Meeting the Challenge of Critical Scholarship with Leviticus
The Debate over Critical Scholarship
We are now in the opening stage of the debate in the modern Orthodox community on how to deal with critical biblical studies.
One group – currently a minority, pioneering one – argues that we must begin to reconcile two of our fundamental beliefs.
- Our commitment to Torah min ha-shamayim (Torah from heaven) – that the Torah is revealed, or at least inspired, and its content rooted in transcendent (not merely human) sources.
- Our commitment that the eternality of Torah means that it must be instructive, commanding, and credible – in every culture that Jews inhabit, including our current, postmodern civilization.
This group argues that the accumulating evidence and analysis in historical-critical biblical studies must be considered. Either we begin to incorporate it into our understanding, or the Torah will lose its credibility among highly educated people. Without yielding our emunah, our faith – we can reconceptualize our interpretation of the Torah’s divine and authoritative status to incorporate the new historical evidence and literary analysis.
The other group feels that the Torah is the pristine word of God. The text, in this view, comes intact directly from God, word for word, untouched by human hands. Therefore, it is self-validating. It cannot be judged or refuted by critical methods; it cannot be upheld or validated by historical proofs. All attempts to locate it in historical context, or to show influence or generation by human minds, are by definition illegitimate. They are bound to weaken the divinity and authority of the Torah. Therefore, such “academic” approaches are assur (prohibited) and should be excluded from the repertoire of legitimate Torah study.
Evaluating the Sides: An Educational Perspective
Choosing sides in this argument based only on intellectual or philosophical criteria (such as the strength of evidence on each side) is insufficient. We should weigh heavily the educational dimension. Which approach better enables us to understand the text, the instantiation of what does God want of us? Which method will inspire our next generation to hear the Torah’s words as compelling and commanding in our lives, in our time? Which approach will make students feel about these laws and judgments that “if a person do them, he or she shall live in/by them” (Vayikra 18:5)? Which method will better give over this text so the reader responds to it as the word of God – to which he or she instinctively replies: Hineni.
I would like to explore this issue by looking at the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Vayikra (Leviticus) – Pre-Critical Days
I studied Vayikra, exclusively with traditional commentaries and approaches, for decades – from elementary day school through a yeshiva semichah (ordination). I was taught that this is the word of God, which I must obey. Moreover, I am a kohen and had a proprietary sense that this book represents my family’s past glory and future profession – so I should take it seriously.
What was the outcome of all this study? I learned the different sacrifices, the various laws of purity and impurity, the Yom Kippur ritual with its lottery and scapegoat (including the Parah Adumah/Red Heifer ritual in Bemidbar, which the Gemara explained was incomprehensible). Perhaps the most inspiring was chapter 19 with laws like “not to spread slander” or “to take revenge’” and, above all, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), although I saw no manifest connection between these laws and the earlier ones that dealt with sacrifices, purity, impurity and similar issues.
How did I feel about this Torah? I prayed for its restoration, but, honestly, in sum, it was, well, ancient and quaint. Personally, I could not really imagine bringing the actual sacrifices, let alone that they would fulfill my spiritual needs. My reaction was like when I saw the Sephardic Chief Rabbi in his decorative, ceremonial robe. This is what the kohen gadol/high priest must have looked like. Here is a person who in his cultural cocoon is dressed impressively. Here is a person that an observer feels instinctively is totally out of the culture in which he or she is living.
I unhesitatingly accepted that this was all the word of God – but why God cared about it and commanded it in this way, I had no clue. After I saw Rambam’s view, in the Guide of the Perplexed (3:32, 46), that korbanot (sacrifices) were the only way of serious worship in those days – so the Torah modified them and gave them to the Israelites. This made sense and I adopted this view.
In the back of my mind, I was a bit grateful that the Muslim mosques are now on the Temple Mount since, given the modern political situation, there was no chance to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. This meant that I would not have to face up to my questions or hesitations. It also relieved my internal anxiety. Given my squeamishness at the sight of blood, if I served in the Temple, I feared that I would faint at the first sign of the blood of the daily sacrifice.
