Friday, July 22, 2005

Cassuto: Breishis as Counter-Mythology

Long time readers of my blog will know that while I don't claim to have THE answer to all those Science vs Torah questions, I have always strongly felt that the most correct mehalech was not Schroeder or Slifkin (and obviously not Rav Shternbuch, Shapiro and Kiruv Clown friends), but was in fact Umberto Cassuto's mehalech.

Was Cassuto frum? Well, he had semichah, according to this:

Born in Florence, Italy, he studied there at the university and the Collegio Rabbinico. After graduating in humanities and receiving his rabbinic diploma, he took up teaching positions in both institutions. At this time his main research was on the history and literature of the Jews of Italy. From 1914 to 1925 Cassuto was chief rabbi of Florence and then in 1925 became professor of Hebrew language and literature in the University of Florence and then took the chair of Hebrew at the University of Rome. Here he began to catalogue the Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican but the 1938 anti-Semitic laws forced him out of his positions and he continued his academic career at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He edited a Bible with Hebrew commentary that has remained an Israel school classic. His interests focused on Bible exegesis in which he contested the documentary theory of Wellhausen on the origin of the Pentateuch, postulating its redaction to a school around the 10th century BCE. Cassuto also made important contributions to Ugaritic studies.

Wikipedia has this to say (it needs some editing if you want my opinion):

He studied there at the university and the Collegio Rabbinico. After getting a degree and Semicha, he taught in both institutions. From 1914 to 1925, he was chief rabbi of Florence. In 1925 he became professor of Hebrew and literature in the University of Florence and then took the chair of Hebrew language at the University of Rome La Sapienza. When the 1938 anti-Semitic laws forced him from this position, he moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Umberto's son Nathan was also a rabbi in Florence. He went into hiding during World War II, was betrayed and perished in the Nazi death camps. Nathan's wife and children were saved and emigrated to Israel. One child, the architect David Cassuto (born 1938), played a key role in rebuilding the Jewish quarter in the old city of Jerusalem. In the 1990s he was for some years deputy mayor of Jerusalem.

Basically, Cassuto's mehalech, like Nahum Sarna in Understanding Genesis (also frum), and also like Chief Rabbi Hertz in The Soncino Chumash (also frum), see the stories in the first part of Breishis as a response to the prevailing Canaanite/Sumerian Mythology, which doubtless the Israelites would have been aware of. Each myth is taken, stripped of its polytheistic and other nefarious content and replaced with pure monotheistic content. I am not sure if Sarna and Hertz were influenced by Cassutto or not, it seems likely.

Is anyone aware of any other frum (or traditional) scholars who had a similar mehalech? Please let me know. I am not aware of any, so I was gratified to see Hirhurim link to this article on the Gush Virtual Bet Midrash site by Rav Chaim Navon. Rav Navon explicitly condones the Cassuto mehalech, at least with respect to the Taninim mentioned in Breishis.

Cassuto argues that the Torah does not totally reject this mythological tradition; but rather it modifies it. "New ideas were attached to it in consonance with the conscience and ethos of the Hebrew people" (U. Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies, vol. II, p. 98). According to Cassuto, the Torah continues to use the Tanin and Leviathan as symbols of the forces of evil against which God contends. The Torah eradicates the idolatrous meaning of these myths and turns them into a symbol of the war against the forces of evil and suffering.

Also interesting is that Rav Dovid Gottleib in this article talks about Cassuto's book on the Documentary Hypothesis, but adds the following disclaimer:

[[Cassuto’s book does not represent the position of Traditional Judaism. Some of his remarks would be considered false textually, and objectionable religiously. Nevertheless, his critique of the methods and results of “Biblical Criticism” are devastating and deserve to be known. – D.G.]]

So was Cassuto frum? Well, there is a street in Bayit Vegan named after him, but I'm not sure if that proves it definitively. Either way, I continue to maintain that this is the most correct peshat in Breishis. As for those people (like Boruch) who counter 'Why would G-d write mythology in the Torah?', my response is that it's really no more of a kashye than asking why would G-d write long (and boring?) geneologies and travel itineraries in the Torah which don't seem to add much value. And the answer to those kashyes?

I don't know, go ask the Author, not me.