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Gil Student

Biblical Criticism | August 17, 2020

Listen to “Gil Student: Where are the Lines?” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Gil Student, an infamous blogger who writes for Torah Musings, to talk about the credibility of modern Biblical scholarship.

Gil grew up learning the Bible from the perspective of Biblical criticism, but its conclusions never jived with him. Though many are quick to note places where the Torah uses inconsistent characterizations as evidence that it has been written by multiple authors, he has always noted the implicit assumptions that these lines of thinking entail. Through his years developing and evolving opinions, Gil has experienced firsthand how subjectively we humans think, and he is loath to call any conclusion objectively true. Are the conclusions put forth by Bible critics indisputable, or at least strongly convincing? Do traditional commentaries have anything to say that’s of value? How flexible can we be before crossing the lines denoted by Orthodox Judaism? And how should we strike a balance between adhering to traditional curriculums and accounting for modern scholarship when teaching the next generations? Tune in to hear Gil discuss the different views on the Bible, from those of traditional commentators to secular Bible scholars. For more, visit https://18Forty.org/bible#student.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where we discuss issues, personalities, and ideas about religion and traditional world confrontation with modernity, and how on earth are we supposed to construct meaning in the contemporary world right now? I am so excited for the show for today, where I have a conversation with Gil Student. Gil Student is known mostly online, and the reason why I’m so excited is because our topic that we’re talking about this month is Biblical criticism, which I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I absolutely hate. It is a dense, nitty-gritty subject with a lot of technical details, but is one that is just simply impossible to ignore.

David Bashevkin:

The reason why I thought it was so important to talk to Gil, even though he’s an unusual choice, is because he is not a Bible scholar, he is not a practicing rabbi, he is somebody who writes frequently about theology online, deliberately for a popular audience, but is capable and has published extraordinary, in depth, scholarly articles on these subjects. He probably became most famous, as we’ll discuss in the episode, for his role in the Slifkin controversy, which was a controversy that was covered really in all media outlets, where a group of rabbis banned the works of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, and he was one of the most vocal defenders of Rabbi Slifkin’s works. And he’s gone on, and he’s just a great guy because everybody hates him. The right-wing hates him, the left-wing hates him, he is fairly unpredictable. He definitely has a more rigid and traditional approach than my own, but I found the conversation with him simply fascinating. He’s able to bring complex ideas to a contemporary audience. His writings are always worth reading. He weighs in on issues with a great deal of thought. So without further adieu, my conversation with my friend, Gil Student.

David Bashevkin:

This is super exciting, I have a dear friend, somebody who I’ve known for close to 10 years: Gil Student, is with us, and it’s an interesting choice to have Gil Student speak specifically on this subject. Gil is not a professor, not affiliated with a university, but is most known for his online presence on his website – Hirhurim Torah Musings, as it’s now known – and has been a force talking about issues related to theology for a very wide audience, both different denominations, different religions have really come, he’s been quoted in all sorts of magazines and newspapers. And if you go back, what’s so interesting is his early interest in issues related to Biblical criticism. He probably became most famous during the controversy surrounding Rabbi Natan Slifkin, which we’ll talk a little bit more about, and his literalist approach to the Torah, but before we get into any details, I want to welcome my friend, Gil Student.

Gil Student:

Dovid, thank you for having me, this is such a fascinating idea that you have. And I know the topics that we’re discussing might be controversial, but to me these are the most important conversations that we should be having. So I’m really happy that you reached out to me.

David Bashevkin:

It means a great deal to have you here. So before we get into the specific topic, and we’re going to be talking today about issues related to Biblical criticism, who wrote the Bible, how should one navigate academic approaches, secular approaches, popular approaches, approaches from traditional Judaism. I want to hear a little bit about your background and how your upbringing, when you first got exposed to these secular topics, because most people know you as a Orthodox theologian online. So where was your upbringing, and when did you first confront these ideas?

Gil Student:

So I actually never really confronted them in that sense. I grew up in the Conservative movement, I went to Solomon Schechter as a child, and when I learned Chumash, it was from the perspective of Biblical criticism. We were never taught that this is something unusual. As you’re taught as a child, how you read the text and where it came from, we were taught it came from multiple sources over time, that’s just the normal way to read Chumash. And that’s the way I started learning Parsha as a child was from the perspective of Biblical criticism. It was only when I was later, I remember in my eighth grade graduation from Solomon Schechter they said, “When you get older you’ll realize what a unique education you have.” And they were so right about that, because later in life I realized just what an experimental education that I had growing up in that environment.

Gil Student:

But early on it just didn’t add up to me, and I don’t think I was the only one. When we were, say, learning Rashi, whatever grade we were in as a young child, we’d all say, “Well, why does Rashi’s question make any sense? Just say there were different sources and then you have no question. This pasuk says that, this pasuk says that, the contradiction in the verses, just say they’re different sources.” And as children will be, it was the lazy way out. Instead of trying to think critically about what is going on in the text and what is going on with these multiple texts, we would just say, “different sources,” and we’d move on, when really there’s a whole other level of understanding, and I wouldn’t even say other level, just a basic understanding requires reading a text as it’s presented in front of you. And we were not doing that at all.

