A Non-Bifurcated Engagement with Torah
Traditional Religious Views Conflict with Academic Knowledge
Whether academic and religious views of the origins of Torah can be reconciled depends on how we define “academic” and “religious” views. Academic scholarship, based on empirical, historical, and scientific evidence, shows that Torah is a product of human writing and editing over a period of centuries. Thus, the traditional religious view of revelation, that God revealed the Torah to Moses at Sinai, cannot be reconciled with academic scholarship.
Confronted with evidence that conflicts with a religious idea, some traditional religious believers have sought to reconcile their faith with science, but with little success. One reconciliation strategy imagines a God who has left the mystery inherent in our world to test our faith, or as an illustration of the limits of human reason.
Another approach is to claim that the evidence supporting revelation was lost or corrupted in some way, and that the text we have now is a reconstruction (by humans) of the original given by God at Sinai according to revelation. (David Weiss HaLivni, [Revelation Restored, NY: Routledge, 1997] who takes this view, calls it “the maculate Torah.”) In this view, multiple authors and editors reconstructed the text that was originally revealed by God but lost to them.
These approaches, however, are no more than just-so stories. They are reminiscent of Evangelical Christians and some Orthodox Jews who attempt to reconcile carbon dating with their belief in the literal truth of the creation story by positing that the world was created in 6 days with very old dinosaur bones (but no dinosaurs).
Such traditional religious approaches seek to fit evidence into preexisting faith-based views of the world. In this case, traditional religious approaches stipulate by faith the truth of revelation (that God, in fact, gave Torah at Sinai), explaining away or rejecting contradictory evidence.
In sum, traditional religious views and academic views (whether scientific or humanistic) of the origins of Torah are not reconcilable because they rely on very different epistemic strategies or approaches to evidence and knowledge.
But there are other ways to be religiously Jewish that do not conflict with the findings of academic scholarship.
Religiously Liberal Views Cohere with Academic Knowledge
Religiously liberal Judaism prioritizes reason and science as the means and method to discern reality, insisting that our religious views about our world are bounded by the findings of reason and science. Religiously liberal Judaism, with Reform Judaism as its philosophical exemplar, rejects the traditional view of revelation as the origin of Torah, because it lacks scientific evidence.
In its place, religiously liberal Judaism asserts that those who wrote and compiled the text were, in some unspecified and untestable way, inspired by God. This faith-based assertion has no way of being tested or refuted and is thus not a scientific claim, per se. Nor does the religiously liberal view explain the origins of Torah. Rather the religiously liberal view imparts meaning to our sacred texts in a process more consistent with approaches to the academic humanities.
Science is structured to reject conjectures until they survive rigorous testing that attempts to falsify them. Humanist scholarship is more capacious. It seeks to find (or create) meaning in a text based on the coherence and persuasiveness of an argument. But even humanistic scholarship must conform to scientific evidence. This leaves room for speculation, if not certainty, in areas that science cannot address, including speculation about the role of the Divine in inspiring the creative process.
The approach of treating the text as if it were divinely inspired (whether or not it really was) allows religiously liberal Jews to explore the text seriously as a conveyor of wisdom. By attributing the ideas in the text to those inspired by God, religiously liberal Jews can avoid reducing the text’s meaning solely to its anthropological or historical value alone.
In this way, religiously liberal, Reform Judaism as an approach is most closely aligned with humanistic scholarship that seeks to find meaning in our texts, so long as it conforms to scientific evidence. These humanistic approaches range widely and include both Judith Plaskow’s reinterpretation of our inherited tradition (Standing Again at Sinai), and Leon Kass’s exploration of Torah as wisdom literature (The Beginning of Wisdom).
For the religiously liberal Jew, rejecting revelation as the origin of Torah creates its own challenges: without the authority of the text as the literal word of God, it is up to the individual alone to accept the burdens and obligations of being Jewish. But this approach has the benefit of allowing a person to operate in the modern world with a non-bifurcated epistemic strategy for both their scholarly and religious lives.
Though originated as “Reform Judaism,” religiously liberal Judaism now describes the ideology of the vast majority of North American Jews, with the formal denominations of Conservative, Reconstructing and Reform Judaism (and some within the looser “modern Orthodoxy”) differing more by the ritual practices they choose to adopt than their understanding of the origins of our most sacred texts.
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May 31, 2022
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Dr. Andrew Rehfeld is the 10th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), before which he was Associate Professor of Political Science at Washington University. Rehfeld holds a Masters of Public Policy (1994) from the University of Chicago, where he also received his Ph.D. in Political Science (2000), with a dissertation titled Silence of the Land: An Historical and Normative Analysis of Territorial Political Representation. Rehfeld is the author of The Concept of Constituency (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and his next project, tentatively titled, A General Theory of Representation, is under contract with this same publisher.
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