The Shifting Image of the Holy Person: Introduction

Prof. B. Barry Levy
Faculty of Religious Studies
McGill University

This lecture is actually an analysis of the historical development of the relationship of Judaism to the Bible. Levy takes us through six periods of Jewish history, and outlines how each period perceived the Biblical text. He shows how until the modern period, the emphasis was on showing how the Bible was relevant to the particular concerns of the society. Thus, the Hellenists retold the Bible in light of Greco-Roman values, and the Rabbinic Midrashim deal creatively with problems in the text, often drifting away from the text itself. The Medieval commentaries project their own concern onto the text. In the modern period however, there is a return to the actual contextual, historical analysis of the Biblical text. In the post-modern period, ‘anything goes’, which enables the resurrection of mythical ideas about Biblical characters previously suppressed by the medieval rationalist commentaries but which had already surfaced in the Kabbalah. Levy also analyzes the medieval division of the 4 levels of meaning of the Bible, represented by the Hebrew acronym Pardes, literal, allegorical, midrashic, and mystical. He concludes by examining the way the rabbis of the Talmud confronted the seemingly non-pious characteristics of the Biblical heroes, many times whitewashing out these questionable characteristics. In response to a questioner, Levy claims that one must begin from the historical approach, and accuses modern pietistic publications of misrepresenting the tradition and reshaping it to fit their own needs. Alon raises the issue of saints only being in the eyes of their beholders, their faith-communities. Finally, there is a discussion between Sydney Griffith and Levy about the possibility of referring to the Biblical heroes themselves as saints.