Conflict? What Conflict? Religious Tradition and Biblical Criticism
My route into biblical studies was probably an unusual one, since I began to think about a career — dare I say, a vocation? — as a professor of biblical studies back when I was in high school. (If this detail about my teenager years leads you to suspect that I was not the hub of my high school’s social scene, you would not be wrong.)
I had been introduced to modern biblical scholarship through several influences. I learned a good deal about both traditional Jewish methods of biblical study and biblical criticism from Chaim Potok’s novel, In the Beginning, which traces the growth of a boy who, as a young man, decides to leave his modern yeshiva to become a biblical critic.
Also, I had a Hebrew-school teacher, when I was in middle school, who was pursuing a Ph.D. under Moshe Held, the great scholar of Bible, ancient Near East, and especially ancient languages. Most importantly, my Bible teachers at JTS’s Prozdor School—a twice-a-week program for high school students where surprisingly high-level study took place—introduced me to the field.
Studying Deuteronomy, we learned about the differences between D and other Pentateuchal sources, and studying Deutero-Isaiah (yes, the class was specifically on Deutero-Isaiah), we discussed why the section beginning with chapter 40 must have been written in Mesopotamia in the sixth century, and we learned, among other things, how this exilic prophet reworked phrasing borrowed from Jeremiah. (This topic eventually became the subject of my dissertation and my first book.)
Finally, during my youth-group trip to Israel during the summer before my senior year, a JTS undergrad who staffed our trip taught a class that introduced me to literary interpretation of biblical narrative.
As a high school student, I discovered that biblical studies combined many of my keenest interests. I loved literature and was thinking about majoring in English in college; I was attracted to Judaism and fascinated by religion generally; I was reading a good deal about philosophy, and while I could see that the Bible was not a philosophical text, it dealt with some of the same big ideas that the existentialists I read addressed.
Further, from my teachers at JTS, some of whom were planning to pursue doctorates themselves, I learned about the existence of a career path known as “the academy.” I enjoyed writing and public speaking, and apparently that was pretty much what professors did for a living. (Nobody told me about committee work.) Being a Bible professor when I grew up wasn’t the only option I thought about, but already on my first day of college, it was a leading contender.
Those teachers from JTS also convinced me, mostly through their example and indirect forms of suasion, that Jewish life was intellectually serious and full of depth. They played a crucial role in my decision, at the start of my senior year of high school, to more or less become shomer shabbat and to get the grilled cheese rather than the hamburger at my high school’s cafeteria. Thus began a move towards halakhic practice that grew deeper, slowly and organically, over many years.
Since the teachers who introduced me to modern biblical scholarship were the same people who drew me into Jewish observance, I’ve never felt a conflict between biblical criticism and religious commitment. To me, they’ve always gone hand in hand. I know that many people feel a tension in this regard, but, fundamentally, I just don’t get it.
Okay — Moses didn’t write the Torah. So what? Why should that have any effect on whether I keep kosher? God could have commanded us through Moses, using direct speech. Or God might have commanded us through other people, without using direct speech. What difference does this make to the fact of commandedness, or to the status of ritual and ethics as meaningful?
Of course, the means of the revelation might have some effects on the nature of Judaism: if God’s teachings didn’t all come through Moses and were not stated plainly in language, then those teachings are not (to use the Protestant term) perspicuous, and they’re open to debate and even change. But I’ve never seen why the commanding nature of a mitzvah should be impugned by its non-Mosaic origin.
A good deal of my career has been devoted to explaining why people who assume that biblical criticism inevitably undermines Jewish religiosity are just not thinking hard enough. To be sure, biblical criticism alters Jewish religiosity and enriches it in significant ways, which I lay out in the conclusion to my book, Revelation and Authority. But there’s no reason biblical criticism has to damage Jewish religiosity.
The religiously positive context in which I was first introduced to modern biblical scholarship put me a bit out of step with many other people in the field. It also provided me with the basic project of my career, or rather (this time without a question mark) of my vocation: demonstrating that the conflict that worries so many religious readers of modern biblical scholarship need not be a conflict at all.
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May 12, 2021
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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”
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