The Jewish Bible as a Material Object with David Stern

The Jewish Bible: A Material History

David Stern joins the podcast to discuss his book The Jewish Bible: A Material History and the meaning of the history of the Jewish Bible as a material object: How the Bible has served as a symbol, how its form has stood in for struggles over ownership of the Bible, what this all tells us about the relationship between Jews and the world in which they lived, and ultimately what the future of digitization holds in store for the Bible.

David Stern is the Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Hebrew and Jewish Literature at Harvard University, and he serves as the director of the Center for Jewish Studies there.

Links to books, articles, and other topics discussed in the episode:

The Jewish Bible: A Material History traces the history of the Bible as an object. That’s to say, instead of focusing on the content, meaning, and history of the text, David is interested in it as an physical, material, designed object and as a symbol. In the course of his book, we follow the Bible as a scroll in ancient times, as a manuscript codex and in the age of the printing press, and into modern times. In this, David shows how Jews adopted the scroll as the form of the Torah but that this object which was somewhat ordinary in ancient times became a ritual one with a particular Jewish identity. Looking to the middle ages, Jews produced the Masorah codices which mirrored the efforts of early Islam to codify and perfect the Quranic text, as well as which show the contests among Jews for which version of the Biblical text would become the standard. And the question of the Bible’s form—as a codex vs. as a scroll—was part of a complex struggle between Jews and Christians over who could claim the Bible’s legacy. Looking to the age of print, David talks about the Rabbinic bible—which is not to say all Bibles associated with Rabbinic judaism, but a specific bible printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1516 and then again in 1524 in Venice which would become the basis for the study bibles—and how print radically transformed how people read the Bible. Finally, he discusses how the Bible has become a cultural object rather than a religious one in more recent times, though many of the older forms – whether we look to the image of the scroll itself, or to the specific codices of the Masoretes like the Aleppo Codex—have become important symbols.

It’s such a rich and exciting topic. It’s part of a wider move towards the history of the book and an interest in material culture. And in terms of the Jews: if Jews are a “people of the book,” the book that’s being referred to there is the Bible. But, the Bible hasn’t always been a “book” in the way we think of it today. Whether it’s a scroll, or a codex, or a digital copy, or something else—and how it is designed and constructed—tells us a great deal. And as objects which people put tremendous time and effort into producing, and which were heavily regulated, they were also highly contested.

The Bible’s physical form matters because even more than the text itself, things like the Torah scroll present powerful symbols of Judaism and Jewish culture and tradition. And the way in which it has changed over time indicates the broader shift in Jewish culture: Because the Bible itself, as a text which had liturgical and legal meaning, and especially the material objects—scrolls, codices, and so on—all this cuts across the entire chronology and geography of Jewish history. Looking at them closely allows us to understand the transformations of Jewish culture, the relationship between Jews and their host cultures, and the struggle over claiming the Bible to be a Jewish object and text when other cultures, especially Christianity, made competing claims against it.

 

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation:

 

Jason Lustig: One of the interesting things about what you’ve done with the history of the Bible as a material history is that by looking at the Bible as the history of the book, you are shifting the conversation. In what ways do you think that you might say that the Bible’s physical form matters in particular? 

David Stern: It matters in several different ways, beginning with the fact that the idea of a text is an abstraction. It’s a constellation of words. We don’t read texts. We read texts that have been inscribed on different types of what scholars call writing platforms: A scroll, a book, the technical term for that being a codex, a digital screen. We read words that are inscribed on a writing platform and inscribed in a specific way, with a commentary on the page, with illustrations, with the text alone in its naked splendor. The way that the text is inscribed—whether it’s on a scroll, whether it’s in a book, whether the book has pages with commentaries or pictures on it—those have extraordinary impacts upon the way that we read and interpret and understand the text. So in fact, there is no reading texts without taking into account its materiality. So that’s the most obvious way that the materiality counts.

The other thing is that a book as an object, as a material artifact, often carries a meaning which goes beyond the text, the words that are inscribed on its pages. The most obvious example of that is the Torah scroll, which has a meaning as a sacred object, used in the synagogue service ritually, that has very little to do with the actual text it inscribes. I mean the text says the word of God and as the word of God, that clearly matters. But what the text actually says—if God had just giving a laundry list at Mt. Sinai, a Torah scroll would still be a Torah scroll. He could’ve, or she could’ve said anything. So the Torah scroll is just one example of that. But as I try to show in the book, the material history of the Bible, as a book, as a codex has also carried all sorts of meanings and significances for its users that go way beyond the texts it inscribes.

JL: In the Middle Ages, there was a real struggle and contest between Jews and Christians over ownership of the Bible, who are the real heirs of the Biblical tradition. Is that Judaism, is that Christianity? Who has the correct way of interpreting it?

DS: But that rivalry is worked out not only in interpretation, which is probably the most famous and the most studied way in which it’s usually treated, but it’s worked out also in terms of the materiality of the book. Jews have specific ways of marking their Bibles as being Jewish, and being Jewish as opposed to being Christian, so that has nothing to do with the text of the Bible itself. And you know, in the modern period Zionists used the Bible and created bibles of their own as a testimony to Zionism and various ideals in terms of reestablishing a Jewish state, which again can have nothing to do with the text of the Bible per se, what the words actually say. These are just a few examples of how the materiality of the book has mattered in addition to the text. But, as I say, we don’t read texts. What we read are words that have been inscribed on material objects in certain ways.

JL: It also raises questions about the ways in which the Bible has changed. The great innovation of Biblical scholarship is this idea that the Bible has not been set in stone forever. But even with the Documentary Hypothesis, there’s still this idea that at a certain point in time that the Bible was edited together, it was redacted and a codified and the and canonized in a way that you fundamentally get, you know, the Jewish Bible, and then at least for the past however many hundreds or thousands of years, wherever we set that point in time, the Bible, at least according to one particular view where the text at least has been somewhat static. But what I think you’re really pushing us to think about here is that the Bible is constantly changing. Even if people think that the biblical texts has been static, the form has been constantly changing.

