Biblical Literalism Makes Judaism a Withered Tree
The question as formulated—whether it is possible to reconcile Torah MiSinai with academic scholarship—can be answered in a single word: No.
It is not possible to bifurcate one’s mind in that way; all attempts to do so wind up in self-deception and deception of others. Our torat emet deserves better.
I therefore choose to reformulate the question:
Can a person who believes in the legitimacy of biblical criticism and accepts many of its methods and conclusions still assert a faith in torah min ha-shamayim?
To this I would answer a hearty “Yes!”
Seeking Old/New Language of Faith
In seeking out such an old/new language of faith, i.e., language which feels authentically traditional but speaks to the modern person, we need first to turn inward to examine the resources tradition offers us for approaching this question. I know of no better way to do this than to engage deeply with the Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Torah min ha-Shamayim and the many sources quoted there.
To highlight only a few examples: The Torah text, of course, records only the ten commandments as given at Sinai, the rest revealed later through the course of Moses’s life. Moreover, an aggadic tradition reduces God’s revelation to Israel to only the first two commandments. The rest were transmitted through Moses.
Might it be possible that these two commandments, the realization that YHWH was their liberator and nothing else is worthy of worship, were impressed on the hearts of Israel at that moment, without positing a voice of God speaking out of the sky? Might divine speech be a voice that speaks from within us, linking our soul to the Universal One, rather than thundering forth from the heavens in perfect biblical Hebrew?
The rest came through Moses, and that was prophecy. Read carefully the way Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) understands prophecy. It is the fusion of the prophet’s mind to the divine intellect. But in that case, both shamayim and Sinai serve mostly as vertical metaphors for internal events.
Yes, this is still a faith in Torah min ha-shamayim. Heschel refers to it somewhere as שמים שבלב, the “heavens” within the heart.
In Heschel’s chapter “Is the Prophet a Partner or a Vessel?”—developed more fully in his The Prophets—Heschel seeks (and finds!) rabbinic sources that support his view that the prophet speaks out of identification with the divine pathos, but the words he speaks are his own.
Notably, Heschel avoids almost all mention of Moses in The Prophets, perhaps fearing where that will lead. But the conclusion is inevitable: It is Moses, deeply identifying with the inner divine voice, who creates/articulates the forms, i.e., the specific ritual acts, of Israelite religion, “shekhinah speaking through his mouth.” Are those forms then of divine or Mosaic origin? The answer, my friends, is “Yes.”
Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Is Not a Geographical Statement!
I still remember Heschel crying aloud to a class of rabbinical students: “Torah min ha-Shamayim is not a geographical statement!” Alas, too many of us remain in thrall to that “geographical” metaphor. A new fundamentalism has swept into Jewish Orthodoxy (the term itself, of course, is borrowed from Christianity, and that is part of the problem), demanding a biblical literalism quite alien to the wide-ranging lens of interpretation offered within the traditional sources, as Heschel teaches us to read them.
Heschel insisted that the whole realm of aggadah, i.e., non-legal discussions, generally in the form of either midrashic readings of the Bible or free-standing narratives, was created in order to stimulate thought and cultivate spiritual sensitivity. Without the freedom and playfulness aggadah offers, Judaism becomes sterile, an עץ יבש, “a withered tree,” to use an expression from the book of Isaiah (56:3).
Kabbalah and Hasidism came in its wake, adding richness and variety to the conversation about this and many other subjects. Ours should be an age that embraces them all, allowing for a renewal of our faith and in our religious language for the very new era in which we live.
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Prof. Rabbi Arthur Green was the founding dean and is currently rector of the Rabbinical School and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University, where he occupied the distinguished Philip W. Lown Professorship of Jewish Thought. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University and Rabbinical Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Green is author, editor, and translator of over twenty books, among which are Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism (Jewish Lights, 2013), The Light of the Eyes by R. Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobyl (Stanford, 2021), and Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale, 2020), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
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