How Jews and Christians Read the Bible Differently

A review and response to Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Bible Differently (HarperOne, 2020)

A review by Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi of Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Bible Differently (HarperOne, 2020).

I am suggesting that the totality of truth is made out of the contributions of a multiplicity of people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carries the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation, in precisely the inflection lent by each person's ear, is necessary for the truth of the Whole.  The fact that God's living word can be heard in a variety of ways does not only mean that the Revelation adopts the measure of the people listening to it; rather, that measure becomes, itself, the measure of Revelation.  The multiplicity of people, each one of them indispensable, is necessary to produce all the dimensions of meaning.  

Emmanuel Levinas, "Revelation in the Jewish Tradition," The Levinas Reader (Blackwell,1989), p.195

“The world has been waiting for two thousand years for this book,” writes Professor Susannah Heschel on the back cover of The Bible with and without Jesus. And she is right. At long last, we have a work that uniquely enables Jews and Christians to see how the Bible tightly connects and sharply divides them, and discover how they can nevertheless appreciate both commonality and difference - no simple task given a history of misrepresentations, sometimes with deadly consequences. Levine and Brettler’s task is constructive: to enable Jews and Christians to deepen their own traditional biblical roots while cultivating an understanding of how others can legitimately draw different consequential conclusions from the Bible.  

With this in mind, Amy Jill Levine[1] and Marc Zvi Brettler[2] dispassionately analyze challenging texts while passionately showing readers how to appreciate diversity. The book is a gift to Jews and Christians who turn to biblical texts to undergird their religious self-understanding. It is also a gift to those who are neither Jews nor Christian but wonder why those who venerate the Bible often vehemently disagree with each other. This book’s rich exposition will guide them as an introduction to fundamental aspects of both Judaism and Christianity. In sum, readers of all religion – or of none- are beneficiaries of this landmark study.

In what follows I review this impressive book and then reflect on its implications in the context contemporary biblical studies. I also briefly explore some relevant modes of interpretation, from a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to a "hermeneutics of Chutzpah," and a “hermeneutics of hesed” (“generosity” or “solicitude”).

The Bible with and without Jesus can be divided into three major sections: introduction to biblical interpretation (1-66); a close analysis of influential texts (67-418); and the authors’ own concluding reflections (419-426).

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The introduction to biblical interpretation is perhaps the best of its kind, and a great resource for all readers of the Bible, from the well-informed to novices. The first thing readers learn is that “the Bible” is a misleading misnomer. Jews and Christians do not mean the same thing by this term. Moreover, the Bible is not a book but a library, a collection of books. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox include different books in that collection. The Hebrew or Jewish Bible (today often called TaNaKh; see below) is part of all Bibles. It is titled “Old Testament” in Christian Bibles (a term that presupposes a New Testament and thus not a value neutral term), and includes additional ancient Jewish books in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canonical (i.e. authorized) editions.

The order of the books in the different Bibles differs in places, leading to different narrative arcs and different presumed histories. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three major sections, Torah (Pentateuch), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) which leads to the acronym TaNaKh. Christian Bibles are organized by different genres. The Old Testament begins (like the Hebrew Bible) with the Pentateuch, followed by the Historical Books. Next, come Poetical or Wisdom Writings, and, finally, the Prophets. The Historical Books include Ruth and Lamentations which in the TaNaKh are placed in the Writings. While modern Jewish Bibles end with an invitation to go up to Jerusalem to build God’s house (2 Chr 36:21-23), the Protestant version of the Old Testament ends with Malachi who foretells that Elijah will return to proclaim “the day of the Lord” (Mal 3:23-24). This is followed directly by the New Testament, with the Gospel of Matthew proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Matt 1:1) and with John the Baptist cast in Elijah’s role (Matthew 2-3). This sequence hence creates a narrative of a foretelling (The Old Testament) and its fulfillment (The New Testament). The narrative arc in other Bibles constructs different scenarios and connections.

