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Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

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David Bar-Cohn





Knowing My Beloved: Rebuilding My Path to Torah with Critical Scholarship





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David Bar-Cohn





Knowing My Beloved: Rebuilding My Path to Torah with Critical Scholarship








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Knowing My Beloved: Rebuilding My Path to Torah with Critical Scholarship

My relationship with Torah began with the romance of mysticism but then gave way to skepticism and disillusionment. To my surprise, it was academic scholarship of the Torah that brought back the spark and helped foster a deeper, more mature relationship.


Knowing My Beloved: Rebuilding My Path to Torah with Critical Scholarship

A chupah (the canopy under which a Jewish wedding or inauguration of a Torah scroll is performed), at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington DC. Wikimedia

Torah as a Marriage

The introduction to Moses’ blessings to the tribes contains the famous verse:

דברים לג:ד תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:
Deut. 33:4 Torah was commanded to us by Moses, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.

This is the first verse traditionally taught to children when they begin to speak,[1] a verse describing the Torah as Israel’s inheritance. The Talmud (b. Pesaḥim 49b), however, offers a fairly radical interpretation of the verse:

אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורסה
Do not read “inheritance” but rather “betrothed one.”

The Hebrew word morasha (מורשה, inheritance) is replaced by the similar sounding me’orasa (מאורסה, betrothed one), resulting in a new idea: The Torah is Israel’s betrothed.[2]

The Talmud takes this midrashic analogy one step further: We are betrothed to the Torah, but it is only through Torah study, which is compared to sexual intimacy, that we consummate our marriage to the Torah.[3]

According to this rabbinic concept, we are to think of the Torah not merely as a passive endowment but as our partner in a marriage.[4] Our relationship to the Torah should therefore be marked by passion and intimacy, give and take, and lifelong commitment. And as with any marriage, it should also develop and mature with time.

Stages of Marriage

Marital relationships typically go through a number of stages. A model used by some marriage therapists suggests the following three basic phases:[5]

  1. Idealization: This is the initial phase of infatuation and falling in love, when we largely look past one another’s shortcomings and idiosyncrasies, long enough to make a commitment.
  1. Realization: As we go through life together, the flaws we were once so adept at overlooking become conspicuous, a source of aggravation. The realization sinks in that the partner we’re committed to is not the person we first idealized. This can produce feelings of disillusionment and resentment, to the point where the relationship itself is cast into doubt.
  1. Maturation: With enough time and effort, we can reach a new stage in the marriage where we accept and love our partner for who they are, flaws and all, and where the desire to truly know the other person leads to a deeper, more honest, and enduring relationship.

What I’ve outlined is the conceptual basis for a more personal observation: In the retrospect of two and a half decades of Jewish commitment, I see that my relationship with Torah has very much been like a marriage. What’s more, our journey together has fairly accurately tracked the three stages of marriage described above.

From Mysticism to Skepticism

I became religiously observant following college and fell in love with the Orthodox community, with Israel, and with Torah study. A great deal of my energy and thought became invested in gaining a deeper understanding of Torah. Like my Orthodox mentors and peers, I viewed the Torah as much more than a book of instructions and foundational narratives, more than a sacred document or ancient covenant. I understood every word of the Torah to hold secrets about the nature of reality, life, and the universe. I believed that the Torah preexisted creation itself, as depicted in the midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:1):

והאומן אינו בונה אותה מדעת עצמו אלה דיפתראות ופינקסאות יש לו… כך היה הקב”ה מביט בתורה ובורא את העולם
And the craftsman does not build [a palace] with his own knowledge, but from scrolls and tablets that he has… As such did the Holy One look into Torah and create the world.[6]

Putting my own modern twist on the midrash’s blueprint metaphor, I conceived of the Torah as the programming code underlying all of existence.[7] I also took a special interest in Kabbalah and the idea that our actions affect the flow of unseen energies. To me, it was simply a matter of time before science and Torah were shown to be perfectly aligned, and I sought to take part in this revelatory process, seeing the process as pivotal to humankind’s future redemption.

I was brimming with excitement and passion, and my studies were suffused with a strong sense of purpose: to understand and illuminate the Torah’s cosmic secrets.

This first stage of my “marriage” with Torah was highly idealized. This paradigm served me well for nearly a decade and a half, but then several insights converged at approximately the same time, bursting my mystical bubble and transforming my way of thinking.

Mystical Dead Ends — My efforts to uncover the “science of the Torah” fell decidedly flat. If the Torah was a programming code, I could not begin to decipher it. If observing or transgressing the mitzvot influenced the flow of spiritual energies, I was at a loss to observe or measure it.

I held out hope in articles and books such as The Coming Revolution: Science Discovers the Truths of the Bible,[8] which claimed, among other things, to document experimental evidence that wearing tefillin has a measurable effect on the human “energy field.” What I discovered, however, was that these glossy pages, peppered with scientific jargon, were in fact rife with pseudoscience and misinformation. Every investigation into alleged spiritual realities led me to similar dead ends. Was such knowledge beyond human grasp? Or was I, as I began to suspect, searching for something that simply wasn’t there?

