The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.
Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).
While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.
This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).
An Introduction to Shai Held
Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.
My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.
Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.
Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016
Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.
Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.
The Heart of Torah
Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.
Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.
I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.
If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).
Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.
This the lineup of articles.
- J. Richard Middleton, “Between Exegesis and Theology: Jewish and Christian Appraisals of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah“
- Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
- Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
- Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
- S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
- David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah“
- Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
- Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”