Non­fic­tion

Ani Maamin: Bib­li­cal Crit­i­cism, His­tor­i­cal Truth and the Thir­teen Prin­ci­ples of Faith

  • Review
By – July 24, 2020

Can some­one who believes that the Torah was giv­en to Moses on Mt. Sinai rec­on­cile that belief with the find­ings of mod­ern his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship? Rab­bi Dr. Joshua Berman, a pro­fes­sor of Bible at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, offers a frame­work for pro­cess­ing this ten­sion in Ani Maamin: Bib­li­cal Crit­i­cism, His­tor­i­cal Truth and the Thir­teen Prin­ci­ples of Faith.

Begin­ning by not­ing that the ancients thought and wrote in ways dif­fer­ent than mod­erns – and that the Bible does­n’t have words for our con­tem­po­rary con­cepts of belief, his­to­ry, author, fact, fic­tion, reli­gion, and pol­i­tics – Berman demon­strates how per­ceived incon­sis­ten­cies between dif­fer­ent parts of the bib­li­cal text, and occa­sion­al pecu­liar­i­ties (for exam­ple, arti­fi­cial­ly round num­bers in the cen­sus of the Israelites dur­ing their desert wan­der­ings) can often be con­tex­tu­al­ized in light of the writ­ing styles of the ancient world. In the bib­li­cal era, ide­o­log­i­cal mes­sages of the text were para­mount and there was no con­cept of the objec­tive” jour­nal­ism and his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy” of con­tem­po­rary scholarship.

Rework­ing parts of his ear­li­er, schol­ar­ly writ­ings to pro­duce a more acces­si­ble vol­ume, Berman pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ples of uti­liz­ing knowl­edge of the ancient world to bet­ter appre­ci­ate the Bible’s mes­sages. The Exo­dus and split­ting of the Red Sea are prop­er­ly under­stood, argues the author, by under­stand­ing how the impe­r­i­al mes­sages of Pharaoh, as artic­u­lat­ed in ancient poems describ­ing his sup­posed mil­i­tary prowess and in artis­tic ren­der­ings of his portable bat­tle tent were under­mined by the ancient Israelites’ Song at the Sea and their Taber­na­cle, respec­tive­ly. The Song sung by the Israelites, Berman shows, uti­lized sim­i­lar lan­guage to that of Pharaoh’s vic­to­ri­ous bat­tle inscrip­tions, now rephrased to show how the Jew­ish God had tri­umphed over that very same monarch. The struc­ture of the trav­el­ing sanc­tu­ary mir­rors the struc­ture of the Egypt­ian ruler’s own bat­tle tent, but is meant to cel­e­brate the ruler­ship of God, not a human leader. Noah’s flood in the book of Gen­e­sis and the seem­ing inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions in its nar­ra­tive can be prop­er­ly under­stood through com­par­isons to oth­er flood sto­ries from before the bib­li­cal peri­od. And legal dis­crep­an­cies between dif­fer­ent parts of the Five Books of Moses can be explained through under­stand­ing the usage of com­mon law, which is more flu­id than statu­to­ry law.

Berman’s book has much to offer both Jews and oth­ers inspired by the Hebrew Bible. His sec­tion on how the Bible pro­vides a more egal­i­tar­i­an ethos than oth­er polit­i­cal philoso­phies of its time (for exam­ple, through Shab­bat, a day of rest for all stra­ta of soci­ety, and the divi­sion of gov­ern­men­tal pow­ers in Israel between the king, prophets, and priests) is an inspir­ing and help­ful sum­ma­ry of the major argu­ments of his 2008 full-length treatment.

The final por­tion of the book, which gives the work its title, is a his­tor­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing of Mai­monides’ Prin­ci­ples of Faith (which litur­gi­cal­ly have been recit­ed as a series of state­ments begin­ning with ani maamin” –“I believe”) the eighth of which man­dates belief that every word of the Bible was dic­tat­ed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In a tour de force of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, Berman reviews how Mai­monides’ list emerged with­in the con­text of Islam­ic hege­mo­ny and Mus­lims’ claims of pos­sess­ing a divine and per­fect Quran­ic text, and grew into a bound­ary mark­er between Ortho­dox and non-Ortho­dox Jews in the mod­ern era.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or co-edit­ed 14 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions