Lecture #25b: Assyriology and Tanakh - Parallel and Complementary Study

  • Rav Tamir Granot



By Rav Tamir Granot


Shiur #25b:

Assyriology and Tanakh – Parallel and Complementary Study



In order to understand the broader significance of what Rav Kook is saying, let us consider an excerpt from his Eder Ha-yakar, in which he addresses biblical criticism in general, including the realm of Assyriology – an extremely well-developed branch of archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia, with important discoveries about the Mesopotamian culture and its beliefs and legal systems. The findings relevant to our discussion that presented the greatest challenge were those indicating that at least some of the laws of the Torah, as well as its moral and religious principles, had parallels in the culture into which Avraham was born and from which he distanced himself, according to the Torah. If this ancient literature contains parallels to the biblical account of Creation or the Flood; if some of the laws in Parashat Mishpatim are replicated, whether in their formulation or their order, in the Hammurabi Code and in the Laws of Eshnunna from Mesopotamia in the period prior to the giving of the Torah – that is, if at least in some areas, the Torah and its laws have clear parallels in the cultural treasures of other ancient peoples – does this not seriously undermine the exclusive status of the Torah as a superhuman, one-time revelation?


It should be remarked that in our times, the research in this field is far advanced, and academic biblical study devotes extensive efforts to presenting comparisons and finding parallels between Tanakh and ancient Mesopotamian literature.[1] It often turns out that the parallel is not perfect, and although there is similarity, the texts are not identical. Moreover, in some instances, the similarity in formulation serves to highlight fundamental discrepancies in content. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the knowledge that in some cases there are significant similarities does arouse questions and erodes faith in the uniqueness of Jewish belief and the Torah.


While Rav Kook was not familiar with all the research findings we have at our disposal today, enough knowledge was available to him at the beginning of the 20th century to indicate the essence of the problem (as indeed we discover in his words), since important findings had been discovered already by the end of the 19th century. The spirit of his remarks in this regard may therefore be extended to address later findings. (Paragraph division and numbering are my own – T.G.]:


And similarly, when Assyriology appeared, striking doubts into people's hearts with the similarities that it found, according to its ethereal conjectures, between our holy Torah and the contents of cuneiform inscriptions, in terms of moral principles and practices.


1.    Do these doubts have even the slightest rational basis? Is it not well known that among the ancients there were people who recognized God, prophets, and spiritual giants, such as Metushelach, Chanokh, Shem and Ever, and the like? Is it possible that they had no influence on their generations? Even if their achievements do not compare with those of Avraham Avinu, how could their influence possibly have left no impression whatsoever upon their generations? Surely [their teachings] must have resembled those of the Torah.

2.    As for the similarity in practices, already in the days of the Rambam and even earlier, in the words of Chazal, it was well-known that prophecy operates in tandem with man's nature. Man's natural inclinations must be raised through Divine guidance, for “the mitzvot were given solely for the purpose of refining mankind.” Therefore, those elements of education that preceded the giving of the Torah which had found a place in the nation and the world, so long as they had a moral foundation and could be elevated to an eternal moral height, were left intact in the Divinely-given Torah.

3.    Looking at the matter more broadly, this is the basis of the positive cultural consciousness that is found in the deepest recesses of human nature, such that "This is the book of the generations of man" embraces the entire Torah. It is a principle even greater than the principle of "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself," as stated by R. Akiva.

All of this should be taken into consideration by every discerning individual. Then there would be no room whatsoever for fraudulent heresy to spread in the world and to be reinforced through such events. (Eder Ha-yakar, p. 42-43)


            Rav Kook's response comprises four elements: one is an implied criticism of archaeology and the academic study of history, while the other three argue that even if there is some truth in the findings of Assyriology, that in no way justifies denial of the Divine origin of the Torah or the obligation to observe its commandments.


As noted, Rav Kook begins – as in Letter 91 – with a skeptical comment concerning the speculative nature of archaeology and history. Unquestionably, there is reason for this criticim, but we know – and, as we see from the continuation, Rav Kook himself was also aware – that even if we put the speculative and unfounded aspect aside, there is enough literary material and enough serious arguments to raise some question in our minds concerning the similarities between some of the Mesopotamian sources and the Torah. How, then, are we to respond to the Assyriologists?


Rav Kook notes (1) that the Torah itself mentions great spiritual figures who were predecessors and contemporaries of Avraham and who had knowledge of God and morality. It is entirely possible that they, and others who are not mentioned, are the same leaders who influenced the beliefs, morality, and laws of the Mesopotamian nations as attested to in the archaeological findings. Who were Shem and Ever, concerning whom we are told that our patriarchs studied under their tutelage? They were not part of the Jewish nation.


