Rabbi Dr. Joshua A. Berman is a brilliant scholar, writer, and speaker. In his new book “Ani Maamin,” words that mean “I believe,” he answers questions that bothered Bible readers – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – for centuries, and answers them in an interesting, readable, eye opening, and engaging way. Why was the Bible written? How do we explain the biblical writing style? How do we reply to Bible critics? And much more. The author is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. While his ideas are innovative, this Orthodox rabbi’s views are accepted by educated observant Jews. For example, the “Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought” published the first 27-page chapter of this book “The ‘Truth’ vs. Historical Accuracy of Tanakh” in its Winter 2010 issue.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part shows with many interesting examples that one can only comprehend the Bible, which was composed for ancient Israelites, by understanding the thinking and practices of the ancient Israelites and the people of other culture they encountered.
The common misconception is that the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, was composed in divine language in a style that was appropriate when the Torah was written and today. This, of course, is impossible. How then was the Torah written?
Rabbi Berman states that since it is unachievable in a single book to address all issues, he will examine those that concern most people. He will present the academic arguments in ways that laymen can follow and offer solutions that they can easily grasp. He will make it clear that lay people, rabbis, and secular scholars need to realize that “for too long [they] ignored the ways and the degree to which the Torah is a literary creation of the ancient world.” The only way to fully reach the meaning of the Torah is to know how and why people wrote documents in the ancient Near East world.
For example, he says and demonstrates “that the way in which the legal texts were read and interpreted in the time of the Tanakh [Bible] is quite different from the way in which we read and interpret halakhic texts today….When we attain a greater understanding of the cultic practices of the ancient world, we can more fully appreciate how the Almighty accommodated Israel’s spiritual mindset” at the time the Torah was composed. The great sage Maimonides (1138-1204) pointed this out when he discussed the laws of sacrifices which were only appropriate for the ancients. So too did Gersonides (1288-1344) and many other prominent Jewish sages.
Another example is how history was treated in ancient times. We assume that “history” existed since the beginning of time. But the term “history” does not appear in the Bible and the ancient approach to it even in Greece and Rome is far different than our modern approach. “Only by grasping that difference can we understand how the Tanakh relates to us the events of the past.” He explains that “some aspects of the biblical accounts are not fully factual, but rather rhetorical.” He gives many examples where what is stated as apparent history is designed to teach ideas not facts about events. One of the discussions is about the exodus from Egypt. Another is census figures which are symbolisms.
He discusses many subjects that critics raise to belittle the Torah such as why the Torah repeats the episode of the construction of the Tabernacle twice, how do we explain narrative inconsistencies as the difference between two animals entering Noah’s ark and seven, why does the book of Deuteronomy differ in many ways from the prior four books even in the two versions of the Ten Commandments, how do we deal with the biblical version of the flood since other cultures gave similar yet in many ways unlike versions of the flood before the Torah was revealed, the differences between Torah and ancient political thought and, most significantly, did God reveal the Torah to Moses and, if God did so, did God also reveal the contents of the book of Deuteronomy.
The second half of this wise book focuses on Jewish beliefs. Maimonides wrote that there are thirteen principles of Judaism. But did he compose this list to aid the common people but did not himself believe all thirteen? What does each of the thirteen mean? Scholars and rabbis differ on this subject. There are scholars and rabbis on both sides ever since Maimonides published the list.
He discusses where and when did the idea of “fundamental principles originate, why were they developed, does the term “fundamental principles” suggest that there are other principles and, if so, what are they, what are the implications of a denial of one or more of the thirteen principles, what principles are mentioned in the Talmud, what does the Torah say, what was the debate between Sadducees and Pharisees regarding such issues as life after death and reward and punishment, what principles did Saadia Gaon (882-942) develop before Maimonides, was Saadia the first to list principles, why did he do so, did other ancient cultures have principles, did Christians develop principles before Jews did so, what kind of lists did other rabbis develop after Maimonides, and are the belief in the principles central to meriting the world to come as advocated by Rabbenu Hananel (965-1055)?
These are some of the many issues raised and answered by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman. Many are basic questions whose answers will help or detract from one’s acceptance of Judaism, or, more likely, modify the current ideas of most readers and give them a better understanding of the Torah, principles, and Judaism.