DS: Right. And the Bible therefore has been constantly changing. Once you realize that the Bible is not simply a constellation of words, an abstract text, that it actually really changes according to the way in which it is inscribed, then it opens up all sorts of possibilities from looking at the Bible and very, very different ways and to seeing changes that otherwise are transparent.

JL: Like what, for instance?

DS: As I mentioned, the meaning of the Bible as actually an artifact. Jewish ownership of the Bible, to whom the Bible speaks, does it speak to just Jews or doesn’t speak to Christians as well or the entire world? This very much depends upon how the Bible is recorded. The Jewish Bible constantly makes attempts to mark the Jewishness of the Bible in the artifact itself.

JL: So what are some of the ways that you might point to that are ways in which it marks it as “Jewish,” when you’re looking at the artifact?

DS: The Torah scroll is the most obvious example. And the persistence of reading the Torah scroll, or the Torah from a scroll which has been prepared according to specific legal directions as they were established by the rabbis in the ancient world. The persistence of that habit through the Middle Ages and even through today is one way of marking the Bible as Jewish.

In the Middle Ages, the primary marker of Jewishness becomes not only the language in which the Bible is inscribed—that is to say Hebrew, which remains probably the most significant marker of the Jewishness of the Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible is always in Hebrew, even translations in the Jewish tradition never try to usurp the place of the Hebrew, which is extremely different from the Christian Bible. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, actually does take the place of the Hebrew text and it’s actually according divine inspiration as its source to make it basically equivalent to the Bible that God gave Israel at Mount Sinai with revelation. The Vulgate also takes the place of the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible for the Catholic Western European church from the early Middle Ages on. In the history of Jewish translations of the Bible, the Hebrew text always remains. The primary text is the text that is read in the synagogue. So even when you have translations, they’re always alongside the Hebrew text within the book.

JL: In addition to that, you might even talk about the Hebrew script as this element, because even if you look at like a translation like Moses Mendelssohn’s Biur in the eighteenth century, he was translating the Bible into German—But in Hebrew characters. 

DS: There are translations, Jewish translations of the Bible in non-Hebraic scripts before the end of the nineteenth century. That’s, I think, when real European vernaculars and then English translations begin to appear in non-Hebraic scripts. But they’re very, very rare. Most translations, the early translations are into Jewish languages, which are the Jewish vernaculars that Jews spoke and sometimes written in what were in fact their lingua franca: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Romance, Yiddish, Ladino. All those languages were conventionally written in Hebrew characters, even though the language was not Hebrew. And that tends to be the rule in, you know, in the case of like Mendelssohn and the way translations of the Bible appeared on the page. But what I’m saying is that even in modern American translations of the Bible, the Hebrew is on the page next to the English, or the English is on the page next to the Hebrew. And it doesn’t usurp the place in the Hebrew. In the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, there’s no Hebrew, there’s no Greek.  And the same is true of the Septuagint. There’s no Hebrew, it’s just in the vernacular language. So even when Jews are using a non-Hebraic script for their translations, the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters remains there.

It’s actually even a little more complicated than that, because there is no such thing as a native Hebrew script. The Hebrew script actually changes according to the geographical locale in which it’s written. It’s like every aspect of Jewish book culture, scripts mimics the comparable feature, in this case script, of the Gentile host culture. So basically, Jews write Hebrew in thirteenth-century Germany, Ashkenaz, in a way that clearly mimics the way Gentiles write Gothic Latin. And in twelfth-century Spain, Jews write Hebrew, the letters and the scripts, in ways that mimics contemporary Arabic writing. And this is true in America, where Jews write in Hebrew in a way that mimics the way Americans (pretty illegibly) write English. So even though it’s always in Hebrew, the specific Gentile location, as it were, of the book is there, but it’s always in Hebrew scripts.

JL: So what’s so interesting is that this whole issue of the Bible’s materiality, and some of the markers, whether we’re talking about language scripts or on a more macro level about the shape of the Bible, like whether it’s a scroll or Codex or otherwise, it really all has to do with this fundamental question of who the Bible belongs to. Does it belong to the Jews, to Christians? It’s part of this wide-ranging struggle about whose domain can claim the Biblical texts and the Bible itself. So, what do you think is really at stake here, in terms of the way in which the materiality of the Bible is part of this broader conflict throughout the centuries? 

DS: Well, the rivalry actually begins even before Christianity. I mean, the best example before Christianity is the case of the, let’s call it the Israelite or Judean Bible verses the Samaritan Bible. The Samaritans are a group of native inhabitants of the land of Israel that the returning exiles from Babylonia and 536 BCE find living in the land of Israel. Who exactly these native people were is disputed, but the fact is that they also accept the Hebrew Bible as their Bible, but they only accept the Pentateuch. And their version of the Pentatuech is slightly different than that of the returning exiles, and they continue to write the Bible in what’s called Paleo-Hebrew, which is ancient Hebrew, the ancient script, the original Hebrew script. In the third century BCE, Jews living in Judea, in present-day Israel, give up their native script this Paleo-Hebrew for what is in effect the Aramaic script. Aramaic is a sister language to Hebrew, another northwest Semitic language that is also the most widely-used spoken language in the Near East. And its script is related to the Paleo-Hebrew, the original Hebrew script, but it’s sufficiently different that the difference was felt. And mainly for financial reasons, for economic reasons, in order to facilitate commerce with non-Judean peoples, the Judeans give up their native Hebrew script and adapt the Aramaic script. The rabbis later on make it a compulsory, required feature of all Torah scrolls that Torahs scrolls should be written in this Aramean script—they call the Syrian script, Syrian letters. And that’s very clearly to differentiate their Torah from the Torah used by the Samaritans or a rival group in the land of Israel. I mean, the Samaritan Torah also differs from the Rabbinic Torah in other things, in real textual matters. For example, they’ve got eleven commandments, not ten. The Samaritans also repeatedly insist in their Torah that all prayers and sacrifices, all worship of God has to be held in the temple on Mt. Gerizim, not on the Temple Mount in present-day Jerusalem.

So, these are actually really substantial textural differences. Plus, we don’t have any original or really truly ancient copies of the Samaritan Bible that go back before the early medieval period. But scholars also believe that the proto-Samaritan Bible, which was preserved at Qumran, and which has some of the features of the later Samaritan Bible, actually predated the Masoretic Hebrew texts that becomes the definitive Jewish text of the Bible. So the Samaritan Bible, both in the script and its text, is probably closer to the Bible that God would have given Moses at Mount Sinai, if in fact he did. Nonetheless, the rabbis insist that their Bible does say their text and text written in Aramaic letters, but that’s the only kosher Torah scroll. So there too, a fight over ownership and marking the Bible as rabbinically Jewish is being fought out on the material plane.

JL: It also is very much about this question of, you know, the scroll on the one hand versus the codex, and the struggle between the Jews and Christians in addition to any earlier struggles between Judaism and Samaritans.

DS: The struggle between Jews and Christians over the codex form is actually is a much more fraught example. It’s often claimed that that’s the big difference, at least in the ancient world, between Jews and Christians, that Jews insisted on writing their Torah in a scroll while Christians took up the form of the codex—a technical term for what we call a book—as a way of differentiating themselves from Jews. Now, it is possible that Christians did prefer the codex form to the scroll as a way of distinguishing themselves from Jews, but it’s not at all clear that Jews did not write Bibles in codices. And actually some of the early fragments of the Hebrew Bible that were discovered in Egypt, written on papyrus, may have been written by Greek-speaking Jews in codices, just as contemporary Christian scriptures, primarily the New Testament in this case, on papyrus. So it’s not really absolutely clear that historically that was really the division. What is true is that in Christianity, by the fifth or sixth century, and certainly later on, Christians do represent the Jewish Bible always as the scroll, while they always represent their Bible in the form of a codex. And just as the codex, the book form, basically took over, became the privileged form of what we call books, and replaced the scroll, so too they claimed that Christianity has replaced Judaism. But it’s not really clear if this is just an ideological claim that they’re making. It’s not clear that there’s any real historical basis to that (that the Jews did not use codices).

JL: It’s interesting, I think, because it really highlights what’s at stake here. You’re talking about the physical representation of the Biblical texts, where it resides, how it is read, and so on. And one might say, that’s part of the history of the book and that’s so interesting. But really what’s at stake here? I think that what you highlighted in that example is that it represents an entire ideological framing of the understanding of Christianity and Judaism, at least from the perspective of Christians. There’s a lot at stake here in terms of this question of Codex versus scroll and what it represents on a larger scale.

DS: I agree.

JL: We’ve talked a lot so far about how the material form of the Jewish Bible was part of a struggle to keep the Bible “Jewish,” or over this question of who it belonged to. We’re talking about the way in which the Jewish Bible is being kept distinctive through its material form. But at the same time, one of the other really important things I think that you’re doing in your book as well, in your research on the history of the Bible is that you have really highlighted the way in which the changing material form of the Jewish Bible is also closely related to the wider history of the book. In what ways do you think that Jewish book culture and the book culture surrounding the Bible is related to the wider culture of book production and consumption? 

DS: Jewish books in general, and not just the Bible but Jewish books in general, always tend to mirror the books of the Gentile host culture in which the Jews producing the books at that specific time happened to live. As I said before, Hebrew script written by Jews living in thirteenth-century Germany, Ashkenaz, mirrors Gothic Latin as it was written by Germans living in thirteenth-century Germany. So too every other feature. Many other features of the Ashkenazi book, from the type of parchment being used and how that parchment is prepared, to the way that the lines on the parchment surface are ruled, to the way in which the actual codex is composed of various groups of smaller sheets of parchment—All these features tend to mirror the Gentile books and the production of Gentile books in the culture in which the Jewish book is being produced. That also includes the decoration or the art that’s in the Jewish book. Jewish book art always tends to mirror the book art of the larger host culture. You will find in Ashkenazi books, including bibles, the kinds of hybrid beasts, animals with a lion’s head and an eagle’s body, weird sort of humanoid-looking creatures, characters, or figures. These are the sorts of things that anybody who knows contemporary Latin books is used to seeing in the margins of those books. They too appear in the Jewish books. Jews living in Spain, largely as a result of the earlier very dominant Muslim influence on Spanish culture, Jewish book producers avoided representational imagery. They use a lot of geometric, floral, architectural designs, but much more rarely will you find actually human representations the way you do in Ashekenazic books. So, the books actually looked very much like the books of the host culture in which the Jewish book is being produced.

But this isn’t simply a question of matter of influence. Jews are actually appropriating, taking over those features of the surrounding Gentile book culture, and they are usually transforming them in very specific ways to make them “Jewish,” to Judaize them. This is especially true in the art, but it’s true of these other more codicological, as it were, actual technical ways in which a book, a Codex, is produced. So in those ways, the Jews are actually simultaneously mirroring the books of the host culture and transforming them, Judaizing them, so that they’re distinctively Jewish. And that very much corresponds to the way Jews actually live in a culture. Jews also eat the way the Gentile host culture eats. Jews in America in the way Americans eat. Of course, if you’re an observer Jew you only eat kosher food, but that’s the reason why if you go to any ultra-orthodox wedding, when they’re going to serve hors d’oeuvres before the ceremony, they’re going to serve sushi. Why do they serve sushi? Because that’s what Americans eat as hors d’oeuvres today. It’s not a native “Jewish” practice, pretty obviously. Books are no different from that.

