Better Perplexed than Whitewashed
Berl Katznelson was a leader of the Zionist Labor Movement during the first half of the twentieth century. The title of one of his famous speeches is: “Better Perplexed than Whitewashed” [Bi-Zekhut ha-Mevukhah u-be-Genut ha-Tiah]. In this speech he spoke of the political situation in summer 1940. However, Katznelson’s words also reflect my world view on how to resolve the conflict between the academy’s general understanding of the Tanakh, particularly of the Torah, and the traditional belief in “Torah from Sinai.”
The Avoidance of Peshat
For many years, religious society almost opted out of exploring the peshat [literal] interpretation of the Bible entirely. This decision arose, among many reasons, from the fear that if the study of the Tanakh was not filtered through the interpretation of our Sages, of blessed memory, this could give rise to critical and potentially heretical questions. This approach was even held at Bar-Ilan University in its early years. Thus, the founders of the University decided not to treat Bible study as a field of critical inquiry in order to spare their students from grappling with questions of faith.
The quest for traditional sources that address human participation in the formulation of the Torah reveals that there are a number of such sources, dated from the period of our Sages, of blessed memory, through to the medieval period, as well as the time of later authorities. Thus, for instance, one of the more famous passages in this regard is found in Abraham ibn Ezra’s commentary on Deuteronomy 1:2: “If you understand the secret of the twelve—as well as ‘and Moses wrote’ (Deut 31:9), ‘and the Canaanites were then in the land’ (Gen 12:6), ‘on the mountain God will appear’ (Gen 22:14), ‘here is his bedstead, an iron bedstead’ (Deut 3:11)– you will recognize the truth.” However, these sources still presume that even if human beings wrote parts of the Bible, they were still written in sanctity by Moses or by later prophets. The predominant critical position, however, claims these to be later additions made during the interlude between the First Temple and the Hellenistic periods.
As such, we cannot deny that grappling with the assumption that the Pentateuch is a historiographical artifact composed by human beings is indeed a complex task for believers. How can we weep at the grave of Rachel, our foremother, and simultaneously speak of Jacob as a mythical figure representing the forebear of the Northern Kingdom of Israel? How can we read the Haggadah with proper intent on Seder night, when we know that there is no extra-biblical proof for the Exodus from Egypt? And how might we grapple with the understanding that ancient Israel arose from autochthonous groups that dwelt in Canaan during the second millennium? Must we adopt explanations that adhere to the Tanakh’s narrative, and disregard the conflicting archeological and extra-biblical data we now possess?
The Search for Truth
There are those who indeed proceed in this manner. However, this is the very white-washing we must avoid. The role of the acolyte of science is to pursue truth; however, “the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is [also] truth” (Shabbat 55a). Namely, truth lies at the very heart of academic research, albeit no less so, than at the core of Divine worship. We must engage in the scientific search for truth without fearing what we may find. This obligation stems just as much from our private identities as believers seeking divine truth as it does from our roles as members of the academic world.
Having recognized this reality, we must take an unvarnished look at the difficulties presented and admit that we do not possess the answers to many of the questions that arise from the critical examination of the Torah. Even if this means we cannot accept “Torah from Sinai” in a literal sense, and even if it compels our faith to become increasingly complex, we must acknowledge that the truth requires us to live with this confusion and not cast “our lot with the white-washers.”
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February 7, 2022
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Dr. Hayah Katz is a Senior Lecturer of Iron Age Archaeology at the Department of Land of Israel Studies in Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee. She holds an M.A. in archaeology from Tel Aviv University, and a Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University. Her research focus is the history of archaeological research in the Land of Israel from the 1920s until modern times. In a desire to develop this field she founded a Chair named after Zev Vilnay in the Department of the Land of Israel Studies. In addition, she is director of the Meron Ridges Project and the Tel Rosh excavations, focusing on a comprehensive study of settlement processes in the Upper Galilee region during the first millennium B.C.E.
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