David explains how, despite his initial apprehensiveness towards the topic, he has come to appreciate the different approaches to Biblical criticism offered by this month’s three guests.
Welcome all to the 18Forty podcast, and I’m usually so excited to talk about a new subject. We’ve done Talmud and comedy and going off the derech, and they’ve all had sensitive or complex issues, but I’ve still been pretty excited to talk about all of them. And for some reason, which I’ll explain a little bit, I’ve actually been pretty – I don’t know what the right word is. “Anxious”? “Petrified”? Probably anxious is the right word, it doesn’t take a lot to get me anxious. I’ve been very anxious about this subject, Biblical criticism, which is what we’re going to be talking about this month. And this was the first subject that we decided to do, because when we first began the project, somebody called me up, Mitch Eichen, who we have a whole separate podcast with on the site.
And Mitch – who is such a wonderful person, he’s a really special person who is deeply invested in making sure that the proverbial roof on the structure of the Jewish community remains sturdy and strong – and he felt that the area where we have kind of lost sight of how to respond or how to process some of the contemporary ideas that are being thrown our way, particularly for graduates from Jewish schools. And when he originally called me, the first subject he said is, “We gotta talk about Biblical criticism.” In fact, I’ll be honest, when he called me, he didn’t even have this site in mind, what he was more interested in was a curriculum inside of schools. And he’s like, “You need to make a full curriculum discussing Biblical criticism inside of schools.” And I actually said, “Nah, I’m not interested in that.”
Why did I say I wasn’t interested? For a host of reasons. Number one, I don’t put a lot of stock on an in school curriculum dealing with these complex questions. I think that a lot of times, particularly for high school students, they introduce more issues and difficulties than they can resolve, it’s easier to understand the problems than the solutions, and I just wasn’t sure that this topic could be dealt with in an efficient and proper way inside of the school curriculum. But after 1,001 conversations we decided that we would build this site, and he was so set on this subject. And I was actually pretty apprehensive, maybe that’s the right word, “apprehensive”. I was apprehensive not because I don’t think these questions are important, they definitely have swirled in my mind, they’re things that I’ve grappled with.
I remember, there’s a point in every person’s life where they try to finish the weekly parsha, do shnayim mikra v’echad targum to learn the weekly parsha, some do it with translations, some do it with Rashi. And I remember when I was – I’m trying to remember exactly what grade it was, it was probably, it was in high school, it was probably, maybe 10th grade – I made this commitment that I wanted to do this and finish the parsha every week. And I remember I was learning, right in the beginning, Parshas Noach, and I noticed all of these discrepancies and repeated stories, and I remember I started to really have doubts about the authenticity and the meaning of, what is this text that I’m reading? What is the Torah, how did it come about? And I almost, it was like a scene in Harry Potter or one of those movies where you open up a book and it starts screaming at you, and all of these visions and ghouls come out of the book. And I had to shut the Chumash and say, “You know what, I don’t think I’m equipped to deal with this.” Because I did have a lot of hesitations, and I did have a lot of concerns when I would read it.
And many years went by, and I’ve explored these ideas in a much more substantive way, not in a super rigorous way, but I definitely empathize, and I definitely understand people who want these questions dealt with in a serious way. On the flip side, I feel like I’m woefully inadequate to deal these questions, and I also don’t want a question-answer polemical feel to the way that we approach any of the subjects, and it’s really hard to approach this subject without a heavy polemical feel, like here’s a question that they’re asking, well here’s our answer, and they say this, and then we say… That whole back and forth has never been all that suitable for me, and I’ve struggled to find the voice on how to confront this subject matter. Something’s too… I’m not immersed in all of the latest academic texts, but the underlying thesis of what Biblical criticism is, and looking at the Torah, something that evolved from multiple authors, it’s something that I understand, I understand why people are bothered by this, I understand how scholars have evolved with it, and I don’t believe in the hand waving for those who grapple with these issues.
But on the flip side, I don’t totally believe it, I’m not totally committed to the fact that this is the most central issue that we need to discuss. I think that depending on how I wake up in the morning, some days I’m like, “We really have to say something about this,” and then most days I’m just like, “I don’t think this is really on people’s minds.” So I kind of lost, but I am proud out of the way that we explored this. I think we dealt with it in a substantive way, in a real way, and I think we got really impressive scholars to talk about how to integrate these questions, these concerns, into a committed and meaningful life. And I spoke to three scholars that I chose fairly carefully, and they do not all agree with each other. I think that’s the best part, you don’t want all three people saying the exact same thing. Some people are going to say, “That person was great,” or, “That person was totally either too extreme on one end or the other,” and I think that’s all fine. I think that they were all really engaging discussions.
