Bible Scholarship in Orthodoxy
Judaism in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, has had a difficult relationship with Bible scholarship. By Bible scholarship I am referring to theories that question the unity and authorship of the Tanach, especially the Torah, and that assert that the text of the Bible as we have it today has evolved in one way or another over the last three millennia. This was a raging topic of debate at various points in the 19th and 20th centuries, though little is heard of it of late.
The contemporary religious world has shifted its focus to other areas of conflict between Judaism and modernity: the place of women in halacha, homosexuality, agunot, and other challenges such as disaffection of youth, technology and “half-shabbos,” not to mention various forms of abuse. These newer topics also have the aura of pressing social urgency, whereas the decidedly cerebral nature of ancient authorship and its theological implications seems to belong to a bygone and more ideological age. Raising this scholarly issue at all feels at best quaint, and at worst indulgent.
To most, the issue is also dead. It is common to hear from Orthodox rabbis and scholars that, even among Bible scholars, no one believes in the Documentary Hypothesis anymore.
But that is simply not true. While it is correct that there is much dissension in the university world concerning the particulars of source criticism, it is also true that there is much dissension in the field of natural history concerning the theory of natural selection. Biblical fundamentalists use this latter ivory tower dispute to discredit scientific theory in favor of literalist interpretations of Genesis’ creation story. But they miss the point: no serious academic today rejects the basic premises of evolution. To be sure, Orthodox Jews need not accept uncritically theories that fly in the face of thousands of years of Jewish tradition. But ideas that have attained nearly universal acceptance in the academic realm cannot reasonably be dismissed out of hand. And yet, this appears to be the general approach of the Orthodox community today.
In this essay, I would like to offer both some historical perspective and a philosophical starting point for addressing this issue in the Orthodox community. I approach this primarily as an educator who has both watched and helped halachically committed high school students grapple with the challenges that biblical criticism poses to our faith. My purpose here is not to promote Bible criticism or to argue the merits of the Documentary Hypothesis, but rather to address the growing number of Orthodox scholars and students who find it persuasive. As a community, I believe we are compelled to address the phenomenon itself and its philosophical, sociological, and pedagogical implications.
There have been at least two interesting developments in the Orthodox world concerning Bible study in the last twenty years. The first is consistent with and reinforces the general apathy and rejection that characterizes the Orthodox approach to modern Bible scholarship. In 1996, Artscroll published its complete Tanach, a milestone of the entire Artscroll project that began in the early 1980s. Academic Jewish scholars (many of them Orthodox) early on recognized that the aim of the Artscroll project was to present a synchronic view of the Bible – which was later extended to all of Jewish history. According to Artscroll, the biblical text has no history, nor does the practice of halacha. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob observed the (proverbial) 613 mitzvot in basically the same way that we do, and the values of the Torah are consistent with our values. The Torah that Moses received is the same Torah that we have today, letter for letter.
Then, eight years after the release of the Artscroll Tanach, the Jewish Study Bible was published. This work is a comprehensive commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible by nearly 40 of the top Jewish scholars in the field of Bible. In many ways, it parallels the Artscroll Tanach, offering short commentaries that draw from the works of the classical medieval commentators (mefarshim), often connecting the text to modern Jewish halachic practice. In its essence, however, the Jewish Study Bible could not be more different from the Artscroll Tanach. The editors of the Jewish Study Bible specifically sought out contributors who ascribed to critical Bible study in general, and source criticism in particular. The entire commentary on the Torah is littered with references to J, E, P and D, and the entire commentary assumes that the text of the Bible has undergone a great evolution since the time of its writing. What is fascinating is that over a quarter of the contributors to the Jewish Study Bible identify themselves as Orthodox. This level of public participation by Torah observant Jews in a project dedicated to Bible criticism represents a seismic shift in the place of such scholarship in Orthodox circles.