In their superb Introduction, Levine and Brettler identify elements that influence interpretation. They explain challenges resulting from presumption of inerrancy in certain traditions, and elaborate on difficulties in translating multi-vocal or ambiguous ancient words. They identify as well challenges stemming from the different sanctioned approaches that traditions and scholars have developed to engage and apply biblical texts. They concisely outline what typifies Jewish and Christian interpretations, noting note the old joke, “Two Jews, three opinions” aptly captures Jewish interpretation where plurality of meanings is valorized. As the Talmud states, “One verse gives rise to several laws or meanings” (Bab. Sanhedrin 34a, cited p.26). Rabbinic interpretation revels in expanding texts, making room for contradicting opinions. Midrash elaborates on texts with little or no regard to their contextual meanings. Only in the Medieval period does the attention to contextual meanings become prominent, with Rashi (1040-1105) as the most prominent figure. But by the 13th century, Jews accepted four legitimate guidelines by which to access or assign meanings. The acronym PaRDeS (pardes, Hebrew for “Paradise”) describes these meanings (and the very name, Pardes/paradise, also expresses the joy the rabbis ascribe to interpretation). “Peshat, the simple or contextual meaning; remez, literally “hint,” an allegorical meaning; derash, a homiletical meaning; and sod, a secret, mystical meaning (30-31).

While these four typologies were not absent from Christian readings (and may actually have originated in Christian circles), early Christian readings closely aligned with belief (32). Where Jewish interpretation revels in multiplicity, Christian interpretation strove for unity, Moreover, “Showing how the Old Testament foreshadows the New is central to Christian interpretation. In addition, maintaining correct doctrine was, and is, more important in Christianity than in Judaism” (32). In the Medieval period when Jews lent greater authority to the contextual or peshat meaning, Christians privileged allegory.

Levine and Brettler identify three overarching strategies in Jewish and Christian interpretation: Prophecy, prooftext, and polemics. Under “Prophecy,” they turn to post-event readings in the New Testament, in which later readers and writers cast their own times and experiences as culmination of earlier texts regarded as prophecies, at times without regard to prior contextual meanings. By “Prooftext” they refer to quoting biblical verses to prove something in the present. While rare in the Hebrew Bible, it is common in the New Testament and in subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions. As to “Polemic,” Levine and Brettler claim that controversial argument is “a fundamental feature in both the TaNaKh and the New Testament, and in the history of interactions between Jews and Christians, at times with dire consequences. Polemic aims to persuade by challenging other opinions, often to exclude other possibilities.

Levine and Brettler respond to these three dominant reading strategies by proposing a fourth, calling it “Possibilities.” With this, they champion a welcoming approach to multiplicity of exegetically legitimate interpretations (i.e., consistent with interpretive conventions) “not only because we live in a multicultural society, but also because understanding others helps us to understand ourselves” (60). Such a commitment undergirds the book as a whole. Indeed, each chapter ends with its constructive, inclusive affirmation, illustrating such an approach and its value. Most of the book focuses on concrete interpretations of texts that have had a significant impact on Jews, Christians, and the polemical relationship between the two.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Interpretations

Levine and Brettler, for example, examine the stories of Adam and Eve and their reverberations (99-134), illustrating how these lead to different conclusions in Jewish and Christian interpretation. As they note “ “The story of Adam and Eve is essential to the New Testament. For Paul, Jesus is the antithesis of Adam; what Adam broke, Jesus fixed” (101). Translations via Greek and Latin led to Augustine’s conclusion that all people are born tainted with original sin. Philosophies of the Greco-Roman world within which Christianity emerged influenced the perspective on gender that one finds in Paul’s reinforcement of hierarchy between women and men (1 Cor 11:7-12; 102). The view that Eve’s sin affects all humans (1 Tim 2:11-15) is a product of that cultural milieu.

As Levine and Brettler also note, these interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, while plausible, are not the necessary ones. Genesis can legitimately lead to diametrically different conclusions. And does.

In its earlier contexts, Genesis 1-3, like many stories of creations, explains “how the world as we know it came into being. But this new reality according to Genesis 2-3 is not a state of alienation from God” (118). As modern scholars, show, the word adam, translated typically as ”man,” is gender-neutral referring to a human being.  The creation of woman does not “imply her – or any woman’s – secondary status” (110).[3] Genesis 2 ends with a happy, naked couple in the garden (111).

Genesis 3, when the first couple transgresses, includes ambiguities and lacuna that Jewish and Christian readers sought to clarify, often with contradictory results. But some things are certain yet lost in translations. As Levine and Brettler point out, for example, God’s message to the woman in Gen 3:16a is actually “I will make great your toil and many your pregnancies; with hardship shall you have children” (115), not the more typical, historically misleading translations such as the NRSV’s “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children . .  . .” (One might add that the King James Version of 1611 got the verse right with: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children”). Gender hierarchy is not part of creation but pronounced for life outside the garden. God in Genesis 3 continues to care for the transgressing couple, replacing their flimsy garments of fig leaves with protective skin (Gen 3:21).

In the historical context, Genesis 1-3 has “No identification of the garden with paradise where righteous people reside after death, no immortal soul, no Satan, no irreparable breach between humanity and divinity” (118). Like many stories of creations, it explains “how the world as we know it came into being. But this new reality according to Genesis 2-3 is not a state of alienation from God” (118). There was then nothing for Jesus to fix.

The rest of the Hebrew Bible says next to nothing about Genesis 2-3. While biblical texts acknowledge human propensity to sin, none suggests that this propensity is inherited from Adam.

Things change in the Hellenistic period (during which Christianity emerged), with some Jewish texts highlighting the perpetual negative impact of Eve’s creation. Sirach/Ben Sira (132 BCE) casts woman as the source of sin; Philo (ca 20 BCE-50 CE) regards the creation of woman and Adam’s desire for her as the beginning of “iniquities and transgression” (Philo Creation 151-152; cited in 125). The Life of Adam and Eve (first century CE) blames Eve alone for the human predicament and sin; Enoch (date uncertain) blames her for humankind’s mortality, whereas 4 Ezra (late first century CE) regards Adam’s sin as affecting all of his descendants. 2 Baruch, however (also late first century CE) denies an inevitable transmission of sinfulness from Adam; choice is always available (127).[4]

Dominant Christian interpretations in the 3rd to 4th centuries highlight alienation: all humanity was infected by Adam’s sin. Rabbinic midrashim seem to polemicize against Christian views, highlighting God’s forgiveness of Adam’s sin (Leviticus Rabbah) or minimizing the sin; a minority focuses on Adam’s fall. But the dominant view rejects any original sin. Adam’s guilt applies to him alone.

As for Eve, rabbinic traditions are diverse. While Adam’s sin remains exclusively his (130), Eve’s is seen in some as consequential for all women (according to some), and requires special women rituals for expiation: baking challah bread for the Sabbath, observing menstruation laws, and lighting Sabbath candles. One should add, however, that Adam and Eve continue to be the paradigmatic loving couple in Jewish traditions, embedded in the seven blessings bestowed on a couple at the wedding ceremony.

The Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah as a Polarizing Text

While Adam and Eve’s stories in Genesis affect how Jews and Christians view themselves, other texts affect how Jews and Christians view each other; these have often fueled animosity between the two groups, at times with grim consequences for Jews. “The Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 is an example (285-312).

Decades ago Pinchas Lapide reviewed Hebrew Bible texts that Christians apply to Jesus.[5] His goal was to prove that the Hebrew Bible does not support Christian claims about Jesus as a Messiah. Levine and Brettler’s goal is sharply different. They acknowledge the legitimacy of diverse and even opposing Jewish and Christian interpretations, pointing to gaps in the text allow Jews and Christians to continue to shed light on the inherent potential embedded in this ancient text. Consequently, Levine and Brettler invite readers to resist “either/or” claims. They, however, count on basic exegetical ground rules that they describe in the opening chapters and do privilege contextual meaning.

The interpretation of the “Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, has been a major bone of contention. To Christians, this prophecy refers to Jesus as a savior whose suffering and death permanently atone for human sins. His death has consequences for how Jews have been perceived. To Jews, however, the servant is either an individual in the 5th century BCE or, more likely, exilic Israel itself. The book of Isaiah explicitly designates Israel itself as God’s servant (see “My servant Jacob” in Isa 44:1-2 and ““You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” in Isa 49:3; NRSV translation).

