Book Review: Midrash And Mishnah

Midrash And Mishnah:  A Study In The Early History Of The Halakah, by Jacob Z. Lauterbach

There are a great many reasons why I looked forward to reading this book and enjoyed it so much.  For one, the book was a very short one at 20 pages, making it an easy and quick read that will not take up much space in my admittedly sprawling collection of books.  For another, the material of this book was deeply interesting in that the author openly admitted the lack of legitimacy in the approach of the Pharisees in dealing with the origins of various laws that they defended on less than acceptable grounds in their attempts to portray themselves as the successors of the prophets rather than usurpers of the role of the priests, and in the way that they covertly smuggled non-biblical heathen traditions into acceptable traditional conduct through opaque reasoning that was not honest because they did not wish to put ammunition in the hands of their foes who denied the whole validity of the halakah as a whole, as I do, while accepting the validity and importance of the midrashic approach to scripture that takes it and not the human reasoning of the supposed sage as the essential element.

If all of this sounds somewhat familiar to some of my readers [1], it is because this short essay was an important text in the messages given concerning the history of second temple Judaism that I have responded to in the course of my own writings about Jewish history.  Indeed, in reading this text I can precisely understand what it is about Lauterbach’s writing that has made him such a treasured source for the approach my congregation’s leadership has taken concerning the history of the intertestimental period/Second temple Judaism period.  Although short, this particular essay, which was a study first published in 1915, manages to discuss in some detail the silence and obfuscation of the Pharisees in presenting when the mishnaic approach to the laws of God began, and how late the supposed “oral Torah” came from in the course of Jewish practice and thinking.  Rather than concede the illegitimacy of their whole endeavor to replace God’s law with a law of their own devising and reasoning, the Pharisees and their Orthodox successors lied and misrepresented the history of the matter, and this book is a worthwhile exposing of this behavior for those who are not directly involved in the Jewish polemics this book represents.

While I consider this book a great one, I am not blind to the fact that the author of this essay and I have very different belief systems about the Word of God and the law of God.  The author, as a liberal Jew, viewed even the written law of God as being subject to the same evolutionary processes and the same lack of legitimacy possessed by the oral Law.  The author’s corrosive skepticism here refutes ungodly human tradition, but the same acid will burn away any sort of call to obey godly law by the same principles, and so while this is an essay I can definitely support, the author’s approach as a whole is not one I can endorse.  If the author is certainly useful as a critic of rabbinic Judaism and its illegitimate history, the author’s misguided critical approach, learned from equally misguided German higher textual critics, is useless as a guide to understanding biblical religion, and is only useful in exposing the illegitimacy of nonbiblical faith traditions like that of Orthodox Judaism.  One can hardly wonder that the Orthodox opponents of Lauterbach are not likely to view him or his critical scholarship with any degree of fondness, for no one likes to be told that the emperor has no clothes.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: Midrash And Mishnah

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Taste Of Text | Edge Induced Cohesion

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