The first person I spoke to is a dear friend who I love so so much. I know him for a long time, I have so much gratitude to him. His name is Gil Student. He’s been blogging and writing online for years, one of the most brilliant, clear writers that I’ve ever met, and one of the most articulate defenders of what I would call the traditional foundations of Jewish faith. We have a funny relationship. Half the time that I talk to him I think he’s being passive aggressive and mean to me, but it’s always with love, I do love him a great deal. And he’s actually the person – and I’ve mentioned this before and I’ve thanked him before, but he never responds to my thank yous because that’s not what motivates him – he’s the first person who encouraged me to write for a broader audience.
One of the first articles I ever wrote was for his site. It was an article about sin, obviously that’s one of my favorite subjects, and I sent him another article and he responded, “You know what? This is not for my site, this is actually really good,” and his site publishes great stuff, “But I think you should share this with a broader audience.” And I eventually published it on First Things, and I never would have thought to engage with that wider audience had it not been for his encouragement. And I think that that very encouragement that he gave me underlies so much of his work, which is taking the niche discourses that we have in the Jewish community and framing them for a much wider audience, and showing the relevance of so many of the debate issues, topics, that emerge from the Jewish faith, from Yiddishkeit, and connecting it to much broader subjects, whether it’s religious discourse or life in general. And I have a great deal of gratitude to him.
And I think that the fact that he’s not a professional scholar in this area is actually what gives him even greater insight in this area. He is really self-taught. He’s incredibly brilliant, any time I read something from him I feel woefully insecure and inadequate. It doesn’t take much to get me to feel that way, but especially when I read what he writes, so bright. This is not what he does professionally, but on the side, he really has found a way to explore the most complex issues in Judaism and has been a – In the public square of the internet he is one of the first people to stake a flag online and say, I am going to stand within all of the discourse and craziness and opinions that appear online, I am going to present an articulate voice. And he’s very hard to predict, you never know what Gil is going to say about a specific subject, which is why I love him.
He sometimes says things that offend people, he sometimes says things that people think are really out there, sometimes he says things that are right down the party line. You never know, and I think that’s part of the fact that he doesn’t have that institutional affiliation. He’s self-taught, and he speaks for himself, and he speaks quite brilliantly. He writes even more brilliantly, I’ll be honest with you, but he does speak quite articulately, and I admire him so so much, and I’m so appreciative that he was able to join for one of the conversations.
The second person who I’m speaking with is so fascinating, somebody named Joshua Berman, Dr. Josh Berman, and he actually came out with an entire book on the subject, published by Koren, called Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, which is a phenomenal book. And we sat together to talk about the world of scholarship, and how the findings and conclusions of the academic world can be integrated into the contemporary faith of any individual. And he lives in the academic world, but is extremely thoughtful, and I love the fact that he incorporates in so much of his work the thoughts of, not just academic thought, but also he includes mystics. He quotes Rav Tzadok Hakohen MiLublin, who obviously is somebody that I have long been fascinated with… Rav Tzadok is a separate conversation, but was actually fairly sensitive to many of the concerns that Biblical criticism presents to Jewish faith. And he incorporates so many ideas into his book, and I think he has quite a brilliant approach to this.
And finally, a wonderful woman who I met, Sara Susswein Tessler, who is an educator. And she is probably even more accepting, less adversarial, about the underlying theories that Biblical criticism presents. But what I find so fascinating about her work is that she taught these theories in a Jewish setting and spoke about how they can affect people’s faith and how people of faith should look at this, and comes at this topic through the lens of an educator, which I think is really important.
Sara, Josh, Gil all have different thoughts and positioning on this issue. Gil is a public intellectual on the internet, and Josh, Dr. Berman, is a scholar, and Sara is an educator, and they all come at this in different ways, and they all disagree on different details of this. But I think holistically merging all three together, people should be able to find a way about how to have the confidence and not to be afraid of some of the questions and issues that this theory poses, and even more so, maybe to come away with a greater appreciation for the beauty and uniqueness of our Torah.