Introduction: Once More, Unto the Breach
18Forty started with a question about Biblical criticism. Mitch Eichen, who really got this project off the ground, called me on the phone and wanted me to write a curriculum responding to the questions of Biblical criticism. I said no—for a few reasons, but most importantly, I am far from an expert on the topic. It’s actually ridiculous to even make such a disclaimer. It reminds me of people on Twitter with a dozen followers who write “RT’s do not equal endorsements” in their bio. Don’t worry, no one is really seeing what you tweet and no one wants your endorsement. It’s the same for me and Biblical criticism—I don’t have any original ideas and no one is asking me for any even if I did. I am woefully in over my head. As it stands, I struggle to finish the weekly parsha and there are full books in Tanach I have never even touched. So this is not a subject I feel qualified on which to weigh in. But, even with that disclaimer, here we are.
Honestly, it’s a disclaimer I don’t fully believe in. I think non-expert voices—wading through articles, texts, and ideas—have an important place in religious discourse. Experts with well formulated conclusions and opinions are obviously a crucial part of formulating religious ideas, but so is listening in on an individual’s search, uncertainty, and discovery. As I told you, I am not an expert on this topic and given the stakes, many would just leave any further discourse to the experts. But, like Mitch and others, it is not only experts who are trying to find their way through this subject and sometimes walking alongside a novice is less daunting and more informative than diving in with the experts.
My first foray into the questions regarding the authorship of the Torah began in high school. A book was published called, One People, Two Worlds, a dialogue between Ammiel Hirsch, a Reform rabbi, and Yosef Reinman, an Orthodox rabbi and well-regarded writer in the frum community. After its publication, the book courted a fair deal of controversy, due to its interdenominational dialogue. Their book tour together was abruptly canceled. Some in the Orthodox community still praised the work, but the controversy completely overshadowed its reception. It’s also probably why I decided to read it. The controversy itself was just too compelling. I remember my mother was confident that the traditional viewpoint would be so obviously persuasive that she encouraged me to read it as well. For much of the book, that was the case. But I must admit, even close to twenty years later, their discussion about the issues of Biblical criticism still nag at my soul.
The Reform rabbi presents the somewhat famous comment of Ibn Ezra to Genesis 12:6:
For centuries there have been commentators who have raised questions about the perfection of the Torah. No less a commentator than Ibn Ezra, in explaining Genesis 12:6, which suggests that the Torah passage was written many years after the circumstances described, wrote “I have a secret, but let the wise person remain silent.”
I remember looking at the issue and feeling a pit in my stomach. Rabbi Reinman’s response (for this issue at least) didn’t help me. “I personally have no idea of the nature of Ibn Ezra’s secret,” he responded, “he has successfully concealed it from me.” Later in the book, he presents in more detail his views regarding Biblical criticism, but most surround the very true (but personally unhelpful) culture of anti-Semitic origins of the discipline. Maybe it helps some to know that the discipline was started as a deliberate attempt to undermine Jewish claims of authenticity, but a few hundred years later this twelfth grade boy wanted a more substantive response.
It’s hard to describe the effect some of these challenges initially had on me. Even some fairly innocuous challenges—like the Masoretic Text and the differences between the Torah text as we have it and that as presented in the Talmud. I remember taking long walks with my friend, Yoni Statman, who would outline some of the history and challenges with which he was presented during his undergraduate course in Bible at Yeshiva University. It felt like realizing for the first time that your parents sometimes got into arguments. When you’re little, you don’t really appreciate the very serious arguments and fights your parents may have. But all marriages have friction and at some point, you realize that even your parents had stronger moments and weaker moments in their marriage. That emotional shift, from a childlike reverence for your parent’s marriage to something more realistic and complex, for me at least, is what the discipline of Biblical criticism created. When I first looked at these issues it made me uneasy. Admittedly, I think about them less and less nowadays. Not because I found clear definitive answers, though many are out there, but because I fundamentally believe in the religious impulse the Torah articulates. Some will likely be left wanting with anything less than a clear Q&A guide to all of the challenges along with all of the answers. There are books and articles that do just that and we have links to those materials. Others will be happier just skipping the topic altogether, resting assured that others more qualified have properly considered and responded to the most vexing issues. But here we are doing neither. Yes, we’ll take a clear-headed look at what some of the most problematic issues are, but I am far more interested in the meta-conversation about how a book thousands of years old can retain its sanctity and relevance even in the face of such scholarship.