Some history: The Jewish Study Bible is based around the new Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of the Bible. This translation was conceived in 1953 to be the standard Jewish English Bible, and the desire of the JPS was to have it accepted by all English-speaking Jews. To this end, the translation committee included not only the top Jewish Bible scholars of the day, but also a Reform, a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi on the translation committee (the Orthodox member of the group was the well-respected Rabbi Harry Freedman, who led a congregation in Brooklyn). The JPS translation, as opposed to the Jewish Study Bible, made no reference to higher biblical criticism, and was very traditional in its treatment of the Hebrew scriptural text, following the Masoretic tradition. Nevertheless, it was flatly rejected by the Orthodox community: no Orthodox publication has ever used the new JPS translation.
Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, a prominent member of the Orthodox Union in the 1960s, sent a telegram to JPS stating that “No one, even a prophet, can reinterpret anything in the Torah. No Torah scholar has ever recognized or will recognize any translation but the Targum and the Septuagint as authentic!” Solomon Grayzel, the secretary of the JPS translation committee, said in 1962, “We were all but put in herem.”
Which translation were Orthodox Jews using at the time? Interestingly, they were using the old JPS translation of 1917, which appears in the Hertz Chumash. To compound the irony, Rabbi Joseph Hertz himself was the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and maintained a relationship with that institution, even though he was the (“Orthodox”) chief rabbi of the British Empire. His commentary appeared, until recently, in nearly every Orthodox synagogue, as well as nearly every Conservative synagogue.
(I am aware of at least one synagogue that did not use the Hertz Chumash, and when I went to inquire as to which ideological issue prompted them to adopt the more traditional Soncino Chumash by Dr. Abraham Cohen, they informed me that the latter was the only one that would fit into the book slot in their pews. I wonder how many profound issues are decided in this manner.)
The main function of the Hertz Chumash was to defend the integrity of the Torah against Protestant Christian Bible scholars who attacked it through higher Biblical Criticism. Their goal was to discredit the Torah and Judaism by pointing to its composite and primitive nature. The details of this offensive are far too complex to address in this paper but, suffice it to say, Orthodox and Conservative Jews were united in a desire to reject this attack on the integrity of our Torah. Solomon Schechter of the Conservative movement famously said that higher Biblical Criticism is nothing but higher anti-Semitism.
As synagogue regulars have no doubt noticed, the Hertz Chumash has all but disappeared from both Orthodox and Conservative sanctuaries. Conservative synagogues no longer feel the need for the anti-critical polemics of the Hertz Chumash because they have accepted the tenets of Biblical Criticism that underlie the new Conservative Etz Hayim Chumash. Orthodox synagogues, on the other hand, are replacing the Hertz with Artscroll’s Stone Chumash. Orthodoxy also no longer feels the need to engage in Hertz’s polemics because, it would seem, Orthodox Jews are convinced of the unity and divinity of the Torah and can accept this unapologetically without feeling the need to engage in debate on the subject. By this measure, the battle appears to be over and the lines drawn. Why, then, are we seeing a small but increasing number of Orthodox Jews involved in critical Bible scholarship? Perhaps, even though the political war is over, the intellectual battle is not. Orthodox Jews who are operating on the highest levels of academia are beginning to take seriously the claims of historical criticism, possibly because Bible Criticism is no longer seen as a hostile attack on the integrity of Torah Judaism. It is still an open question, however, how this issue will be addressed (if at all) by the broader Orthodox community, and specifically by the Orthodox educational system.
Before even addressing higher Biblical Criticism, there exists in the Orthodox world a general issue of confronting the peshat, or basic meaning of the text. In traditional Jewish study there has always been an effort, until modern times, to reconcile the biblical text with normative Jewish thought and law (the notable exception to this being Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Rashbam, who was uniquely comfortable with the dissonance). In contrast, all modern biblical scholarship rests on the proposition that scripture can, and indeed must, be interpreted on its own terms, even when it contradicts mainstream Jewish practice and ideas. The widespread acceptance in the Orthodox world of Artscroll publications (along with their underlying and attendant philosophy cited above) makes it hard to imagine that the mainstream Orthodox community is ready to take this first step.
Several years ago, I was asked to give an impromptu drasha at a modern Orthodox synagogue – a mistake that neither they nor I will make again. It was Sukkot and, since I was not prepared to speak, I thought it would be interesting to read out loud the 8th chapter of Nehemiah, which deals with the first Sukkot celebrated by the Jews after their return to Israel from Babylonia, with Ezra. My purpose was to read the passage and draw attention to some of the stranger aspects of the text, namely:
- The returning exiles have never heard of Sukkot until they come across it during a public reading of the Torah.
