Embracing Academic Torah Study: Modern Orthodoxy’s Challenge
Writing in the American Jewish Yearbook in 1965, the late social scientist Charles Liebman predicted that once Orthodox Jews began weighing the theological implications of contemporary biblical scholarship, “explosive consequences” would ensue. In the short-term, Liebman maintained, Modern Orthodox intellectuals preferred only to pay lip service to contemporary scholarship, acknowledging that aspects of Biblical criticism might be absorbed by Jewish tradition but generally excluding serious engagement with the subject. Over the long-term, he argued, evading the questions would not be sustainable.
Five decades later Liebman appears to have been remarkably prescient. For many years Modern Orthodoxy did avoid the subject. Of late, however, interest has peaked considerably: James Kugel’s volume, How to Read the Bible, stirred great interest within the Modern Orthodox community, and Kugel lectured to overflow audiences at several Orthodox institutions. Among other places, Kugel lectured at Yeshiva University amidst considerable controversy as to whether he ought be welcomed within the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.
In the summer of 2013 Project TABS launched its website, TheTorah.com, on which Zev Farber published his essay, “Avraham Avinu is my Father,” which distinguishes between the historical credibility of biblical narrative, much of which he rejected, and its theological truths, which he accepted. Considerable controversy ensued with respect to Farber and TheTorah.com, whose critics claimed that one cannot be Orthodox and embrace the findings of biblical criticism simultaneously.
Biblical criticism is fast becoming a wedge issue between Centrist and Modern/Open Orthodoxy. The former largely discount the phenomenon (or dismiss it purely as nuisance value); the latter is beginning to deal with it in earnest. Only a few years ago, however, both groups largely turned a blind eye to the issue. Why the decades-long silence on academic biblical scholarship in even the Modern Orthodox world, and what does the newfound interest in the subject portend for the future of Modern Orthodoxy? Let’s take each question in turn.
Why has the Orthodox World Ignored Academic Biblical Scholarship?
Biblical criticism challenges inherited beliefs. No “Orthodox” Jew prior to Spinoza, including ibn Ezra, denied Mosaic authorship of large parts of the Torah. Nevertheless, biblical scholarship does just that. Furthermore, under the influence of a famous essay by Solomon Schechter titled “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism,” many are persuaded that biblical criticism is anti-Semitic in nature and treat it as a pernicious threat as opposed to an academic body of knowledge. Finally, some simply believe that it is forbidden knowledge or, at least, knowledge that will undermine their faith. “If we want to remain observant” they ask, “why should we study something that will call into question the basis of our observance?”
Remarkably, few, if any, Orthodox leaders perceive biblical criticism as an opportunity to be embraced precisely for the challenges it poses to traditionalist faith. The study of Biblical criticism cuts to the very meaning of the value system of Modern Orthodoxy of forging a distinctive synthesis of modern culture with traditional values. Rather than confront this challenge, many Modern Orthodox educators opt instead for simplistic “answers” to its questions or ignore them entirely. For example, how many day school graduates are at all made aware of the various points in the Torah where ibn Ezra acknowledges leeway for editorial modifications in later centuries? And what, then, does ibn Ezra’s position do to the traditional faith-based perspective?
Modern Orthodox scholars may no longer state with a straight face that “biblical criticism is the work of anti-Semites”, or that “archeology buttresses the biblical narrative” or that “recent research has been pushing the date of the composition of the Torah further back in time,” implying that at some future point it will be discovered that the text actually does go back to Moses. To the contrary, recent research challenges the historicity of the text, the date of its composition, its ascribed authorship—even the very existence of Moses as a historical figure! The challenges are growing only more severe.
Rather than confront these challenges, however, Modern Orthodoxy appears to have forfeited its verve and independence. The intellectual community has largely turned to apologetics and the important but narrow field of literary study of the Bible. This latter method approaches the biblical text with a modernist and academic appearance, offering some interesting and sometimes compelling textual insights, all the while avoiding historical questions. And even this is only for the elites. For the laypeople, the Modern Orthodox world has grown dependent upon Haredi publications such as the ArtScroll series.
Hertz Chumash versus ArtScroll Chumash
The best illustration of Orthodoxy’s refusal to engage contemporary biblical scholarship may be found in the continuing popularity of the ArtScroll series of Bible commentaries for lay Orthodox readers. The volumes are beautifully illustrated, well-bound (a minor miracle in the publication history of seforim), and are written in lucid and accessible English. Yet the volumes pretend that modern scholarship simply does not exist. One searches in vain for references even to apparent, let alone real, conflicts between traditionalist readings of biblical narratives and historical scholarship. Moreover, the volumes hopelessly confuse peshat and derash often substituting homiletical or legendary interpretations for the intended meaning of the biblical authors.
