Is Modern Critical Study a Jewish Way of Studying Torah?
Some say that modern critical study of the Bible is not part of Jewish Studies. One argument for this position comes from biblical critics who claim that they are studying the Israelite people and religion, not the Jewish people or religion. Another argument comes from Jewish Studies scholars who only wish to study the Bible the same way Jews in the past studied it. Neither of these arguments makes sense to me.
Jewish Studies vs. Biblical Criticism
Biblical critics may argue that Jewish Studies begins when Judaism begins, at the close of the biblical period. Yet this distinction is not an established fact but an interpretation of history. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the claim, it is out of sync with what most Jews alive today or at any point in the last two thousand years have felt. Jews of all types—rationalists and mystics, hasidim and maskilim, poets and historians, rabbanites and Karaites—have all considered themselves part of the biblical tradition. They felt that they were continuing the message of the Bible, interpreting that message or, at a minimum, in dialogue with the biblical tradition. Serious Jews throughout history have seen the study of Bible as part of their Judaism. How can we Jewish Studies scholars study the Jewish people without studying their Bible?
But what of the argument that Jewish Studies scholars should stay away from biblical criticism and study the Bible the same way Jews in the past studied it?
This argument assumes that: (1) there is a single “Jewish way” of studying the Bible, and (2) that way is not consonant with biblical criticism.
How Important Is the Original Context?
Even a beginning student of the history of Jewish biblical interpretation knows that there have always been many “Jewish” ways of studying the Bible. Some of them are truly incompatible with the assumptions of biblical criticism. For example, even a relatively enlightened early modern Jew like Isaac Abarbanel wrote in his commentary to Devarim 5:1:
לא היתה התורה מכוונת אלא לכל אשר יהיו חיים בכל דור ודור לא לאותם אשר קבלוה
The Torah was intended for all who would live in every generation, not for those who first received it.
Note that Abarbanel does not say that the Torah was not intended only for those who first received it, but that it was not intended for them at all. It would follow that analyzing the Bible in its original historical context is misguided. According to this passage from Abarbanel, the Bible’s “context” is now.
But Abarbanel’s approach is not the only one found in classical Jewish Bible commentaries. A number of traditional commentators demonstrate that they realize that the Bible was a product of a specific time and place and thus was best understood by those who lived when it was written. Nahmanides (Ramban) has a telling comment on “Putiel,” a name mentioned in passing in Shemot 6:25 but nowhere else in the Bible. Nahmanides first speaks positively about a midrash that explains this name fancifully, since what purpose could the Bible possibly have for telling us that someone married the daughter of Putiel when none of us knows who Putiel is? But then Nahmanides admits that on the peshat (plain) level of analysis, the question is misguided because the original readers of the Bible presumably did know well who Putiel was and for them the text was meaningful (שהיתה פוטיאל נכבד וידוע בדורו).
Other traditional exegetes, such as Rashbam, use the same methodology—assuming that the Bible was better understood by the audience that first received it. Consider, for example, Rashbam’s comment on the obscure phrase in Bereshit 36:24: הוּא עֲנָה, אֲשֶׁר מָצָא אֶת-הַיֵּמִם בַּמִּדְבָּר (that was the Anah who discovered the yemim in the wilderness). Rashbam writes that the Torah is referring to a character from ancient times who was still remembered in the days of Moses (i.e., at the time that Rashbam believed that the Torah was recorded). He continues by saying that today we no longer know what the word yemim means and we must simply accept that fact (אין לדקדק יותר).
Using Historical Data
It is not a great leap from Nahmanides’ and Rashbam’s approaches to the basic assumption of the modern critical approach to the study of the Bible, namely, that the more we know about the ancient Near East, the better we will understand the Bible. Maimonides (Rambam) articulates such an approach in the third part of the Guide of the Perplexed where he explains how he researched the ancient pagan world out of which the Bible arose as best he could in order to better understand the meaning of many biblical laws. Maimonides says that when he was stymied about understanding a detail in the Bible, it was because his research into antiquity had not succeeded in unearthing as much as necessary. As he writes in Guide 3:50 (Pines edition p. 615):
To sum up: Just as, according to what I have told you, the doctrines of the Sabians are remote from us today, the chronicles of those times [i.e., biblical times] are likewise hidden from us today. Hence, if we knew them and were cognizant of the events that happened in those days, we would know in detail the reasons of many things mentioned in the Torah.
Ibn Ezra makes a similar comment on Bereshit 49:19:
התנבא שיבא עליו גדוד … ואנחנו לא נדע היום כל התלאות העוברות על אבותינו
The text prophesies that he [Gad] will be attacked by some army . . . but we cannot know today all the hardships that befell our forefathers.
Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, we have no way of interpreting with any certainty what event the Bible is referring to.
Many medieval Jewish exegetes tried to identify the authors of biblical books based on scientific textual analysis. They did not always accept the traditional attributions. The most famous examples are Ibn Ezra’s comments on Bereshit 12:6 and Devarim 1:2. An exegete like Rashbam shares a long list of qualities with modern critical scholars of the Bible: interest in studying manuscripts and establishing the best text of the Bible, use of the historical sources at his disposal to interpret the Bible, deep study of Hebrew grammar and (rudimentary) comparative semitics, willingness to explain the text in a way that contradicts halakhah, willingness to explain the text as having a prosaic meaning that no one would consider edifying or uplifting, and a keen interest in literary analysis of the Bible.
Medieval Exegetes as Early Critics
Almost every methodological approach used by modern Bible critics finds a parallel in the works of the medieval “traditional” Jewish exegetes. If the study of the third part of the Guide and of the Torah commentaries of Rashbam and ibn Ezra are Jewish Studies, then so is the study of modern biblical criticism. I would also note that in Israel today the tensions between the religious approach and the critical approach to the study of the Bible are seen by more and more Jews as bridgeable. Rabbis like Mordechai Breuer have taught their students to take the best from both approaches. I am hopeful that a similar development will occur soon here in North America.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 7, 2013
August 16, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics: