having demonstrated the necessary qualities to be entrusted with the oracles of Yahweh. The cloud which appeared above the Tent was symbolic of a wilderness wandering in which God was available whenever needed. The depictions in the wilderness experience presupposed a one-to-one, divine-human authority, the origins of the prophetic role.

The third system of authority was that in the book of Deuteronomy, which assumed the existence of a coalition of three kinds of Yahwistic leaders: a diluted prophetic authority (in that a true prophet cannot challenge the immutable laws in the book of Deuteronomy and must acknowledge a permanent priestly class of levites together with a Yahwistic monarch), a levitical authority concerned with sacrifices confined to one place and one place only (the implication is that this is the Temple in Jerusalem), and a king (presumably of Davidic descent) committed to enforce the divine laws. The functioning of this coalition precluded a supreme, one-to-one, divine-human prophetic authority and therefore could not have functioned simultaneous with it.

The fourth system was found in those texts that endow with absolute authority a priesthood monopolized by Aaron and his sons, excluding other levites from access to the Temple altar by subordinating most of them to men of pure Aaronide descent. There is an evident determination to root out levitical claims by heaping an array of destructive consequences in the story in the book of Numbers of the rebellion of Korah and the levites against Aaron and his children.

In a seminar paper for the Society of Biblical Literature I used the story of Korah as a jumping-off point. This story may reflect the memory of a bitter struggle in which the Aaronide priests overthrew the levites. From there I moved back to earlier levels of authority. I posited that the second system of authority was prior to the coalition system in Deuteronomy and to the Aaronide system that predominated when the full Pentateuch was canonized. I reasoned that what I called “prophetic absolutism” did not negate the Deuteronomic coalition system, which made a limited place for prophets. Nor did it negate absolute Aaronidism, because the latter did not yet exist. By contrast, the coalition system did dilute the absolute authority of the prophets by ascribing some authority to levitical priests and a Yahwist monarch. Even though it diluted prophecy, this coalition did not challenge the absolute authority of the Aaronides because there were no Aaronides yet. The Pentateuch retained accounts of a form of prophecy that might have functioned in a wilderness situation and a coalition system which emerged after the rise of an urban agricultural society. It is significant that no Aaronides are mentioned in Kings or in the prophetic books, even though in the biblical book of Chronicles Aaronides are depicted as dominant. This is because Chronicles could only have been written after the Pentateuch had been canonized.

It should be noted that when one reads the prophetic books and the books of Samuel and Kings one finds corroboration of these successive stages in the history from the wilderness to the conquest to the emergence of monarchy to the reforms of Josiah — and ultimately to the Aaronide triumph testified to in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Almost a century earlier during the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel proposed a Zadokite supremacy because he did not know Pentateuch Aaronidism. The authority of the priests could not be overthrown as long as the Pentateuch, understood literally (i.e., as originally intended), was accepted as supreme.

When one reads the prophetic books, however, one finds that Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah all assume that prophetic absolutism was the norm in the wilderness experience. Jeremiah alludes to King Josiah’s finding a Torah book (this probably occurred in the 620s BCE). Note also should be taken of the sentence in the book of 2 Kings that until Josiah’s time “there had not been a Passover celebration like that since the time when the judges ruled in Israel, throughout all the years of the kings of Israel and Judah.” Does not this convey the utter bewilderment of the people (who apparently had never observed the Passover in this way) when a Torah scroll was read to them in order to convince them of the authenticity of this Passover they were celebrating for the first time? The people were told, in effect, that you did not know about this Passover inasmuch as it had not been observed in this way this since the days of the Judges. Furthermore, there is the sentence in the book of Ezra when the people (after hearing the reading of what was probably the canonized Pentateuch) were told that the Festival of Booths (Sukkot) had never been celebrated this way since the days of Joshua.

The lynchpin of my theory that the Aaronide priesthood superimposed its authority on leadership forms whose traces are preserved in the Bible is provided by the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) in the Apocrypha. Ben Sira is a text which was not included in the canonized Bible and which dates from the Hellenistic era before the Hasmonean revolt. In the author’s day, Aaronide absolutism at its height, flourishing with aplomb as is indicated in his “praise of famous men,” by devoting only five verses to Moses, twenty verses to his brother Aaron, and an entire chapter to the majestic splendor and unquestioned expiatory function of Simon, the High Priest of his day.

Composition of the book of Ben Sira is a line of demarcation separating Aaronide supremacy from the rise of the Scribes-Pharisees and their paradosis, their orally transmitted system of law and lore. After the Hasmonean revolt the paradosis (or halakhah) triumphed, becoming binding in place of a literal reading of the written law.

Q:        In your memoir, you told us of the turmoil you felt as you became discontented with the religiosity in which you were raised. You describe how you redefined yourself intellectually and emotionally as you moved, step-by-step, into the secular world. Would you comment on what you held onto of the traditional Judaism of your family, your synagogue community, and the intensive talmudic studies of your youth?

