Rejecting Biblical Criticism… And Then
Neither a biblical critic, nor a professional critic of biblical criticism, I have rejected its usage for over 45 years of teaching (mostly Talmud and halakhah), for five alienating factors:
- IMPACT – I have known a few meticulously observant and deeply learned talmidei chakhamim (Torah scholars) who incorporate biblical criticism into their learning. But I have not known of any who emerged from biblical criticism study to become highly observant and learned, even though they may join a culturally Orthodox society.
- BROKENNESS – There is no shleimut (wholeness) to biblical criticism – its "wholeness" lies in a jumble of methods, assuming the fragmentariness of Torah in this alienating approach. Simple verses are broken and remain so.
- Only for SPECIALISTS – Biblical criticism is a creation of academia and subject to its fancies, trends, and power politics. The poshetah Yid (simple Jew) or rav (rabbi) who hasn’t learned ancient languages and examined many shards is out of the conversation. The tenured professor pushes aside the rosh yeshiva, much less the Torah student, as the academy replaces the Beit Midrash.
- ORAL LAW GONE – or, at least, severely diminished. Biblical criticism doesn’t need the Rabbis. And when the latter are cited, they are overwhelmingly set aside as an expression of Rabbinic culture. Torah, as generations have studied it, has been split with the Oral Torah effectively dismissed.
- GOD ALIENATED – This is tragic. The power of Tradition is that God does speak to us in the Torah. It is in this respect, more than the other facets, that biblical criticism alarmingly alienates. With biblical criticism, God never speaks. In a dismaying kivayachol (“as if”), God is silenced. In contemporary discourse, everyone must have agency – the ability to act and to speak. But with biblical criticism, God has no agency and no clear speech. And for a book that assumes, celebrates, and evidences for believers God's ultimate agency, biblical criticism is an act of not only alienation but of cancellation of the One we desperately need to hear.
AND THEN… what happens when a biblical critic somehow meets many of my concerns? A compelling current example – Professor Jason Radine’s article, “The Torah Begins with Creation to Defend Israel’s Right to the Land?” (TheTorah, 2020) brings Torah, midrash, medieval commentary together with Babylonian and Egyptian texts and current academic scholarship to explain the Torah's validation of Israel's claim to the Land. I retain my skepticism and list of alienations; but when the light pours in, and God speaks, a brachah (blessing) is recited.
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May 31, 2022
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Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of YASHRUT, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders. Landes was formerly director of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Education and is the author of the Jewish Law commentary in the multi-volume series, My People's Prayer Book.
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