Seven Defenses Against Biblical Criticism
The Paradigm Shift in Modern Orthodoxy
“Is Modern Orthodoxy Moving Towards an Acceptance of Biblical Criticism?” That is the title of a recent article by Professor Marc Shapiro in the pages of Modern Judaism, and he answers in the affirmative. For centuries, he writes, traditional Jews “have regarded as heresy any assertion that portions of the Torah were written at different times by different people.” However, he continues, “in the past decade or so I have begun to see a change, as a segment of Modern Orthodoxy now accepts the legitimacy of affirming multiple authorship of the Pentateuch.”
Shapiro goes further to suggest that even among those still unwilling to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship, much of the opposition is no longer on grounds of dogma, but rather because the skeptics do not consider the evidence for multiple authorship conclusive; at least in theory, more evidence could get them to change their minds.
Shapiro cites several contemporary Orthodox rabbis and scholars to document the growing acceptance of the critical perspective, noting their confidence that Orthodoxy will survive the loss of the doctrine of unitary Sinaitic authorship just as it survived the reinterpretation of God as incorporeal in the Middle Ages, and made its peace with a heliocentric universe and the theory of evolution in modern times.
Parenthetically, Shapiro notes the role of TheTorah.com, whose goal, as he describes it, is “to encourage Orthodox Jews to integrate the findings of modern biblical scholarship with traditional Judaism,” an enterprise that Shapiro believes “would have been unimaginable not that long ago.”
The Opposition: Responding to Biblical Scholarship
Even though Shapiro makes a convincing case that elements within Centrist/Modern Orthodoxy have become more open towards the critical perspective, no Orthodox religious body or seminary—not even any self-described as “Open Orthodox”—will officially endorse it, since for establishment and even would-be-establishment institutions, biblical criticism remains the third rail of Orthodox thought.
Nevertheless, those who do not operate solely within Charedi enclaves must interact with the cultural climate around them, and especially those involved in outreach will necessarily come into contact with Jews troubled by the issues raised by modern biblical scholarship. How do they respond?
What follows is a preliminary taxonomy briefly setting out seven approaches, with examples.
1. The Argument from Tradition
In 1963, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote a letter to someone who had sent him a series of questions about the authenticity and reliability of Torah and Jewish tradition. Basing himself on the Yehudah Halevi’s famous distinction between Judaism and other religions, the Rebbe pointed out that unlike the personal revelations that form the basis for other monotheisms, the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai to the entire Jewish people, and that its text “was transmitted from one generation to the other by hundreds and thousands of parents of different backgrounds to their children…. so that the chain has never been broken.” The theories of the Bible critics, he charged, were “speculative… unscientific as well as illogical” since they were novel constructs that defied the universal consensus of countless generations of Jews.
2. The Critics Are Ignorant
According to Rabbi Adam Jacobs of Aish Hatorah, the difficulties raised by biblical criticism are largely due to inaccurate and misleading translations that do not do justice to the original Hebrew and are oblivious to “the Torah’s rules of exegesis” that are necessary to make sense out of the text. Thus the “duplicative and repetitious words and passages” that the critics cite as evidence for multiple authorship actually constitute a code enabling “those with a trained eye” to “intuitively sense in these passages an invitation to delve deeper” and uncover hidden meanings.
Strangely, he recommends that anyone seeking “a more solidified understanding of the complexities and beauty involved” ought to read the works of Umberto Cassuto and Robert Alter, even though neither embraces the traditional doctrine of the Sinaitic revelation of Torah.
3. The Critics’ Questions Have Already Been Answered
Rabbi Shlomo Chein, a Chabad campus rabbi, claims that “professors don’t always know what they are talking about,” and are generally ignorant of the fact that for every apparent textual difficulty in the Bible, “an answer has been provided, at least once in the thousands and thousands of pages of Jewish literature,” obviating any need for a critical perspective. The rabbi urges students: “Challenge your professor to be fair and balanced by providing the questions as well as the traditional answers!”
4. Archaeology Is Unreliable
The absence of any archaeological evidence for the biblical account of Israelite slavery in Egypt and for the Exodus—a serious problem for those who accept the literal veracity of the Bible—has attracted spirited defenses of the tradition. An outreach professional (no name appears on the response), challenged by someone who promised to take Judaism seriously if he “could prove that historically the Exodus story is true,” begins with the assertion that archaeology “is very subjective,” and so cannot prove anything.