Encountering Milgrom’s Anchor Bible Commentary
About 25 years ago, soon after it was published, I encountered for the first time Jacob Milgrom’s Anchor Bible critical commentary. By then I had become aware of biblical criticism, of critical studies’ ability to offer new interpretations and understanding, and of its challenge to my Orthodox beliefs. But I mostly put all that aside as not central to my theological interests and not of high significance or value to me. Reading Milgrom from cover to cover, however, was a mind-blowing experience; I was totally gripped by the book—with its hundreds of pages, and all of its minute detail.
At the level of peshat/plain meaning, in every chapter and section there was an upgrade of understanding. It started with specific and concrete details of the sacrifices and of the parts given to the priests. Let me share some of the insights that blew me away.
Hattat: Collective Responsibility for Moral Pollution
I always thought that hattat (translation: sin offering) and asham (translation: guilt offering) were vaguely repetitious; maybe differentiated by the specific sins with which each was associated. Milgrom clarified that hattat was a purification rite-brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society; these sins “attacked” the sanctuary, where they accumulated. The hattat purified the sanctuary.
If people allowed sin and bad behavior to build up in society – if only by not repudiating them – the atmosphere became polluted. Vayikra teaches that if the pollution builds up with no counter move, God will leave the sanctuary, and Israel will be unprotected. Like a Dead Sea in which pollution has sucked out the oxygen, so no life can live in it, so the buildup of sins, even unintentional ones, would “drive out” the life-giving divine presence, leaving a spiritual dead zone.
The hattat requires leaders and common people to acknowledge that by standing by, the public is ultimately responsible for moral pollution. It must exert itself to clean up before the tipping point is reached.
Asham: Deepening the Sinner’s Awareness
For its part, the asham—Milgrom translates “reparation offering”—is all about deepening the actual sinner’s awareness. It is required in order to be the occasion for confession – and reparation. Its function is to sharpen individual conscience, to stimulate guilt, taking responsibility, and acts of reparation by the sinner.
Tzora’at and Discharges: A Post Pagan Priestly Torah
Milgrom revolutionized my understanding of every subsequent parasha as well. Take the purity – impurity regulations, including scale diseases (tzoraat) and genital discharges. I always saw these as ancient, obscure, with mystifying variations that I mostly tuned out. In current halacha, they are no longer practiced – except for niddah. Milgrom showed me that these were detailed applications of the central Priestly Torah, which is interested in the contending balance of forces of life and death. The Torah wiped out the pagan theory of a meta-divine order in which demonic and divine entities flourished, which sustained or opposed the gods. Instead, the Torah taught that the only force left which could tilt the balance of the world to life or death was humanity, which was given free will by God.
In the biblical code, purity is life and impurity is death. The goal is, through ritual, to contain the impurity/death and then consciously purify and actively join on the side of life. Withdrawal from life or refraining from entering the Mishkan/Temple was an acknowledgment of the force of death and of the impact of illness in my life. Immersion was a rebirth ritual. Together with purification rites and a sacrifice, this ritual represents a commitment to renew life and step up life-affirming activities. Suddenly, these laws were highly relevant and telling me what to do now!
Humans could defy God and act on the side of death. The Torah’s prohibitions warned them not to do so. The positive commandments guided people to join on the side of life in dealing with fellow humans, while the ritual purity laws guided them to the side of life in dealing with diseases, personal body discharges and after contact with the dead.
Milgrom then shows how the kosher laws carry the same message of living on the side of life ethically: to reduce animal killing (very few permitted species), the blood prohibition, the required ritual form of slaughter (= swift painless death), the prohibition of seething a kid in its mother’s milk (= not mix meat/death with milk/life).
Milgrom goes on to explicate the meaning of Yom Kippur. Kippur means “purgation” and the day was to be used to purge or cleanse the sanctuary from accumulated ritual impurity. But it was broadened to engage all of collective Israel to self-purge, to consciously identify its sins and turn from/purge them.
Where Kedoshim Fits
Then came Kedoshim, or “the Holiness Collection” (chapters 19-26) with its breathtaking expansion of this paradigm. The purity-impurity code is expanded to mitzvah = ethical deed = life versus sin/negative = ethical violation = death.
