Shadal on Exodus: Samuel David Luzzatto’s Interpretation of the Book of Shemot
Reviewed by Rabbi Gil Student
The publication of Daniel A. Klein’s English translation of Shadal’s commentary on Exodus offers us an opportunity to consider the place on the Orthodox bookshelf for Prof. Shmuel David Luzzatto (Italy, 1800-1865). Shadal lived during the flowering of the Haskalah. He was a creative and independent thinker and a fierce defender of tradition. In particular, his commentary on the Torah continues in the tradition of the classical peshat commentaries with his own original contributions and frequent use of historical scholarship.
For example, in explaining the box in which Moshe’s mother placed her baby (Ex. 2:3), Shadal translates gome as papyrus. He does not tell us but Radak (Sefer Ha-Shorashim, gma) describes gome as a very light tree. Shadal looks to a similar biblical term and a Roman poet:
papyrus (gome). that grows by the Nile, so called after the expression, “Please let me try a little water” (Gen. 24:17), as if it needs to drink. Thus Lucan calls it bibula papyrus (“thirsty papyrus”). They made clothes, shoes, baskets, and even boats out of it; in the words of Lucan (Pharsalia 4.136), “The boats of Memphis are framed of thirsty papyrus” (Rosenmueller and Gesenius).
Shadal freely quotes from historical sources and Christian commentaries, all to find the best peshat in the Torah. One might expect this from someone with radical beliefs. However, when it comes to the Torah, Shadal fought against biblical critics. His commentaries are completely within traditional Orthodox views of the divine origins of the Torah text. As Klein writes in his lengthy introduction to the Exodus commentary, “He firmly believed in Torah min ha-shamayim (the Divine origin of the Torah) as well as the Torah’s unity and accurate transmittal by Moses” (p. 16). However, Shadal had unusual philosophical views. He harshly criticized the Rambam and all philosophy, while also rejecting Kabbalah and mysticism. This places him outside the mainstream but not necessarily outside of Orthodoxy.
Regarding the legal parts of the Torah, Shadal interprets the verses literally and not always according to the Sages’ expositions. This is particularly evident in the Torah portion of Mishpatim, which contains many laws. For example, regarding a dangerous burglar, the Torah (Ex. 22:2) says that you may defend yourself by killing him unless “the sun has risen over him.” The Sages (Mekhilta, ad loc.; Sanhedrin 72a) interpret this to mean that if it is clear to you as the sun that the burglar poses no life threat to you, you may not kill him and claim it was self-defense. Shadal (p. 357) explains it differently–if the sun has risen then witnesses can see his burglary and testify against him in court. “The house owner was permitted to kill the digger precisely because he could find no witnesses.”
Following many classical peshat commentators, Shadal explains the verses in the simplest, most literal way even if the Talmud and Midrash–containing the Oral Torah–derive laws based on a different interpretation. Theologically, this presents no problem because peshat and derashrepresent different layers of meaning within the Torah text. Both can be true. However, Shadalhas a different, theologically problematic approach, to this issue which he includes infrequently in his Torah commentary.
In Klein’s introduction to the Exodus volume, he provides an excellent description of Shadal’s beliefs on the Oral Torah. According to Shadal, “many of the rules of law that were presented as derived from derash were not handed down from time immemorial, but were newly crafted in response to changing times” (p. 22).
There are two main approaches among Medieval thinkers about the Oral Torah. According to the Ge’onim, the entire Oral Torah was transmitted to Moshe and throughout the generations some of it was forgotten, which led to rabbinic disagreements. According to the Rambam, in addition to the Oral Torah transmitted throughout the generations, the Sages had the ability to derive new laws from the Torah text based on specific rules. Shadal is going beyond the Rambam’s approach in two ways. First, Shadal is saying that the Sages’ innovations were not derived from the text. They are all rabbinic enactments and the biblical connections were mere supports (asmakhta’os). Additionally, he argued that the Sages made these enactments in response to the times and not in a pure search for the Torah’s true meaning.
The first point is difficult but tenable. It is possible to argue that much of what we generally consider to be biblical law is actually rabbinic enactment. The second point is theologically troubling. Shadal engages in historicism, connecting rabbinic laws with historical circumstances. Effectively, he is accusing the Sages of distorting the Torah to fit their agendas. Even if the Sages intended well and saved Judaism and Jews, they molded the Torah to fit their attitudes rather than vice versa. I could say that this places undue power in the hands of rabbis but that understates the theological problem. This attitude undermines the authenticity of the Torah, even though Shadal believed that the enactments of the Sages were binding in practice. Turning the law of God into the law of men, making many de’oraisa laws into derabbanan laws can be overlooked. But turning those laws into historical contingencies deprives them of all sanctity. That is not the Orthodox way. As Dr. Ephraim Chamiel writes, “his position was close to that of the historical-positivist school, and he should be viewed as one of its precursors.” ((The Middle Way: The Emergence of Modern Religious Trends in Nineteenth Century Judaism, vol. 2 p. 305. “Positive-Historical” was the term used by the Conservative Movement before it adopted biblical criticism.))
In theory, Shadal’s view on the Oral Torah could be set aside because it should have no impact on his peshat biblical commentary that anyway sidesteps legal exposition. However, a writer with such beliefs will inevitably incorporate them into his writings. Noting the omission of wives from the list of those who must observe Shabbos (Ex. 21:20), Shadal writes that women were equally commanded in all positive and negatives commandments. “However, the Sages exempted women from the positive mitzvot that are time-bound (she-ha-zeman gerama); apparently; in their times the status of women had changed, and men had been laying a heavier yoke on them” (p. 305). In response to the greater duties women faced at home, the Sages exempted them from many biblical commandments. The image of rabbis who could undo the word of God based on historical circumstance is quite difficult. The traditional understanding is that women had always been exempt, since the time of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. A more radical view might say that the Sages looked closely at the Torah and determined an original intent to exempt women. The suggestion that the Sages intentionally changed the Torah, albeit with good intentions, means that we would be obeying the rabbis and disobeying God.
The traditional yeshiva student will have no need for Shadal. However, the sophisticated reader will find many worthy interpretations in Shadal’s commentary. Prof. Nehama Leibowitz frequently quotes Shadal, among the many commentators–Orthodox and non-Orthodox–she cites and I consult it regularly. However, only someone ready to do theological battle with Shadal should tread–carefully–through this commentary. Unlike Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur, which contains no unorthodox theology, Shadal’s commentary occasionally deviates from Orthodox beliefs.