JL: I think you’re making a really important point here: You were saying that the Jewish Bible, it’s part of this process of keeping Jews and Judaism distinct within a wider society dominated by Gentiles, but it also really reflects the involvement of Jews in the wider culture as well. 

DS: Yeah, because the book will actually change as Jews moved from different locations in the diaspora to another, and from one historical period to the next. But the physical shape, the material dimension of the book, is really the interface between the text and the larger world in which the Jews live. It simultaneously mirrors one, and at the same time transforms that influence or mirroring into something which is much more characteristic of the text itself.

JL: One thing I found to be really interesting is that scholars have debated for quite a long time how the invention of the printing press affected the development of book and print culture. One of the questions I would ask here, especially as you were talking about the ways in which Jewish culture and the culture of the materiality of the Bible reflected the wider environment, how does the history of the Jewish Bible tell us something about the printing revolution? 

DS: The great debate about the printing revolution is whether it was in fact a “revolution.” In other words, did the technology completely change culture and through that all of western European culture? Or was the so-called print revolution, not a revolution, but simply the culmination of a lot of different tendencies that existed before the technology of print existed? And that something came from before the technology of print became dominant? The case can be made for either side of the argument, but whichever side you want to prefer, the history of the Jewish Bible, actually the early printed Jewish Bible, is a perfect example of how both are actually true and very strong in very important ways.

JL: Do you maybe want to lay out a little bit what the historiographical debate is there, when you talk about the two different sides? 

DS: For example, print vastly increased the number of copies of a book that could be made. Handwritten books are written one at a time. Print obviously makes the creation of multiple copies of a book much easier, and expands in that way the reading public because there’s more books around. That has the effect of increasing literacy, in turn. Printing actually makes the use of certain things in books, like complicated diagrams, much more feasible, because you can actually create a block and then reproduce it multiple times. There’s all sorts of ways in which print is considered to had this extraordinary impact upon the culture in general, and through book culture on Western historical culture itself. The Protestant Reformation, it is often claimed, owes its success to print, because Luther was able to print the enormous number of hist Bibles and his followers were able to print even more, and spread them throughout the world in ways that would not have been possible before print.

On the other hand, the truth is, is that actually before print, even scribal culture was finding ways to produce multiple copies of manuscript books, handwritten books, that really does anticipate print. They developed a whole system in which a manuscript would be divided up into many smaller sections, and you would have thirty, forty scribes each reading one section over and over again at the same time, and later on all those sections would be put together. This massive production of single copies of books is anticipated before print. The new technology makes it easier, but it doesn’t actually start that process. The other fact is that early printed books make a determined effort to look like manuscripts. They don’t want to look different. And that’s because people are familiar with reading manuscripts. The producers of printed books know this, and want people to feel familiar reading their book. So, most printed books use the same layouts as manuscripts.

What print does is it makes it easier to produce multiple copies of the more complicated manuscripts, and especially what’s called the gloss page, where you have commentaries on the same page as the core text. What we know of as the Talmudic page, which actually exists in a number of different variants, including the variant that’s used in the Rabbinic Bible, which has multiple commentaries on the same page and which becomes after it’s second printing in 1523/1524, the primary and definitive Jewish Study Bible until today, really. That page layout actually exists in manuscript form, and is originally a Christian innovation. Christians scribes in the twelfth century are the ones to actually develop that page layout as a way of putting the Vulgate Bible with what’s called the Glossia Ordinaria, which is a standard Christian interpretation of the Bible, on the same page. And that’s an extremely important development in its own right, and the cutting-edge Christian for about 150 years. And then Christians actually, for various reasons, move on to other types of page layouts that have more flexibility. Jews continue to use that page layout, and it becomes in a certain sense the definitive Jewish layout, especially as it’s known in the Talmud where it’s most famous. But this is a very, very complicated thing to reproduce by hand, because a scribe basically has to prophesy how much of the core text, say the Bible, you can get on the page to have exactly the right amount of commentary on the same page without either wasting parchment space. Or if you have too much, then you run over to the next page and you defeat the whole purpose. Print makes producing that layout much, much easier.

And for both the Rabbinic Bible and for the Talmud, that page layout becomes the definitive and standard page layout, and eventually becomes a kind of sign of the Jewishness of the Jewish Bible. So for example, when Mendelssohn, who we mentioned earlier, produces his Bible in the eighteenth century with a Judeo-German translation in Hebrew script, he uses that page layout and simply substitutes his translation for the Aramaic commentary, and Mendelssohn’s own commentary for Rashi, the traditional Jewish commentary on the Bible. But he used it as the same layout. Why? Because he wanted Jews to feel comfortable reading his Bible. He wanted someone to feel the same comfort reading his Bible as they do reading a traditional Rabbinic Bible, study Bible.

JL: The story you’re telling here sounds almost like a similar kind of a history of the Jewish book and its place in Jewish culture which plays out repeatedly. In the book, you talked about how the scroll became the primary form of the Jewish Bible. This was the most widespread way that books were produced and consumed in ancient times. And then ultimately, this becomes the Jewish form of the Bible, even up to the present we still have the Torah scroll in the synagogue as the most sacred form of the Torah. Whereas that form has fallen out of fashion in all other cases, more or less. You just described the same thing, right? The widespread way of writing out a text becomes the “Jewish” form, so to speak. When you look at the layout of the Talmud or have a Bible with its commentaries, that also fell out of fashion, but it continued on in Jewish culture. 