Truth and Science — I came to realize that the approach to truth and knowledge presented in standard Orthodox philosophy is fundamentally at odds with the scientific method. Yes, both science and Orthodoxy share the goal of striving for truth, but that is where the commonality typically ends.

With science, the search for truth is open-ended. Its conclusions are continually unfolding and always tentative, open to revision based on further evidence. With Orthodoxy, conclusions are predefined, not amenable to correction, and evidence is largely ignored unless it can be used to reinforce people’s religious beliefs. As a strategy for faith, this approach may have merit. But as a method for ascertaining truth, can this be called a genuine search, or is it really more of a pantomime?

Cognitive Bias — My own mystical beliefs, it dawned on me, were just as vulnerable to self-suggestion and cognitive bias as anyone else’s beliefs. When it came to religious claims outside of Judaism, I could easily identify confirmation bias, the bandwagon effect, cherry-picking of facts, and disregarding of contrary evidence. Yet my own claims, such as the mitzvot affecting unseen energies and the Torah preexisting creation, I rationalized as entirely plausible. Was I subjecting other beliefs to a higher intellectual standard than my own? Did my beliefs really hold up when treated with that level of scrutiny?

Biblical Scholarship — I had long heard about the Documentary Hypothesis, but I dismissed it, making the common mistaken assumption that it distinguishes between sources primarily based on names of God in the text, and even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals that different names are frequently interwoven within a single source. (How this glaring fact managed to escape the theory’s modern-day academic proponents I didn’t think to ask at the time, being quite content to disregard the theory.)

But as I sharpened my tools of skeptical inquiry and began to apply them to Judaism, I gave the findings of academic biblical scholarship a closer look. I quickly learned that I had been knocking down a straw man, that there are in fact numerous converging areas of evidence pointing to multiple authors of the Torah, and most of these have nothing to do with names of God.

I read about the myriad contradictions and anachronisms in the Torah text. I learned that other ancient societies likewise had their own foundational lore, their temples and sacrifices, food consumption taboos, purity edicts, slavery laws, and so on. If I were to consider these facts on their own right, would I really deduce that the Torah was otherworldly and eternal? The text, sacred and special as it is to me, reads like a product of the Iron Age Near East.

The above realizations weighed heavily on my mind and coalesced into a single, overarching question:

Is the supernatural, mystical approach to the Torah truly a plausible explanation of what the Torah is and how it came to be?

I desperately wanted it to be so. But if I was going to be completely honest with myself, the answer was a resounding no. The Torah was almost certainly not the eternal, mystical, scientifically-aligned, supernatural blueprint for creation I had made it out to be. This awareness hit me hard, leaving me feeling disillusioned and bereft.

Reframing the Disillusionment

I had unwittingly entered the second stage of my “marriage” with Torah, and it wasn’t altogether clear to me how, or whether, this was going to resolve.

One option might have been to take the faith approach, and deny—as a matter of principle—that there was any validity to my newfound skepticism regarding the Torah. But for me, this was not a realistic option. The critical data was too compelling to simply banish from my mind. Alternatively, I might have aligned myself with religious apologists who argue that academic findings are easily refuted, or who attempt to offer evidence or logical proofs for traditional claims about the Torah. But without exception, I found such arguments to be fallacious and contrived.

It was clear to me that my efforts to try to return to the initial stage of this relationship were not going to succeed.

Shedding Illusions

But I then arrived at a new realization: If this knowledge has left me disillusioned, doesn’t that imply that I’ve shed illusory ideas? If so, isn’t that a good thing? Why then should I repress what I’ve learned, or feel resentful or bereaved about it? Yes, I held misconceptions about the Torah. But did that invalidate years of Torah study and observance? Did it cancel out all the experiences I’d had, the relationships I’d developed? No, these were not illusions; they were very real, genuine and cherished aspects of my life, wholly independent of any cosmic or supernatural presumptions about the Torah.

I had a love for Torah, built on years of personal investment, and I also had a steadfast desire for truth. Why should I have to give up either one for the sake of the other?

With that in mind, I decided to face the Torah, my beloved, with a spirit of acceptance and openness:

You have been my great love, the one I’m supposed to be the most intimate with. If I am harboring any illusions about you, then I want to know. I am committed to this relationship, and I want to know and experience you for who you really are.

I let go of what I wanted the Torah to be and stood ready to accept the Torah for what it is. Whatever that may be.

Academic Scholarship as a Path to Intimacy

In the first phase of my relationship with Torah, I greeted biblical scholarship with a defensive posture. But as I continued to let go of my assumptions about the Torah, academic scholarship did not merely cease being a threat—it transformed for me into a rich repository of chiddushim, novel ideas about the Torah. How many times had I read the same verses, heard the same questions and answers? Yet in the academic milieu, I found myself consistently discovering aspects of the Torah I’d never noticed before. It was like getting to know my beloved for the first time.

Simultaneously, I began to comprehend the depth of knowledge and expertise which so many academic biblical scholars bring to bear in examining the most subtle nuances of the Torah and other biblical texts. Yes, like everyone else, they are prone to human error, which proper peer review is supposed to help mitigate. But that kind of scrupulous, painstaking detail is the mark of intimacy. It is a relationship to the Torah that, despite being “academic,” is clearly no less of a love affair than my own. That was a humbling realization.

