The Benefits of Studying Torah with Modern Biblical Scholarship
Modern biblical scholarship is often perceived as presenting challenges to traditional Judaism—however, it offers significant benefits. The following are some contemporary Jewish perspectives.
Bringing Us Closer to Torah
“Paradoxically, anyone brave enough to acknowledge the vast distance that exists between the Bible and ourselves makes him- or herself available to feel closer to it”
— Yair Zakovitch
Recapturing the Original Spirit of Torah
“The pursuit of the peshat [contextual interpretation] can be an essential element in recapturing the religious spirit and function of the Torah”
— Stephen Garfinkel
“The past and tradition generally and the Bible especially have been, and continue to be, used to wield power, displacing rigorous, open debate by the discourse of authority. At worst, they serve as a receptacle of current ideas then held aloft as subjugating.
The production of knowledge through the study of the ancient world— primarily its texts and paradigmatically for Western civilization the Bible—aims first to open up a self critical distance between ourselves with our ideas and the past, then to bridge that distance with pan-human thoughtfulness. Through critical study of the Bible and ancient Israel we can replace an immobilizing discourse of identification by a more supple one of descent or even analogy.
To recognize such distance allows us to take ownership of our ideas, to be held accountable for our actions, and to open ourselves up to improvement. To put it in ironic biblical terms: Critical study of the Bible keeps the Bible from becoming a form of idolatry.”
— Simeon Chavel
Fulfilling the Imperative of Intellectual Understanding
“What... is the secret of the peshat’s steadfast hold over the great Bible commentators from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rabbi Isaac Abravanel, and upon us their distant disciples, today? It would seem that the answer lies in the main in a basically positive valuation of human intelligence as an instrument for knowing the world and for understanding the Torah.
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra gave this intellectual position a distinctively religious expression when he asserted that ‘the angel between man and his God is his reason’ (Introduction to his regular Commentary to the Torah, The Third Way); and Rambam maintained that the obligation for serious consideration of sensory perception and reason is called for by human nature: ‘Never should a man throw his knowledge behind him, for his eyes are in front and not in the back!’ (Letter on Astrology).
Intelligence is a divine quality implanted in man from above; it is that which makes the one created in God’s image superior to an animal; and that is why it is forbidden to be afraid of it, to disparage it, or to neglect it.”
— Uriel Simon
Discovering Diversity and Learning Tolerance
“The Bible preserves, within itself, contradictory conceptions of great depth and uniqueness concerning such profound issues as humanity’s place in the universe, the origin of and meaning of evil, the purpose of reward and punishment, the role of free will and predestination in human affairs, the nature of the covenant, the character of worship, the function of the sanctuary, and the role of the political leader in the redemptive future of Israel. ...
We should not try and blur these disputes in order to achieve an artificial unity and harmony. Rather we should enjoy the richness and complexity of the divine symphony that these different viewpoints and voices create in the Bible. One of the major problems of our time is religious intolerance. A deep recognition and study of the different voices of the Bible, and of the many ideas that it inspired in the development of Judaism, may help to bring about an atmosphere of diversity and tolerance.”
— Israel Knohl
Highlighting the Centrality of Serving God
“Biblical scholarship teaches us something of enormous spiritual value: it allows us to see the way that the ideal of avodat Hashem emerged as the core idea of Scripture and indeed of Judaism”
— Jon A. Levisohn
Refocusing on God
“Biblical Scholarship provides a precious opportunity to engender an analogous paradigm shift today, refocusing our spiritual energy from the Torah to God, the Giver of the Torah.”
— Rabbi Herzl Hefter
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July 16, 2013
December 1, 2022
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