- There is no mention of any holiday between the first of Tishrei and Sukkot, but on the 24th of Tishrei the Jews gather together for a day of fasting, which sounds much like Yom Kippur.
- Instead of the Four Species (arba minim), they seem to have five.
- Most striking, instead of waving the minim, they build their sukkot out of them.
This did not go over well, and several members of this synagogue, including the rabbi, reprimanded me for saying such things publicly in their synagogue.
Now, it is true that in Vayyikra Rabbah and in Masechet Sukkah, chazal attempt to reconcile the very disturbing but fascinating details in Nehemiah 8. I imagine that, had I wrapped up my talk with these harmonizations, I would have ruffled no feathers and left the congregation to rest in its dogmatic slumber. But this anecdote prompts the question: why are so many Orthodox Jews afraid to look at the text of the Bible itself and openly discuss what it actually means?
Perhaps the answer is that we do not really have sufficient faith in our tradition to believe that it will hold up to critical scrutiny. So, if we are to begin to address the issue of Bible Criticism, we must first make Orthodox Jews comfortable with the peshat of the Tanach. In fact, training students how to read the peshat properly can be one of the greatest tools for increasing our faith in the Torah.
For instance, a proper reading of peshat moots difficulties in confronting numbers in the Torah that are difficult to justify logically or historically, such as:
- The 600,000 men of military age who left Egypt, according to Exod. 12:37, would result in approximately 2 million Israelites – including women and children – moving through the desert. With numbers like these, many of the Israelites would still be leaving Egypt while the rest were arriving at Mount Sinai.
- The book of Kings dates the Exodus to 480 years before the building of the first Temple, which can be dated to the 10th century by historical sources. This would put the Exodus in the 15 century BCE – which is problematic for historical reasons.
- The return of the exiles from Babylonia, which the prophet Jeremiah puts at 70 years after the exile but historians place approximately 50 years after the exile.
I have observed two reactions in our children when they confront these numerical problems: Either the student believes that the numbers must be correct since the Torah is true, or the student concludes that the Torah cannot be true since the numbers cannot be correct. There are dangers in both reactions. The second is the most obvious: we do not want to lose from Orthodoxy precisely those students who are sophisticated enough to understand the profound difficulties of the tradition. On the other hand, we do not want to be left with Jews who believe that the key to faith is to suspend our critical faculties and believe that whatever we read in the Torah is true, even when it flies in the face of reason.
The key to unlocking this conundrum was already anticipated by the medieval mefarshim, who taught that the peshat is not always the literal meaning of the text. Sometimes, when the Torah says seven, it means seven. Other times, the number is symbolic, or typological; it stands for something. Seven and its factors most often represent perfection (the days of creation, the weeks between the exodus and the revelation at Sinai, the shmitta and jubilee cycles), just as 40 and its factors often represent punishment (the flood, the years in the desert, the 400 years in Egypt).
If 480 years is just symbolic for 12 generations of 40 years each (both 12 and 40 being typological numbers), then we could recalculate the Exodus in the 13th century, based on an actual generation being about 25 years, which would better comport with historical data. So, too, 70 may be a symbolic number of years of the Babylonian exile (7 x 10).
We know by instinct that some parts of the Torah are meant to be taken symbolically. In Genesis 17, for example, when God tells us to circumcise the flesh of our foreskin, we assume this to be literal while, in Deuteronomy 10, when God tells us to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts, we assume this to be figurative.
It is only historical bias that makes us think that some things must be taken literally and others must be taken figuratively. (Note this phenomenon among Christian fundamentalist biblical “literalists” who assert that we need to accept literally that the world was created in seven, 24-hour hour days, but who believe that clearly literal references to sacrificial lambs must be understood as figurative references to Jesus. Ibn Ezra mocks an earlier form of this kind of thinking in his introduction to the Torah.)