David Bashevkin:

That’s so interesting. You had the inverse experience of a lot of people who went through Orthodox yeshiva, who take it for granted that when they approach a text, particularly the text of the Torah, it’s one cohesive document with one author that came down from heaven, so it all makes sense. And then they finally get exposed to issues related to Biblical criticism much, much later in life, and for them it could pull the rug from under their feet. And for you it was the inverse. I’m wondering if your educational background has changed the way you think yeshivas and Orthodox institutions should be exposing people to these ideas.

Gil Student:

I did that reverse commute in life, in which I started in the opposite place and moved in the opposite direction, which has been a theme throughout my life of what I do. But one thing that it’s given me an appreciation of is the subjectivity of all these different approaches, and how there’s a certain attraction of rebelliousness, of changing, of moving on, moving away from what you were taught. So I rebelled against the Conservative movement and the Biblical criticism, and I’m satisfied with where I ended up, but I think a lot of people who go in the opposite direction are, to some degree, doing the same thing. And I don’t think it’s a conscious rebellion. I think if you’re taught certain basic ideas, it’s natural in life to then go on and question them. And this is a key theme, or key idea, a perspective, is that where you start from makes a big difference on where you’re going to end up. It makes a difference on how you see everything. If you come from an education where you are taught that the Torah is a single text that came down from heaven, and then you have questions about that, you could, some people do, start to question the entire structure and just throw it away.

Gil Student:

Now if you come from a background where you’re taught that the texts come from different sources, and you approach the same questions, you might not be satisfied with the answer that you get. The same answer that satisfies one person who throws away the unification unity of the Torah, that same question might not trouble someone else. And I might actually say, “You know what? I don’t see that compelling at all.” And what I’m really trying to get to is that this is about how convincing an argument is, which is incredibly subjective. And it really goes to who you are as an individual and what your background is, the sum of your experiences allow you to make a decision on whether something is compelling or not. And that changes over time. And where you are in life at this point, you might say, “This argument is incredibly convincing,” 10 years later, and I’ve experienced this, I’m a little older than you, I’ve experienced this, I’ve gone through different phases in life, and I’ve found some things compelling at one point and not compelling 10 years later. And it’s not because I’ve now seen the light and I’m now much smarter than I was 10 years ago, it’s because the nature of compellingness is completely subjective. And it has to do a lot with your background, and where you are today, and what you’ve experienced, and to some degree it’s even your mood. Something could convince me today and then next week I’m in a different mood and it’s not convincing.

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting. I want to approach you for a second almost as a Bible critic, because knowing you in different venues, it’s so interesting how your upbringing and the topics that you have been very vocal on, you could almost approach it as a Bible critic and try to figure out, like slice up Gil Student and talk about your attraction to blogging and being an online voice. You’ve written, you have a forthcoming article, a scholarly article about Biblical criticism, comparing the ideas of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, Rabbi Menachem Kasher and Rabbi A.J. Heschel, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, from JTS, and you spoke at the Herzl Institute. There is a slice of your life that is attracted to these ideas, you’ve been writing about this. You have a fairly comprehensive article that I dug up from almost 20 years ago about the evolution of the Torah. You got very involved in the Slifkin controversy, which is when somebody from the mainstream Orthodox community was accused of heresy for publishing more interpretive approaches to the scientific accuracy of the Torah, and later on the Talmud. So I’m just trying to figure out, is there a cohesive issue that you are drawn to and why you are drawn to it? Or are these just disparate authors in your life?

Gil Student:

What you just said hit the nail on the head in that people who know me from different parts of my life, or even different articles that I write, see me completely differently. Some people see me as a halachic scholar. I wouldn’t say authority, not that, but research on Halacha. Other people see me as –

David Bashevkin:

An actuary.

Gil Student:

As an actuary. Other people see me as someone on Hashkafa, other people see me as a Modern Orthodox troublemaker, other people see me as a Haredi troublemaker. But really I’m just one person with different aspects of my personality. And why is that important? Last week we read Parshas Korach, and the Biblical critics point out that if you read the verses steadily throughout the parsha, you’ll see it’s unclear who is the bad guy, who’s causing all the problems. Is it the 250 men, or is it Korach and Dasan and Aviram? And what they do is they split it out and create two different documents, two different stories, going on at the same time, that seem to have been spliced together.

Gil Student:

Rabbi Elchanan Samet has an amazing article, it’s available on the VBM Torah website, and it’s in one of his volumes, he has three series, multiple series, Iyunim B’Parshat HaTorah, where he does a fantastic literary analysis, and he points out that the Torah does not describe cartoon villains. There are multiple stories going on in a real, actual event that happened. If you think about this, this was something that actually happened. There are different people involved in a rebellion for different reasons, and the Torah is describing all of them. And to look at it as cartoonish, as there can only be one theme in the story is ridiculous. That is making an assumption on what the Torah text is allowed to say, and that’s totally unfair and subjective. If you let the Torah speak for itself, if you let the text, the story, speak of itself, there’s actually a rich story going on there of multiple aspects of different parts of the story. And with that he explains the story very smoothly, it actually is a brilliant, brilliant analysis.