Even so, he acknowledges that the lack of documentation of Israel in Egypt is a problem, and suggests a solution: In the ancient world there was no such thing as objective historical writing, and monarchs and nations only recorded events that made them look good. Since the Exodus story was humiliating for the Egyptians, they blacked out any reference to the Israelites, leaving the archaeologists nothing to find. As for the absence of any ancient artifacts in the desert that might indicate that the freed Israelites spent 40 years wandering there, the rabbi explains, “to date, only a fraction of archaeological sites related to the Bible have been excavated,” and it is impossible for archaeologists to “disprove that which hasn’t been found.”
5. Modern Science Supports the Divinity of Torah
Instead of casting doubt on the validity of modern approaches, some seek to buttress belief in the historicity of the Biblical account by demonstrating its compatibility with new discoveries. In essence, the Torah was in fact ahead of its time, and therefore divine.
Rabbi Bernie Fox, for example, attempts this in connection to the Flood story, which seems, at first blush, “at odds with contemporary science.” Fox claims that there is no need to reject the biblical account in the name of science nor to reject science in the name of Torah—rather, “all knowledge is interrelated.” Scholars have long relegated the huge size of Noah’s ark, its measurements set forth in the Torah, to the realm of myth. Yet Fox reports that graduate students at the University of Leicester, using “sophisticated algorithms designed to predict the optimal dimensions of immense vessels designed for various purposes,” found that a vessel with those dimensions “would be very stable”—in other words, the Torah, millennia ago, provided “an accurate blueprint” even without the algorithm.
6. Irrationality Proves the Divinity of Torah
In striking contrast is the view that the puzzling nature of the Torah text, assumed by modern scholars to suggest its composite nature, in fact proves its divine Sinaitic origin. Rabbi Berel Wein, a popular writer and lecturer, finds it incomprehensible that Chapter 7 of the Book of Numbers goes to the trouble of repeating the identical lists of gifts from each of the twelve tribal leaders to the Tabernacle in the desert, in the exact same words. He considers this “mystery” not a matter for academic analysis, but rather “the sign of its Divine origin,” since “a Torah that makes perfect sense to the human mind can never be a Divine Torah.” He describes this as “one of the many places where Jews can only stand back and wonder in awe.” This is uncannily similar to the early Church Father Tertullian’s proof for Jesus’ divinity and resurrection: “Credo quia impossibile” (“I believe it because it is impossible!”).
Rabbi Aron Moss, a Chabad rabbi, does Wein one better, explaining that God wants us to accept the Torah by free choice, and therefore generated the text in a problematic way so that “there will always be valid arguments to discredit Him and His Torah. We can choose to buy those arguments, or see beyond them.” This is reminiscent of an old Christian (and Jewish) response to Darwinian evolution: in order to test our faith, God deliberately created the world to look as if it had evolved to its present state.
7. The Success of Zionism Supports the Divinity of Torah
Resisting a critical approach to Torah is not a monopoly of anti-modernists. While allowing that his suggestion is not “scientific proof,” Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, has recently argued that the truth of the revelation at Sinai can be accepted by “a reasonable, critically thinking person” because the Torah’s “seemingly ridiculous prophecy” that the defeated, exiled, and scattered Jewish people will return to their land and rebuild it has been fulfilled in our day.
Moral Psychology and the Nature of Apologetics
Where does this taxonomy leave us? Clearly, even in those precincts of Orthodoxy that hold to the classic literal belief in a Divine Torah, the inroads of modernity have made their mark. As we have seen, the traditional view is now broached defensively, and supported in an ad hoc manner. Furthermore, in the search for convincing arguments, its spokespeople put forward contradictory assertions.
It is highly doubtful, however, that pointing this out to them will have any short-run effect. Contemporary social psychology understands that the great 18th-century thinker David Hume was right when he wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Or in the words of Professor Jonathan Haidt, “Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.” Haidt cites the work of a researcher who did experiments on “confirmation bias,” and his findings illuminate the various modes of reasoning carried out by the Sinaitic literalists:
[W]hen we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” …and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. [But] when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it” …and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.
Accommodating Truth over Time
Haidt observes that “our minds were designed for groupish righteousness,” not for the disinterested search for truth. Nevertheless, he also notes that over time, “intuitions can be shaped by reasoning.” People can get used to new ideas and find ways to accommodate them to their deepest emotional needs. Right now, a critical approach to Torah is so threatening to the “groupish righteousness” of much of Orthodoxy that it must be warded off at all costs. Yet ways will undoubtedly be worked out to justify sincere adherence to the Torah way of life together with an openness to critical study of that Torah. That is what happened when Judaism faced the challenges of an incorporeal God, a heliocentric universe, and evolution. And it will happen again.
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June 21, 2017
September 22, 2020
Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications at the American Jewish Committee. He received smicha from Yeshiva University and a PhD in American History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Grossman was editor of the American Jewish Year Book (2000-2008).
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