Rabbinic Judaism is a way of life that emphasizes study and the interpretation of Jewish Law. The rabbis were the people who read the Torah and interpreted it for their generation. They understood that everyone would interpret the Torah differently, so to understand its full meaning, people needed to read it alongside other interpretations as well as commentaries on it.
In this blog post, Rabbi Shmuel Waldman will explore what reading the Hebrew Bible through an interpretive lens entails and how we can apply these insights to our understanding of ancient Jewish history.
The Hebrew Bible
Rabbi Shmuel Waldman, who has an extended experience in religious education, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) is an ancient collection of books that tell stories from Biblical times in Israel. These stories are called “Torah” or “first teachings” because they come from God through Moses to the Israelites in Egypt.
The Torah describes God as one, a unity, as the creator of heaven and earth, and as a just ruler who protects his people. But ancient Jews didn’t always see things quite like this. They had different ideas about what was important or appropriate when studying or interpreting their sacred texts. This changed over time and is highlighted by several notable events in ancient Jewish history.
The Babylonian Exile
Rabbi Shmuel Waldman, who has been writing on rabbinic topics for over 20 years, shares that after the Israelites left Egypt, they made contact with the Babylonians, a powerful empire in the Middle East. The Babylonians had different ideas about the significance of the Bible. They believed that the gods in their myths were real, and they believed that by studying and interpreting their myths, people could understand their own gods and their own empire.
This was a very influential period in Jewish history, because it was during this time that Judaism adopted much of the ideas from the Babylonians that would later be adopted by Christianity. The Babylonians had many gods, and one of them was Marduk, a god who was the Babylonian version of Moses. Marduk was revered as a liberator, and it was he who defeated the sea god and created the first humans. The Babylonians believed that Marduk was the son of the god Nebo, which was a name that they adopted from the Israelites. When the Babylonians came to write the story of their gods, they wrote that Nebo had a son named Marduk, and they wrote that Marduk was the son of Nun, a name that they adopted from the Israelites. The Babylonians didn’t see any significance to this, but the Israelite exiles saw it as an important connection.
Contemporary Jewish Interpretation Today
The methods and practice of rabbinic interpretation continue to play an especially important role in contemporary Jewish life. Rabbis in many contemporary synagogues and communities, including Rabbi Shmuel Waldman, use a variety of methods to understand the Bible. Some use the Bible as a guide for their lives, reading it in the same way that non-Jews read the Bible, others use the Bible as a source of information about history and current events, and others use the Bible as an intellectual and/or spiritual resource.
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