Gil Student:

And what I’m saying is that we all know that’s true, that’s how life really is. I’m not a simple cartoon character and neither are you, we all have different parts of our personality. And if we put that assumption on it, and if someone reads my articles and says I must speak about Halacha, and they see something that’s outside of it, they say, “That must be a different author, he must have a ghost author and he’s lending his name out.” That’s not true, it’s just, life is more complicated. And that’s part of what Biblical criticism I think has failed, and has also offered our community. So on the one hand, there are many –

David Bashevkin:

Our community being the Orthodox community?

Gil Student:

Yes exactly, the Torah community, Torah scholarship. There’s a lot we can gain from Biblical criticism in the sense that they point out questions, they ask questions that we might not have noticed before. I would not have noticed the discontinuities within the text of Korach, but once they pointed it out, we can look at it and say, “What is that teaching us? What lesson is there?” And it actually has a fantastic lesson as Rabbi Samet has pointed out, and I’m sure there’s much more that can be pointed out in this story.

David Bashevkin:

I’m about 70 to 80 percent cartoon, so it’s exciting to sit next to somebody who has that much depth. I want to shift a little bit and talk about your role in being one of the first entries into the digital space talking about religious matters online, and how that needs to reshape, or should it reshape the way that we relate to some of the more controversial ideas, particularly Biblical criticism, within, let’s call it the Orthodox community? You began this blog, it was originally called Hirhurim, I believe. Do you remember what year you started?

Gil Student:

2004.

David Bashevkin:

2004 exactly.

Gil Student:

15th anniversary.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly. And probably about 10 years later you wrote an article in a Orthodox journal called Klal Perspectives talking about how the internet has changed authority, so to speak rabbinic authority. People don’t just. You hear an idea, you don’t take it for granted in the same way. So much is available on a Google search, there’s a Wikipedia page on any controversial subject. Things that were hidden away or only found or stumbled upon by intellectuals much later in life are really now available to the masses. So my first question is, have you seen, particularly with the issue of Biblical criticism, a need in the Orthodox community to shift the way that we deal with these ideas?

Gil Student:

I think you’re covering a lot of ground there. Your question puts together many different points and changes in society, not only the Orthodox community, but the general world, that we haven’t yet figured out. And this happens with every major new technology, it comes out and then we have to catch up and figure out, what are the impacts? Because we can’t predict the impacts. And what we’re seeing now from the internet is not necessarily what we’re going to be seeing in 10 years, and the answers to the questions that arise now are not necessarily what will last. So one thing rabbis have to retrain themselves, and they already are, of understanding the what is available to their community members in terms of information. And people in the community have to adjust as well because what was happening 15 years ago on the internet is not what’s happening now. At this point, there is so much information out there, we’re overwhelmed, and people just aren’t reading the articles. Right now we go from clickbait to clickbait, that’s where we are at this point. And even the newspapers that we read on shabbos, they’re learning to pull the clickbait and put it on a piece of paper.

Gil Student:

And these don’t address the important issues. The clickbait mentality ignores theology, ignores Hashkafa to our detriment. The reason I’ve been writing about these issues for the past 15 or longer years is because I think these are the devarim haomdim berumo shel olam, these are the most important things that we must focus on. We can’t just focus on Halacha. Halacha is important, I write a lot about that, but Hashkafa I think is even more important. And I don’t just write about controversial issues like Biblical criticism, I write about just standard par of Hashkafa issues that I think are important and we should think about more. And when I write, writing is my form of learning, if I write something it means I’m learning that, so when I learn something new, I write about it. That’s why I write so much, because that’s my chavrusa, so to speak, is writing.

David Bashevkin:

Your study partner, yeah.

Gil Student:

My study partner. So if I come up with something interesting I have to write about it, it’s just part of my nature. So to your question about whether we need to be addressing Biblical criticism differently today than we did in the past, I believe we do, but I believe part of that, if not most of it, has to be making people aware of the need for humility in reaching conclusions. And what I mean as I go back to my previous point about… This is all about perspectives, and we need to change, or we need to recognize our own perspectives. And that what we find compelling, none of this can be proven, and in my forthcoming paper, which you mentioned, which is going to be part of an article in a chapter in a book, is that things that can be proven are indisputable truths. And as Jews, as thinking individuals, we cannot reject an indisputable truth. To my mind, that would be heresy, if not literally then at least figuratively, that we should reject an indisputable truth. Most things in life are not indisputable truths. Most things are based on arguments, and whether you accept them or not, it depends on how compelling you find that argument. And that is something extremely subjective. And to some degree, if I obsess over an issue and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it, I have a different perspective, I think it’s the most important thing in the world and I cannot abide by an unsolved, unresolved question. Even if it’s a minor question, or what someone with a different perspective would think, that’s a minor question, if I’m obsessing about it, I will say, “This is the most important question in the world.” And based on that, I will reach a different conclusion.