There is no one more radical in this respect than Rambam, who believes that major portions of biblical narrative, such as the story of the Garden of Eden, are intended to be read figuratively, as parables. This point is very difficult to teach on an elementary school level where, developmentally, students have difficulty distinguishing between “true” and “literal.” But my experience is that high school is the ideal place to make the transition. The difficulty is that we will need to train those who are teaching our children to have the philosophical sophistication to understand these distinctions.
The approach that I have adopted in my own classroom is one that I have borrowed from two parts of the Rambam’s doctrine – his tri-level approach to biblical texts, and his esoteric approach to education.
First, the text: Throughout Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, but especially in Part I, Rambam repeatedly refers to three levels of the biblical text – Level 1, the vulgar meaning; Level 2, the external meaning; and Level 3, the internal meaning. The goal of the educator is to move every student up one level. The vast majority of students should be moved from Level 1, vulgar, to Level 2, external. Certain students can be moved to Level 3, the internal meaning.
In the Guide, Part I, chapter 5, Rambam addresses a very difficult passage in Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 24. In the passage, the elders of Israel ascend Mount Sinai and, according to the text, “they saw God, and they ate and drank.” The vulgar meaning here is simply inadmissible to Rambam, who knows philosophically that, since God has no body, He cannot be seen. We must, therefore, make all students aware that the literal meaning of the text is not the peshat. Everyone must be bumped up a level from the vulgar to the external level of the text. The average Jew would then go away with the impression that the elders did not see God. Perhaps they will conclude that what the elders saw was some manifestation of God, such as heavenly objects, or angels. This is not the real, internal meaning of the text, according to Rambam, but it is much better than the false, vulgar meaning and, if this is what most Jews believed, it would be fine.
The real internal meaning, however, is that the elders did not actually see anything. Rather, since the verb “to see” often means “to comprehend” (as we say in English “I see” when we mean “I understand”), when the Torah tells us that the elders saw God, the internal meaning is that they comprehended God’s essence. This, according to Rambam, is the true meaning of the text.
For most people, this deeper, third level meaning is simply too abstract and obtuse. Indeed, there is no need for the majority of Jews to reach this level.
The internal meanings of the text are often not only difficult, but also dangerous. Rambam explains elsewhere, mostly in Part III of the Guide, that the internal meanings of the Torah can often be secrets that, if exposed to the multitude, would lead to the abandonment of the Torah.
Rambam explains in the end of the second chapter of his Mishneh Torah, that there are certain ideas that should only be taught by a teacher to a single student, and only in a situation where the student is bright and sophisticated enough that the student could have comprehended the truth without the aid of the teacher.
I interpret this to mean that there are certain concepts (such as modern Bible scholarship) that are not conducive to a classroom setting and, if taught in public, could lead to a general abandonment of halachic Judaism. What can be accomplished in the classroom is a move from Level 1 to Level 2. Students can develop a sophisticated approach to peshat, which is not the literal meaning of the text, but gets closer to the true meaning of Torah. The teacher can provide, however, enough intellectual and textual tools so that a few students will see beyond Level 2, the external meaning, and begin to ask questions about Level 3, the internal meaning. At this point, the student can begin to explore the deeper aspects of the Torah with the teacher on a one-to-one basis. This may involve critical analyses of biblical texts, depending on the question and ability of the student.
Of course, we need to define what “vulgar” means. To Rambam, a vulgar meaning was a reading of the Torah that went against the dictates of medieval logic – Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian physics and metaphysics. Today, a vulgar meaning would go against the dictates of modern historical or philosophic reason, but the point remains the same: the meaning of the Torah must comport with reason and reality.
My experience with this method has helped me to understand the remarkable wisdom behind Rambam’s words. When you learn with a student one-on-one, you are able to immediately address the student’s theological concerns as they arise, and thus avoid having students draw rash conclusions that can lead them away from Torah.
In teaching with this approach, I get anywhere from one to three students a year who approach me concerning the next level. (This works out to about 2-3 percent of my students, which seems about right.) I then study with these students outside of class, one-on-one. Sometimes, I am approached by students after they have graduated, and I call them or drive out to meet them at college to discuss their next step in approaching the Torah.