A:        I retained a fundamental loyalty to the concept of Torah as God’s Truth and to the study of Torah as the rigorous search for Truth. (I insist on the capitalization of Truth in this context.) I had been inculcated with the belief that the search for Truth had to be undertaken for its own sake, not for a tangible reward. This concept was beyond any denominational limits and transcended Orthodoxy as such.

I came to realize that what I had been taught as Torah-Truth was a mיnage: some ideas depicted what God might validly be, while others did not even though they are found in holy writ. I could not resolve these contradictions within the context of the Judaism in which I had been raised. Since Torah must be true, God must be truly God, not a false deity. I found I had to filter out what might be true about God from what was false.

Q:        What truths did you “filter out”?

A:        From the Pentateuch, that there was the single God, formless (that is, without a perceptible image), whose creation of the universe and all that is in it culminated in an individual both male and female. We are metaphorically created in God’s image, told to choose goodness rather than contaminate the universe with human-wrought evil. This conception of God became a template for comparison with other depictions of the divine in the Hebrew Bible. The deity of the first chapter of Genesis is also God in the book of Exodus who says “I am what I am” or “I shall be what I shall be” — a God who cannot be preempted by humans. This God reappears in the books of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah as a deity whose attributes are love, compassion, and justice, who abhors deceit and oppression, a God for all humanity. This is a God who does not choose only one people (remember Isaiah 19:2-25: “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance”). This is the God of Isaiah’s End of Days when wars will no longer occur, when poverty will be no more, when animal and human will co-exist harmoniously. This depiction of God is to be filtered out from the depictions of a deity who insisted on elaborate sacrifices in the book of Leviticus, who ordered that none of the inhabitants of Canaan should be spared destruction in Numbers, who threatened with dire penalties any who deviated from his immutable commands.

Q:        In your book, A Hidden Revolution, you offer evidence that the roots of rabbinic Judaism are to be found in the Pharisaic movement. Could you explain in a nutshell how the methodology you have described applies to the origins and triumph of halakhic Judaism?

A: I begin by again looking for a mooring, as a way to overcome historical relativism — a position where one can securely start to reconstruct a period or event and link it to another mooring at a more distant time which is likewise secure.

The mooring with which I begin was the Aaronide system of authority embodied in the canonized Pentateuch. This mooring is secured by noting Ben Sira’s focus on Aaronide absolutism as the operative authority system. The expiatory sacrificial cult of the
Aaronides is fully accepted by Ben Sira as the atonement instrument of the divinely given revelation, the Pentateuch. It overcame the previous systems preserved in the biblical text, not by eradicating them but by superseding and therefore displacing them. Preserving memory of these other systems rendered the Aaronide priestly system invulnerable to accusations that it was wiping out previous divine revelations in the biblical account of ancient Israel’s years in the wilderness. It should also be noted that prophecy had come to an end by the time of Aaronide supremacy. There was no need for prophecy once there was a system of immutable laws that prophets did not have the right to challenge. Taking away this right had been first called for by the writers of Deuteronomy.

The halakhic system functioned differently. Halakhic and aggadic texts -- the Mishnah, Tosephta and the tannaitic Midrash -- do not rely on biblical literary models. There are no chronicles, no stories, no wisdom spread out over chapters and verses. There are no lengthy disquisitions comparable to the poems in the book of Job. The finding of new books to include in the Bible came to an end with canonization not only of the Torah but of the entire Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament). The sages of the twofold Law created a new legal terminology. Nowhere in the biblical books do we find such terms as halakhah (law), gezerah (decree) and takkanah (ordinance) to denote legal categories. These sages also came up with new names for God like Makom (the All-Present One), Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, Blessed Be He), She khinah (the Divine Presence). Linking the Oral Torah to the Bible is accomplished by an innovating mode of “proof-texting,” in which a sentence or two of the Bible is quoted with a she-ne ‘amar (“as it is said”) or kakatuv (“as it is written”). Similarly, the synagogue also appeared after the Hasmonean revolt and the rise of the Pharisees. The synagogue was a new institution that surfaced after the overthrow of Aaronide supremacy.

Ben Sira did not cite biblical verses. He puts in his own words his praise of the Aaronide system. When Ben Sira wishes to elevate Wisdom to a revelational level, he simply says that Wisdom comes from God and that the center of this Wisdom is the Temple. The synagogue is never mentioned in Ben Sira. To be sure, in Hellenistic Alexandria there were proseuche, but these were not synagogoi. Proseuche means “prayer” and not “a place of prayer.” Since each proseuche had a blessing for the ruler’s well-being, it served as a demonstration that God was protective of the Ptolemies in return for polis (civic) rights that were granted to the Jewish community of Alexandria. I have discussed these and other innovations that occurred after the Hasmonean takeover more fully in A Hidden Revolution and various essays.