DS: Exactly. And it becomes sort of a mark of the Jewishness of this particular Bible book. The other thing that’s true, too, about the Rabbinic Bible, is that it’s really facilitated by print. Every single individual feature of the Rabbinic Bibles, the commentary, the Targum, the way it’s organized, the Masorah on the page, that’s a kind of annotations about the correct text. That also becomes a definitive part of the Jewish Bible that all existed in bibles before print, but all these features were never found in one actual book on the same page. After print, it became possible to put all these features on the same page, and that becomes then the definitive form of the printed Bible.

JL: So you’ve talked about the way in which print has effected the development of the Jewish Bible, enabling all of these types of developments. But likewise, in what ways did the production of Jewish Bibles have an influence in terms of the wider development of printing culture and technology? 

DS: It made all these different features of the Bible widespread throughout Jewish culture. I guess the most striking example is the nature of the commentary is found on the page in the definitive Rabbinic Bible. There’s two commentaries on the page: One is always Rashi, who would become a kind of indispensable commentary to read along with the Bible. Rashi’s an Ashkenazi sage. But in the Rabbinic Bible of 1524/25, which is the one that becomes the standard study Bible, there’s always a second commentator who’s a Sefardi commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, Gersonides, Kimchi, and so on. And these commentators often have a kind of more philosophical or grammatical bent to their commentaries. By including an Ashkenazi and a Sefardi commentator on the same page, the printed Bible actually brought these two communities together, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi community. At the same time, it was a little more revolutionary because in eastern Europe, especially in Poland, which was a much more traditional Ashkenazi community, the Sefardi, the philosophical commentators, were not really part of the traditional curriculum. Once the Rabbinic Bible, the printed Bible, became this standard Bible and remember, it was being produced now in quantities that never existed before, that had no precedent—the entire curriculum of Jewish education changed in Poland. Because now, all of a sudden, these new philosophical commentaries were available to readers and were being read. And we do have people expressing opposition to this back in eastern Europe, but they’re helpless because the commentaries are in the books that people are actually reading.

JL: And that’s a whole interesting history, too, thinking about how the availability of books of various types, the Bible among them with these different commentaries, played a role in the development of early modernity and early modern Jewish culture.

DS: Print is a really powerful destabilizing force. Because once ordinary people can actually read the primary sources and have them available and easily available, why listen to a rabbi? If an ordinary reader can actually read the primary sources, they can make up their own minds. That’s the impact of print more generally, but it has the same impact on Jewish culture that it does on non-Jewish culture.

JL: We’ve been talking about the codex and the printed book in terms of this dissemination of information. But one of the things that I find to be sort of the most interesting, especially as we move forward in time, especially towards very recent times, is the continued symbolic importance of some of the older forms as well, especially the scroll, that we see even in the twenty-first century, the symbolic meaning of the Torah scroll as a physical object. And if we want to talk about the importance of this kind of an object, one that comes to mind is the idea of the Holocaust scroll, these salvaged Torah scrolls that were damaged or partially destroyed during the course of the Holocaust, some of which have been a saved in one form or another. And they become these really important symbols for contemporary Jewish culture. 

DS: I’m not incredibly familiar with the Holocaust Torah scroll phenomenon. I just actually heard about it only recently, when I visited the Museum of the Bible, the new one in Washington D.C., and there was someone there, another visitor who was in a group that I was sort of roughly in, who was talking about it. But I think what’s interesting about that is there, the Torah scroll has become kind of relic of survival, and it’s become a sign of memory, it is memorializing the Holocaust. It’s another example of how the meaning of the Bible as an artifact, in this case a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll, can come to possess a meaning that goes far beyond what the text of the Bible is about, and actually has very little to do with what the Bible is about. I mean, there, the Torah scroll is kind of a relic of Jewishness or Jewish identity or Jewish survival. It’s an artifact that memorializes and commemorates.

In Moscow, I found a Talmud codex from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. It’s an intact codex, but very clearly was snatched out of fire. Now, I don’t know how it was caught on fire. Maybe some Yeshiva boy who was studying it was smoking a cigarette and fell asleep. But when I saw that, I said, here is a Talmud survived the burning of the Talmud in Rome in 1553. That has nothing to do with the text that’s inscribed in that Talmud, which is I think is Sefer Yevamot, which deals with levirate marriage. But the meaning of that book, it’s just a kind of speculative meaning because I don’t have any proof that it actually is a survivor of the burning of the Talmud in 1553. But inasmuch as it’s certainly evoked that in my memory, it’s what a Bible that would’ve been snatched out of the fire in 1553 would’ve looked like, let me put it that way.  And there’s nothing else in the world that looks like that. But I think that’s an analogous case to the Holocaust scroll.

JL: Another great example of this, and this is one that you wrote about a bit more in your book, is the symbolic power of some of the early Masoretic codices, like the Aleppo Codex or the Leningrad Codex.

DS: They’re symbolic in different ways. The Masorah, as I mentioned before, is a body of annotations on the text of the Torah. One of its purposes certainly was to legislate how to write the Torah, how to spell certain words that could be spelled in two different ways, how to pronounce different words that could be pronounced in different ways or that are pronounced not in the way that their writing dictates. And the vast majority of the Masorah consists of various enumerations of every unusual feature of the Biblical texts. Every case of an unusual spelling, of an unusual syntactical construction, or a combination of different phrases. The Masorah, it’s sort of crazy, it actually enumerates and counts every time this syntactic feature appears in the entire Biblical corpus. The Masorah seems to have developed roughly around the time the Jews accepted the codex, which was say in the seventh and eighth centuries. It probably developed among Jews partly as a result of the Islamic environments in which the vast majority of Jews in the world lived. The Muslims were doing the same thing to the Qur’an, which is a much more recent book, but they’re trying to standardize this text. Jews also began to try to standardize the text and the inscription, how the Torah scroll was actually written, and probably because there were a much greater number of Torah scrolls being written and because different scribes were writing in different ways.

In fact, there wasn’t even one Masorah, there were several competing Masorahs, each of which had its own school. One of them eventually won out, and became the definitive Masorah. We don’t know very much about the other schools, because history always belongs to the victor. But we do know that there were competing schools, and that the one that eventually wins out, the Tiberian school, was not always the most popular one or the most widespread. But it eventually became that, and became the basis for the definitive text of the Torah scroll. One of the reasons why its school became the definitive Masorah is because the Tiberians realized before anyone else the power of the codex as a book. And we have thousands of leafs of lost Tiberian Masorah codices, which have been discovered basically in this century. A lot of them are in libraries in Russia. They seem to have embarked upon a massive campaign to write out their system on as many different codices as possible, and therefore spread their system everywhere, flooded the market with their Masorah in ways that the other schools didn’t. They were probably still writing on scrolls, which is a much more expensive and difficult way to write a Torah Scroll. And the Tiberian school also developed a very distinctive page layout for writing their Masorah on the same page as the Biblical text. The other schools didn’t seem to do that. They wrote their Masoretic traditions, how the Bible should be written, in a separate little booklets, but the Tiberians seemed to realize that the best way to spread it would be the it on the same page, and they developed this format.

Now, once they went out and that format becomes the distinctive codex form of the Bible, the presence of the Masorah on the page also becomes the mark of a Jewish distinctiveness. So a Jewish Bible invariably has to have the Masorah on the page. Now, the Masorah is not a very interesting text to read. I mean, scribes read it. Maybe some scholars read it. You might consult it every once in awhile, if you’re confused about how to pronounce a word or how to write it in the Torah scroll. But it’s not something that people read like they read the text of the Torah itself. But it has to be there. So what the Jews began to do? They begin to use the Masorah as the material which in micrography, which is miniature writing, they actually create either decorative patterns on the page or even illustrations, and these illustrations, as I said before, often mirror the kinds of illustrations or decorations that one would find in Gentile books of the host culture in which the Jews are living. So here again you find the same process of adaptation and transformation. The Jews create pictures that looked like or decorations that look like those of the host culture, but they Judaize them by creating those illustrations in micrographic miniature writing. And what’s written? The Massaro, that mark of the distinctiveness of the Jewish Bible.

JL: The Masorah is really interesting, because it represents this idea of the authoritative text, the critical edition that was produced by these scholars, that these books were the ones that later scholars based their own editions of the Bible, this process of the copying of these manuscripts over the course of the centuries. And this is one of the reasons why we can talk about the role of the Masorah within its own historical context at the time of these competing schools of Jewish scholars and Jewish leaders between various Jewish communities, between Jews and Palestine and Jews and Babylonia for instance, or elsewhere. But also, these books themselves have taken on such an importance over the course of the thousand-plus years since they were initially produced, because these are the earliest additions of the Bible that we still have in a physical form, and so they take on this great significance.

DS: The Aleppo Codex in particular. It became almost a kind of amulet for the community. Syrian Jews, and the Jews of Aleppo specifically, believed that the presence of the Aleppo Codex in their community and their synagogue literally protected them and enabled the community to survive. Most other Bibles, even as artifacts, don’t really get that kind of almost magical power attributed to them. Torah scrolls have much more. And in the ancient world they really did. They were often buried with sages. They were believed to actually have certain magical amulet-like powers up until, really, the modern period. You find in eastern Europe, for example, customs in which they would tie a string to the Torah scroll, really it was tied to the doors of the Torah ark, and have the string actually go through the streets into the room where a woman giving birth was under labor. And they would then pull upon the string with the belief that opening the doors of the Torah ark, in showing the Torah scrolls inside, would also result in the opening of the woman’s womb. Nobody ever attributed that kind of power to the opening a codex, a book, except for the Aleppo Codex.

JL: The Aleppo Codex takes on this symbolism in the 20th century, as well, when parts of it are brought to the state of Israel.

DS: Yes. Well, all of it was probably brought to the state of Israel, but then part of it disappeared. And nobody really knows where it is.

JL: It’s an interesting story, one that I think about a lot. I write about archives and their symbolic power, and part of the story there as well is this whole question of bringing archives to the state of Israel. But if you look at this question of the Aleppo Codex, it’s similar in certain ways to this other kind of story. It speaks, I think, broadly to the kind of symbolic cultural capital that various forms of the Bible have taken on in the course of history, whether you’re talking about a Torah scroll or a particular codex or something else.

DS: In contemporary Israel, actually the Aleppo Codex has been given a really symbolic importance. The other competing Masoretic codex is the Leningrad Codex, which is actually the only surviving complete codex of the Bible. And in fact, today, there are two different scholarly editions scholarly of the Hebrew Bible, one of them based on the Leningrad Codex, the other based on the Aleppo Codex. And the reason why the Israelis wanted the Aleppo Codex to come to Israel, was because they wanted to put out their own edition of the Bible that would actually be a rival to the Leningrad Codex, which was really sort of—I wouldn’t say a Christian text—but it was definitely a Diasporic text. It became the definitive scholarly texts because it was used in the definitive German scholarly edition of the Bible. The Israelis wanted a Jewish text, the true, accurate, Jewish text. And so they started a whole project of putting out their own edition based on the Aleppo. So, the rivalry between the Aleppo and the Leningrad texts of the Hebrew Bible remains today a contested object. And in a certain way, it is comparable to the competition between Judaism and Christianity that existed until say the eighteenth century. So the Bible still remains a text, whose ownership is claimed by rival parties.