In both Judaism and Christianity, the servant’s suffering, pain, and humiliation of defeat are destined for vindication.

As Levine and Brettler explain – and show - Isaiah 53 is a difficult text, therefore lending itself to legitimate yet differing translations, and thereby to different meanings and divergent consequences. Levine and Brettler illustrate the challenges by comparing the English translations in the NRSV and NJPS, with the early Hebrew (Qumran/DSS) and pre-Christian Greek (Septuagint, the Jewish pre-Christian translation of the Bible) resulting in consequential conclusions/trajectories that emerge from differing renderings of the many ambiguities in the text.

Isa 53:3 is especially important to Christians who understand it as a promise that the servant’s suffering is salvific, atoning vicariously for humanity’s sin. But in its historical context during the Babylonian exile (late 6th century BCE), Isaiah 53 conveyed different messages. In that historical context, the servant did not have a sacrificial role, nor is the text about death and resurrection. “The central figure is not described as a messiah, is not dead, and is not offered as sacrifice” in the Masoretic Text (300).[6] He suffers, is despised, and is, or will be, vindicated. The semantic range of several terms, however, is susceptible to various translations and can tilt meanings in different directions. The preposition min is a case in point (dia in Greek). It can mean “from,” “on account of” and “for,” each moving the message in a different direction.

While Isaiah 53 can be applied effectively to Jesus and his mission even though this was not the chapter’s/text’s message in the historical context, Levine and Brettler suggest that some specifics in the dominant Christian applications of Isaiah 53 (such as sacrificial death as an atonement) are not supported by the Hebrew version. The prophet, for example, is not foretelling the coming of a figure in a distant future such as the time of Jesus several centuries later. The prophet is addressing a suffering community that feels itself a victim of harm done by others and expresses hope that they will soon experience vindication.

However, reviewing early Jewish and Christian interpretations, Levine and Brettler illustrate how the text accrued messianic claims even in Jewish sources, as well as was applied to later suffering Jewish communities (by Rashi, for example, during the Crusades).

In sum Levine and Brettler help readers understand how and why “Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has yielded numerous readings, some prompted by Hebrew and Greek nuances, some polemical, and others pastoral.” (311). They also add:

This diversity of interpretations warns us against reading the text in only one way or at the expense of someone else. Perhaps Jews who have denied that Jesus is Isaiah’s servant can appreciate how Christians, reading typologically, adopted this interpretation. Perhaps Christians might come to appreciate that Jews have their own understanding and therefore might not read this passage only as the suffering of the servant, but as his exultation, offering hope for those who suffer everywhere” (311).

Levine and Brettler’s approach to the texts and interpretations is marked by careful analysis and an exceptional generosity in assessment.  They apply these to other controversial texts, including the issues of “eye for an eye” and “turn the other cheek” (181-217) and Psalm 22 (345-379), as well as the claims about virgin birth (355-283) and about the blood of the covenant (219-253). In each case, their analysis is illuminating and generously affirming of the value diversity, without losing the distinction between what the text meant in its originating setting in the Hebrew Bible and what it has come to mean to later Jews and Christians.

The task is arduous, but Levine and Brettler carry it out in this book with the expertise and grace that one has come to expect from their work. The authors are both renowned biblical scholars as well as practicing Jews affiliated with Orthodox congregations.[7] Throughout their book, Levine and Brettler not so much tell readers as show how and why trajectories of meanings evolved and to what effect. Yet the book is not only a rigorous, fair-minded review of how Jews and Christians interpret the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It is also a passionate plea. “We are proselytizing,” they confess (60), yet not in order to convert anyone to their version of religion (or any other), but rather “to encourage readers to look at other viewpoints sympathetically” (61).


Understandably, Jews and Christians who subscribe to absolutist or exclusive forms of interpretation are not likely to welcome this book. Some may even consider the authors’ fair-minded acceptance of divergent claims to be heretical. On the other side of the interpretive world/spectrum, some postmodern critics might contest the book’s privileging (implicitly and at times explicitly) historical contexts. The rest of us, however, are fortunate to have at last an illuminating resource for dealing with challenging texts that both unite and divide Jews and Christians.