In 2012, Rabbi Natie Helfgot, published a book entitled Mikra & Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation. I must admit: I have not read it. But I did read the fascinating foreword by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. He was sensitive to many of my concerns broaching this subject and, as always, masterfully articulates the risk. He describes the book as “admittedly, not every ben Torah’s cup of tea,” a fairly drastic understatement given the rather negligible role the study of Tanach plays in most yeshivot. But, he does not mince words when describing what is at stake:
First and foremost, of course, is the concern with emunot vede’ot, with the prospect of the possible deleterious impact of questionable material upon the integrity of faith. That impact may itself be dual, manifesting itself through the corrosion of personal fidelity, on the one hand, and corruption of the sacral text proper, on the other. Even a routine bibliographic reference to an innocent article may introduce a tyro to adjacent heresy; and recourse to an insight, wholly acceptable per se, may invest its proponent with a mantle of expertise and acuity, hence habituating looking to him or her for the explication, possibly revisionist, of difficult cruces. And, of course, direct exposure to apikorsus, in significant measure, may contaminate the wellspring of Torat emet, by the admixture of chaff not always distinguishable from the wheat.
I am acutely sensitive to this concern because much of my faith was shaken in this very way. I now stand on sturdier ground, but the question is far easier to articulate than the time and expertise needed to construct answers. Still, some have these questions and they cut to the very heart of belief. 18Forty was founded on the conviction that we need not shy away from larger issues, no matter the doubt and chaos they may create. There may not be neat and simple answers, but will we try to create a space where we can better understand the underlying issues, the risks, and their implications. So, my dear friends, once more unto the breach. With healthy curiosity and humility, I hope we emerge more enlightened.
Jews have a complex relationship with Biblical criticism in general. There’s the obvious reason—Biblical criticism analyzes the Torah through the lens of a man-made document rather than originating from God. But there’s another reason: Biblical criticism was founded in a culturally antagonist climate to Judaism. As Yaacov Shavit described in his fascinating (and far too costly) book on the history of the modern day polemics surrounding the Bible’s authorship:
Added to all this was the fact that the new criticism was perceived as one more manifestation of anti-Semitism in the guise of science. In the context of the political and cultural reality in Germany, in the transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Wellhausen and Delitzsch’s statements were perceived as another wave in the flood of anti-Semitic literature. The Jews who reacted to them saw them as a disparagement of the Bible, with the aim of divesting the Jews of their honor and their historical rights. They felt they were confronted by an army of enemies of the Bible, who were representing it as a book full of distortions, and adding their depiction of it as a “Semitic creation,” contrary to the “Germanic spirit”; as a book, which on one hand was described by its new enemies as an immoral book, and on the other as a book that expresses the contemptible ethics of the weak.
Shavit’s book, The Hebrew Bible Reborn: From Holy Scripture to the Book of Books: A History of Biblical Culture and the Battles over the Bible in Modern Judaism, which was translated into English by Chaya Naor, is an incredible presentation of the polemics, issues, and responses between the Jewish world and the world of Biblical criticism. He covers in painstaking detail the controversy surrounding Friedrich Delitzsch’s contentious 1902 lecture series, Babel and Bible, that posited that much of the Torah’s stories were borrowed from Babylonian myths. Shavit begins with a charming story about a play the Frankfurt Jewish community put on to respond to Delitzsch’s accusations in 1903:
In the play, a splendid royal figure, conjured up from the dead, comes on to the stage. He is Hammurabi, King of ancient Babylon. The character who is the host in the play, Professor Babylonowitsch, welcomes the king and asks him to present to the audience the tidings of the one and only God. Hammurabi begins by babbling (Gebabbel), then quotes some of the cruelest of his laws, and declares his faith in a multiplicity of gods. “This fellow,” pointing angrily to his host, “wants to Judaize my pure faith in idols!” (“Er will mir mein reines Götzentum verjuden!”) Professor Babylonowitsch is taken aback, since in his lectures he has described the ancient king as a just monarch who believes in one God – in Jehovah, who later became the God of Israel. He turns to the audience, apologizes, and says that the King must be somewhat demented, probably because of his exorbitant age. Hammurabi, however, jeers at the professor. He accuses him of trying to thrust the alien spirit of the Bible on him, and adds that if he had a sword in his hand, or at least a whip, the distinguished professor would not get away without receiving his just punishment. Only after the Babylonian king leaves the stage does the professor regain his composure and tells the audience that the figure they had seen on stage was only pretending to be Hammurabi. At the end of the play, the Eternal Jew comes on stage to speak the last words. He is the son of an ancient but living people that faithfully brings the message of the one and only God to humankind:
God will guide me and humankind to the goal,
He Himself will bring redemption to us all,
Every cloud of error will disappear
And the promised future will come to us here.
Professor Babylonowitsch was a clever imitation of Delitzsch. This incident characterizes much of the continued response to Biblical criticism within the Jewish community—derision or distraction. And in many ways, for most, that makes sense. Many of the more complex areas of theology and philosophy are ignored for a host of reasons—they’re too complex, we’re too lazy, they’re too boring. But it’s unfair to dismiss such an important area of Jewish thought, given that so many are bothered by these issues. It’s equally unfair to exhaustively pretend to cover the landscape of so complicated a conceptual region in so short a time, and this conversation should be thought of as an introduction, an opening. I hope that this introduction provides insight and perspective into this topic, which we will talk about without derision or distraction.
A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO BIBLICAL CRITICISM: THE FOUR QUESTIONS
Conversation around any topic that is centuries old and that encompass an entire body of literature can not, and should not, end in a day. Biblical criticism is no different – we will not attempt to tell the entire story of Biblical criticism here, but we will offer an entrance point for thinking through these weighty issues.
There are four primary challenges that a critical reader of the Bible will discover: epigraphy, archaeology, lower criticism, and higher criticism. Each of these issues has engendered a broad range of articles, books, and debate. An exhaustive discussion of each, with concrete conclusions, is beyond anything we could reasonably attempt here. Below is simply an introduction to these broad categories in very, very broad strokes and some related materials, as background for our upcoming podcasts, and for further exploration on the part of the reader.
(1) Epigraphy: the contradictions between historical texts and Tanach, like the differences between Kings 2 and the inscription on the Mesha Stele found in ancient Moab, or the lack of records of the subjugation of the Israelites in Egypt. The study of these ancient inscriptions is called epigraphy and is closely linked with the next issue.
(2) Archaeology: the inconsistencies and omissions when comparing the Bible to the archaeological record of the Middle East. For example, there isn’t clear evidence of the Jews ever camping in the desert or existing anywhere outside of Israel, or archaeological evidence suggests that camels were only domesticated far after the Bible purports them to have been used.
When examining these issues, it’s important to consider a few factors. The first is that even in the academic world, these issues are not open and closed. Many Biblical scholars defend the veracity of the Biblical narrative to different degrees, such as Kenneth Kitchen in his book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, as well as Barry Eichler who states “knowledge gleaned from ancient Near Eastern sources tends to support the biblical accounts in general terms and most of the existing discrepancies can be tolerated” (Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East). There have also been accusations of ideological bias both on those seeking to affirm and disprove the Biblical narrative. Today’s scholarly consensus is that at least the later parts of the Bible are historically accurate (for a summary of these findings see Israel Finkelstein’s The Quest for the Historical Israel) and there are scholarly debates about how to incorporate archaeological evidence.
The second factor addresses the nature of archaeology and epigraphy themselves. As Shawn Zelig Aster notes:
The apparent conflict between the biblical narrative and archaeological and epigraphical discoveries is a product of the unrealistic expectation that the events described in the biblical narrative will conform exactly to the events portrayed in archaeological and epigraphic sources. The absurdity of this expectation becomes clear when we reflect on the fact that no narrative narrates every single event taking place in a particular time and space (A Personal Perspective on Biblical History, the Authorship of the Torah, and Belief in Its Divine Origin)
It isn’t always so easy to pin down objectively verifiable conclusions from archaeology and even what can be concluded is always subject to change. For example, the apparent anachronism involving domesticated camels mentioned before was promulgated since the 19th century, but recent archaeological evidence pushed the date of domestication back further (See R. Cohen, Ha-Yishuvim be-Har ha-Negev), which lessened the severity of the challenge. Aster also notes that Tanach isn’t written to be a historical text which may explain some discrepancies. This would explain archaeological findings which suggest major events which go unmentioned in Tanach.
(3) Lower Criticism: the area of study primarily concerned with the accuracy of the text in our modern Chumash, referred to as the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text comes from the Aleppo Codex, written in the 10th century CE, and it largely conforms to the text that is referenced in the Talmud, but there are more than a few discrepancies. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his glosses to Tractate Shabbos 55a, provides nearly an exhaustive list of such discrepancies. The Talmud and Midrash themselves indicate that the text the Rabbis used in that time contained variations and potential inaccuracies. Even as late as the Middle Ages, the Rabbis were dealing with variations in their texts. This has led to many Bible scholars to propose textual amendments in places where they feel the text has been corrupted, especially if they can support the assertion by pointing to alternative versions such as the Septuagint or Dead Sea Scrolls. By and large, Biblical commentators have been aware of these issues and have dealt with them over time. Their approach suggests that this issue was not perceived as being as fundamental to Jewish faith as the others mentioned here.
(4) Higher Criticism: also known as source criticism, examines the authorship of the Bible. Most scholars take it as a given that the Torah was compiled by multiple authors. They point to parallel narratives with different details or emphasis, or linguistic differences. While scholars disagree about which passages are associated with which authors or how exactly they were canonized together, the overwhelming scholarly consensus is that the Torah is not a unified document, but an amalgamation of many sources compiled over many centuries. This conclusion is derived solely from linguistic and literary analysis as no “proto-bible” has been discovered which would conclusively prove one way or the other. As Joshua Berman notes:
Confronted with the Pentateuch—a text seemingly rife with contradictions—scholars began to consider how such a text could have come to be. The problem with this type of speculation is that we have no documented precursors of the Torah or any of its hypothesized components in the epigraphic record. Scholars can only work backwards from what we have in the Torah today in an attempt to trace its composition and development. (Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism)
The responses to such theories have been varied, but can be arranged into three categories:
The first are responses which argue that the basis for the notion of multiple authors (the discrepancies and redundancies found in narratives and laws) aren’t really discrepancies and redundancies. For example, in the 19th century, Bible scholars sought to identify different strata within the Bible, based on the different names of God. They posited that passages referring to YAWE were written by one person, traditionally named “J”, and passages which invoked ELOHIM were written by another, named “E”. This methodology has largely fallen out of favor because, amongst other things, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to refer to the same god by different names within the same work and one need not resort to suggestions of multiple authorship.
A second approach has been to highlight the remaining questions that arise from such theories. For example, a common theory among Bible scholars is that Deuteronomy was written later than other portions of the Bible, specifically as part of an effort to institute centralized worship in Judaism. This theory is bolstered by several references to worship in the Holy Temple in Deuteronomy (12:13-14), which are absent from other places that mention similar modes of worship (Exodus 20:20). One could question this theory by noting that throughout Deuteronomy, the name of Jerusalem is absent. This makes sense if the passage was written before Jerusalem was settled. However, if it was written after, specifically to enshrine Jerusalem as the central place of worship, then this lacuna is quite glaring. If the answer the Bible critics provide is found to be unsatisfactory, then one could reasonably just leave the question it sought to answer as a peculiarity. Strange literary choices do not prove anything on their own.
