Orthodox Solutions Thus Far
As has been stated clearly by at least one Orthodox scholar, namely R. Mordechai Breuer, biblical criticism is not a theory that one can accept or reject at will. Once one is exposed to its methods and findings, there is no choice but to acknowledge the issues these raise.
Contrary to allegations that may have held some truth in the past, contemporary scholars do not formulate their findings regarding the literary genesis of the bible because they don’t like Jews or tradition. Rather, academic Bible scholars view their conclusions as inescapably rational and compelling. They may argue regarding this or that particular version of the documentary hypothesis, whether there was one final redactor or many, the exact dates involved, etc., but there is no way that empiric evidence will leave the traditional picture intact.
The response of Modern Orthodoxy to such conclusions has been largely to ignore or avoid them. Until fairly recently, most Orthodox scholars involved in the field typically limited their research to lower criticism. They investigated issues of textual accuracy or anything having to do more generally with the meaning of specific lexical and other terms as now illuminated by parallel (e.g., Ugaritic or Mesopotamian) texts. They avoided higher criticism, which deals with the circumstances of the Torah’s composition and the oral and written sources influencing its message.
Beyond the futility of ignoring higher criticism as a method of resolution, however, the very distinction between “lower” and “higher” is problematic, for where does one draw the line? As James Kugel has remarked:  “If Ugaritic can be invoked to clarify the phrase kesef sigim in Proverbs, then why can’t it be used to clarify the meaning of “El Elyon”? How about “love [of God]” in the light of Hittite and Mesopotamian treaty language? Forget about the Documentary Hypothesis; doesn’t clarifying lexical items ultimately lead to adopting modern scholars’ ideas about the word ivri and all it may say about Israelite origins?”
To the extent that Orthodox thinkers have attended at all to the challenges of higher criticism, they have generally adopted a modernist approach associated with the slogan of “Torah u-madda,” (Torah and science) which regards both sources of knowledge as valuable avenues to Truth. Such an approach addresses any possible discrepancies between them as localized controversies between science and religion regarding “the facts of the matter”. Under such circumstances, the credibility – or, at the very least, compatibility – of the Torah’s rendition with the objective standards of reason will always be maintained.
Proponents of this approach often enlist the tools of science itself in order to defend the accuracy of traditional accounts on science’s own grounds. Alternatively, difficulties are resolved by appeal to Maimonides’ classic statement that “the gates of interpretation are never sealed,” intimating that whenever the literal meaning of the Torah can be incontrovertibly refuted, this should be taken as clear indication that the text was meant to be understood allegorically, with deeper meanings to be extracted by the more philosophically inclined. Questionable features of biblical morality are resolved in a similarly ad hoc manner; drawing upon various apologetic arguments in order to defend their underlying values and conclusions.
Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s understanding of biblical contradictions as planted deliberately by God for educational reasons offers one rather ingenious way to integrate modern biblical scholarship into a classic Torah framework. An equally ingenious approach is that of Professor David Weiss-Halivni, who suggests that a once perfect Torah was corrupted during a long period of halakhic negligence. Although the Torah itself remained corrupted, the practical consequences of this corruption were corrected through authoritative midrashic interpretation, i.e. the biblical interpretation found in midrashei halakha, which succeeded in reinstating the proper halachic norms of the Jewish community. These striking theories are designed to justify traditional Jewish veneration of Torah in light of what, on first blush, appear to be perplexing anomalies in the text.
There is no denying, however, that this entire battery of tactics–which still links the sanctity of the Torah to the authenticity of an original revelatory event at Sinai, and to the unique status of Moses as prophet–quickly loses its persuasiveness when it is realized that the various difficulties it purports to address can be far more simply and elegantly explained by reference to their historical setting and the concomitant development of human understanding. Moreover, modern literary theory teaches us that allegory itself is a culture-specific phenomenon, with various factors determining when and where it is to be used.
Nevertheless, the closest that a Torah u-madda approach comes to a more naturalistic interpretation (i.e., to an interpretation that relates the difficulties raised by a critical reading of the text to natural causes) is in its willingness to appropriate the notion of divine accommodation  – i.e., that God deliberately expressed Godself to Moses in the language of the times. The inadequacies of this solution when confronted by discovery of a biblical worldview bearing more pervasive biases (such as those highlighted by feminists) of a dated or parochial nature that are so implicit and subtle that the innocent reader usually remains unaware of their existence (and therefore cannot be taken as serving some accommodative purpose), are not considered.
I believe that the shortcomings of current approaches to the notion of Torah from Heaven point to a new theological dimension that should rivet the attention of every traditional Jew. The rising number of scholars and students committed to the Orthodox way of life who are beginning to enter the fray and confront the more formidable challenges raised by contemporary biblical criticism to the very concept of verbal revelation are slowly paving the way for more honest and rigorous exploration of possible responses. In forcing the issue, contemporary scholarship creates one of those decisive historical moments when faith can be lost – or strengthened — through its refinement. The stakes are very high.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 25, 2014
May 16, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
Essays on Related Topics: