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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel, by Bernard M. Levinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.  234 pp.  $29.00.


As an interdisciplinary journal, Shofar is an ideal forum in which to feature Bernard Levinson’s most recent book, Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. For in spite of the title’s emphasis on the past (Ancient Israel), the book does not begin in Iron Age Israel, but rather in the humanities departments of the modern university. Central to Levinson’s argument is the assertion that the notion of canon “might provide a meeting point for the humanities” (p. 2).

              Collections of prestigious literature, of course, are utilized throughout the humanities. Levinson observes, however, that as various disciplines reexamine, and sometimes even reject, their own canonical literature, one voice is strangely absent from the conversation: Biblical Studies (p. 2). This is an odd lacuna, especially given the fact that Biblical Studies is “the one discipline devoted to exploring what a canon is, how it emerges historically, how its texts relate to one another, and how it affects the community that espouses it” (p. 4). But contemporary theory, Levinson observes, objects to the notion of canon: “for being exclusive; for encoding class, race, or gender bias; for silencing competing or less prestigious voices; for ignoring difference; for arresting social change; for enshrining privilege” (p. 10). This view of canon, however, is “blind to its own lack of historical ground” (p. 11), for it assumes that criticism lies outside the biblical canon itself. But in point of fact, Levinson asserts, the biblical canon “models critique and embeds theory” (p. 11). The canon, he maintains, is a “sponsor” of innovation.

              Taken as a whole, Levinson’s argument can be summarized in four brief statements. First, exegesis in the Hebrew Bible provides a strategy for religious renewal. Second, renewal and innovation are almost always covert rather than explicit in ancient Israel. Third, in many cases exegesis involves not the passive explication but the radical subversion of prior authoritative texts. Fourth, these phenomena are found in the literature of ancient Israel before the closure of the canon (pp. 20–21).

              But the presence of a canon in any religious tradition—whether Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, or Theravāda Buddhism—poses a problem: How can a closed literary corpus address the challenges faced by later generations? Levinson’s answer: exegesis. If the canon represents stability, then exegesis represents “vitality” (p. 15). This strategy renders the canon infinitely applicable. “Canon” and “exegesis,” however, are not stages in a process, as if exegesis were limited to the time after the establishment of the canon. Rather, “the ingenuity of the interpreter operates even in the formative period of the canon” (p. 18). Levinson demonstrates this claim in a study of exegetical revision of pentateuchal legal texts.

              Pentateuchal law is certainly an appropriate body of literature on which to test his theory, for it poses a special problem. Contrary to the manifold legal materials from the surrounding Near Eastern world (e.g., Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, etc.), pentateuchal law claims to be divinely revealed—either directly through the deity’s words or indirectly through Moses, his servant (p. 22). The result is that the human scribes responsible for composing pentateuchal laws are effectively de-voiced (p. 28). With such a metaphysical warrant in view, Levinson asks, “How can legal texts, once viewed as divinely revealed, be revised to fit new circumstances without compromising their—or God’s—authority?” (p. 29). While legal revision is explicitly acknowledged in the legal texts of Israel’s neighbors (see his discussion of Hittite law on pp. 29–33), there is an “inherent tension within the biblical laws between renewal and conservatism” (p. 48). In response to this conundrum, Israelite scribes developed a “rhetoric of concealment” (p. 48). These strategies allowed scribes to innovate without appearing to disregard or disrespect the prestige of the tradition.

              The rhetoric of concealment is brilliantly illustrated in a study of four texts that revise the Decalogue’s doctrine of transgenerational punishment: “For I, Yahweh your God, am an impassioned God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:5–6, Levinson’s translation and emphases, minus Hebrew; see p. 51). In this text, children are punished for their parents’ wrongdoing. This assertion was eventually used to explain the sixth-century destruction of Jerusalem and deportation of large numbers of Judahites (see, e.g., 2 Kgs 21:11–16). This explanation, however, was deeply problematic for the victims of Babylonian imperialism, for, as Levinson notes, “Is it not odious for God to punish innocent persons, merely for being the progeny of sinners?” (p. 55). He then shows through four case studies (Lam 5:7; Ezek 18:1–4 [cf. Jer 31:29–30]; Deut 7:9–10; Tg. Onq. Exod 20:5) how exegetical ingenuity was used to defuse this ethical and theological bomb (see pp. 57–88). This part of the study is rich and insightful, showcasing Levinson’s keen interpretive skills. (As an aside, the doctrine of transgenerational punishment also has a disastrous history of reception in some Christian circles, where the text has stoked the fires of Christian antisemitism. The Holocaust, in this view, was God’s transgenerational punishment of the Jews who cried out at Jesus’ death: “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” [Matt 27:25]. These interpreters, however, betray ignorance of the Hebrew Bible’s own discomfort with the doctrine of transgenerational punishment.)

              Legal Revision and Religious Renewal concludes with an extensive annotated bibliography (86 pages!) that is primarily populated with books from Biblical Studies. This section will be most helpful for specialists in the fields of Biblical and Judaic Studies. Some of the arguments, however, may prove inspiring for scholars outside the field.

              But what does all of this mean for the modern university? Without doubt, the most important follow-up conversations will revolve around the notions of canon and exegesis. Levinson has effectively shown that the biblical canon not only contains but sponsors exegetical revision. What about other canons in the humanities? How are Levinson’s conclusions relevant for them? The questions that animate our disciplines arise dialectically out of our conversations on and with literature we consider to be canonical or prestigious. New questions, trends, and insights, however, frequently reveal how our canons enshrine problematic values. One of the most widely adopted responses has been to throw out the old canons and get on with developing ones that mirror our contemporary values. In the process, the community fashions gods in its own image. Levinson’s study of the biblical canon offers an alternative:  It encourages us to consider the extent to which the destabilization of such odious values may already be in effect within our respective canons themselves. As he has argued, critical exegesis and revision—at least in the Bible—are intrinsic to the canon. In light of Levinson’s argument, then, we might ask ourselves: Where are the fractures and fault lines in our traditional canons of literature? Where are destabilization, deconstruction, and subversion—the seeds of academic renewal—already at work? And how are these disruptive elements concealed through clever and perhaps even clandestine exegetical strategies?

Michael J. Chan

Emory University

The Long Night: William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by Steve Wick. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.  264 pp.  $27.00.

The years 1960 and 1961 marked the fiftieth anniversary of significant events relating to public and scholarly awareness of and attention to the Holocaust. Published in 1960 by Simon and Schuster, William Shirer’s 1100-page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, although superseded by subsequent volumes and interpretations, overly-detailed, and reflecting Shirer’s strong opinions, is Shirer’s masterpiece, and, according to numerous reviewers, has been the benchmark against which other accounts of Nazi Germany have been measured. It also provided the public with a first description of Nazi Germany, as its focus was far more on Nazi Germany than on the details of the terrible deeds of the Holocaust.

              A second major event that attracted world attention to the Holocaust was the Eichmann Trial. On its fiftieth anniversary, the infamous 1961 Eichmann trial was recounted in Deborah E. Lipstadt’s fine little book, The Eichmann Trial (New York: Schocken Books, 2011). Lipstadt correctly held that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Eichmann’s prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, by encouraging extensive testimony by Holocaust victims in the trial and seeking to place heavy responsibility on Eichmann for these horrendous deeds, significantly expanded public and scholarly awareness of the Holocaust. Also, in the same year as the trial, publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1961), an extensive, although flawed, volume, which described in great detail and in the coldest possible terms the Nazi technology of murder, especially of the Jews, also presented the public and scholars with insights into the heinous processes of killing that became the Holocaust. Fifty years ago and a decade and a half after World War II ended, Shirer, the Eichmann Trial, and Hilberg had helped to underscore, especially for the public, but also for scholars, the importance of the Holocaust that had earlier been largely neglected or ignored.

