Interview'The Torah's final editors allowed for contradictory ideas'

How priests, prophets and kings united Israel in monotheism and codified the Torah

In ‘The Book of Revolutions,’ Rabbi Edward Feld analyzes three of the Bible’s main precepts, written over hundreds of years and later compiled by exiled priests in Babylon

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustration from the 13th century Morgan Bible, of David bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. (Public domain)
Illustration from the 13th century Morgan Bible, of David bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. (Public domain)

When King Josiah of Judah turned 20 years old, he embarked on a dramatic renovation of the First Temple in Jerusalem. During the long reign of his grandfather Manasseh in the seventh century BCE, the Temple had become the site of polytheistic worship to appease the regional power of Assyria. Upon becoming old enough to rule after a period of regency, Josiah was determined to restore the monotheism of the single God of Israel.

The books of Kings and Chronicles detail how he did this, from clearing out the Temple of polytheistic icons to destroying smaller worship sites across the kingdom, even digging up the graves of their priests. During the refurbishment of the Temple, Josiah’s priest Hilkiah announced a propitious discovery — a scroll of the Book of Deuteronomy, which became promoted as the law, binding the Israelites exclusively to Adonai.

This is part of the narrative of a new look at the Pentateuch in “The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings that Birthed the Torah,” written by Rabbi Edward Feld and published by the Jewish Publication Society.

In his book, Feld aims to show what he calls the pluralism of the Torah by analyzing three of its legal codes — the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-24; the Deuteronomic Code, found throughout Deuteronomy; and the Holiness Code, principally located in Leviticus 17-25.

“These are the three parts of the Torah which deal with, if you will, life in the world,” Feld told The Times of Israel. “Civil law, criminal law, behavior, by all the people of Israel.”

Separate from the Ten Commandments, these codes are extensive sets of instructions, all delivered from God through Moses. Each one contains memorable phrases — “an eye for an eye” in the Covenant Code; “Justice, justice shall you pursue” in the Deuteronomic Code; and “love your neighbor as yourself” in the Holiness Code.

Feld states that each one was composed in different eras and locales. He attributes the Covenant Code to the northern kingdom of Israel in the ninth century BCE, the Deuteronomic Code to the southern kingdom of Judah in the seventh century BCE and the Holiness Code to the Babylonian exile after 586 BCE. Feld adds that all three codes were placed in the Torah by exiled Israelite priests in Babylon whom he credits with compiling the accepted version of the Pentateuch.

“What is amazing about the final editors of the Torah is that they included these codes that are not necessarily always saying the same thing,” Feld said. “They are frequently in contradiction with one another. [The editors] were willing to put that in one book.”

For instance, the Deuteronomic Code calls for one central worship space throughout the Promised Land, whereas the previous Covenant Code implies there can be many such venues.

Rabbi Edward Feld, author of ‘The Book of Revolutions.’ (Joseph Kushick)

As a rabbi in the Conservative movement, Feld knows what it’s like to be an editor willing to balance contradictory passages in the same pluralistic text. He is the senior editor of two Rabbinical Assembly prayerbooks containing diverse reflections — Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and holidays, and Mahzor Lev Shalem for the High Holidays.

The High Holiday prayerbook “has a poem by Yehuda Amichai, who was clearly a secular poet, and statements by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe,” Feld noted. “We included both in the same prayerbook. Both have something to teach us.”

As for his new book, he said, “I based the manuscript on what scholars have been saying. I quote those scholars, if not in the book, then in the footnotes. I don’t presume that any of this is new scholarship. Rather, what I contribute is to put it all together in a very clear way, so that one can see the development from Exodus through Nehemiah.”

Asked if he views any of the codes as particularly important, he replied, “What I argue is, all three say something that speaks to us. I started out… thinking I’d be sympathetic to one more than the others. I ended up being sympathetic to all three, understanding all three in a new way, [with] profound moments of spiritual insight.”

You say you want a revolution

Feld is also interested in the tumultuous events that precipitated each code.

In the northern Kingdom of Israel, a military coup in the ninth century BCE overthrew the House of Omri, which had embraced paganism and alienated the prophet Elijah. The propagation of the Covenant Code by the new King Jehu represented a return to monotheism and satisfied Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Two hundred years later, in Judah, the brief reign of Manasseh’s son Amon ended in assassination. Young Josiah succeeded his father, overseen by a regency, before he reached maturity and campaigned against the polytheism of his grandfather.

Illustrative: The view from the Mt. Shaul Biblical Trail in the Gilboa Mountains. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The third revolution was a peaceful one. During the Babylonian Captivity, prophets such as Ezekiel and Zechariah sparked a rethinking among fellow exiles about what a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem would look like. Influenced by this wave of thought, believes Feld, a group of reformist priests penned the Holiness Code.

“I, myself, believe that what these revolutions uncovered and brought to life has meaning beyond their time even to our present day,” Feld writes in the book. “For they constituted a search for a fundamental understanding of the meaning of faith in God and the way of life that faith demands.” He continues, “The religious power of the ideas propagated by these revolutionaries can be experienced by anyone who enters into Jewish life today. Judaism is unthinkable without reference to these codes.”

Of the Covenant Code, he writes, “the idea that the people of Israel stand in covenantal relationship with God has been a permanent underpinning of Jewish theology,” while “Deuteronomy emphasizes the concept of mitzvoth — the idea that the Jewish people are addressed by God and commanded by God to behave in certain ways.” As for the Holiness Code, it “adds its own unique understanding to the meaning of religious behavior: God wishes each of us to behave in such a way that our very hearts are transformed.”

There is no wayward son

‘The Book of Revolutions,’ by Rabbi Edward Feld. (Courtesy)

The codes were sometimes harsh; one law from Deuteronomy mandates that a wayward son be brought before the local elders and stoned to death. (There is also the prohibition on homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, while all three codes acknowledge some degree of slavery.) Although there were blessings for those who obeyed the codes, there were curses for transgressors. One set of curses, the Tochacha of Leviticus 26, contains such violent language that it is traditionally read sotto voce in synagogue.

In later centuries, a subsequent attempt at categorizing Jewish law — the Talmud — adopted a softened view of certain parts of the codes.

“The Talmud says, such a situation [as the wayward son] was never created and never happened in all of Jewish history,” Feld said, “but this is given as a kind of teaching that one should not have this kind of behavior. Certainly, no one would ever carry the punishment the Torah expresses out. The Talmud has a way of understanding.”

The idea for the book arose earlier this century, during Feld’s time as Rabbi-in-Residence at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he noted that many students had difficulty reconciling their religious faith with biblical criticism.

“I wanted to show you can study historical Judaism, adopt a biblical criticism point of view, and derive from this spiritual meaning,” he said.

And so he delved into biblical sources narrating the history of the Israelites over the 700-year period that began with the Twelve Tribes settling the Promised Land and ended with exile along the Tigris and Euphrates. He found the books of Kings and Chronicles particularly valuable. Yet he also cross-referenced biblical narratives with contemporaneous sources from other Levantine cultures such as Assyria and Babylon, as well as archaeological evidence, including from present-day Israel.

Illustrative: Remains of tools discovered in Jerusalem’s City of David within a layer of destruction from the 8th century BCE. (Eliyahu Yanai/ City of David)

“The biggest surprise was the extent to which each of the legal codes was really influenced by prophetic teaching,” Feld said, citing “two foci of prophetic teaching — loyalty to the God of Israel, the One God; and [that] the God of Israel had, as a central teaching, social equity, care for the poor, care and concern for the way people treated each other.”

Covenant as constitution

Doing some detective work, he made a case for the Covenant Code as a creation of the northern kingdom of Israel — as a confederation, it stressed a covenantal relationship between ruler and people, as opposed to the direct monarchy of Judah. Deuteronomy, he found, closely paralleled Josiah’s reforms and represented a Judean effort at constitutional law.

What he also found was an influence from Israel’s neighbors. The ruler of Assyria styled himself as the King of Kings — a term that became exclusively associated with God in the Hebrew Bible. Feld was also surprised by the popularity and persistence of polytheism among ancient Israelites, which distressed reformers like Josiah.

At various stages of biblical history, the average Israelite, the average Judean was not worshiping a single divinity

“It is clear,” Feld said, “at various stages of biblical history, the average Israelite, the average Judean was not worshiping a single divinity. The prophets say, how can you do this, how can you be so wayward? There were scholars who said, oh, the prophets were exaggerating. From the archaeological evidence, we know the prophets were not exaggerating.”

“It keeps on coming back in each generation,” he reflected. “It’s kind of a back-and-forth battle that keeps on recurring.”

The book notes that the revolutions mentioned in the text could all have gone a different way, yet the result of each one was vital for Judaism. The Covenant and Deuteronomic codes emphasized the exclusivity of the relationship between God and the Israelites, while the Holiness Code stressed the importance of personal ethical behavior through this connection to the One God in its signature line: “You shall be holy because the Lord your God is holy.”

“Ultimately, I hope readers come to realize the difficulty biblical ideas encountered in their own time before they triumphed,” Feld writes. “If you will, there was no ‘inevitability’ in their triumph, yet how lasting, how significant are the ideas these revolutionary moments captured!”

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