I Respect Academic Methodology but Am Not Convinced by Its Conclusions
Our respect for academia has very little to do with its conclusions on any given topic, and much more to do with its methodology. Peer-reviewed academic scholarship stands out in its trustworthiness and credibility, usually by virtue of its careful analysis, methodical approach and expert tools. Therefore, when I look at the academic work done in the field of Bible study, I evaluate the truth-value of the work from these perspectives.
The problem is that the question of the historicity of the Torah is not a question that Bible study can answer directly. There are no ancient manuscripts of the Torah from that period that are available for study. There are no clear references in texts from that period that can help us with the dating of the Torah. There are no historians from that time period who are able to shed light on the development of our nation and its sacred texts (beyond the Torah itself). Therefore, the entire discussion is boiled down to an “if-then”: if I assume X, how well does it explain Y? Bible critics will offer a hypothesis, show how it fits nicely with certain outstanding issues, and use that to prove the veracity of their position.
Invariably, though, one will find that while theory A may work well with some things, it falls short of a proper explanation with other pieces of the Torah, and so theory B is promoted in its stead. And so forth and so forth. Some theories work better, and some less so. None of them is perfect, none has imbued me with a feeling that this non-traditional approach can explain the development of the Torah perfectly, taking into account all of the complexity that the book entails (in terms of its history, archaeology, philology, onomatology, etc.).
As an observant Jew who believes in God’s involvement in the giving of the Torah, who then considers a strict academic perspective of this issue, I am left with one question: Which “if-then” strikes me as more convincing? Does the assumption that the Torah was given by God to the people of Israel raise more questions or put to rest more difficulties, than any of the multiple accounts put forth by Bible critics over the years?
I suppose the answer to this question is – at the end of the day – a personal one. I cannot speak for anyone but myself. I have very much appreciated the questions and probing that Bible criticism has brought to the field of Bible study. They have opened my eyes to issues within the text that, at times, I would not have otherwise seen.
Still, when I consider whether their solutions – based on the non-traditional assumption that the Torah was composed by human authors – are in any way better than the solutions I am able to offer based on a traditional observant belief, I do not find their position overly compelling. Like Rabbi Meir before me, whose teacher Elisha ben Abuyah left tradition, I choose to separate the inside from the peel, benefit from the wealth of knowledge that Bible criticism brings to the table, but do not feel the need to adopt the theories they build out of that knowledge, and make them my own.
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January 18, 2022
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Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig is the rabbi of the Netzach Menashe community in Beit Shemesh, a Ram in Midreshet Lindenbaum, and founder of Maaglei Nefesh, an institute addressing mental health in Jewish law. He received his rabbinic ordination in Yeshivat Birkat Moshe (Maale Adumim) through the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, and also from his Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, zt”l. He has degrees in education, history and philosophy. Books he has written include Yishrei Lev (2015), a 3-volume set of responsa, Conversations in Essence, imaginary conversations with great Jewish thinkers of the past, and the soon-to-be-published Nafshi Beshe'elati, on Halacha and mental health.
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