Yet remarkably the ArtScroll series has grown immensely in popularity. As an adolescent I read regularly the commentary by Joseph Hertz on the Torah reading of the week. Although now badly outdated (it was published in 1937), the Hertz commentary did represent a serious effort to respond to contemporary scholarship on a range of historical and contextual issues; he even mentioned non-Jewish scholars in this work. Yet today Orthodox congregations, even the most “modern” ones, largely have substituted the ArtScroll Chumash, produced under Haredi auspices, for the clearly “Modern Orthodox”- intended Hertz.
Ironically, the substitution has occurred despite the increased interest in biblical scholarship suggested by the publication 25 years ago of the JPS 5-volume Chumash, the more popular yet still scholarly Etz Chaim of the Conservative movement, as well as Reform Judaism’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary. The assumptions underlying the ArtScroll series are that academic scholarship safely may be ignored. Presumably many may continue their lives as observant Jews in blissful ignorance of the findings of biblical criticism.
This strategy may be working in the Haredi community—and I have my doubts about that—but it is failing and will continue to fail in the Modern Orthodox community. With the availability of knowledge nowadays, the attempt to remain ignorant of the findings of academic biblical studies is faltering. Moreover, the favorite strategy among Modern Orthodox intellectuals to ameliorate the problem, the literary method, is proving to be insufficient to the task because historical questions cannot be avoided and demonizing or casting aspersions upon academic scholarship is quickly losing cachet as a response.
So what now?
What does the Newfound Interest in Biblical Scholarship Portend for Modern Orthodoxy?
One problem Modern Orthodoxy has always faced has been the necessity of living with uncertainty. More fundamentalist readings remove doubt. Academic biblical scholarship, by contrast, enhances questioning, and even skepticism. This is precisely an area where Modern Orthodoxy may distinguish itself from Haredi Orthodoxy. For the Modern Orthodox, doubt is to be valued, reflecting seriousness of thought, and stimulating questioning of and wrestling with the text. Simplistic answers ought to encounter only minimal resonance among Modern Orthodox Jews.
As I see it, the particular findings of critical biblical scholarship are not the major obstacle. Jewish tradition is diverse and sufficiently flexible to absorb the contents of scholarship. Rather, the chief problem generated by critical scholarship for the religious Jew lies in the attitude it takes towards sacred texts. The attitudinal context found within biblical scholarship is one of distancing from the text – to be able to read a text with sufficient distance so as to contextualize it, ask probing and challenging questions about it, and ultimately weigh its existential meaning for contemporary readers. This is a far cry from those who approach a text presupposing its historical accuracy and fundamental correctness on the grounds that Divine dictate may never be erroneous. With distancing, in turn, goes decreased reverence and with attenuated reverence goes decreased faith in the salience of the text and its wisdom, let alone in its theological prescriptions.
Here is where Project TABS’ website, TheTorah.com, makes an enormous contribution. Its essays on modern understanding of text, its invoking of critical commentaries, and its broadening of our appreciation for the text all enable the reader to contextualize Torah teachings and narratives. In turn, our reading of the text is enhanced by authors who, in fact, build respect and reverence in their search for contemporary meaning rather than invoke scholarship as a vehicle for destroying the relevance of the text and its claims upon today’s readers.
The fact that TheTorah.com has found a readership in the Orthodox community points both to continuing interest in this field and to the presence of a community of readers who are struggling with the same questions. Many in our community and even outside our community are working to figure out how to approach biblical scholarship, how to confront its challenges and learn from it rather than reject it as antagonistic to their religious lives.
Perhaps Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm understood this best some 45 years ago when he noted that for rabbis to acquaint themselves with contemporary biblical scholarship was “probably our greatest and most pressing need at present.” His words resonate no less true today with respect to lay readers as well as to the rabbinate. At a minimum he was suggesting that Modern Orthodox congregants, living in the general culture, would be exposed to contemporary scholarship in any case, and their rabbis, no matter how well-versed in rabbinics, lacked sufficient training to engage the findings of biblical scholarship.
To some extent, TABS has already begun this process, but I have two further suggestions.
Teaching Academic Biblical Studies in our Schools
In his recent essay “Can Orthodox Education Survive Biblical Criticism,” Zev Farber argues that Jewish Day Schools, even Modern Orthodox ones, should begin to think about how to approach the subject honestly in the classroom. I understand that many will push back against this idea, going with the credo “better not to be exposed to it” or “let them be exposed to it in college” when they presumably will be someone else’s problem. Nevertheless, I can speak from personal experience that exposure at the high school level can be beneficial; I was exposed to biblical scholarship at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts during high school and benefitted greatly from it.