Yet, the book generates further, challenging questions. Reading Levine and Brettler’s exposition of the many possible legitimate interpretations of biblical texts inevitably raises questions about the authority of the Bible(s) and of interpretations. For centuries, Jews and Christians have been claiming allegiance to the Bible and its messages as a major way of adhering to God’s teachings. Awareness of the degree to which all interpretation is mediated by translators (for readers who do not know Hebrew) and by communities (social and political even geographical location, not to mention gender, class, and race) - re-positions claims of authority. The degree to which the Bible itself is now known to be layered mediation, spanning centuries, adds to the complexity. One is led to asking:  What is the Bible’s authority if it lends itself to such different, even contradictory, legitimate interpretations? And how can the reality of possible contradictory positions help ground a person or community that seeks to adhere to the Bible?

Let me explore these questions, not within the specific Jewish world, but in the one where Jews, Christians, and others mingle to engage questions about the Bible: the world of biblical studies. Modern and postmodern biblical scholars have been responding to these challenges in various ways. Modern critical scholarship has responded by aiming to get back to the original intent and formation of biblical texts, applying historical methods to biblical texts. The results include giving rise to numerous tools or methods with which to access and reclaim such contextual meanings (philology, redaction history, text criticism, even archaeology and more). While contextual meaning was already emphasized by Rashi[8] and Ibn Ezra, modern scholars and heirs of Spinoza[9] and Wellhausen[10] have gone further, investigating as well the historical dynamics that gave rise to biblical texts, and the histories of the texts themselves, thereby seeking to uncover legitimate meanings in those settings. Authority and relevance came to be associated in historically oriented biblical studies with such original intentions. Objective analysis of the texts in their actual, original setting(s) constituted decisive as access to their authentic meaning(s).

Postmodern interpreters, gaining momentum since the 1990s, have taken a different path. A widespread trend in postmodern biblical interpretations has been to move from the object (Bible) to the subject (interpreter). Drawing perhaps (implicitly or explicitly) upon Kierkegaard’s well-known assertion that “Truth is subjectivity,” postmodern interpretations placed authority about meaning in the perspectives of the interpreters. Increasingly in recent years, race, ethnicity, gender and class have come to define the lenses through which biblical texts are understood. A glance at the 2021 Program Book of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (the largest assembly of biblical scholars in the world) illustrates such approaches. Although most of the Program Units in the Meeting still focus on the biblical texts (i.e., “Biblical Law” or “The Book of Deuteronomy”), there are also numerous sessions titled “African-American Biblical Hermeneutics,” ”Asian and Asian American Hermeneutics,” “Biblical Exegesis from Eastern Orthodox Perspectives, ”Ecological Hermeneutics,” “Island, Islanders and Scriptures” (described as “a platform for Island and Islander views”), “La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars of Religion,” “Latino/a and Latin American Biblical Interpretation,” “LGBTI/Queer Hermeneutics,” “Minoritized Criticism and Biblical Interpretation.” And “Womanist Interpretations,” to name a few.[11]

In a sense, such postmodern interpretations are reviving what traditional Jewish and Christian interpretations have done for millennia (Levine and Brettler illustrate): they allow the lives or ideologies of the reading communities determine what the texts mean. The difference, when such approaches are employed well, is that postmodern interpreters self-consciously acknowledge the standpoint from which they approach the text and (when done well) recognize the partiality of all subjective perspectives.[12]

I find David J. A. Clines’ essay, “Reading Esther Left to Right,”[13] particularly valuable in mapping the interpretive world where we presently are, and helping one move forward. Clines uses the label “reading right to left” for historical criticism and other approaches that seek to contextualize the Bible in its own milieu(s). “Reading right to left means first of all studying the Hebrew text (which moves right to left), both literally and metaphorically. It entails analyzing first and foremost what the Hebrew language texts meant in their own time and place. Such readings and their results have been viewed as the decisive, legitimate goal of biblical interpretation for modern biblical scholars. Historical critical studies have tended to pride themselves as being objective, even scientific.

