Can Orthodox Education Survive Biblical Criticism?
The Game of Chicken
Those who have attended Orthodox day schools have heard some version of the following speech. “If you do not believe that the entire Torah she-be-chtav (written Torah) was dictated to Moses by God in the desert word for word, including the basic parts of Torah she-be-al peh (oral Torah), then there is no point to being frum at all; go have a cheeseburger.” A version of this claim lies at the heart of the educational system of Orthodoxy and holds sway over public discourse in institutional settings like synagogues. The basic premise of this claim is that the Torah’s status as the unmediated and perfect word of God is what makes Jewish observance meaningful and significant.
There is a corollary speech popular among day school teachers, this one about believing in the history presented in the Bible. It goes the same way, “If you do not believe the events in the Torah happened, that God split the Sea for the Israelites after freeing them from Egypt and then appeared to them on Mount Sinai, then the Torah is nothing but a book of lies; go have a cheeseburger.” The basic premise of this claim is that what makes the stories of the Torah significant is that “they happen to have happened.”
Inevitably, when I bring up these speeches to an audience of day school graduates, many nod and some will say that they were the ones who “ate the cheeseburger.” Why did they eat the cheeseburger? In my talks with Hillel rabbis from a number of campuses across the United States, I have been told that day school students are “dropping like flies.” Admittedly, for some students this has nothing to do with academic studies; nevertheless, for others it has everything to do with it.
This is why I call the speech “playing chicken.” In the game of chicken, two people drive at each other at full speed. Since if neither flinch they will both be killed, someone has to swerve first. The person who swerves is the chicken, the other the winner. The game is adversarial, as are the above-described speeches. The teacher who makes such a speech is afraid that the students will repudiate his or her worldview. To avoid this outcome, students are threatened with losing their place in the Torah observant community. This threat makes many students swerve, to avoid a collision with their community.
The teacher wins the first round of the chicken game—inevitably many teenagers will flinch under the full weight of the adult world’s threat—but the game is not won. It is merely postponed. Suddenly, in early adulthood, many of these students find themselves back in the game. But this time they don’t flinch. Assuming the establishment will not flinch either, the game of chicken ends up with the threatened explosion, and the now young adults leave the fold. Cheeseburgers are only the first step.
The Intellectual Foundations of the Status Quo Response
Why has the Orthodox world reacted so aggressively to academic biblical studies? Many point to the fact that the “father” of the Documentary Hypothesis—Julius Wellhausen—used his theory to disparage Judaism as a legalistic deterioration of the original “pure” form of religion. This may be so, but I don’t think this is Orthodox Judaism’s primary concern, especially since that kind of approach has been defunct since the age of Yehezkel Kaufmann.
The concern is generally expressed in terms of Maimonides’ eighth principle, which mandates as an absolute requirement that Jews believe the entire Torah to have been dictated word for word from God to Moses. This, however, does not seem to be the real objection either. Maimonides has many other principles, like the total incorporeality of God, that religious publications and discussions violate all the time without much of an outcry. Furthermore, the principle says nothing about the belief in the historicity of any of the events in the Torah, and this is considered just as sacrosanct as authorship.
In my estimation, what underlies the aggressive reaction is the fear that acceptance of the conclusions of academic biblical scholarship will mean the demise of the religion. In other words, if the Torah is not the word for word dictation of the Creator to Moses, if it contains contradictory accounts of the same stories or laws, then how can it be the basis for our religion? Isn’t saying divinely inspired just too fuzzy for “orthodox” style religion? I think that empirical evidence problematizes this question.
The Torah and the Gospels
Several years ago at Emory University—a Methodist school—I attended a fine presentation by a first-rate Jewish Bible scholar to the faculty and graduate students of the Hebrew Bible dept. This particular presenter was advocating for a return to the classical documentary hypothesis, and offered an overview of this revived version, concluding with his explanation for why the documents were combined. He suggested the well-known explanation that during the Persian period there was a requirement for the Province of Judah to have a law book, and thus the final editor or collator put the book together from the four earlier sources, J, E, P, & D.
One of the audience members then asked, “Why did the collator choose to splice the books together into one account? Why not just put them one after the other?” The speaker—an Israeli Jewish scholar speaking to a predominantly Christian audience—answered, “Four different versions of the same story back to back! What kind of Bible is that?!” I imagine that the words “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John” came quickly to the thoughts of the Methodist audience.