Gil Student:

So let’s say you have a belief system, and you have a question about that. Any normal thinking person has that once a week at least. If you have confidence in your belief system, it’s a question, and sometimes you can answer the question and sometimes you put it aside and come back to it a later time. I’ve done that and sometimes I don’t come back to it for another 10 years, and then, boom, I find an answer that’s really satisfying. You could always find unsatisfying answers, but I find… It could take 10 years, it could take a lifetime. If I have confidence in my belief system, then that question is just an unresolved question, part of life. If you’re a thinking person you go through life with unresolved questions that you figure out eventually or you don’t figure out eventually, we all have our limitations. But if the question is so strong, or your confidence in your belief system is not strong enough, or some sort of a balance in between, then a question becomes more than just an unresolved question: it becomes a challenge to your very basic beliefs. So when is a question a challenge, when is it a kashya, and when is it just a question? And that is completely subjective. It all depends on your frame of mind, your perspective, your background, and your mood. A lot depends on your mood.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you almost bluntly, and you can skip over this: In your home, your children, where they went to yeshivas, do they know about these theories?

Gil Student:

No, no, it’s not even… If it’s mentioned at all it’s mentioned in a derogatory, you know, what they believe, the non-Jews, it’s a non-Jewish thing. But they know I have a shelf of Biblical criticism in my library, and I’m very open about… Not very open, I try to slowly bring up ideas, Biblical critics ask this question, here’s what the Malbim answered. If they would just look at the Malbim they would’ve found… Here’s a real story. I remember when I was a kid, I went to this egalitarian, Conservative synagogue in my town – I don’t remember why I happened to be there but I happened to be there – and the rabbi believed in interactive sermons. And he got up and he challenged everybody in the congregation, “Can anyone come up with a good answer to this, why in the story of Yosef and the brothers, that it sometimes referred to a sack as a bag and sometimes an amtachas as a bag? Which word is it? Which word means bag?” And the answer is, there must be two different sources, and each author used a different word. And he asked, “Anyone here come up with an answer?” Nobody raised their hand, so he moved on, he had conclusively proven that that story was written by two different authors. Looking back that’s laughable, if he had seen the Netziv, if he had seen the Malbim, he would’ve found very satisfying answers.

Gil Student:

And the truth in most of the stories in Sefer Bereishis, in Genesis, that seem to an unscholarly perspective, someone who’s new to Biblical criticism, seems like redundancies, repetitions, must be written by different authors, those are not taken very seriously in academic circles anymore. Those were pretty much dismissed by literary scholars in the 70s and the 80s. But to the novice, which is it? How many animals did Noach bring into the ark? Must be two different authors. There are many ways that even non-Jewish, even non-religious, secular Biblical scholars can resolve that. Why is the story written twice, two different ways? When did Avraham hide the fact that Sarah was his wife? Which one was it? Was it in Egypt or was it with Avimelech? And the answer is – and this is what literary critics say – who says that the story can’t be repeated? If a modern author, if J.K. Rowling would do that, and she would tell the same story twice but with a little, slight difference, her readers would say, “You’re being lazy.” But who says, 3,000 years ago, an author telling the same story that happened twice, he would make them seem similar in order to have that continuity? Maybe that was a style then. How could we judge from contemporary literary styles on what the style was 3,000 or 4,000 years ago?

David Bashevkin:

So, maybe we could go back a little bit and talk about your role… this is when I first found you, I know exactly where I was sitting. I was studying in Toronto under somebody named Rabbi Breitowitz who runs a high school there, he’s a big genius. He has a brother who lives in Israel. And I was studying there for a few months and they had a computer in the office, and I started clicking around, I don’t remember how, and I stumbled upon your blog, and I saw a series of fascinating, really in depths approach about a controversy that I had already known about, which were these books by Rabbi Natan Slifkin that were excommunicated, they were banned by a group of rabbis, and you came to his defense.

David Bashevkin:

And what’s so interesting, and maybe you could talk about what brought you to that issue, and also maybe respond to some of your critics, because I found online a very, very thorough… Rabbi Alan Yuter wrote a very long critique of your blog and your approach, and one of the things that he wanted to know is, why were you such a defender of this controversy related to Biblical literalism and related to how science is portrayed in the Torah, but are so traditional when it comes to matters related to Biblical criticism? So maybe you could tell us a little bit about what brought you to that controversy, and how would you respond to somebody who sees a dissonance in the way you respond to these different problems?

Gil Student:

Well I would say the Slifkin controversy – which was really unfair to blame it on him, it’s a Torah science controversy – the reason I got involved, and I –

David Bashevkin:

It’s better branding though, to call it…

Gil Student:

The reason I defended him is because he was not saying anything controversial, it was really just two worlds colliding. In the Modern Orthodox world, the stuff he was saying, and I spoke to Rav Hershel Schachter about it once and I basically told him, I mean he didn’t read the books himself, I told him standing on one foot what the book was about, and he said, “He’s just saying old things. These are old, we’ve heard them before.” I don’t think Rabbi Slifkin said that much that was unique. He had a nice way of saying it and he had a few innovations, chiddushim here and there, but most of what he said is just old hat in the community. And they were calling, the people who put him in a ban or his books in a ban were basically saying that standard ideas in my community that I was taught for decades were unacceptable in the Orthodox community. And we’re saying, “What are you talking about? Orthodox rabbis have been saying this for decades if not longer.” And literally Rishonim, medieval thinkers said this. If people would just study what the Rishonim said, what the medieval theologians had written, they’d realize this is not that controversial. It was just shocking. Just recently –

David Bashevkin:

And it didn’t bother you that you were taking the opposing side of the mainstream yeshiva community major rabbis who were…

Gil Student:

