Introduction: Torah, History and Judaism
Over 800 years ago Maimonides’ wrote in his introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed:
It is not the purpose of this Treatise to make its totality understandable …to beginners in speculation, nor to teach those who have not engaged in any study other than the science of the Law… rather, its purpose is to give indications to a religious man for whom the validity of our Torah (literally “Law”) has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief – such a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify. The human intellect having drawn him on and led him to dwell within its province, he must have felt distressed by the externals of the Torah… Hence he would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect, renounce what he knew concerning the terms in question, and consequently consider that he has renounced the foundations of the Torah. Or he should hold fast to his understanding of these terms and not let himself be drawn on together with his intellect rather turning his back on it and moving away from it, while at the same time perceiving that he had brought loss to himself and harm to his religion. He would be left with those imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.
Maimonides’s star pupil, Rabbi Joseph Ibn Aknin, found himself in a quandary. He had mastered his Torah studies and mastered his study of math, science and philosophy, and he found that the two were in tension with each other. Although Maimonides answered his questions one by one, verse by verse, eventually this became impossible. At this point, Maimonides writes, Ibn Aknin’s queries aroused in him a resolution that had long been dormant – to write a treatise synthesizing Greek and Arabic philosophy with Torah.
As you will see in this short treatise if you read it, at a certain point in my life I felt like Ibn Aknin. The issues are no longer related to Greek and Arabic philosophy and Aristotelian cosmology, but they are about history, archaeology, and critical Bible study. Over the past two decades, I studied Torah and halakha in depth in the traditional form and I studied academic Bible and history in a university setting. I grappled with the question of how to synthesize world views that seemed miles apart. I am not sure that I have answers, but I believe it is time to share with others my struggles and my tentative thoughts.
Although it is true that in Maimonides’ day philosophers tried to keep these discussions out of the public eye, nevertheless it seems to me that this is no longer an option. In our world knowledge is readily available and people expect cogent thinking and honest dialogue. In this piece, I will try and lay out my quandaries, my struggles and my thoughts in as clear a way as possible with the hope that doing so will spur others on to engage, critique, and supplement. Hopefully, together as a community we will succeed in putting together a modern day Guide for the Perplexed. If we do not do this, and pick up the mantle of the Rambam, we will only be doing “harm to ourselves and our religion.”
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.— Morpheus, The Matrix
Like some, perhaps many of you, I am a religious Jew. I study Torah and keep mitzvot. I have never missed a day of tefillin, never knowingly eaten ṭreif or broken Shabbat. I say the Shema with my children, shake the lulav and hear the shofar blast every year. I learn Torah for hours every day—it’s what I do; I am a rabbi and a Bible scholar. I have a deep and abiding faith in God, in humanity and in Judaism. For the past decade or so, I have been on a journey—a quest to find a religious path that is meaningful as well as intellectually cogent. I cannot sacrifice one for the other. For most of these years I have kept this journey to myself, sharing it with only a handful of friends and colleagues. I am now going share it with you.
Years ago I took the red pill, but unlike Neo, I did not wake up in a terrible wasteland, but in a vibrant and stimulating world where Torah can be engaged genuinely, without apologetics, and the world of academic scholarship is your friend, not your enemy. The journey is not an easy one—some have been frightened away early in the trip and lost faith and observance entirely, others have clung tightly to fundamentalist and dogmatic responses. Nevertheless, I believe the trip is well worth the risk—more importantly, for many it is vital. Some have begun this trip and are lost; others have long believed the trip necessary but did not know how to begin; others may just be curious or looking around. Whatever the reason, now you are here.
Successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.— Thomas Kuhn 
The Paradigm Shift
Our engagement with Torah cannot remain stagnant as the world continues to turn. Our Torah has proven to be timeless, but this doesn’t mean that it remains the same. Chazal call the Torah a torat chayim, a living Torah. Living implies growing; living implies continued vibrance.
Proverbs (3:18) refers to wisdom as an eitz chayim, a living tree. This is a beautiful metaphor which the Sages then apply to the Torah. Like a tree, the divine message, the Torah, must be constantly nourished, it must breathe the air of its surroundings and be fed with its nutrients. It must get enough sunlight and have its branches tended. In return for proper care, the living tree gives the world its oxygen, without which none of us could remain alive. As Jews, the Torah supplies our oxygen and in order for it to remain a sustaining force we must take care of it and allow it to grow. Like a tree, lock it up in a dark room and it will begin to wither.
As has happened many times in human history, the world is going through a Kuhnian paradigm shift in its understanding of its past and the foundations of its religious identity. What was once thought to be history may, in the light of developing understanding about history, science and society, now be understood as mnemohistory, a technical term which means the study of constructed memory.
This shift goes deeper than questioning miracles or allegorically interpreting tales such as the Garden of Eden with its talking snake. It runs deeper than the realization that the Torah contains difficult and seemingly contradictory accounts of certain events. Over the past few decades, much of the narrative of ancient Israel’s origins, from the patriarchs to the conquest, including the Exodus, the wilderness experience and Sinai, have proven problematic to reconstruct as historical. Certain accounts have been subject to re-characterization as legend or constructed memory, and not necessarily historical fact.
Fundamentalist objections to this paradigm shift include those who cast aspersions on historians or professors of religion, those who espouse conspiracy theories about a war on God, and those who intimate that the so-called objective scientific approach is anything but.
Nevertheless, many traditionally-observant Jews wish for an engagement with Torah in genuine partnership with academic methodology and its findings–a candid conversation and exchange of ideas. Can our religious way of life and our faith that we are part of some larger divine plan survive the loss of its “historical” underpinnings, now relegated to the status of legend or narrative allegory by the vast majority of academic historians? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes!
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July 4, 2013
October 17, 2021
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as 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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