In other words, nowhere does the Torah indicate that Avraham invented morality or faith. The difference between him and his predecessors may be summed up in two points: first, his historical influence was much greater; and second, he was personally superior to them, such that God chose him. Moreover, as discussed in Rav Kook's previous letters, there are certainly great people among the nations of the world – but they are individuals, whereas Avraham set the groundwork for an entire nation that would continue his path and his teachings for all generations. This is the great difference between him and them.


In any event, it is clear that there were also other outstanding individuals who illuminated the world with their teachings. Since they taught and practiced morality and faith, their works bear some resemblance to the complete truth of the Torah.


In his second argument (2.), Rav Kook argues that modern archaeological findings only confirm the Rambam's assertion (which we quoted in the first shiur on letter 90) that many mitzvot – especially those pertaining to ritual worship – are in fact an element in the Torah's battle against idolatry. The Torah established these statutes in accordance with man's nature and prevailing culture, but at the same time elevating them, reorienting their context, and adapting them to the framework of Divine service. Rav Kook goes even further, using the same principle to explain laws that concern not ritual worship, but rather morality and social interaction, such as the Hammurabi Code. To his view, the connection between such legal codes and the Torah should likewise be viewed in terms of the deliberate attitude towards the normative systems of the time. The similarity between them arises from the desire on the part of the Torah to frame itself in common, prevailing terms and concepts – of which we are becoming increasingly aware, with scientific development – while the differences arise from the desire on the part of the Torah to elevate and uplift, to repair and enhance that which already exists, and thereby to refine mankind.


            Rav Kook’s third point (3) is formulated somewhat enigmatically. Rav Kook refers to a famous beraita that records a difference of opinion: "R. Akiva said: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Vayikra 19:18) – [this] is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azzai said, 'This is the book of the generations of man' (Bereishit 5:1) is an even greater principle" (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4). He explains that according to Ben Azzai, the Torah itself is teaching us to study the Book of the Generations of Man – that is, man's actions and undertakings in history – and learn from them. If so, then this is a great principle in the Torah; perhaps it even includes all of the Torah, since the elevation of human culture is the essence of the aim of Torah, and wherever in history that we can detect such an upliftment, it represents a real part of Torah.[2]


            It would seem that despite the difference between the questions addressed in the letter and in Eder Ha-yakar, Rav Kook addresses them in a similar manner. His caution in the face of comprehensive, unquestioning acceptance of scientific conclusions, which was wise in its own right, also provides a historical dimension to the generally positive attitude towards them. The fact that it is specifically in the modern age that the Hammurabi Code, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient sources were discovered means that our understanding of the Torah and its purpose – both on the exegetical level and in terms of its historical context (as explained by the Rambam) – must be based, inter alia, on these findings.


The Synthetic Approach


            We have mentioned three main approaches to the challenge posed to religious faith by modern science: negation, separation, and exegesis. Rav Kook offers a fourth approach, which may be referred to as the "synthetic"[3] approach, for two reasons:


            First, as we have seen, his approach includes the previous approaches. The negative approach is important for recognizing the relative and historical nature of the scientific discovery. The separatist approach is appropriate in addressing the literal text – for example, Parashat Mishpatim, whose literal, halakhic study involves no reference to any external source. Exegesis allows us to discover new insights within our own sources, and these are dynamic, representing a constantly renewed revelation.


            Second, Rav Kook's approach is synthetic in the sense of the exegetical-philosophical methodology which he employs. The Torah is the thesis, the scientific discovery appears as the antithesis, and the insight or new meaning arising from this study is a supreme edifice that includes both the material discovery and the Torah meaning in a synthesis that is now posed as a new thesis – the new "peshat," or literal sense, of today's Torah.


"Top-Down" or "Bottom-Up": The Story of the Garden of Eden and the Theory of Evolution


            Rav Kook's approach finds beautiful expression in Letter 134, likewise addressed to R. Moshe Seidel and similarly related to his study of history and Bible. Seemingly, R. Seidel questioned Rav Kook about the contradiction between the description of Creation in the Torah – according to which at the beginning of Creation man lived an ideal, joyful life before God in the Garden of Eden, and his situation degenerated only because of his sins – and the theory of evolution, which describes the beginnings of human existence as lowly and inferior, both practically and culturally, gradually improving over time and with the development of the world. In short, according to the theory of evolution, the Torah's ideal description of man's life at the beginning of Creation cannot be true.


We quote here the crux of Rav Kook's response, omitting those sections not directly related to our discussion:


In general, I feel that it is my responsibility to arouse your pure spirit regarding the knowledge attained through the new research, which, on the large, contradict the simple meaning of the Torah’s words.


My opinion on this matter is that anyone who thinks properly should know that although these new ideas are certainly not conclusively proven true, we nevertheless are not obligated to deny and oppose them, for the Torah’s intention has nothing to do with recounting simple facts and previous deeds. The main point is the inner part, the inner explanation of matters, and this is only elevated when there is a contravening power which we are compelled to overcome through it. This point was made by the Rishonim, and primarily the Moreh Nevukhim, and today we are able to expand on these matters to an even greater degree.