Define mainstream. Where I grew up, I was taking the mainstream approach. Can Chazal be mistaken on matters of science? That is not controversial to say that they accepted the science of their generation. The Rambam’s son said it explicitly, the Rambam said it almost explicitly, it’s not controversial to side with the Rambam. To take these stories of creation non literally, that’s pretty much the theme of the beginning of Moreh Nevuchim. If people would just read –

David Bashevkin:

The Rambam’s work on…

Gil Student:

Right. This is the Rambam. Recently within the past few years there’s a commentary on the first part of Moreh Nevuchim by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, he’s a religious Zionist, a bit of hard right-winger in Israel, and he said the same thing. He said, “This is what the Ramabam is saying.” He doesn’t think it’s controversial at all. He’s just saying, “The Rambam does not take the creation story literally.” That’s simple pshat in Moreh Nevuchim, not to mention in other writings that he’s written. So I didn’t think what Rabbi Sifkin was saying was particularly controversial. I reached out to rabbis locally, from my community, and they also…

David Bashevkin:

So what changed, yeah.

Gil Student:

But that doesn’t mean that nothing is controversial. Just because not everything is a fundamental belief of Orthodox Judaism or of Judaism, means that nothing is a fundamental belief. Let me restate that. There are certain areas, generally speaking Judaism has a lot of flexibility in theology. You see in the Talmud that there are many different opinions on many different matters, and in Midrash, many different opinions on many different things, and there are disagreements, and that’s fine. We embrace that, we embarace those different ideas. Doesn’t mean you can say anything, but there are many different options and views. And even when you go further, beyond the Talmudic period, you see in the medieval times, you had the philosopher, you had the kabbalists, and even among them they had their own different opinions and different debates and disputes. And that’s part of the development of Judaism, that many different great thinkers and great minds have come up with different ideas, which is fine. But there are certain things that define the religion. And acceptance of a Mosaic authorship or transmission, Moses wrote down the Torah as given to him by god, is a fundamental basic belief of Judaism. And I don’t think there’s any way to get around that, I believe that firmly, and I do not accept, as Orthodox, any deviation from that.

David Bashevkin:

So –

Gil Student:

And I don’t think that’s controversial, I think that’s very basic. Rabbi Yuter is a colleague of mine, an older colleague, someone I respect, and I –

David Bashevkin:

Let me be clear, he was very respectful, I think, in his review, more or less.

Gil Student:

And we correspond relatively frequently, and I have a lot of respect for him, we disagree on many things. And on this particular issue, I must have not read that, I’m not familiar with exactly what he says so I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m very surprised to hear that report, I’m going to have to look it up and maybe I’ll ask him what he meant, maybe he meant something that we’re not getting.

David Bashevkin:

Mhmm. So you spoke a little bit about the certainty of belief. I was wondering if you could tell us for a moment about your approach to falsifiability. Meaning, do you think there is any piece of evidence that if you were to come across it, it would have you rethink your allegiance to the Mosaic authorship of the Torah?

Gil Student:

I think something that is falsifiable, and I said this before, I’m going to say it again, and the Rambam says this in Moreh Nevuchim as well: Something that is an indisputable fact is not disputable. If it’s true, it’s true, period. Most things in life are not indisputable facts, most things in life, they’re not mathematical theorems that can be proven. The authorship of an ancient book, absent of time machine, is not provable. We might wish it could be proven, maybe we can find compelling arguments one way or the other, but it cannot be proven. Which means any statement is not falsifiable, including someone who advocates for Biblical criticism, and let me just caveat that, Biblical criticism is not an actual thing, it can be –

David Bashevkin:

A set of theories, yeah.

Gil Student:

It’s an ambiguous term that can mean many different things, and we’re using it here to mean many different fields of study, linguistics, archaeology, higher textual criticism, lower textual criticism, a lot of different things that are coming together. But none of those are falsifiable, and anyone who says they are, there are people who say they are, I disagree, I don’t think they are.

David Bashevkin:

And it’s interesting, you’re probably informed a great deal because you have a math background, do you feel that your background as a math and –

Gil Student:

Pre-engineering type of guy.

David Bashevkin:

Pre-engineering, yeah. Has that played a role in the way that you approach the larger field of the critical approach to the Bible?

Gil Student:

It could very well be. And I fully admit that what I’m saying is dismissive from one angle of all of these soft sciences, sociology, psychology, and part of that is because, yeah, I do have a actuary background and I’m familiar with statistics, very much so. And one of my favorite books is How to Lie with Statistics, because it’s by definition, it’s not factual. You build up a case. That’s what actuaries do, you build up a case, you infer, and that is subjective. The Rambam himself would not say, “Just because something can’t be proven, doesn’t mean it’s nonsense.” You build up a case and you convince. And if it’s convincing, then we have to evaluate based on that evidence.

David Bashevkin:

I want to talk about another controversy related to this that you weighed in online and was the source of a lot of discussion, and you actually have one of the few disclaimers on your blog, and that relates to the publication of James Kugel’s book, How to Read the Bible. He is a very popular professor and writer, his book was reviewed by the New York Times, and in the review to the book, it was very interesting, there were two things that jumped out. A, I believe you took issue with the fact that they identified him as Orthodox, but even in the review itself, at the end of the review it says James Kugel essentially took the world of the bible, trashed the house, pulled out the electricity, turned the living room upside down, and then in the final chapter still tells the reader, “Let me tell you how you can live in this world,” basically living with all of the contradictions that Biblical studies and critical studies have found, how a traditional world view towards religious life could still exist. And you wrote a post about this, and in the beginning of the post you write, “This has been revised with apologies to professor Kugel,” and then you went on and you criticize him to a degree. I was wondering if you could talk about what you revised, and what is your main contention with his work.

