Read the starred review in Publishers Weekly:
This edifying chronicle by rabbi Feld (The Spirit of Renewal) illuminates the history behind three legal codes in the Hebrew Bible. The author consults contemporary biblical scholarship to examine how a trio of biblical-era revolutions led to the Torah's inclusion of sometimes conflicting legal codes: the Covenant, Deuteronomic, and Holiness codes. He lays out the history behind the revolutions, which include a military coup in northern Israel, a royal assassination in Judea, and a theological sea change in Babylonia, and explores how these events each influenced the composition of a code. Feld persuasively suggests that the decision by early editors of the Hebrew Bible to leave in the codes' discrepancies reflects the editors' understanding that "they were heirs to a multiplicity of traditions and did not seek to choose between them to create a common orthodoxy." Extrapolating on the implications for modern practice, the author posits that there's "not a single, right pathway" for practicing Judaism. Feld displays a remarkable talent for balancing accessible language with depth of thought and rigorous research, all while exercising a penetrating insight for how ancient conflicts factor into contemporary discourse. Stellar scholarship makes this an essential religious and cultural history.
And here's their interview with me:
In The Book of Revolutions (Jewish Publication Society, Sept.), Rabbi Feld digs into the Covenant, Deuteronomic, and Holiness Codes in the Hebrew Bible and shows how critical study of scripture can yield new spiritual understandings.
Can you briefly summarize the book?
It analyzes the Torah's law codes in their historical context. What emerges is a biblical history full of wars and battles between factions in which different codes triumphed in different periods and came to reflect those eras. The historical context explains to us how things came about and why specific metaphors were used in the Hebrew Bible. The insights that were developed at those moments are insights that have had lasting impact and continue to have meaning for us.
How are historical scholarship and scriptural interpretation related?
History helps us understand the words and meaning of religious texts in a deeper way than we would have otherwise understood them. The history doesn't take away from meaning, but actually gives us a key to meaning. I think it would be mistaken to do what an older generation of historians might have done, which is to use history to be dismissive of the spiritual. Rather, I think the history uncovers a way of understanding.
Other books have parsed the narratives of the Hebrew Bible. Why hasn't this analysis of the legal codes been done before for lay readers?
Narrative may initially be more fun, right? So people may have been attracted to narrative for that reason. I think also that because Christians dismissed the legal portions of the Hebrew Bible as no longer being relevant, it wasn't a matter of Christian interest, whereas the narrative was a natural interest for them. Taking the legal portions seriously returns biblical scholarship to a Jewish context.
How did your time teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary put this book in motion?
My students studying history felt that it undercut their religious outlook. If you can no longer believe in a single revelation, what can you believe in? I wanted to show that even if you examine history, or especially if you examine history, you can derive great spiritual meaning from these texts. I got the feeling that students were seeing the strands of the Torah as just sort of fun things—I can put this strand here without thinking, why? What theology is behind it? Those questions were ignored. I wanted to write a book that talked about the theological outlooks of each of these strands, what they were trying to accomplish, and what inspired them. And then in turn ask, can this inspire you?