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Ye?ezkel Kaufmann

(1889 – 1963)

Yeḥezkel Kaufmann was a biblical scholar, thinker, and essayist. Born in the Podolia region of the Ukraine, Kaufmann studied in the modern yeshivah of Ch. *Tchernowitz (Rav Ẓa'ir) in Odessa and at the advanced courses of Baron David Guenzburg in Petrograd (Leningrad). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Berne in 1918. After World War I he lived in Berlin, where he began to work on his scholarly writings. In 1928 he migrated to Ereẓ Israel and taught in the Re'ali School in Haifa. In 1949 he was appointed professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, a post he held until his death. Of his many writings, two monumental works stand out: Golah ve-Nekhar, "Exile and the Alien Land" (4 vols. in 2, 1929–30), a sociological study on the fate of the Jewish people from ancient times to the modern period; and Toledot ha-Emunah ha-Yisre'elit, "The History of Israelite Faith" (8 vols. in 4, 1937–57), a history of Israelite religion from ancient times to the end of the Second Temple. The first seven volumes were condensed and translated into English by M. Greenberg under the title The Religion of Israel (1960). The beginning of volume 8 was translated into English by C.W. Efroymson under the title The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah (1970). His other works include: Ha-Sippur ha-Mikra'i al Kibbush ha-Areẓ (1956), of which an English version had been published previously (The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Palestine, 1953); Be-Ḥevlei ha-Zeman (1936), "In Troubled Times," a collection of articles and studies on contemporary problems; commentaries on the Book of Joshua (1959) and the Book of Judges (1962); and Mi-Kivshonah shel ha-Yeẓirah ha-Mikra'it (1966), "From the Crucible of Biblical Creativity," a posthumous collection of studies on the Bible. His essay on "The Biblical Age" appeared in Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People (edited by L.W. Schwarz, 1956).

Biblical Period

Kaufmann's main contribution to the study of biblical religion was his thesis that Israel's monotheism was not a gradual evolutionary development from paganism but an entirely new beginning, sui generis, in religious history. From its beginnings, Kaufmann asserted, the Israelite monotheistic structure was devoid of any element of polytheistic mythology. Kaufmann claimed that nowhere in the Bible is there any trace of mythical elements – no battles among gods or birth of gods – and that theogony is totally absent. He suggested that this is due to the fact that the battle with myth had been waged and won long before the Bible was compiled. Israelite monotheism for Kaufmann began with Moses.

To bridge the gap between the concept of the one God of all humankind, on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that God's grace and works were known for 1,000 years only to Israel, Kaufmann developed the principle of theoretical (or ideational) universalism. So long as Israel was in its native land, this was expressed in the wish that all nations would some day acknowledge the one God, just as, according to Genesis, all humankind in the beginning knew only one God. In the exilic period, Israel began to move the monotheistic teaching beyond its territorial borders.

On Kaufmann's reading, the Bible was so fundamentally the product of a monotheistic world view that it claimed that all humans were originally monotheistic; it was human rebelliousness that produced the religious retrogression of paganism. Kaufmann went so far as to argue that Israelites of the biblical period had no understanding of polytheism. Ancient Israelites did not even know how to worship gods other than Yahweh and assumed that their neighbors worshipped fetishes of wood and stone. Most Bible scholars, in the main Protestant, tended to paraphrase the biblical accounts of Israelite idolatry, and conclude that there was a vast difference between the official religion, which was either monolatrous or monotheistic, and the popular religion, which was polytheistic. In contrast, Kaufmann maintained that there was no fundamental difference between "popular" and "official" religion with regard to monotheism. The prophetic denunciations of Israelite "idolatry" were the rhetoric of zealots who equated low-level superstition with full-blown apostasy from Yahweh. Much of the prophetic critique, argued Kaufmann, was due to the demands of theodicy; the prophets needed to account for Israel's frequent reversals. What were in reality minor superstitious lapses were transformed by the prophets into apostasy.

Kaufmann's general approach to the Bible was conservative. Although he accepted the Documentary Hypothesis of the sources of the Penateuch and the multiple authorship of Isaiah and Hosea, he resisted the tendency to analyze books into increasingly smaller units. In a similar vein, he maintained that the Book of Joshua provides an accurate account of the conquest of the land. The banishment of the Canaanites was not a nationalist necessity but a religious one, whose purpose was the purification of the land that was to serve as the locale for Israel's monotheism. For Kaufmann, Isaiah is a watershed in the prophetic tradition. He is the creator of visionary universalism, which envisages the end of paganism and the establishment of eternal peace. According to Isaiah, Israel's "chosenness" as the bearer of monotheism will then disappear and God's name will be acknowledged by all. Jeremiah brought this concept to its logical conclusion by stressing that idolatry was a sin for nations as well as for individuals. Whereas Isaiah prophesied that "a man" would cast away his gold and silver idols (Isa. 2:20), Jeremiah said that "the nations shall come from the ends of the earth" to worship the one God (Jer. 16:19). With the preaching of Deutero-Isaiah monotheism came to the gentiles.

Because Kaufmann wrote in Ivrit (Modern Israeli Hebrew) at a time when few gentile scholars were competent in the language, Kaufmann's influence was largely confined to Israelis and Jewish religious moderates. (He was too radical for Jewish fundamentalists.) One reason for Kaufmann's popularity in these circles was his early dating of the Priestly Code (P). In the classic scheme of *Graf and *Wellhausen, the post-exilic P had encased monotheism in a legalism leading finally to a Pharisaic notion of salvation through works, so stifling that it required no less a figure than Jesus to overturn it. Naturally, most Jews regarded this analysis as Christian suppressionism in scholarly garb. Tacitly accepting the Well-hausenian claim that earlier was better, Kaufmann attempted to demonstrate that P was pre-exilic in origin, rather than the product of later debased Jewish legalism. Another reason for Kaufmann's popularity among Jewish religious moderates was that although Kaufmann was a secularist, his argument that monotheism was an original Israelite institution that had originated with Moses could be read as an empirical validation of the theological assertion of divine revelation. Through the efforts of H.L.*Ginsberg and Moshe *Greenberg, Kaufmann's work was very influential at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, a religiously moderate institution, at which several generations of Jewish Bible scholars were introduced to the serious study of the Bible. Oddly, Kaufmann was never invited to teach or lecture there (Schorsch).


Y. Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (Eng. and Heb., 1960), incl. bibl., 1–6 (Heb. sect.); M. Haran, in: Moznayim, 24 (1964), 52–55; idem, Biblical Research in Hebrew (1970), 21–22, 25–28; Z. Woislavsky, Yeḥidim bi-Reshut ha-Rabbim (1956), 265–88; Potok, in: Conservative Judaism, 18 no. 2 (Winter, 1964), 1–9; S. Talmon, in: ibidum 25 no. 2 (Winter, 1971), 20–28. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Levenson, in: Conservative Judaism, 36 (1982), 36–43; T. Krapf , Yehezkel Kaufmann: Ein Lebensund Erkenntnisweg zur Theologie der hebraeischen Bibel (1990); idem, Die Priesterschaft und die vorexilische Zeit: Yehezkel Kaufmanns vernachlaessigte Beitrag zur Geschichte der biblischen Religion (1992); M. Greenberg, in: idem (ed.), Studies on the Bible and Jewish Thought (1995), 175–88; J. Hayes, in: DBI, 2:16–17; S.D. Sperling, in: D. Snell (ed.), A Companion to the Ancient Near East (2005), 408–20; I. Schorsch, Conservative Judaism, 59 (2005), 3–22.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.