On the Relationship between Academic and Traditional Torah Study
I am not a Bible scholar, but as someone rooted in the rabbinic and traditional world, I will share a few thoughts on the relationship between academic knowledge in the field of biblical criticism, and the range of traditional beliefs at whose base is the concept that “Torah is from Heaven.”
1. Two Realms with Points of Contiguity
“Torah from Heaven” is a religious concept that infuses the Torah with theological force. In this conception, Torah teaches and directs a person to a way of life based on moral and religious precepts; it makes no historical, biological, or geographical claims. It is a mistake, therefore, for a religious individual to look to the Torah as a source for knowledge about physical reality or historical events. For said religious individual, the Torah is an instruction The Book; it teaches one how to be a “human” in the positive sense, affirming and reinforcing life as much as possible.
The main claims that derive from the academic study of Bible are not religious in nature, but claims of a different order. In many ways, parallel conversations take place in both domains, but they do not overlap.
Yet, there are points of contiguity between the two. For example, a common denominator between religious adherents and critical scholars is their experience of the Bible as a text worth poring over again and again, as being rich and enriching, engaging and astute.
In this shared space, academic and religious study of the Bible intersect, and my experience tells me that biblical scholarship—like other academic fields—offers tools, insights, and content that expand the world of Torah, for religious readers as well, adding layers to its meaning regardless of the disparity between academic and religious assumptions about the text.
2. Mediation Is Necessary to Hear the Divine Voice
Religious people generally accept the premise that the divine voice must be mediated for human ears to be able to hear it. Thus, for a person to “hear” the word of God, in the fullest sense of the word, and in the fullness of experience, some sort of bridging is required. To understand and accept the divine word, to be able to deal with it, to give it space and the ability to influence a person’s life, to ponder “what Hashem requires of you,” mediation is necessary. Human hands participate in this act of intervention, and human consciousness is an integral part of the picture.
Academic biblical scholarship focuses on knowledge and questions concerning the human, mediating layer. It teaches us to pay attention to the multiple voices that are revealed through close attention to editing, and to discordances in the text that testify to a richness of ideas. Critical scholarship furnishes questions, a framework of study, and a method of inquiry that helps forge a path for human beings to access the divine. For this reason, I am grateful to the ancient mediators as well as modern scholars for playing an essential role in the process of transmission.
3. Knowledge Cannot Be a Theological Problem
A final point, in an essential and profound way, knowledge is not a religious, moral, or theological problem. The desire for knowledge is among the most fundamental human traits, and seeking knowledge is a way of heeding the commandment to “walk in his ways.” It is a concrete expression of our having been created in the image of God. It is incumbent upon us—especially religious people—to confront new areas of human knowledge, and this includes academic knowledge from the field of biblical criticism.
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February 10, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Avital Hochstein is President of Hadar Israel, a research fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute and a former Rosh Kollel at the Pardes Institute, all institutions at which she also teaches, primarily Talmud. She holds a Ph.D. in Talmud and Gender Studies from Bar-Ilan University, and received ordination from Rabbi Daniel Landes, as well as from the Beit Midrash Le'Rabanut Yisraelit. She is co-author of The Place of Women in Midrash (Yedioth Ahronoth 2008). She published a weekly online Parashat HaShavua and is a founder of Kehilat Shirah Hadashah in Jerusalem.
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