This anecdote stands out in my mind as paradigmatic of the same issue that underlies the cheeseburger speech. The Jewish speaker, despite being an academic scholar well aware of the New Testament gospels and their contradictory versions of the Jesus story, simply couldn’t imagine that the Torah could have been successfully presented as a collection of contradictory narratives and laws, even if he believes that that is precisely what the Torah is. On the other hand, the Christian audience had no problem imagining the Torah this way, since their own Bible starts with exactly this kind of phenomenon.
The fact that the speaker and the audience could have two different conceptions of a viable composition for a Bible points to the fact that there is no singular correct or viable way to present a core book of a religion – much depends on expectation. When one is accustomed to a single religious narrative, it seems impossible to accept multiple contradictory narratives. If one is accustomed to a divinely dictated Bible, how can the book remain sacred once the fingerprints of human hands are evident? However, if one expects the Bible to be a human document, composed of the perspectives of multiple human authors reflecting on their encounters with the divine, finding out that the Torah is exactly that poses no theological problem.
In short, a divinely dictated Torah offering only one perspective unfiltered by human hands is not a prerequisite for orthodox religion. Many religions without this core doctrine have thrived throughout history and even today. Catholics all over the world take the Eucharist without insisting that Matthew 26 or Luke 22 was dictated by God to the author. There seems little reason why Orthodox Jews cannot continue to keep kosher and avoid cheeseburgers without claiming that God dictated the anti-cheeseburger stance to Moses at Sinai.
The Talmud: A Divinely Inspired Book Filled with Contradictions
The relationship between rabbinic Jews and the Talmud demonstrates how well a fuzzy view of divine command works for most Orthodox Jews. Although Orthodox Jews study Chumash, they do it through the prism of rabbinic interpretation. Moreover, the Talmud doesn’t have just one interpretation of the Torah, it offers many conflicting interpretations, often in the name of various Tannaim or Amoraim. In other words, the Talmud makes it clear that we, i.e. rabbinic Jews, don’t actually know what the Torah means about many things.
When it comes to Jewish law, the problem is even worse. Not only are there debates about what the law actually is, but many of the de-oraitta (from the Torah) laws are not in the Torah at all. Moreover, plenty of the laws Jews keep are rabbinic in nature (de-rabbanan), and the Talmud admits this freely.
To return to the game of chicken, irony of ironies, nowhere is it stated in the Torah that cheeseburgers are forbidden. In fact, if we follow the rabbis’ interpretation, a cheeseburger is most likely only an issur de-rabbanan (unless the hamburger and the cheese were cooked together or the meat was heated to an untouchable degree (yad soledet bo) when the cheese was placed upon it.)
How does Judaism maintain the veneer of divinely dictated religion when all its practices and faith claims are filtered through the contradictory and very human apparatus of rabbinic interpretation? The Rabbis say that all the views in the Talmud are the word of God, in some way. Eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim chayim; a fuzzy revelatory principle if ever there was one.
Allegorical Philosophers and the New Orthodox Apologetics
The question of allegory reveals a similar fuzzy logic. The Torah, ostensibly the dictated word of God, describes God in physical terms, complete with a body and emotions. Yet, according to Maimonides’ third principle, it is actually forbidden to believe this. How does he know that it is forbidden? Because believing such a thing about the Creator would be irrational. What does one do with the fact that this principle contradicts the explicit words of the Torah? Maimonides says that the Torah’s words aren’t meant literally.
This allegorical principle is used to solve other problems as well. The Torah advocates for the Lex Talionis, but the rabbis say that it doesn’t really mean a hand for a hand; rather it means that people should pay damages. The Book of Joshua says that the sun was stopped, which implies that it revolves around the earth. After the Copernican revolution, rabbis began to say that that passage was only speaking colloquially. The Torah tells stories about talking snakes, talking donkeys and angels wrestling with men and eating with people—the medieval rationalist scholars, like Maimonides, claimed that these stories were all allegories or prophetic visions. According to the Torah, the earth was created in six days and is the center of the universe. Many Modern Orthodox Jews, accepting the facts of modern physics and astronomy, claim that this account is an allegory. Many further assert that the Noah story—which describes the entire earth being wiped out by a flood only a few thousand years ago, and which contradicts the material evidence of geology, archaeology, and ecosystem ecology—is really an exaggerated account of a local flood meant to teach the readers a lesson about God and morality.
Can a book containing so many false statements that require reinterpretation really be divine? Can these ideas hold the religion together? Thus far, traditional Judaism seems to be doing fine, even with all of the above modifications, many of which have lasted more than a millennium.