So for the past few years, I have enriched my Torah learning with biblical scholarship. Doing so has reinvigorated my interest in Torah, brought back the spark in our relationship.

My New Love and Old Friend

Relationships are multidimensional. Biblical scholarship and classical Torah study are two such dimensions. The Torah is not just a new love but also an old friend, and there is nothing like an old friend. It is not only my me’orasa, my betrothed, but also my morasha, my inheritance.

Notwithstanding the new thrill and excitement of academic scholarship, I still greatly enjoy traditional Torah study and would feel at a loss without it. Classical commentaries from Chazal, Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bachye and others continue to be a part of my intellectual world and inform my understanding of Torah.

I find that academic and traditional Torah study in fact complement each other, fulfill different needs, in much the same way that the exegetical methods of peshat and derash satisfy distinct needs.

There are times I want the Torah to say something meaningful and relevant. I want it to champion the values I care about, challenge me to be a better person. And I look to traditional Torah study to fill that role. At other times, my intellect thirsts for factual nourishment. I want to know what the Torah actually meant when it communicated a certain law or narrative, not just what it ought to mean for us today. I want to know the history and context. I want it straight—raw, unfiltered, without apologetics and prettying up. For this, I rely not only on classical peshat commentary but increasingly on academic biblical scholarship.

Religious Observance and Honest Inquiry

It is clear to me that my ability to synthesize Torah and biblical scholarship, to integrate Judaism with skeptical thinking, owes much of its success to religious observance.

My connection with the Torah is not merely an intellectual one; it is grounded in day-to-day, lived experience. The Torah, as expounded and concretized within rabbinic Judaism, is my companion as I travel through the life cycle and the calendar cycle. It is present in my family life, in communal life, and in the panoply of everyday experiences. When I allow it into my consciousness, into my interactions and observances, Torah imparts meaning and structure, instills within me a sense of responsibility, peoplehood and mission. This is a lived relationship, a working relationship.

It is also not without its struggles. I take decided exception with the Torah over a great many issues. The Torah and I don’t always see eye to eye.

But what makes it work is that I continue to show up. Commitment is the anchor that has helped this relationship grow. It provides a sense of safety and stability that has enabled me to ask honest and even difficult questions, without the relationship itself being called into question. Continuity of observance has given me the wherewithal to embrace many aspects of the Torah that I didn’t think I could.

Where there is safety and continuity, there can be greater honesty and intimacy.

Cultivating a Mature Relationship

I’ve reached a new stage in my relationship with Torah. The shiny mystical veneer has lost its appeal. The magic of our first days together no longer entices me. Magic is the art of illusion, and I prefer what’s real. I’ll take a mature relationship, built on depth and honesty, even if it means enduring some disillusionment.

That said, I don’t believe we should have to feel disillusioned about Torah. And perhaps the best way to prevent disillusionment is not to rely on illusions in the first place.[9]

To start with, we might avoid setting up unrealistic expectations about the nature of the Torah. Don’t make claims that are susceptible to being debunked, that can easily be shown to be false or exceedingly improbable. Don’t make assertions we would never countenance if they were made in the name of a different religion. Tempting as it is to emphasize faith claims and the merits of belief in order to bolster religious compliance, we risk turning off thinking people from Judaism—or arguably worse, turning people off from thinking.

Building a Relationship on Substance

It is true that traditional religious beliefs about the Torah have played an important role in Jewish philosophy and society. They are a part of Judaism. But does the entire edifice of Judaism crumble in absence of such beliefs? The answer is: Only if we say it does, only if we build up Torah using belief as the base.

But why should we do that when there is so much other firm bedrock within Judaism? We possess a virtually endless landscape of robust content on which to build the foundations of Torah—substantive teachings, values, laws, narratives and observances, along with a rich interpretive tradition that lets us filter this content, distill what we find constructive in the Torah and make choices of moral relevance to our own generation. (So for instance, Torah laws against judicial and financial corruption, being morally salient, remain a part of normative Judaism, while laws about stoning Sabbath violators and blasphemers get interpreted into oblivion.)

Add to that the critical approach of biblical scholarship, free of apologetics, and we have an intellectually rigorous, spiritually challenging space which will spark our curiosity, engage us in discussion, inspire our conscience and propel our growth for generations to come.[10]

That is the kind of relationship with Torah I want to cultivate. And if in the future I encounter information about the Torah that will once again change my perceptions, I will be unafraid. I remain committed.

Where it comes to my beloved, I will always want to know.


October 10, 2017


Last Updated

March 31, 2024


View Footnotes

David Bar-Cohn is Manager of Operations at TheTorah.com. He holds an M.A. in Bible (magna cum laude) from Bar-Ilan University; his thesis is titled, Rites of Replenishment: Observations on Priestly Purification (Bar-Ilan, 2022). He is the author of the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings (Urim, 2014), an analysis of the birkhot hashachar prayers. David also holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and received semikha in Yoreh De’ah.