contributor.author: Ira Robinson

title.none: Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor (Ira Robinson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.010 05.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ira Robinson, Concordia University, robinso@vax2.concordia.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Cohen, Mordechai Z. Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi. Series: Etudes sur le judaisme medieval, vol. 26. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. xvii, 375. $118.00 90-04-12971-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.10

Cohen, Mordechai Z. Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi. Series: Etudes sur le judaisme medieval, vol. 26. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. xvii, 375. $118.00 90-04-12971-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Ira Robinson
Concordia University
robinso@vax2.concordia.ca

It is a given that, for medieval Jews, the writings of the Hebrew Bible represented truth. If, however, the Bible was always true, it was not necessarily factual in its most literal reading. Thus, for example, by the Middle Ages it had become conventional to regard the anthropomorphism found in the Hebrew Bible as not being true in a literal sense. The essential question asked by medieval Jews reading their Bible was essentially "when does the Bible mean literally what it says, and when doesn't it?" They asked the further question, "when the Bible does not mean what it literally says, what does it mean?" To answer these questions was the primary task of medieval Jewish Biblical exegesis, which is the subject of Mordechai Cohen's book.

Cohen has examined the approaches taken to Biblical metaphor by three prominent medieval Jewish thinkers: Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), and David Kimhi. Each of them exerted tremendous influence on the course of the medieval Jewish understanding of the Bible. Cohen asks how each of them approached the issue of Biblical metaphor. In order to do so, he devotes his introduction to a description of the literary tools available to these exegetes, paying attention as well to recent scholarship in the field of literary theory as well as in the field of medieval Jewish literature.

Part one is devoted to "Language." The first chapter details Abraham ibn Ezra's reliance upon "a Jewish exegetical tradition that had developed in a Muslim milieu, and viewed grammar, philology, poetics, science, and philosophy as the keys to Biblical interpretation" (33). It also details his selective utilization of the work of his predecessors, such as Saadia Gaon. It further explores the creative tension inherent in ibn Ezra's encounters with the exegetical tradition of Northern European Jews, which relied heavily on sources in ancient rabbinic midrash, and with Christian allegorical interpretation. Cohen makes judicious use of the different versions of ibn Ezra's commentaries, written at different times and places, in order to sharpen our sense of his approach to different audiences.

Chapter two is devoted to Maimonides, whoseGuide of the Perplexed is in large measure devoted to the issue of Biblical metaphor. While Maimonides shared much of ibn Ezra's cultural heritage, Cohen further details Maimonides' methodological use of concepts related to metaphor and finds them influenced by the philosophical ideas of al-Farabi. This analysis enables him to address, among other things, one of the major issues of Maimonidean studies raised by Leo Straus, the relationship of Moses' prophecy and the imagination (100).

Chapter three speaks of David Kimhi (Radak), of Provence, whose thinking was shaped by "the cultural tension ibn Ezra encountered as an adult." (137) His task was to create a Biblical interpretation, which respected both the grammatical science of Sephardic Jewry and the Northern European exegetical traditions.

Part two of the book, entitled "Interpretation," deals with the ways in which the methodologies of reconciling scripture and reason evolved into more sophisticated hermeneutical systems. Thus Maimonides departs from midrash's tendency to accord significance to every detail of the Biblical text by positing that some details are there simply for consistent literary development of the narrative (182-183). There was, for Maimonides, a deliberate strategy in the Bible to portray God anthropomorphically for the purpose of educating the ignorant regarding the existence of the deity (215).

Ibn Ezra, who confronted the popularity of Rashi and his blend of midrashic and "plain meaning" interpretation, resorted to an understanding of the Biblical text which emphasized literary form and convention as opposed to the older, midrashic way of reading the text (239). Kimhi was in many ways a student of Ibn Ezra's methodologies. Nonetheless, he exemplifies for Cohen an alternative method of interpretation in which the metaphorical image "acts as a filter which casts the topic in a new light" (281). In so doing, he "carves a niche" between "plain meaning" [pshat] and midrash, in consonance with the dual intellectual influences exerted upon Provencal Jewry (296).

The last chapter of the book, "From Midrash to Peshat to Literary Criticism," embodies Cohen's conviction that Kimhi, having absorbed the best that previous Jewish exegesis had to give, was moved to manifest a thinking about the Biblical text comparable to "the thinking of the modern literary approach to Scripture" (323). This is not to say, to be sure, that his exegetical strategy is the same as that of a Robert Alter, for instance. Nonetheless, it went significantly beyond those of his predecessors. In Cohen's opinion, Kimhi's innovative exegesis, which was not further developed in medieval Jewish exegesis, anticipated much that modern students of the Bible, armed with the methodologies of contemporary literary theory, would eventually discover in Biblical metaphors.

In this book Cohen has attempted, with a great deal of success, to cause the reader to understand the ways in which medieval Jewish Biblical interpretation developed, and some of the reasons for that development. He has also succeeded in bringing to bear the considerable resources of contemporary literary theory on his investigation. Creating and sustaining this link with contemporary literary theory is probably Cohen's most important contribution to research on medieval study of the Hebrew Bible.