There is no practical difference whether the world began with paradise, in which man enjoyed the pinnacle of physical and spiritual goodness, or whether reality began in practice from the lowest to the highest, from the lowest level of existence to its apex, and that it continues to develop in that direction. We must only know that there is a distinct possibility that man, even if he rises to great heights, can lose everything that he has if he corrupts his ways; he can do evil to himself and his descendants for many generations. This is the lesson that we learn from the facts of Adam in the Garden of Eden, his sin, and his expulsion. The Master of all souls knows how deep it must be impressed on the souls of all people that they must be vigilant to abstain from sin, and according to that depth, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are composed into the Torah of truth.


When we accept this view, we no longer have any particular need to fight against the descriptions that have gained fame among the new researchers. Having become unbiased in the matter, we will be able to judge fairly, and now we will be able to refute peacefully their conclusions as much as truth will show us its way.


The main glory of our lives is the truth of the inseparability of the Unity in its highest exaltation and eternal magnificence, on the one hand, and eternal righteousness, on the other hand. It is only through this, the soul of the Torah, that we can glimpse her essence and garments…


The idea of gradual development is itself in the beginning stages of its development, and there is no doubt that it will change in form; they will conceive of visions that also see periods of skipping, thus completing the vision of reality – and then the light of Israel will be perceived in all its clarity.


The matter is the very opposite of what the gentile scholars, and the Jews who follow them, maintain, for they understand Tanakh according to the Christian explanation, according to which this world is nothing but a prison. However, the pure understanding – of the joy of life and its light – is found in the Torah, which maintains that in the past, man was in fact very happy; it was only an incident of sin that distanced him from that destiny.


It is readily understandable that the stumbling block will be repaired, and that man will once again return to his previous stature forever. The concept of development without help from the past, in contrast, scares the world, for what if the process stops in the middle or regresses entirely? For in that case, we have not confident reason to say that man has a permanent nature, and all the mores so physical man, who is made up of both body and soul. Thus, only the fact that man was once in the Garden of Eden sustains our belief that the world is one of light, and it should therefore be a practical and historical truth for us, even if it is not an essential belief.


We see here the same principles that molded Rav Kook's approach above: First the introduction of some measure of doubt, followed by an exegetical and philosophical construction that includes the new knowledge and sheds new light on it, whether historical or religious.


The importance of the story of the Garden of Eden lies in the fact that it depicts a utopian existence before God – and specifically, as Rav Kook emphasizes, the perfection of both spiritual and material existence. The natural completeness arises from the spiritual ideal, and these are interdependent. Spiritual perfection is not only reserved for the World to Come; it is a completely real situation of perfected nature, which stands at the disposal of man who fulfills God's commandments and serves Him.


Moreover, it is specifically the evolutionary perception that emphasizes the importance of the Garden of Eden ideal. The world, which modern science and philosophy view as following a path of development, does not know its own purpose and is not confident in its continued development. Placing the beginnings of mankind in the Garden of Eden gives us confidence that we will return to it, and that all of history is a movement of progress and return to that point.


Moreover, man's creation in the Garden of Eden teaches that this depiction is essential to him, while the reality of alienation between man and his material nature – and nature in general – is incidental and transient, the result of sin. The message of the Garden of Eden is the unity of man and nature, and this is the banner that is raised over human culture.


Is the conclusion of this discussion a denial of the reality of the Garden of Eden? Not necessarily. However, as Rav Kook states, the important point is the inner dimension of the question, which we come to approach specifically from the perspective of the modern views, and thus their importance is made even clearer.




Towards the end of the letter, Rav Kook formulates what we have referred to as his "synthetic" approach to the relationship between Torah and science in the following clear and beautiful way:


In general, this is an important principle in the war of views: that for every view that comes to contradict some matter in the Torah, we must not start out by negating it, but rather by building the palace of Torah over it. We are thus elevated by it, and it is for the purpose of this elevation that these views are revealed. Thereafter, when we are not pressed by anything, we may, with full confidence, fight against it, too. There are proven examples of this, but it is difficult for me to elaborate, and for someone as wise as yourself brevity will suffice, in order to know how to uphold Gods name above all the prevailing winds, and to use everything for our true good, which is also the good of all.

Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Countless examples are to be found in the work of M.D. Cassuto, in many entries in the Encyclopedia Mikra'it (Mossad Bialik), the popular "Olam Ha-Tanakh" series, and the myriad articles and dissertations on various topics relating to biblical law and narrative.

[2]  See, for example, in Letter 681, where Rav Kook writes to his son, R. Tzvi Yehuda, that the nationalist zealousness which he spoke about with a certain Austrian is a universal characteristic that comes naturally to man; it may be learned from any person and in all nations, in keeping with the principle, "This is the Book of the Generations of Man."

[3]  See Prof. Rosenberg's Torah u-Madda.