Bible Criticism, for G-d’s Sake

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From a letter by Samuel David Luzzatto, printed in a book in Hebrew titled “Karmey Shomeron,” on the topic of the “Samaritans” in Jewish history and literature.

Professor Luzzatto had become an expert in Syriac, the script of the ancient Samaritans, which was very similar to ancient Hebrew script. In this letter, he makes the case that the books of the Bible were originally written in this ancient Syriac script, then later adapted, based on an innovation of later Jewish scribes, to the “Assyrian” script in which our holy books are now written.

While this concept in itself is not novel, but actually is recorded in the Talmud, Luzzatto takes this one step further. According to Luzzatto, in transcribing the books of the Prophets from Syriac to Assyrian script, a number of errors crept into the text, based on the similarities between certain letters in Syriac script that became confused for one another. He uses this matrix to “correct” these errors and thereby explain a number of otherwise mysterious or inexplicable anomalies in these biblical books as we have them. Some in fact, are quite radical, and turn certain central Jewish traditions on their heads. But here and now is not the place to enumerate Luzzatto’s “edits,” nor do I endorse them, though I do find them interesting.

But what I really wanted to share here is Luzzatto’s defense of his strategy despite its seeming opposition to tradition. He pledges allegiance to Jewish tradition very powerfully and eloquently, stating that he only undertook these investigations to defend the Torah from its detractors among the Bible critics, Jew and non-Jew alike.

I wrote this explanation [of these biblical passages]… for my students over fifteen years ago, and from that time forward I made it known to the great wise men of the generation, so that perhaps they might find upright arguments to cast down my emendations and explanation, but they were unable. And even now, I do not proliferate this emendation to bring myself honor, but for the honor of the Torah and the truth of our faith, for after the opinions of Spinoza have spread throughout the world, and there have multiplied those who make themselves wise to prove the Torah false, and say Moses did not write it, rather that after a number of generations (once the stories had become distorted in the mouths of the masses) the stories were written in a book, I myself strove in all my writings… to put away and demolish these opinions, and to prove the antiquity of the text of our Torah, and the truth of the prophecy of our Prophets. I saw the need to make it known to the sly foxes (i.e. Bible critics), that while I am disgusted and abhorred by their counterfeit criticism, the upright and truthful criticism (i.e. analysis) has always been beloved to me, from my youth until this day. Even though I was not born upon the knees of the new German criticism (whose words I did not see or hear until I was twenty-eight years old), or on the contrary, because I was not born upon the knees of this counterfeit criticism, the purpose of which is only to ruin and destroy, and [whose perpetrators seek] only to increase their own prestige, rather I was born upon the knees of our Sages of blessed memory and Rashi and Rashbam, men of truth whose actions were truthful, who know their G-d is real, therefore they do not flatter him, therefore I merited that some hidden things have become revealed to me… and my faith in the antiquity of the Torah and the truth of the prophecy and the signs and the wonders is not because of an aversion to criticism, but because of honest criticism that seeks the truth and turns not away from anything, that is not shaken by the mockery of scoffers, and is not shamed by the scorn of the arrogant.

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