Here are some of my experiences at Maimonides: A history instructor frankly confessed that he personally did not believe that the Red Sea had split and that Orthodox adolescents needed to know that the community of historians did not accept this biblical narrative as historically accurate. An East European rosh yeshiva assigned over the course of two years of high school term papers with topics such as creation in the light of modern science, the ethical dilemmas posed by the actions of the Patriarchs, and comparison of the Joseph narrative in traditional commentaries with Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. A Bible instructor assigned sections of Yehezkhel Kaufman to graduating seniors. For me these assignments constituted Jewish education at its finest – the pursuit of excellence in two very different realms, exposure to world views very foreign to traditional teachings, and asking how to read the Bible in light of conflicting claims of truth. To be sure, there were lacunae in the curriculum. Ibn Ezra’s suggestions of later editing were ignored. Similarly, one instructor dismissed a “second Isaiah” as heresy until we pointed out to him that Hertz took it seriously.
What made this an effective approach primarily is that the approach was rooted in love and reverence for the text. Questions and doubt were encouraged but the mindset was to approach the text out of love and respect for it.
By contrast, Yeshiva University, which I attended after Maimonides, while undoubtedly an intellectually and socially maturing experience, generally failed to instill – save by dint of personal backlash- the intellectual curiosity, love of learning, and, above all, the struggle between the two worlds of faith and scholarship. Most often Bible was taught at a very elementary level; instructors, themselves weak in historical knowledge and context, generally concentrated on explication de texte, arguably little more than an advanced model of elementary school text with Rashi commentary. Questions that challenged traditional narratives and teachings were quickly dismissed as silly, irrelevant, or subversive. Some instructors, allegedly more enlightened, held biblical criticism up to scorn as a straw man easily refuted by arguments that in fact at best constituted apologetics.
There were exceptions, to be sure, and it was perhaps these that rescued for me my undergraduate experience. Dr. David Berger did teach courses on Bible academically engaging contemporary scholarship fairly and judiciously even as he expressed disagreement with significant findings. In retrospect, Dr. Berger’s hypothesis was that yeshiva education necessitated exposure to critical scholarship, and its findings needed to be weighed honestly – precisely the objective invoked above attributed to Dr. Norman Lamm.
Perhaps even more importantly, Dr. Yitz Greenberg’s courses in intellectual history addressed biblical scholarship through the eyes of modern theologians, both Jewish and Christian. Greenberg acknowledged that he was an intellectual historian and theologian rather than a Bible scholar and therefore avoided definitive conclusions even as he advocated full exposure to biblical criticism. What Greenberg did accomplish was to address the existential and religious needs of Modern Orthodox students by demonstrating that the religious messages of sacred text far transcended in significance their relative historical inaccuracy.
Those exceptions notwithstanding, as noted above, the YU experience left me alienated by the closed attitudes of Modern Orthodoxy to dissenting opinion generally and to Bible scholarship specifically. That closed-mindedness in effect persuaded me that the world of biblical scholarship possessed much greater wisdom than its Orthodox detractors presupposed.
A TABS-Style Modern Orthodox Bible Commentary
Biblical criticism represents a body of knowledge prevalent within university circles that may encounter a resonant audience among Modern Orthodox laity. Yeshiva graduates, long immersed in Talmud, may well find themselves fascinated with the Bible and eager to learn what modern scholarship has to say about it.
Permit me again to draw upon my personal experience. My doctoral studies at Columbia University focused upon the modern Jewish experience and my professional work at the American Jewish Committee over the past three decades has concentrated on American Jewish life and contemporary Israel. Although the Bible is by no means irrelevant to these topics, it has never occupied more than a tangential component of my teaching, writing, and professional work.
Nonetheless, as a Jew struggling existentially between the twin poles of modernity and tradition and as an advocate for a truly Modern Orthodoxy, I perceived biblical scholarship as a critical focus of my learning and thinking. In practice, that meant recoiling from ArtScroll in favor of JPS. For decades my practice was to study one chapter per evening of a book in the Bible through the lens of modern commentators. And that study program has benefited greatly from immersion in the Anchor Bible Series, although, to be sure, not all volumes possess equal quality.
But more important than my study practice is how biblical scholarship has affected my religious outlook. Historicization of the text permits the reader to comprehend and even empathize with what may otherwise be regarded as problematic biblical narratives or teachings. For example, understanding King David as both heroic and tragically flawed enhances his stature notwithstanding rabbinic admonitions that David was without sin. Similarly, understanding the nature of marriage in the ancient world illuminates many of the otherwise harsh laws in the Bible concerning gender relations. Put simply, studying the Bible as an historical document transforms it into a live voice calling to us from ancient times that I can believe in even as I perceive many of its teachings as targeted to a very different culture and time.
Last, contemporary study of the Bible serves as an excellent laboratory for the viability of a Modern Orthodox outlook. Does biblical scholarship make one into a non-believer? The risk, to be sure, was always there. My own experience, as I have tried to document here, is that it has only deepened my empathy for and understanding of the Jewish historical experience, the beauty and wisdom of the teachings of Judaic heritage, and the continuing salience of the Bible as foundational text of the Jews.
Thus, I would love to see an authentically Modern Orthodox Chumash in the TABS style. The advantages of having such a work would be considerable: First, it would place biblical narratives in the context of the ancient world. Thus, for example, the creation narrative may best be understood as a narrative of order in the universe in direct contrast to the “battle of the gods” that the mythologies of ancient Mesopotamia maintained were responsible for creating the universe. Similarly, the akedah narrative may be understood against the backdrop of child sacrifice, which existed in the ancient world.
Second, absent historical context, biblical narratives demand much greater leaps of faith. Did Moses actually write that Abraham pursued his foes until “Dan” in order to rescue Lot (Gen. 14:14), or was the place name a later editorial insert to indicate what by then had become a well-known locale? Were there two “Yairs” who each happened to have conquered 30 villages in the Bashan 200 years apart (Deut. 3:14; Judg. 10:3-4) or was this but one incident occurring later but inserted retrospectively into the Book of Numbers as a subsequent epilogue of the war with Bashan? Perhaps most tellingly, did Joshua order the sun to stop (Josh. 10:12), or was this either a mythic tale or a memory of a solar eclipse that could be explained only as a miracle at that time? Or, on perhaps the most basic level, did all of humanity descend from Noah’s three sons (Gen. 10), were there really several million Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years (Num. 2, 26), and did diversity of language result from an ill-fated attempt to build a tower in ancient Babylon (Gen. 11:1-9)?
Finally, putting the Torah in historical context helps soften the moral difficulties that come from many of the Torah’s laws or narratives. The Torah could not abolish an institution like slavery at a time when it was generally accepted in the ancient world, much as such an imperative might gratify us three millennia later. Similarly, if the Torah commanded total and other utter destruction of Amalek and the seven nations of Canaan, we would do well to ask about the then-regnant ethics of war. For example, Homer’s Iliad notes that in setting out to battle against ancient Troy, Agamemnon commanded his troops to eliminate completely the villages surrounding Troy.
Put simply, understanding the context of the ancient Near East in which biblical authors wrote enhances our comprehension of biblical narratives rather than insist upon a dogmatic belief that many may find unacceptable. For this reason, I would argue that biblical criticism adds to the meaning of the text rather than detracting from it.
How Will Modern Orthodoxy Adapt to these Changes?
Modern Orthodox intellectuals often say that the Torah is not a book of science, nor is it a history text. It should be studied for its theology and its major teachings – creation, revelation, law, and chosenness, not for an accurate historical record. Moreover, the rabbis underscored that the Torah spoke the language of its time. Trying to understand “the language of its time” necessitates historical analysis, which in turn necessitates critical distance, objective weighing of different source materials, and the willingness to cross-examine inherited teachings to determine their historical veracity. Studying the Torah’s meaning or message necessitates a different approach – questioning texts for their existential and timeless messages, but still taking into consideration their mode of expression and historical context.
In short, as I see it, true Modern Orthodox Torah study, something that is now found almost exclusively (there are some exceptions) on TheTorah.com, requires the Modern Orthodox Torah scholar to remain with one foot embedded in traditional life and discourse and the other in real academic biblical scholarship. It requires leaving behind apologetics and embracing academic truths while remaining loyal to traditional Judaism and Torah values. Whether and how Modern Orthodox rabbis and scholars reposition themselves with respect to questions of multiple sources, ascribed authorship, and historical anachronisms will test their commitments both to faith and to a distinctively Modern Orthodox expression of it.
What really is in question is whether Modern Orthodoxy is prepared to hand over study of the Bible to Haredi sources. In this sense, rather than cede the ground of biblical literacy to fundamentalists with no interest in the larger world of scholarship, the Modern Orthodox would do far better to embrace academic biblical scholarship as a vehicle for elucidating the text. To do so, however, it needs to approach texts both with critical distance and with the love and reverence they merit as the treasure and inheritance of the Jewish people.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 18, 2014
September 4, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Steven Bayme serves as Director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department, AJC. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in Jewish History and a B.A. in history from Yeshiva University. He is the author of Understanding Jewish History: Texts and Commentary, the co-editor (with Manfred Gerstenfeld) of American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Present and Future, and the co-editor (with Steven Katz) of Continuity and Change: A Festschrift in Honor of Irving Greenberg.
Essays on Related Topics: