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.
I think the takeaway from this is actually much larger and even more relevant than just the authorship of the Torah and how to deal with some of the questions and issues presented by contemporary Bible scholars. I think that underlying all of this is a larger issue about how we take the ideas, the texts, of a religious faith and infuse them with eternal meaning. To me, the battle of our community and our relationship to Torah is really the question of temporal meaning versus versus atemporal meaning, “temporal” meaning something that is confined to a specific time, it was relevant back then thousands of years ago, and “atemporal” is something that has continued value regardless of the time or the society or the situation. And for me, when I look at the differing sides between many Bible scholars on one hand and the Jewish community on the other hand, those who have a more traditional conception of the authorship of the Torah, to me, the battle undergirding the entire conversation is: How do we take a text that, at first glance, seems to have a very temporal structure to it? It’s for a specific time, for a group of nomadic society in the desert, and how do we infuse it with an atemporal significance that transcends any time, that transcends any particular society, and transcends any particular moment or period in history?
And I think that battle of how to invest something with such long-lasting significance is something that, not only the Jewish community, but communities at large, are grappling with, whether it is a constitution or statues or different things that we are seeing in society. The question is, some things, their significance and their relevance expire. It was a very temporal dedication, a very temporal moment that this was being concretized for. And then we have things that we don’t want to let go of, and that we want to ensure have an atemporal meaning and an atemporal relevance. And it’s not just the 2020, or the 1980s, or the 1880s, or the turn of the millennium, this is for all of time. And an idea of that magnitude, and how to create that type of significance, is really in my mind one of the most important values underneath the entire relationship that the Jewish community has with Torah. It’s how to extract value, significance, meaning, interpretation, that transcends any one moment in time. And I think that’s kind of what bubbles underneath the entire conversation of, when we look at a text, do we hand wave and say, “That was for them, that was for a different moment, a different time, it was just talking to that group,” or do we have things in our life that transcend all of that, that have that atemporal meaning?
And in that way I’m almost hesitant to some of Dr. Berman’s suggestions, which are couched in the Rambam and in many reshonim, that the Torah was written in the language of the time. For me, I want a Torah that has that transcendent quality, I want to be able to hold on to that. And that’s what I find most satisfying, but the very grappling with the questions, the theories, the interpretations, that allow us to hold on to a Torah that transcends any moment, any period, to me, is the engine that so much of our community runs on, that propels our community: the commitment to finding meaning and significance, even in texts and situations and laws and stories that seem to not have relevance for our time and our society.
I have a friend who’s not currently a member certainly of the Orthodox community, he’s not shy about that, he once was. He’s a professor name Shaul Magid who wrote an article on the side, he’s not, he doesn’t feel bound by a lot of the tenets of Orthodoxy. And he wrote I thought a pretty thoughtful article about how he sees our community, or the Orthodox community, grappling with Biblical criticism. And in there he actually quotes Levinas, who says, “Bible criticism can ruin only a faith that has already been weakened. Does not the truth of eternal texts shine forth all the more when they are denied the external support of a dramatic and theatrical revelation? When they are studied for themselves, do they not bear witness to the divine value of their inspiration and the purely spiritual miracle of their union?” Now, to be absolutely candid, what Levinas is saying is not cohering with a traditional view of revelation, but I still think what he says is fairly powerful, that “Bible criticism can ruin only a faith that has already been weakened.” And what I think he means by that is that the engagement in the enterprise of Torah and what religion is trying to preserve transcends, and is loftier, and is greater, than any one question, concern, that a Bible critic might present.
And I think that that national program that the Jewish people have been involved in for millennia, of finding meaning and constructing meaning within the Torah, is one of the most beautiful and inspiring relationships in the entire world if not the most beautiful and inspiring relationship in the entire world, and I think even when confronted with theories that seem to unwind or challenge that relationship, I’m hoping that the discussions that we’ve had today not only give the confidence and clarity to look at those questions and still have the esteem for Torah that it very much deserves, but even moreso, to be able to look at the questions and idiosyncrasies and concerns that a Bible critic may present and actually have that strengthen one’s appreciation and faith for the Torah and the text of the Torah. And I think that’s what’s underlying so much of this conversation, is to take a text like the Torah and figure out: How does this text transcend and continue to have meaning beyond any specific moment, beyond any specific period of society, that continues to guide us for all of this time?