JL: Shifting gears, one thing I really wanted to ask you about is how all of this history of the Bible relates to the development of digital technology. In the conclusion of your book, you suggested that digital technology will give greater appreciation to the Bible’s materiality. But isn’t digital technology also so much more ephemeral? We talked about the printing revolution, and it’s debatable the extent to which the development of mass printing, the extent to which that really changed things. And one could ask the same questions about the digital revolution, about the Internet and so on and so forth. And so the question is, where does the Bible fit into this development of digital technology? 

DS: In the book, I’m actually saying that digital technology will—if it hasn’t already—revolutionize certain Jewish texts. It’s already revolutionized the study of Talmud and you know, even the Talmud as a book. Because now we have these massive databases of all of rabbinical literature. It’s really erased, in a certain sense, the boundary between the Talmud as a work of rabbinical literature and all the other works of rabbinic literature. With the printing of the Talmud, the Talmud and the additions to the book, specifically the margins of these various cross-references and so on. The entire Talmud was in fact unified in a way it never had been before and made into a single text. Now, with these massive databases all of rabbinic literature, not just the Talmud, is being unified into a single text in a sense. And you know, with the availability of manuscripts on the web, that’s really changed the way people studied the Talmud.

In the case of the liturgical books, like you know, prayer books, the Siddur, the Mahzor, the Haggadah, it’s had an enormous impact. Especially the Haggadah, already. You can easily write your own Haggadah, cut and paste, because all these things have been digitized. All the manuscripts have been digitized. You can draw on the entire history of the Haggadah, it’s images and illustrations, you can easily just cut and paste them and create your own Haggadah that actually answers what you feel you need to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. In the case of the Siddur, I predict that the next big revolution in Jewish religious culture, especially between the progressive and the less progressive movements, won’t be over things like women rabbis, or egalitarianism, or separation of the sexes during services. It will be over whether certain congregations will use an e-book in synagogue and others won’t. Because once rabbis start using e-books in synagogue as their prayer books, they’ll be able to create a new service for every Sabbath, and it will be specific to their synagogue, and that will have an astounding impact. In a sense, it would return the entire history of the Jewish liturgy to where it was in the third century, when the rabbinical literature was taking shape.

But in the case of the Bible, it’s harder to see such radical changes in how the Bible is used. Because, one, it’s not that big of book. It’s not the Talmud or all of rabbinic literature. And already with the Masorah, you already had these kinds of indices and databases of a lot of the textual facts of the Bible. And you know, and since then you have concordances and all those things. So what digital humanities will be able to add to the study of the Bible, it will help to be able to add certain things, but I don’t think anything truly revolutionary. The Torah scroll will still continue to be the Sefer Torah and the book that’s chanted in the synagogue. What it will do is two things: It will, first, make available the entire rich history of the Bible as an artifact, because all of a sudden all these manuscripts and early printed books are being digitized. And many of them are just astoundingly beautiful. I mean, a present-day Bible is an ugly thing. It just is not a pretty book, which is really not true of manuscripts or even early printed books. You look at them and you stand in awe, either of the extraordinary human labor and creativity that went into them, or simply the human labor that went into developing this technology to create these incredibly complicated page formats that will now become available to readers in a sense that will, I think, really enrich people’s feelings about the Bible and the Bible’s history. You’ll be able to see how the Bible’s materiality has changed, and how the book has changed actually in different cultures. So that’s one thing it’ll do. The other thing is that digital technology, it’s not its ephemerality which is the problem. It’s the fact that it’s very destabilizing. Anybody who has a computer can now do whatever he or she wants to any texts. You can cut it, you can rewrite it and hide all the changes that you’re making, take out all the parts of the Bible that you don’t like. And then you can publish it on the web and it’ll be open and accessible to millions of people, if they choose to open up your site and that gives an enormous amount of power to a single user. It’s unprecedented in the history of the Bible, which is probably the most regulated text and all of Western culture. People have been burned over translating the Bible in improper ways. Who knows what will happen. I personally don’t think that much will happen. I mean Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg did The Book of J, and in fact that’s what they did, they cut and pasted the parts of the Bible, the Pentateuch, that they like, the stories, mainly those attributed to the Jahwist, and left everything else out. Anybody you meet, Joe Schmoe, some college student who happens to be in your class and is a lot better using computer than you, they can all do this, and they can do it better than you can do it. And then they can publish. So that could have an enormous impact. We probably aren’t even able to imagine something that would be truly unpredictable, but technology will bring.

JL: There’s really so much to talk about here, so many different elements that we could unpack, that really strikes a chord. There’s a synagogue here in LA where my wife used to work, where they actually for some of the services project the prayerbook as a Powerpoint. It really opens up the possibilities to do really amazing things. 

DS: Exactly. And now, on an e-book, everyone can do it.

JL: Absolutely. On the one hand, it opens up a ton of possibilities, and it also presents a lot of challenges. One thing also to think about is that you talked about the combining of all of these texts into a unity, in the digital form—the way that one can download, so to speak, all of rabbinic literature literature. Of course, it’s not actually of rabbinic literature, but this huge corpus can be found on a USB stick. It’s incredible. It’s interesting because it speaks to some of the ways in which people have talked about the corpus of Jewish literature as the “original hypertext,” that there’s this kind of intertextuality within Jewish texts that now digital technology is enabling people to navigate in ways that only one of the Masoretes who had that kind of personal mastery of the texts could perhaps have done. And even then, with all sorts of errors. 

DS: That’s only with the Bible, though, which is not even a big book.

JL: That was just my example. Think of, like, the Accordance software. That’s another sort of material form of the Bible. You can import versions of the Bible, and you can search through the text and all the various translations. So you can see multiple copies of the same thing in various translations. You can search using the Hebrew texts, you can search by root, you can search by tense. It’s amazing because you could find like the three verses in the Bible that use whatever word with a Vav or without a Vav. 