Gil Student:

To be honest I don’t remember what I had originally, I don’t remember what I revised. But –

David Bashevkin:

Did you speak with him personally?

Gil Student:

No.

David Bashevkin:

Okay.

Gil Student:

I spoke with other people, and I think I probably just fine tuned, and maybe on my first reading I made too many assumptions as a reader, and that’s not fair. You don’t put your own views into the book, you have to read the book. But I actually think that book is a very frum book, the vast majority of it, I’ll explain to you why.

David Bashevkin:

Religious, yeah. Okay.

Gil Student:

Because the main text of the book, 99% of the book, is showing how Biblical criticism and the traditional Jewish view of the bible are incompatible. And then at the very end he says, “Well, maybe here’s how I combine them.” And I take issue with how he combines them, but the general ideal that all these fields and assumptions and reading into the text that makes up Biblical criticism as a whole, is not compatible with Judaism. And I agree with that. And my response to that is, it’s all subjective, brilliant people can come up with all sorts of ingenious interpretations and readings, but why am I compelled to accept them?

David Bashevkin:

You have another post where you mention a conversation with Professor Chaim Soloveitchik who you don’t have direct quotes with him. And in the conversation, he mentioned both the theological and social dangers that arise from Biblical criticism. So maybe if you could tell us more, if you remember, about what that conversation was about, why you were talking to him about this issue, and what you think… What do you mean the “social dangers” of Biblical criticism?

Gil Student:

Right, so I don’t remember the exact wording. I don’t think he would’ve said, or at least I would not say, that there are theological dangers of Biblical criticism. Biblical criticism is the problem. And it’s not like a slippery slope that it might lead to other things, it is the problem. I just believe it’s contrary to a basic belief of Judaism. But the social dangers, I believe as follows, he said something to the effect of, “There are some historians who believe that Maimonides put forth, the Rambam put forth his 13 principles, fundamental principles of Judaism as a political move. Meaning, he was a religious leader, and he believed that these were beliefs that were necessary to keep the community together as a continuous observant community in that time and place. And even if you accept that,” I’m not saying Dr. Soloveitchik accepted that, “Even if you accept that,” he said, “Today, that could be said about Biblical criticism, because it undermines the basic practices and cohesiveness and continuity of the community with Jewish tradition.” So, for example, you mentioned before Louis Jacobs. I found that fascinating because in the, I think it was in the late 1950s, he was widely condemned in the British community as a heretic when he was a leading Rabbi who was on his way to become Chief Rabbi.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly.

Gil Student:

And that ended his possibilities of gaining that position. And I wondered, politics, what’s it all about? So I found a copy of his original book and I read it, and I said, “This is not ambiguous at all. He crossed a major line very clearly, eloquently, brilliantly,” he’s a brilliant man.

David Bashevkin:

I love his writings.

Gil Student:

Brilliant man, but he clearly crossed a line, and there’s no ambiguity there whatsoever. But if you’ve seen his later writings, especially when he talks about Halacha, he’s very open, he’s very self-aware. And he says he believes that Halacha is binding, whatever mystical reason that he has on the Jewish community, but because we don’t believe this is from God, we can be more lenient here and more lenient there, change a little bit here, change a little bit there. And he’s very open, this is because I don’t believe that the Torah is divine. And that is a social danger that is an inevitable consequence of lacking these basic fundamental beliefs in the written Torah, in the oral Torah, and in the tradition.

David Bashevkin:

It’s funny, when people ask me who my writing role model is, I always answer Rabbi Louis Jacobs. He’s such a brilliant writer in terms of, you’re talking about the substance of his work, just stylistically I’ve really always admired his writing.

Gil Student:

He has an ease of genius. Because he has so much –

David Bashevkin:

That’s how I describe myself oftentimes.

Gil Student:

– at his fingertips, that he just goes from topic to topic with full control of the material and an eloquence, and his prose is very, very tight and compelling, great writer.

David Bashevkin:

So educationally, let’s go back to the educational question and let’s address two different audiences. A head of school of a mainstream, let’s call it a Modern Orthodox school, comes to you and says, “We’re thinking about developing our regular Chumash class, talking about the Bible. We want to introduce people to these ideas so they know they are out there.” Good idea, bad idea? And what book would you recommend them to teach for that class?

Gil Student:

I’m not an educator and I’m certainly not a high school educator, so it’s hard for me to have an opinion on that. What would give me pause is diversion from the traditional curriculum of Gemara and Parsha. When we learn the Torah, we learn the weekly Torah portion, and that’s what we focus on, and we focus on ideas, hopefully ideas that are relevant and practical to our life in terms of musser, in terms of ethics, in terms of how to become a better Jew and a better person. And that does not focus on the Bible as a text, it focuses on the Bible as a relevant text. So that would be in direct contradiction to the Biblical criticism approach, which looks at it as a text on its own. So I wouldn’t want to compromise on that curriculum, that’s number one. And number two is I don’t want to generate questions where they don’t exist. I don’t want to lead people, especially children, especially teenagers who have emotional and chemical things going on in their bodies and their minds that are difficult to deal with on its own, I wouldn’t want to add fuel to the flame by pushing too much. On the other hand, we can’t ignore that it’s out there, and if we say things, which people do, which rabbis do, they say, “Eh, these are non-Jewish ideas…”

David Bashevkin:

Dismissive.

Gil Student:

They’re dismissive, “These aren’t serious thinkers,” when if you read any book you’ll see, these are very serious thinkers. And sometimes they use writing tricks, rhetorical tricks, to make them seem more serious than they are, and I’m thinking of a recent book by a Biblical critic and theologian that is overwhelming until you look up the sources.

David Bashevkin:

Which book?

Gil Student:

I’m not going to mention. Until you look up the sources and you realize, “He quotes the Rambam, the Rambam never said that. He quotes this guy, no one ever said that.” It’s taking the most radical interpretation of every possible text and putting it all together, and it’s overwhelming, especially to a teenager who hasn’t seen the texts already. Once you’ve seen the texts on your own and through the course of normal study, then you read how a controversial thinker might put them together, you have an independent view of the subject, then you read what they have to say, it’s very different than if they’re your teacher, so to speak, by reading the book and approaching the issues for the first time. So there’s a balance that has to be done I don’t know the correct balance.

David Bashevkin:

Let’s talk about a second audience. A student on a college campus learning about these subjects, taking an intro to Bible class in your average college campus, what book, books, articles, thinkers, would you recommend for such a person trying to develop a more holistic way of integrating their traditional life with some of these ideas?

Gil Student:

So here we face a lot of challenges, and one of them is that the Jewish community has not published a good text on the subject, so the place to look is the Christian community, particularly the Evangelical community.

David Bashevkin:

But aren’t they so literal… Is that a caricature, talking about Biblical literalism in the Evangelical community? I mean we don’t believe in that either.

Gil Student:

It’s a caricature. It’s a very diverse community of many different kinds of beliefs and theologians… For example, the ancient historian Kenneth Kitchen. He’s an Egyptologist by trade, very prominent Egyptologist, he’s a little old school, he’s retired at this point, wrote this massive book on the reliability of the Old Testament, or something like that. I wouldn’t recommend it to your average frum person because it’s not written from the Orthodox perspective, not written from the Jewish perspective at all. But from his Evangelical perspective, he makes a very, very compelling case about the reliability of Tanach. And he goes backwards in history, goes through all the archaeology. This man is a master, he made his career on the subject, and he has full control of the material, and he goes through making the case, and his basic argument against biblical criticism is as follows, he says, “Show me the manuscripts. Where is the P manuscript? Where is the J manuscript? You can’t produce it. All you have is a full, complete Chumash that you are then splitting it apart. If there really were separate texts, we would find it somewhere.”

David Bashevkin:

And you’ve addressed in previous articles about why some of the variations in Masoretic texts and Qumran scrolls that were found in some of the Dead Sea scrolls, why that’s not –

Gil Student:

These deviations are so small, they don’t amount to –

David Bashevkin:

A scribal, yeah –

Gil Student:

They’re perfectly explainable based on scribal additions, a little change here, a little change there –

David Bashevkin:

But we’ve never found the fully formed, separate, just one perspective of a story.

Gil Student:

Nothing even remotely resembling that. Now, if you show me those manuscripts and say, “Here’s the P manuscript,” I still wouldn’t be convinced.

David Bashevkin:

Still that would not be falsifiable, as you had mentioned before, you wouldn’t be –

Gil Student:

I don’t think that’s falsifiable, but he, Kenneth Kitchen, makes a point of, “We don’t even have that. This is all speculation. It might be brilliant speculation, but we have no evidence whatsoever for any of this.”

David Bashevkin:

Okay, this has really been a wonderful conversation. I like ending off talking about, more general about who we’re speaking with and to learn more about you. So here’s a thought question I was wondering if you could weigh in on: If you could get a fully funded PhD in any subject, take care of all your bills, what do you think the subject of your dissertation would be?

Gil Student:

I don’t like that question. I think that’s actually a problem with academia. You’re asking me what area of Torah would I specialize in –

David Bashevkin:

You’re impossible.

Gil Student:

I don’t think that it –

David Bashevkin:

Let me rephrase the question. Someone is going to pay you to write a book. Forget academia. They’re going to pay you to write a book, take off a year of your life, two years, however long it takes. What is the title of the book you want to write if you had all that time?

Gil Student:

Every year that changes. Last year I focused on responsa from the Mediterranean region in the century after the expulsion from Spain, 16th century. And if you would’ve asked me last year I would’ve said, “I want to write about the Mahari Beirav and the Radbaz –

David Bashevkin:

Both sound like future New York Times bestsellers to me.

Gil Student:

Now, if you ask me this year-

David Bashevkin:

Those are fly off the shelves.