The Torah’s “mini model” is also expanded. In the first stage operation, the Temple is the mini-cosmos of ethical perfection; the priests are the mini-sector of humanity that is living totally on the side of life. Now in Kedoshim, this is expanded in the call to all of Israel to become holy = to live totally on the side of life. Similarly, the Temple model is extended to the whole land of Israel.
Red Heifer: Reframed Exorcist Ritual
Perhaps my favorite is the red heifer ritual. Using his knowledge of the ancient near East and comparative pagan religions, he explicates the ritual in detail. The blood in the ashes is the life purgative of death. The rationale of the effect of the lustral water on the applier and on the recipient is illuminated by drawing on the comparative exorcism traditions of neighboring religions. All the actions are reframed, however, in connecting to God – the ultimate source of life – without the demons, intermediaries, superstitious forces being appeased (as in the neighbors’ religious understanding).
By the time of the Talmud, this ritual seemed totally incomprehensible and is cited in the literature as the acme of chok (the inscrutable, arbitrary decree). To my mind, Milgrom’s recovery of its meaning is a Godlike act, which reveals God’s presence in Torah. This is comparable to the physicists’ recovery of the incredible events, sights and sounds of the immediate post-Big Bang minutes, which illuminate the Divine Presence in Creation.
Milgrom offers many more insights, ethical guidelines, more accurate plain-text meanings in every chapter. Let the reader go and read the three volumes and see how Milgrom enriches our understanding of the utopian (messianic) implications of the shmita/sabbatical and yovel/jubilee years, etc. etc.
Dispensing with a Presentation of Torah that Feels Intellectually and Morally Inferior
I confess that I do not have a resolution of the challenge to traditional understanding that inhere in the ways in which Milgrom ties his commentary to documentary analysis of Vayikra, to P and H documents/schools. Nevertheless, it is more than worth holding these challenges, and all their cognitive dissonance, in suspension in my mind– in return for gaining his illumination of Vayikra as a Torah of life, for his restoring its power to command, to guide life, to evoke commitments to increase holiness in the world. This is my main point.
Those who insist on freezing our understanding at a lower level – factually, historically conceptually – justify this on the grounds of protecting the authority of God and the commanding power of Torah. Milgrom, ever an excellent theologian as he is a superb commentator, shows us that the opposite is true. Studying the historical record and putting the Torah firmly in its comparative context, gives it new power to speak to us today.
The traditionalists absolutize their narrow, limited understanding of Scriptures in the name of defending God. In the process, they diminish God and the Torah’s credibility in this culture. They turn the Torah into something antique or fossilized- dated instead of eternal. Far from undermining God’s authority, Milgrom ends the fundamentalist convention of presenting a Torah that feels intellectually or morally inferior – but since it is from God, we cannot acknowledge the problem or say anything.
Reimagining Torah from Heaven
It is a far better strategy to stop dumbing ourselves down when it comes to Torah study. Rather, we should use every new method of research and analysis to explain the Torah. I believe that continuing the process, profound scholars/theologians will step forward to reconcile God and eternal Torah with the facts of history and literature, as best understood by reasonable people.
Some scholars like Amit Kula, Tamar Ross, Norman Solomon, Benjamin Sommer, and others have made important beginnings. TheTorah.com even has a section on this issue, called Torah from Heaven, with an ever-growing collection of essays dealing with the issue. Indeed, the site is pioneering in using the new scholarship to illuminate Torah for the laypeople and to create a forum for respectful exploration of a post-modern affirmation and deeper understanding of Torah min HaShamayim.
Personally, I bless the staff and supporters of TheTorah.com for this historic contribution. Together we should strengthen our faith in God and Revelation that Torah will grow in the process and will evoke a deeper awe and loyalty from everybody.
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March 17, 2016
September 11, 2023
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Dr. Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg is the founder and former president of Clal, the former president of the Jewish Life Network and the rabbi emeritus of the Riverdale Jewish Center. Greenberg was ordained at Yeshiva Beis Yosef and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is the author of, The Jewish Way, For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, and "Covenantal Pluralism".
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