DS: Right. But actually all that, you know, has been available in printed form for quite a while. It’s just easier to use it on a computer. It’s quicker. It’s somewhat more accessible, but it’s a difference of quantity, not quality. The materials have always been there. The one thing is, Jews don’t actually do this, but Christians do: There’s a real presence of the Bible on social media that I don’t think has penetrated yet into the Jewish world. People tweet individual versions out and they actually reached millions of viewers. There’s a lot of followers of certain tweets that sort of send out these little tweets of one verse of time, a daily verse and so on. I’ve met students at Harvard who actually use it. And all sorts of different combinations. But I don’t think that’s actually caught on among the Jews yet, you know, and hopefully it never will.

JL: That also speaks to the way the Bible, for many Christians, certainly in America, has been sort of changed into a new form—the digestible, bite-size verse. 

DS: Exactly. Jews have never liked the bite-size Bible.

JL: The bite-size Bible was particularly useful for Christological readings. But on the whole, I think all of this really speaks as well to the same issue that we were talking about in terms of printing. That the digital technologies really enable something radically new, and also a certain type of accessibility which was not possible beforehand, but it’s questionable. We need to think about the ways in which it is actually doing something new, or that it is returning us to sort of something which already existed.  

As we conclude, one of the things that I’m thinking about it through our conversation is, you know, fundamentally this broad question of how the history of the Bible as a material object matters. We can talk about the ways in which the history of the Bible as a material object relates to the development of Jewish culture or to the question of the relationship of Jews and Jewish communities to the world around them. But the Bible also is just fundamentally a crucial component of the history of the book. In what ways do you say that the investigation of the Bible as a material object contributes to our understanding of the history of the book in a way that matters, especially as we’re talking about that today, the physical book is perhaps not as essential because people are reading books in electronic form, or they’re just not even reading books. Why does this history matter? 

DS: I’m actually preparing an undergraduate course, a general education course, which is technically called something like “exploding the book (with the Bible).” The point of the course is to be one of these general education courses for freshmen and sophomores, and it will challenge every basic notion that people have of what a book is. And remember, these are kids who have spent the past twelve years of their lives reading books for a large portion of their days, and who will for the next four years and maybe longer also spend a large portion of their day reading books, studying books, memorizing books, and basically using the book form as their major way to access knowledge, and through that careers. If you ask one of these students what a book is, they will tell you: “Well it’s, you know, it’s a book that some guy had an idea, sat down at a desk, finished the text, gave it to an editor, the editor took it to a publisher. The publisher printed, more or less, what the author wrote, and then sold it and distributed it to readers who basically read it in order to find out what the author has in mind.” I think that sort of is the basic conception that most people would have. You ask them what’s the book, and the history of the Bible disproves every one of those assumptions that people have, starting with the question of authorship. We don’t know who authored the Bible. It’s a big question, with all sorts of theories presented, but it definitely wasn’t some guy with a preconceived notion in his mind, who then sat down and wrote the Bible according to that conception. It wasn’t read by readers probably in any way that the original author intended, and the whole history of its production and its composition is much, much richer and more complicated than any conception that people normally have about a book. And the Bible is the strongest way to explode that notion of the book and to remind people that the book is not a transparent or invisible thing. It’s not just simply a conveyor of a text. It actually goes back to what I started with. It actually holds a meaning that’s very different than even the text it records or carries. And sometimes, that message can even be add odds with that text. I mean, this book which is basically about the perfection of humanity has been used in divide humanity and as an object of rivalry in bloody conflicts over ownership more than any other book in Western culture. As an object, it’s been very much in that sense at odds with what the Bible seems to be about as text. So that’s where it fits into the history of the book. It’s the richest book with the richest history of any book in Western culture. I don’t think there’s any question that it totally undermines any simple conception of what a book is.

JL: I do have to ask you, you mentioned it before, and I feel like we need to talk about this: You mentioned the Museum of the Bible. What’s your take on it, and how it fits into this broader history of the Bible? 

DS: Well, first of all, it’s very much a work in progress. It’s by no means a completed museum, and I think it’s very much an open question as to what it will actually become. I only went through, actually, the part that was about the book itself, which is one floor. There’s one floor, or one big section, which is devoted to the narratives, which basically does treat them, I think, mainly as historical narratives, though not entirely. And then there’s one section which talks about the impact of the Bible, which I think is the most political, and politically offensive to some, of all the parts of the museum. But what I basically spent most of my time in was the one section which was actually about the Bible as a book. And that’s actually very well done. And thanks to Hobby Lobby’s enormous amount of money, they’ve been able to buy just amazing things and present them in a museum in a way that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. And that section was actually fairly, from what I saw, quite credible intellectually. What it really does show is how the Bible has changed in both Judaism and Christianity. But I think the other parts of the Bible Museum send very different messages.

The real question it really raises goes back to the heart of what you were just saying, that the Bible matters, and the history of the Bible matters, because it’s really a major part of our Western culture, especially American culture, especially considering the political power held by many people who associate themselves with Evangelical Christianity. The Bible Museum is part of this whole phenomenon. In what ways do you think that the history of the Bible has to contribute to this broader discourse?

Well, the fact that these Evangelicals are willing to build a museum that does in part portray the history of the Bible as a book is itself an extraordinary and surprising achievement. Now, they are much less willing to ascribe the same sort of historicity to the narrative in the Bible. In other words, the historicity that changes and that’s open to investigating. The narrative section, as far as I know, pretty much takes the Bible at face value, and it doesn’t question its narrative critically, or certainly not enough, which is what people have been objecting to. But the part where the Bible is considered as the book certainly does, and I think that in itself opens up the possibility actually that historical openness spreading to the other floors of the museum. It’s in the building already. So, the question is if they will the let the “disease” of historicity and critical history spread to the rest of the museum.

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