It is also worth noting that there is evidence to support the traditional version of the Bible. Yoel Elitzur notes, quoting the work of Avi Hurvitz, on the basis of comparative linguistic analysis, he [Avi Hurvitz] convincingly demonstrated that the cultic terminology of the “priestly” chapters in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is completely different from that of parallel texts in Ezekiel, Ezra, and Chronicles, a factor that reduces the probability that any of the former were written at the same time of the latter. (The Names of God and the Dating of the Biblical Corpus).
Additionally, David Berger notes that there are places in the Bible where consistent word choices, themes, and parallelisms repeat in multiple places, suggesting they are designed to be read in light of each other. Berger explains “It is becoming clearer from year to year that Genesis is replete with linguistic and thematic patterns of subtlety and power which run through the warp and woof of the entire work” and points out “You can allow the ‘redactor’ just so much freedom of action before he turns into an author” (On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis). This is especially poignant since most Bible critics assume the ‘redactor’ to have complete ignorance to the agendas of the original authors.
There is a third option available and that is to offer alternative explanations to the critics’ questions. A famous example of this is in Lonely Man of Faith, where Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik notes that the creation of man is written in two drastically different ways. He posits that this is intentional and is meant to reflect the two sides of Man, which he dubs “Adam I and Adam II.” Building upon this theory, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer (who is most famous for developing Torah commentary directly influenced by the observations of Bible critics) posits that the Torah was written with different voices or “aspects”. These function as a powerful literary technique in which multiple perspectives of an issue can be fleshed out. Rabbi Shalom Carmy notes a similar phenomenon wherein, “great writers are eminently capable of employing multiple styles: the stylistic variations among Kierkegard’s ‘pseudonyms’, for example, are so thorough-going that they show up on computer analysis” (Introducing Rabbi Breuer). Rabbi Breuer ultimately thought that the questions raised by Bible critics ultimately had little bearing on a person’s belief in the divinity of the Bible. As he says,
The man of science sees in the Torah a collection of documents, written by J, E, D, P, and redacted later on by R…. The man of great faith, in contrast, sees in the Torah the work of God. This man believes that God Himself wrote J, E, D, and P, and He Himself also took on R’s redaction work. (Shitat ha-Bechinot shel Ha-Rav Mordekhai Breuer)
So where do I stand? Personally, these questions don’t bother me like they once did—but I am extremely hesitant to dismiss any and am certainly sympathetic to those who are bothered by them. Rav Tzadok HaKohen, the great Hasidic thinker who has influenced my thoughts more than anyone else, addresses why the Torah uses temporal language like “until this very day” (עד היום הזה). The question Rav Tzadok was addressing—and one I always noticed—is why does the Torah use temporal language, ”until this very day,” if it was meant to be relevant eternally? (This question is not limited to Biblical scholars. In fact, as Joshua Berman recounts, a group of Satmar Hasidim recently met with him because they were troubled as well.) I struggle with the notion that the Torah was written in the language and style of it’s day, an approach many find satisfying that was articulated by the Rambam—but it still grates on my sensibilities. Shouldn’t a document from God have a timeless quality?
I connect with more post-modern and perhaps somewhat mystical approaches that allow one to grasp the atemporal nature of Torah, while still confronting the questions this discipline raises. Committing to the continued relevance and interpretive significance of the Torah is in itself an exercise in faith. My teacher, Dr. Yaakov Elman, recounts how a group of 19th and 20th century thinkers—each independent of the other—embarked on such a program. Were they entirely successful? Perhaps not. But the never-ending negotiation between interpretation and text is one I find deeply moving and satisfying. And we may not have any other choice. As Dr. Shnayer Laimen concludes his discussion on Breuer’s approach to Biblical criticism:
While we reject Rabbi Breuer’s central thesis, we applaud his readiness to confront modernity, including the modern study of the Bible. There are undeniable risks in any such confrontation. Not to confront modernity, however, is more than risky for Orthodoxy, it is suicidal.