              In the context of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Steve Wick has written an interesting account that describes in biographical detail the context in which Shirer was living and functioning in his role as a newspaper and radio correspondent in Nazi Germany, Austria, and other countries of Europe during the 1930s and the early part of World War II. Wick made clear that his effort was to document the conditions under which Shirer was working as a journalist, based on diaries, letters, notes, and general correspondence. Much of this information revealed what was happening in those years in Nazi Germany and in Shirer’s relations with other foreign correspondents, including his close friend, Edward R. Murrow. Shirer ultimately donated his papers to an archive located at the Stewart Memorial Library at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and this collection became the major source on which Wick’s book is based.

              Wick makes clear that the journalists and foreign correspondents in Nazi Germany during the 1930s were absolutely dependent on the official branches of government that were their sources of information and, therefore, were often the recipients of the falsehoods and Nazi propaganda with which these Nazi officials were seeking to befuddle and mislead other nations. This, in turn, meant that few journalists, including Shirer, while aware of the persecution of Jews in the 1930s, knew of the whole story and, from the start of World War II in September, 1939, were generally ignorant of the murder of tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, and others that would ultimately become the Holocaust. It was only in hindsight and in a limited way that this was treated in The Rise and Fall. As Wick indicated, few correspondents even wrote about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. The reason was twofold: (1) journalists had to remain in the good graces of the German government or be expelled from Germany and (2) in their fine books, Beyond Belief (1993) and Buried by The Times (2006), Deborah Lipstadt and Laurel Leff, respectively, made very clear that major American newspapers, including The New York Times, were not especially interested in the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany and, therefore, this was not a matter on which their foreign reporters investigated and filed stories. Given such constraints, the information that Shirer supplied to his readers and listeners during his six years as a foreign correspondent was limited and says more about the conditions in Nazi Germany during the period than about the reporting of foreign reporters. As Wick said, after Shirer had “read the accounts of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem . . . he realized that what he had seen during his six years in Berlin was through a very small window” (p. 240).

              The Wick book describes how Shirer, from 1934, was on hand in Germany to witness and/or report on the major events of the unfolding of the major German policies and activities of the 1930s, including persecution of the Jews (some of which he described in The Rise and Fall), the international propaganda victory of the German Olympics, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the seizure of the Sudetenland, the Anschluss with Austria, the eventual seizure of Czechoslovakia, Kristallnacht, and the invasion of Poland, Each of these events is viewed through Shirer’s reports, memoirs, letters, and other memorabilia and is described in his book. When World War II started, Shirer was able to have himself attached to military units and, could, therefore, see some of the destruction inflicted by the German Blitzkrieg on Poland, the Low Countries, and France (even observing directly Hitler’s signing of the treaty of French surrender to the Germans in the famous railroad car that signified France’s humiliation). He described horrid and painful scenes of devastation inflicted by the Germans on small towns and villages, homeless people marching endlessly with meager belongings, often carrying .children, often sobbing, and he responded to what he had witnessed in his diaries and letters. “Tears your heart out to see them . . . I stopped looking at them after a while . . . Hollow feeling in my stomach. Then remembered I was a reporter . . . I must see it all in my heart and mind . . .” (p. 165).

              Finally, Wick provides a judgment of the role played by Shirer as a consequence of his journalistic career in Germany which ended in 1941: Shirer was “the good American.” Given the limitations imposed by Nazi Germany, Wick contends that Shirer “could not do it all. By all appearances, he did the best he could” (pp. 240–41). Along with the Eichmann trial and Raul Hilberg’s book, Shirer’s Rise and Fail of Nazi Germany, limited though it was, contributed something to an appreciation and understanding of the terrible legacy of the Holocaust. Sam Wick’s well written, exciting, and insightful book, The Long Night, provides much understanding of the events and difficulties of life in Nazi Germany and in the activities of foreign correspondents in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. An interesting book, it is recommended.

Saul Lerner

Purdue University Calumet