Gil Student:

This year I’m focusing on Poland, responsa from Poland in that time period of the Rama, the Maharshal. So if you ask me, someone wrote a dissertation on the Rama, someone wrote a dissertation on the Bach, I don’t think anyone’s written a dissertation on the Maharshal, who was a fascinating character, got along with almost nobody, brilliant old timer, was very opposed to all the innovations in the time period –

David Bashevkin:

Seal in pen.

Gil Student:

Oh yeah. And if you asked me today that’s who I want to write, but only because I’ve been going through a very challenging teshuva for the past few days and that’s what’s on my mind. But I believe there’s a Gemara in Eruvin, someone who says, “Mah yafeh shmuah zeh umah nah shmuah zeh umah lo nah shmuah zeh, I like this teaching, I don’t like that teaching,” you miss the entire treasury of Torah. Torah is complete, and we should be studying it all. So one article that I have in the back of my mind is, over the past few years there have been new translations or editions of the Moreh Nevuchim, and I’d like to write an article comparing and contrasting them for the layman reader. So it’s a totally different area, but I think we should be specializing in everything. I don’t want to pick one area to specialize in.

David Bashevkin:

Tall order, okay. Tough to ask the last questions to Gil Student, he doesn’t like them, but we’re going to do two more. What’s your favorite book on Jewish studies? An English book on Jewish studies, do you have a favorite that you would want to recommend?

Gil Student:

Rabbi Moshe Besdin, who for many years led JSS in YU, which is a mechinah program, the entry level program for people without a Jewish studies background, he always used to tell his students, “Don’t learn about, learn it.”

David Bashevkin:

My father was a student of his and I grew up with that statement in our home.

Gil Student:

So you’re asking me what is a good book about Jewish studies and I would say, I have no idea, I have no interest in reading about it. Learn it. If you want to know how to do it, see how other people do it. See the, let’s say Reb Dovid Tzvi Hoffman’s edition of the Mechilta d’Reb Shimon bar Yochai, and you’ll realize, that is how you do academic Jewish studies with profound faith, profound breadth, and control of the sources. That’s the kind of Jewish studies that inspires me.

David Bashevkin:

Are there any non-Jewish thinkers who have influenced your approach to religious life?

Gil Student:

I’m very hesitant to say yes because I can’t think of any offhand that really have because of my background, where I didn’t have a strong immersion in the classical Jewish thinkers really until late in high school. It’s the Jewish thinkers who really influenced my religious life. But where they took from secular sources, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, I embrace that 100%.

David Bashevkin:

Any particular thinkers?

Gil Student:

Well of course the Rambam. The Rambam is, all of Jewish philosophy –

David Bashevkin:

You are sucking the fun out of every single one of these questions.

Gil Student:

All of Jewish philosophy just consists of footnotes to Moreh Nevuchim. And I’m not the one who said that, that was Isaac Husik, who wrote it in his A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy. By the way, he said that a few years before Whitehead said that about, I think, “All of philosophy is footnotes to Plato.” So just tidbit there. But I will say that in terms of Biblical scholars, Gordon Wenham is a fantastic meforash on Chumash. He has a commentary on four of the five books of Moses that have blown me away repeatedly. His commentary on Genesis is just the gold standard. And then all of the other, some were smaller some were longer, but they’re fantastic and have influenced me tremendously because he is not relying on Chazal. He does not have that background. So even when the traditional commentators like Rashbam or Ibn Ezra try to show an independence, and they do, they show an independence, they still have in their mind, they were trained by the Talmud and Midrash.

David Bashevkin:

It’s hard to extract, yeah.

Gil Student:

He does not have that training and is a completely fresh perspective to me, and I gain a lot from it because he’s very, very traditional. Even though he doesn’t believe in Mosaic authorship of the five books of Moses, he still has very traditional interpretations and offers a lot to the open minded student.

David Bashevkin:

Final question, this is a real softball so do me a favor. What time do you usually wake up, what time do you usually go to sleep?

Gil Student:

I don’t believe in having usual schedules.

David Bashevkin:

Son-of-a…

Gil Student:

I go to sleep when I collapse.

David Bashevkin:

You’re an early riser or you’re a night owl?

Gil Student:

Yaakov Avinu, Rashi says, “When Yaakov was learning in Yeshivat Shem V’Ever he never went to sleep.” So the question is, what do you mean he never went to sleep? He would literally die if he didn’t sleep for 14 years. So I heard this from one of the assistant mashgiachs when I was Israel in Reb Tzvi Kushelevsky’s yeshiva. He said as follows, he said he once heard a story of the Chazon Ish. Someone was with the Chazon Ish late at night, and he was learning, and the Chazon Ish just collapsed on the floor of exhaustion. He could never put the sefer down, sleep overcame him. He says he thinks that is the explanation, Yaakov Avinu never went to sleep, he continued learning until sleep overcame him, and that’s how he succeeded so much in 14 years. I try to live my life like that. I don’t always… Actually I’ve never been able to do that because I have to keep a steady job, but I try to just keep going until I lose capacity, and then I try to wake up for a decent minyan so I can get to work.

David Bashevkin:

That is the most intense answer to a playful question. We appreciate it. Thank you so, so much for joining us today, this has really been a joy. You could look at more of Gil’s thoughts and ideas on his website torahmusings.com, and there’ll be more available on the website. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Gil Student:

Thank you Dovid, it’s been a lot of fun.

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