Thomas Merton, the great contemplative writer, once wrote that “one of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.” My hope is that we enter this conversation with a readiness to ask challenging questions, and to grow together in the process.
Read important takeaways from the intro in our Weekend Reader.
Joshua Berman: What Should We Believe?
However you navigate this issue, Professor Joshua Berman’s approach is crucial to consider. He is an accomplished academic in the field, whose new book, Ani Maamin, confronts the question of Biblical criticism in light of traditional Jewish thought.
Dr. Berman’s thought and perspective are far-reaching, and he engages deeply with the limits of Biblical criticism. He has noted that his research is particularly critical in the contemporary era, as the walls around religious communities that were once tall enough to protect those inside from dangerous areas have crumbled. People too often learn about these topics ‒ topics that deal with fundamental issues of religious belief ‒ from the Internet and grow disillusioned by the lack of perspective provided by their own education. In facing these issues, Joshua comments that “people with deep emotional commitments to tradition veer off to simplistic beliefs, and people who are more intellectually inclined give up on finding how tradition speaks to them.” He wrote Ani Maamin to present another option.
Joshua offers a perspective that thinks through Biblical criticism from both the religious perspective and the academic perspective. He spent eight years studying Torah in Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush, studied religion at Princeton University, and went on to receive a doctorate in Biblical studies from Bar-Ilan University, where he is now a professor. His parents did not grow up Orthodox, and Joshua chose a life of observance, which is strikingly important to his point of view:
“This is important for understanding this book because my whole life has been spent examining the tradition from within and without, and I had to find a way of dealing with challenging issues because my acceptance of observance was a choice.”
With the particular perspective of the insider-outsider, his religious knowledge, and his academic erudition, Dr. Joshua Berman is well placed to engage with the questions of Biblical criticism. He has his sights set on nothing less than “returning honesty to its central place in our Orthodoxy as we stand before the Almighty in all realms…an Orthodoxy that embraces the world in which the Almighty has placed us, here and now.” This is a religious life that faces questions head on, with openness and courage.
Read important takeaways from Joshua’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
Sara Susswein Tesler: What Should We Teach?
On April 1, 1925, Rav Kook spoke at the inauguration ceremony at Hebrew University. It was a controversial appearance, given the suspicion many in the older Jewish community held for higher secular education. Rav Kook shared his optimism that Jewish studies will be explored, “beginning with the Book of Books, the Bible, the light of our lives,” and these explorations would be guided by academics who were “religiously observant Jews in their views, their emotions and in all the paths of their lives.” Rav Kook cited the verses in Isaiah:
שְׂאִֽי־סָבִ֤יב עֵינַ֙יִךְ֙ וּרְאִ֔י כֻּלָּ֖ם נִקְבְּצ֣וּ בָֽאוּ־לָ֑ךְ בָּנַ֙יִךְ֙ מֵרָח֣וֹק יָבֹ֔אוּ וּבְנֹתַ֖יִךְ עַל־צַ֥ד תֵּאָמַֽנָה׃
Raise your eyes and look about: They have all gathered and come to you. Your sons shall be brought from afar, Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
Why, Rav Kook asks, would the Jewish people react with pachad, fear, at the wealth of nations of the world that was brought before them? Rav Kook explains, there are two ways in which the Jewish people develop Torah. There is Torah we develop in the intimate settings of our communities that is incubated internally and is nourished from our own intimate experience. There is another approach to developing Torah, however, that involves discourse with external ideas and values. It is the second form of Torah development, the one that contends with ideas incubated externally, that merits fear. He writes:
The second tendency characterizing Jewish spirituality served not only to deepen the sacredness of Torah within, but also as a means for the propagation and absorption of ideas. It served to propagate Jewish ideas and values from the private domain of Judaism into the public arena of the universe at large. For this purpose we have been established as a light unto the nations. It also served to absorb the general knowledge derived by the collective effort of all of humanity by adapting the good and useful aspects of general knowledge to our storehouse of a purified way of living. Ultimately, this absorption too serves as a means of moderated propagation to the world at large. Toward the attainment of this end, the Hebrew University can serve as a great and worthy instrument.
Here dear friends, there is room for fear. From earliest times, we have experienced the transfer of the most sublime and holy concept from the Jewish domain to the general arena. An example of propagation was the translation of the Torah into Greek. Two very different Jewish responses to this event emerged. In the land of Israel, Jews were frightened—their world darkened. In contrast Greek Jewry rejoiced. There were also instances of absorption. Various cultural influences, such as Greek culture and other foreign cultures that Jews confronted throughout their history penetrated into our inner being. Here too, many Jewish circles responded to absorption with fear, while other Jews rejoiced.
Much of what Rav Kook feared was teaching Biblical criticism at Hebrew University. When Rav Kook discovered that Hebrew University had begun teaching Biblical criticism, he began to cry. His young student, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, remarked, “While Rav Kook was able to see the roots of everyone’s soul—it is also important to recognize where their body stands.”
It is a fitting lens through which to consider teaching Biblical criticism as a part of contemporary education. On the one hand, there is the proverbial shoresh haneshama, the roots of the soul, contained within this discipline. The insights that Biblical criticism provides, the trenchant questions and the analytical frameworks all provide fertile ground for a new appreciation for the Torah. But, on the other hand, there also needs to be a consideration of where the body stands—it is nearly impossible to insist on clear boundaries for what type of questions and ideas educators can engage with. Surely, there are ideas within Bible studies that have the ability to erode the entire foundation of one’s faith. Not everyone has the capacity, discipline, or interest to only engage in areas of this study that are considered religiously acceptable. So, for most, the entire discipline has been ignored from mainstream Jewish education.
I’ve long considered the question of whether these subjects should be taught within contemporary Yeshiva high schools and the like through the analogy of financial risk management. When investors consider whether or not to make an investment in a particular security, they must weigh the potential risks against the potential returns on the investment. This calculation is represented in finance with the Sharpe ratio, which measures “the average return earned in excess of the risk-free rate per unit of volatility or total risk.” Religious education, in my opinion, also needs a Sharpe ratio of sorts. Educators must weigh the potential risks of engaging with a given subject against the potential risks that exposure might engender. This, of course, is an educational question—not an academic question. Academics have the luxury of only considering the truth in their pursuit of inquiry. Religious subject matter is a trickier endeavor. Even if something contains truth, perhaps the risks involved in presenting such ideas outweigh their potential utility. I don’t ascribe to any particular outcome, but I think the question is an appropriate consideration in what we teach.
Marc Shapiro, in a 2017 article, points out that some trends seem to reflect an increased acceptance of Biblical criticism in the Orthodox community. Some noted that this is part of a larger trend, but one much more pronounced in Israel. Most American schools stay away from the subject, but given the access the internet provides, more scholars and rabbis are finding it less and less tenable to simply ignore. In fact, in 2020, two books were published on the subject by Maggid press, a leading publisher of Orthodox thought. Still, the question of how these subjects should be engaged within mainstream institutions remains fraught. Some want to contend with all of the issues—regardless of where the proverbial soul and body may lie. Others are more cautious and strike a more polemical tone. Each side remains deeply dissatisfied with the other. Personally, I am torn—I don’t know where to draw the line, but I know people who desperately seek clarity on these matters. Sometimes it feels like communally we may be stunted with Goldilocks syndrome, in trying to find the perfect bowl of porridge—some treatments are deemed too heretical; others are deemed willfully ignorant.
Sara Susswein Tesler takes a clear stance on many of these questions. She taught Biblical criticism in a Modern Orthodox high school. As she later recounted, she sent a survey to her students asking them to reflect on their experience. Most students stepped away unfazed, their belief unwavering and maybe even strengthened. However, one of her students did have a crisis of faith. I don’t know which approach is correct, but I admire Sarah’s commitment to reimagining what we consider inside the classroom.
Gil Student: Where are the Lines?
In 1976, a fair amount of controversy was created surrounding the publication of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid’s commentary on the Torah. Certain passages seemed to allow for parts of the Torah that were not written by Moshe Rabbeinu. The question of whether to publish was brought to Rav Moshe Feinstein, who ruled that they should be taken out (Iggros Moshe YD, vol. 3, #114-115). The incident was another example—among many—of the ambiguity surrounding where the boundaries are, so to speak, for theologically sound discourse.
Boundaries in theological discourse are tricky, especially now. Online discourse has eroded what were once more obvious communal norms and lines. That’s not entirely a bad thing as people have access to more ideas, opinions, insight, and experiences than ever before. But the job of knowing who is the expert has become far more difficult.
When I was in my early twenties, I stumbled upon Gil Student’s blog, then known as Hirhurim (now called Torah Musings). Here was someone without an official rabbinic title, without formal academic training, discussing some of the most contentious and interesting aspects of Jewish thought. Reflecting on how the internet has changed religious discourse, Gil writes:
One strategy for Torah leaders is to bemoan this democratization by standing their ground and denouncing the non-experts who overstate their competence for the intellectual frauds that they are. Unfortunately, however, calling out frauds generally alienates more than it attracts. The authentic scholar appears self-serving and uncharitable, even when he is entirely correct. Similarly, debate will fail, since the audience lacks the requisite sophistication and training to evaluate the credibility and strength of competing arguments. Consequently, such debates are won through rhetoric and simplistic formulations, usually the province of the fraud, and not authenticity and truth, the province of the scholar.
Online discourse has changed the way we discuss religion and it has changed the authority with which we draw communal lines and boundaries.
In many ways, Gil himself is a product of this world. I don’t always agree with Gil, but I continue to be astonished at the breadth of his scholarship and the clarity of his writing. The substance and style of his ideas were made for the internet age. And I admire his fearlessness. Gil is one of those people who are difficult to predict—part of the reason why I like him so much. Sometimes he infuriates; sometimes he inspires. Some accuse him of being too conservative; others find him too open-minded. He doesn’t fit neatly into a box and it’s part of why I find his approaches so compelling.
Dr. Haym Soloveitchik wrote a brief article reflecting on the controversy surrounding the commentary of Rav Yehudah HaChassid. He’s not entirely convinced that Rav Yehudah HaChassid even wrote it. He concludes with a poignant reflection on authority in general—one that takes on new meaning in the internet age. He writes:
If one reads the description of Socrates in Xenophon one has the impression of a wise and moral man and an appealing personality, but one, in intellect at least, not very different from any of the sophists that he so opposed. From the writings of Plato, whether one takes all attributions by Plato to him quite literally or view the Socrates of the later dialogues as being simply a spokesman for Plato’s mature thoughts, Socrates still emerges as a compelling figure of genius, indeed, the father of western philosophy. The “Socratic problem” is a recurrent one in the transmission of ideas, especially in traditional societies when so much instruction is through oral teaching. And when one reads the reports of students of their master’s teachings, ancient, medieval, or modern, one would do well to bear in mind Bertrand Russel’s observation: “There has been a tendency to think that everything that Xenephon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid argument. A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, for he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand.
Religious ideas, in general, suffer from this problem. Too often we hear ideas quoted that transform something profound into something the speaker or writer can understand. Gil, however, manages to stay faithful to both. He makes the complex approachable and anchors the simple within the sophisticated and thereby provides a much needed voice in an otherwise crowded room.
Read important takeaways from Gil’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
As we confront the questions that Biblical criticism has presented, we must ask ourselves how we can keep that transcendent, atemporal view of the Torah. Perhaps considering the seemingly temporal idiosyncrasies of the Torah can actually strengthen our appreciation of its timelessness.