The function of the classroom, therefore, is not as a place to expose students to the more radical aspects of modern Bible scholarship. In fact, I do not believe that Bible Criticism should be mentioned in class. The goal of the classroom, I believe, is to push students from a vulgar, literalist understanding of the Torah toward a more sophisticated approach to the texts. This means giving students the intellectual tools and freedom to explore the biblical text on their own. The sharpest of students will then see that even the external meaning of the text is problematic, and will ask questions that let me know that he or she is ready to delve into the deeper aspects of Bible study.
That freedom comes from learning the medieval mefarshim. One of the great lessons that students can learn from the medieval classical commentators is that it is not only permissible to try to figure out what the text says, but it is a religious duty, even when your understanding goes against accepted received opinion. Students need to learn that Rashbam wrote that Rashi had a primitive view of peshat, that Ibn Ezra thought that Rashi did not even get one peshat out of a thousand and that Ramban often said that Ibn Ezra and Rambam wrote nonsense. This is not, God forbid, to teach students not to have respect for the gedolim of the past. Just the opposite: it is to teach, as Ibn Ezra states in his introduction to his commentary, that our allegiance should only be to God, and God alone should we fear. If we believe that one of the great rabbis or commentators of the past misunderstood a verse, we should feel it a religious duty to remove the incorrect understanding and expose the truth.
This can only be done if students are taught that the mefarshim were actual people – people who had their own personality and approach to the text. The best way to do this is to teach the introductions that each parshan wrote to his commentary, where he lays out his methodology and his bias.
(One of the great scandals of the Artscroll Tanach is that it is impossible to discern the personalities of any of the mefarshim. Ibn Ezra who, as I just mentioned, felt that Rashi had no understanding of the peshat of the Torah, sounds just like Rashi when you see him quoted in the Artscroll Tanach. This is not by accident. But it is not helpful, either.)
Once Orthodox Jews and students are both familiar with the project of uncovering the peshat of the Bible, and once they understand that it is both a permissible and desirable enterprise within traditional (Orthodox) Judaism, it is a much smaller step to accepting modern Biblical scholarship as one more tool toward accomplishing this sacred goal.
This does not, of course, address the theological implications of adopting a methodology that questions (or denies) the divinity of the Torah and questions the integrity of the rest of Tanach. Certainly, this is a formidable challenge, and represents a difference of both degree and kind from the methodology practiced by our forefathers. Nevertheless, many members of the emerging cadre of Orthodox Bible scholars have found ways of rationalizing, justifying, or accepting a critical approach to Bible while maintaining an adherence to Torah and mitzvot and a place in the Orthodox community.
To return to our first point, let us ask again: Why should we be bothering with this? One of the interesting answers I received when I posed this question in interviews with Orthodox Bible scholars was simply, “because it is true.” Now, this is a good but not sufficient answer, since what is true is not always good – certainly not for all people at all points in their education. On the other hand, we should seriously consider what it means religiously for Orthodox Jews not to engage in the pursuit of truth. Likewise, we should seriously consider the issue of losing adherents to Orthodoxy who do not believe we have an honest and compelling approach to the serious challenges that modern scholarship poses to our sacred foundational texts.
Many Orthodox Jews, rabbis, and educators fear engaging in Bible Criticism because it will lead to attrition, out of Orthodoxy and out of halachic observance. I do not wish to gainsay this fear, except to state anecdotally that this has not been my experience. On the other hand, not enough time has passed to fairly judge what effect Bible scholarship will have on the fabric of Orthodoxy, so we should certainly proceed with caution.
We must realize, too, that there is serious halachic objection as to whether we are permitted to confront this issue. Also, since the belief in the unity and divinity of the written Torah has become such an integral part of Orthodox ideology, we must decide how we will define and distinguish ourselves as Orthodox Jews if we abandon or reinterpret this principle.
These are all serious issues that we must face. Is the Orthodox world ready for this difficult encounter with all the other problems it faces? I am not sure. But I am certain that more and more Orthodox Jews will continue to accept this new approach to the Bible. The question is whether Orthodoxy will be a place where they can do so.
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May 14, 2013
January 20, 2021
Rabbi Eric Grossman is Head of School at Akiva School in Montreal, Quebec. He is the author of numerous articles on Bible and Bible education, as well as a grammar of biblical Hebrew.
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