Clines (unlike many other postmodern interpreters) values such reading “right to left” that situates texts in their own historical settings and attempts to identify their early meanings. But unlike many historical critics, Clines also advocates reading “left to right.” ”Reading the story from left to right, however, [is] not only in English but in our own cultural context.”[14] Clines whimsically serious essay on the subject invites us to read all texts in both directions, literally and metaphorically. Clines exemplifies reading “left to right” by describing the book of Esther in turn from the perspective of a feminist, a structuralist, a deconstructionist, and a materialist. As his examples illustrate, the list can go on ad infinitum (in his commentary on Job, Clines offers a “Vegetarian Reading,” approaching the text with an eye to how animals and vegetations are portrayed and on the implications).[15] A single person can read from different perspectives, even contradictory perspectives: when I read as a text critic or redaction critic, I read one way; when I read as a scholar, as a Jew, as a woman, or as a rabbi, I define my perspectives differently and highlight different things. Marc Brettler’s distinction between the Bible as a “sourcebook” and a “textbook” is helpful. “A sourcebook, by nature, presents many perspectives, whereas a textbook – in order to be cogent – adopts a particular point of view.”[16] As a scholar, Brettler interprets it as a sourcebook. For his own religious life as an observant Jew, Brettler treats the Bible as a textbook.[17]

As Clines makes clear, what matters is self-conscious awareness that we are reading from a perspective inevitably colored by many aspects, and identifying which of these factors define or shape our interpretation.

Accountability is now regarded as integral to biblical interpretations. Historical biblical criticism holds itself accountable to presenting the implied meanings of the text in its own world and contextual settings. Instead, many postmodern biblical interpretations privilege the impact of the text upon society.

One influential modern or postmodern approach, “hermeneutics of suspicion,”[18] is associated initially with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur and employed effectively by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in feminist studies of the New Testament. [19] It forms a salutary counterpart to centuries in which faithful Jews and Christians defended at all costs the religious, moral or economic values/merit displayed in the Bible. “Hermeneutics of suspicion,” instead, encourages readers to resist the text’s agenda. It seeks to discern what the text is hiding by omission or addition so as to expose its biases and evaluate these on a basis independent of biblical categories and values. There is nothing inherently hostile in such an approach, any more than in Freudian analysis. In fact, Ricoeur drew upon Freud for his interpretation.[20] Rather, Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion aims to expose hidden meanings in order to deepen understanding. In Ricoeur’s and Schüssler Fiorenza’s work, this approach also entails an ethical perspective and interpretive accountability.

Hermeneutics of Chutzpah and Hesed

Where do all these interpretative options lead if one is to take the Bible seriously as a source for Jewish values and life? I turn to Adele Reinharz’s 2020 Presidential Address at the Society of Biblical Literature, “The Hermeneutics of Chutzpah: A Disquisition on the Value/s of ‘Critical Investigation of the Bible.”[21] Reinhartz challenges norms in biblical scholarship, including historical-critical methods, that overlook the consequences of interpretations. She advocates “a hermeneutics of chutzpah,” which she associates with both African American and Jewish traditions. “Chutzpah is a Yiddish term that can mean rudeness or shameless gall. In a more meaningful way, however, chutzpah, like sass, issues a challenge to oppressive authority structures.” For those in the margins, chutzpah also asserts agency.[22]

Writings from the margins which (Reinhartz argues) benefits both the marginalized and those who perceive their work or themselves at the core of the profession. Hermeneutics of chutzpah goes further than “hermeneutics of suspicion” in making a claim on the reader and the text. Speaking explicitly as a Jewish, female, Canadian scholar, Reinhartz does not shy away/shrink from pointing to interpretations that perpetuate (at times unintentionally) forms of anti-Semitism. But she keeps her eyes on how “chutzpah” can contribute to biblical interpretation and to society as a whole: hermeneutics of chutzpah “issues a challenge to oppressive authority structures,” and effectively disrupt complacency.[23] For Reinhartz, biblical interpretation has a role in contributing to a more just society. Chutzpah is part of such contribution in allowing difference to be perceptible and in exposing what might otherwise be blind spots.

Chutzpah, of course, is integral to the Hebrew Bible itself, beginning with Abraham’s argument with God (Genesis 18), and continuing with Psalm 44 and the book of Job, to name but a few. Much of the Hebrew Bible is literature of protest exhibiting daring chutzpah to authority structures. In Reinhartz’s approach, as in the Hebrew Bible itself, “chutzpah” entails an “ethical commitment to the other” with awareness of interdependence and a call to responsibility.[24] The ethical dimension attends to implications that go beyond one’s own community (or preferred perspective).

“Right to left” and “left to right” interpretations, coupled with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “hermeneutics of chutzpah,” set healthy foundations for approaching biblical texts today. These approaches make explicit what Levine and Brettler amply show, and the millennia of biblical interpretations illustrate: texts do not yield only one inevitable reading.

Yet, in my view, these useful and necessary approaches do not suffice. Since texts do not yield only one inevitable reading, “the interpreter must take moral responsibility for her reading.”[25] To the extent that a moral vision goes beyond critique and protest, one also needs what I call a “hermeneutics of hesed.”

Ricoeur describes moral intention as “aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others in community with ‘just institutions.’”[26] He names this perspective “solicitude.” I call this quality hesed. The usual translations of hesed in English as “lovingkindness,” “loyalty,” “steadfast love” or “graciousness” do not go far enough. Hesed refers to generosity that goes beyond the call of duty. Hermeneutics of hesed is a hermeneutics of solicitude that exemplifies care and concern for the other, be they individual or communities.[27] A hermeneutics of hesed, which Ricoeur and Levinas help us cultivate, enables us to resist parochial hegemony in the name of particularity or the subjectivity of “identity politics.” Hesed teaches attending to implications beyond one’s own community (or preferred perspective). But since text, interpretation, and community shape each other, methods of interpretation can best serve when they exemplify qualities integral to the life we seek with others. Hesed is such a quality.

Hesed and respect for the other needs to be extended to the Bible itself. The over 2500 years separating us from the authors and communities that produced the Bible should remind us that the Bible is yet an “other,” and therefore deserves the kind of solicitude we bestow on or expect from others in our own time. The fact that it has been and is used in oppressive ways needs to be acknowledged and understood. The fact that some of its teachings reflect what we consider oppressive also needs to be acknowledged and examined. But that is not the whole story.

The Hebrew Bible emerged from a small and vulnerable community seeking to rebuild its life and identity after a catastrophe. The biblical agenda includes forming a society “aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others in community with ‘just institutions’” (to use Ricoeur’s definition of moral intention).[28] The Bible’s authors “sought to construct a robust and resilient national identity capable of withstanding military defeat and encroachment by colonizing powers.”[29] As a project of peoplehood, “the formation of the Bible is unprecedented.”[30]. This multi-faceted product of distant, often vulnerable, communities remains an incomparable “sourcebook”[31] for discovering others and learning to live with them so as to build communities with just institutions.  

As Jews, we get to wrestle with the complexity that is biblical literature and its ramifications. This for me also entails seeking a blessing from the struggle, as did the paradigmatic figure of Jacob/Israel when he demanded a blessing from his mysterious nighttime adversary in Genesis 32.

Let me return to Levine and Brettler. In appreciating the Bible as a resource for different communities, and as a text that continues to generate meanings, they illustrate how hesed can combine with critical assessment. As an example of how to read biblical texts while respecting difference, they make possible a more generous society. In an era rife with contentiousness and a  topic that has been divisive for millennia, their exploration of possibilities is a rare and most welcomed opportunity.[32]


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Department of Jewish Studies.

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D., is a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research, and the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, formerly at Brandeis University.

[3] This conclusion was also reached in The Women’s Bible edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902).

[4] The last four books, however, are an amalgam of Jewish and Christian writings, thus not a sure source for Jewish interpretations.

[5] Pinchas Lapide, Jesus in Two Perspectives: A Jewish- Christian Dialog (Augsburg Publishing House, 1985).

[6] The Masoretic Text is the authorized, canonized Hebrew version of the Hebrew Bible usually dated to traditions between the 7th and the 10th centuries CE.

[7] Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Department of Jewish Studies. Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D., is a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research, and the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, formerly at Brandeis University.

[8] See for example Rashi’s introduction to the Song of Songs where he both acknowledges the multiplicity of meanings and specifies that no verse departs from its peshat meaning. The specific location of this specification is particularly important given the dominant traditional (both Jewish and Christian) reading of the Song of Songs as an allegory.

[9]  Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) was the first to publish a systematic study that contested the Mosaic authorship of the Torah and identified, instead, political issues that shaped the formation of the Pentateuch and other biblical texts (see his A Theologico-Political Treatise). This work and others were opposed by the Jewish community in Amsterdam into which he was born and he was placed under a ban. Many modern interpreters, however, follow his general footsteps in assessing the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

[10] Julius Wellhuasen (1844-1918) was a German biblical scholar best known for his version of the Documentary Hypothesis which argues that the Torah or Pentateuch was composed of four distinct documents, each belonging to a different era and group: J or Yahwist source from the 10th century BCE; E or Elohist source from 9th century BCE; D or Deuteronomy from the 8-7th centuries BCE, and P or Priestly from the exilic or postexilic eras in the 6th or 5th century BCE. Version of this hypothesis continues in biblical studies (although now alongside other explanation of the formation of the Pentateuch). Like Spinoza, Wellhausen denied that Moses could have written the Torah.

[11] There is at present no “Jewish Interpretations of the Bible.” Such a Program Unit, which ran for 3 years, did not draw enough participants to renew itself, unlike the Units listed above. The number of Jewish members at the SBL is unquestionably large, several of them have been presidents of the Society. It is difficult to explain the limited interest by Jewish scholars to focus explicitly on Jewish Biblical interpretation.

[12] Alas, it is not uncommon for some interpreters to consider their truth as the only truth. But such certainty which is a human tendency, is hardly confined to biblical interpretation, and does not accurately reflect  what Kierkegaard meant when he valorized experience as an access to truth.

[13] David J. A. Clines, “Reading Esther Left to Right,” The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield, ed. D. J. A. Clines, S. E. Fowl, and S. E. Porter. Sheffield: Journal of the Study of the Old Testament Supplemental Series 87, 1990, pp. 31-52.

[14] Ibid., p. 31.

[15] David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20 (Word Biblical Commentary 17. Dallas: Word Books, 1981), pp. l-lii.

[16] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: JPS, 2004), p. 280.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Hermeneutics” refers to interpretation and the study of interpretation, especially of the Bible and other, usually, literary, texts.

[19] See, for example, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stones: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984)..

[20] Unfortunately, one finds in biblical scholarships those who consider suspicion the only deserving criterion as well as those who consider subjectivity as the only truth. These attitudes, alas, are confined the field of biblical scholarship but reflected in our broader culture.

[21] Adele Reinhartz, “The Hermeneutics of Chutzpah: A Disquisition on the Value/s of ‘Critical Investigation of the Bible,” Journal of Biblical Literature 140, 2021, 8-30. “Hermeneutics” refers to interpretation and the study of interpretation, especially of the Bible and other, usually, literary, texts.

[22] Ibid. pp. 28-29.

[23] Ibid., p. 13.

[24] Ibid., 29. Reinhartz is citing Wei Hsien Wan’s “Re-Examining the Master’s Tools: Considerations on Biblical Studies’ Race Problems,” in Ethnicity, Race, Religion: Identities and Ideologies in Early Jewish and Christian Texts and in Modern Interpretation, ed. K. M. Hockey and D. G. Horrell (London: T & T Clark, 2028, 219-230), 228-229.

[25] Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (University of California, 1993),5.

[26] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 122.

[27] As Levinas notes, we become truly human by facing the other who interrupts me and thereby opens me outwardly. See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Duquesne University Press, 1969).

[28] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 122.

[29] Jacob L. Wright, War, Memory, and National Identity in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 4.

[30] Ibid., 7.

[31] Brettler, How to Read the Bible, 280.

[32] I thank Annette Aronowicz, Beth Lieberman, and Jacob Wright for responding to earlier versions. Rabbi Lieberman’s careful editorial comments have been invaluable.  

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