As R. Amit Kula suggests in the introduction to his book Existential or Non-Essential, the relationship between Judaism and the academic study of Israelite history is in a similar place to where Judaism was vis-à-vis the study of God in Maimonidean times. Like the paradigm shift that occurred surrounding the corporeality of God or the allegorical reading of Genesis 1-11, the fact of modernity and academic biblical studies penetrated the system and is now proverbially “out of the bag.” It is only a matter of time before a new synthesis emerges. Helping to mold this new synthesis is one of the primary goals of TABS and our website, TheTorah.com.
Fichte, Kübler-Ross, and the Current Crisis
The argument can be made that the classic Pseudo-Hegelian, probably Fichtian (= Johannes Gottlieb Fichte) dialectic model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is now unfolding. The long-held thesis in traditional Judaism has been that God dictated the Torah to Moses. The antithesis began two centuries ago, with scholars like Astruc, De Wette and Wellhausen demonstrating the Torah to be a human work made up of numerous contradictory sources and editorial layers. The synthesis, seeing the Torah as an interplay between divine encounter and human authorship, which began with JTS scholars such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, and continued into the Orthodox community with scholars such as Prof. Tamar Ross and R. Dr. Norman Solomon, has now reached a stage of rapid growth on TheTorah.com. This is one way to envision what is occurring, especially among those sympathetic to the project.
To understand the reaction of the camp antagonistic to the project, I find the DABDA model of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross useful. Whenever a person is forced to give up on a core belief, he or she may experience a “little death” of sorts. As Kula points out, this may very well be what the opponents of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed were feeling about the loss of their personal God.
According to Kübler-Ross, a person facing death goes through five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe that many who are most vociferously opposed to open discussion of academic biblical studies are going through this process. There are those who deny the problem and see little need to discuss this question at all. Although many people may have been at this stage a year ago, I believe that the existence of TABS has effectively neutralized this position and forced people into one of the later stages.
The Chareidi community mostly expresses its opposition as anger. There is denunciation of heresy and threats to reject the Orthodox credentials of those who engage in this enterprise. Much of the Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox communities has entered a kind of bargaining stage, attempting to incorporate some parts of modern scholarship—whether literary theory or archaeology or even source division—but rejecting others as “beyond the pale.” Thus, if we follow the DABDA model, we may be witnessing the beginning of a long process that will end with some form of acceptance among all but some fringe groups.
Humpty Dumpty and Through the Looking Glass
In my Avraham Avinu essay, I defined Torah Min Ha-Shamayim as a belief that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel and Torah mi-Sinai as a belief in the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. In the wave of criticism against my essay, a number of people attacked my reimagining of the concepts of Torah Mi-Sinai and Torah min Ha-Shamayim by quoting Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass. In that scene, Humpty Dumpty uses a word (“glory”) incorrectly and Alice calls him out on it.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
A number of critics quoted this humorous vignette to make the case that it is impossible to reimagine the meaning of Torah mi-Sinai or Torah min Ha-Shamayim. These words mean one thing only and can never mean something else; any claim to the contrary, they argued, is a piece of sophistry worthy of Humpty Dumpty.
This is a mistake. In this case, Humpty Dumpty has it right. When the Torah says God walked in the Garden or Moses saw God face to face, it means what it says, but in post-Maimonidean Judaism, it means something different. When the Torah states that God created the world in six days, or that God opened up the reserves of water in the sky and flooded the earth, it means what it says, but nowadays it means something else. The reason the meaning of these words changed is because it had to; Judaism has always adapted itself to conceptual changes—which is why it survives: it is survival through adaptation as opposed to slow death or marginalization through ossification.
In our time, another shift is needed to accommodate the now very developed academic disciplines of biblical studies and archaeology. The old words need to be imbued with new meaning. I have made some suggestions, other scholars have made other suggestions and the conversation is a robust one.
Can Orthodox Judaism accommodate this change? Absolutely. Can our schools and shuls handle the message? They have no other choice, other than the game of chicken or shutting out the larger world of academic knowledge. How will we accommodate the change in thinking and outlook? As we always have, through rigorous reinterpretation of our sacred texts, imbuing old words with new meaning. This must be done carefully, and in a way that is true to the text and its discourse (in the Wittgensteinian sense) and true to the reality as understood in our times, but it must be done.
As the logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, said in the voice of Humpty Dumpty, “The question is which is to be master.” Will it be the interpretations of the past or the thinkers of the present? “The question is which is to be master, that is all.”
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August 28, 2014
March 15, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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