The Religious Value of Biblical Criticism: My Modern Orthodox Journey
Moving to Israel, what we call “making Aliyah,” presents all sorts of challenges: a new language to learn, a new culture to negotiate, a new home to furnish, a new school in which to enroll your children, and, if you’re lucky, a new job to begin. When my wife and I made aliyah in 2010 with our four children, it took a few years before we overcame the challenges and began to settle into our new life. One challenge, however, caught me completely by surprise, since it wasn’t really about Israel at all, but about faith.
Teaching the 13 Principles of Faith
After we moved to Israel, I was teaching a course in Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith at a Modern Orthodox gap year seminary. Each principle served as a springboard for analyzing various opinions about that particular tenet. Principles 1–7 went smoothly. Then we got to Maimonides’ 8th principle that a Jew must believe that the entire text of the Torah is a direct transmission from God to Moses. I confidently prepared a unit which presented the fundamental contentions of biblical criticism regarding the origins of the text of the Torah, intent on showing my students that they need not fear approaching this ostensibly threatening material.
I showed them the traditional commentaries that discuss the presence of some non-Mosaic sources in the Torah (b. Bava Batra 15a, Ibn Ezra’s seven passages, etc.). As a response to the Documentary Hypothesis, I relied upon the literary explanations of Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto to dismiss any apparent indications of multiple authorship.
I felt like I was being very open-minded and reasonable. I was even proud of myself for presenting the more radical approach of R. Mordechai Breuer, who accepted the evidence of four separate strands of text, but who offered a more traditional explanation that ultimately preserved the unified origin of the text: God dictated the Torah in the form of multiple voices in order to present multiple perspectives, a dialectic of values, each voice representing a different perspective—but all strands were dictated by God to Moses.
My goal was to adequately prepare my students for any future exposure to the subversive ideas of biblical criticism. And yet, at the same time, I was beginning to doubt what I was teaching. The arguments I was putting forward rang hollow to me; they seemed defensive, a form of weak apologetics. Overall, I had a nagging thought: Was I really presenting these ideas fairly, on their own terms? Had I personally engaged these arguments in an intellectually honest manner? And was I even prepared to do so?
It gradually became apparent to me that I had been indulging an intellectual inconsistency, both in teaching this class, and, upon reflection, for much of my adult life. Although I had managed to rationalize this for many years, I now found myself unsettled and overwhelmed by a religious crisis.
My Modern Orthodox Education
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community and attending some of the finest Modern Orthodox institutions, I had always prided myself on my community’s intellectual openness. We read literature for the insights it has to offer into the human condition, and we studied history for the lessons it imparts. We were taught to value expert opinion in the fields of biology, physics, psychology, philosophy, literature, history, anthropology, archaeology, etc., and to accept empirical evidence as the gold standard.
Thus, we approached science as an independent discipline and accepted its conclusions without reservation. Stephen Jay Gould’s seminal essay “Non-overlapping Magesteria” was to me the most elegant and convincing formulation that endowed both science and religion with autonomy but distinct boundaries. Each magisterium is answering different questions: science dealt with what, when, and how; religion with why, for what purpose, and which values. Gould argued that each functioned best when not encroached upon by the other.
And yet, somehow, when it came to the composition of the Torah and the history of Judaism, we took a very different approach. I, like many of my Modern Orthodox teachers and colleagues, simply refused to fully engage what scholars had studied and proposed. We dismissed the arguments by assuring ourselves that we already had all the answers we needed to refute the challenges. We were trying to convince ourselves of this, more than anyone else, and for a while I was able to do this too.
Yet as I explored academic biblical scholarship firsthand while teaching my course, I became convinced that the theories scholars proposed were compelling. In particular, I found the evidence for composite authorship of the Torah, written over multiple centuries, to be quite persuasive, almost conclusive. For me, it was nothing short of cataclysmic, an intellectual crisis that dragged my emotions along for the ride.
Though my commitment to Halakha never wavered throughout this time—it is too much a part of my identity for me to abandon—I was beset by a deep-seated anxiety. I was blessed to grow up in a strong, loving, intellectually open, and deeply committed Modern Orthodox family, but now I had the unsettling feeling that my religious identity and commitments were becoming unmoored.
Rebuilding My Religious Path
Fortunately, many have already written (including on TheTorah.com) about how a person can lead a life of religious meaning and mitzvah observance while still accepting (many of) the fundamental conclusions of academic Bible study. These contributions have been a life-line to a slowly growing sub-section of Orthodox Jews who are struggling with how to make sense of it all, myself included. I am indebted to all of these scholars, academics, rabbis, and theologians, who have contributed their own thoughts on the matter.
It took years of reading many articles and books, and speaking with many rabbis, scholars, and friends, until I was able to rebuild my religious outlook and map out how I understood my faith and its commitments. I based my approach on statements of the Talmudic Sages and the medieval rabbis, most notably Maimonides (yes, the same Maimonides of that 13-Principles-of-Faith class!), and was inspired and shaped by 20th century thinkers such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, and Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
I have come to believe that an academic approach to the composition and historicity of the Torah can be consonant with a halakhic lifestyle, and does not undermine one’s ability to live a life of שִׁוִּיתִי ה' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד, “I am ever mindful of the LORD’s presence” (Ps 16:8). Thus, in this piece, I prefer to focus not on explaining how a student of the Documentary Hypothesis could possibly remain committed to a God-centered, halakhic lifestyle—a defensive stance—but instead on an affirmative approach, by sharing five aspects of my religious life that have been profoundly enhanced by embracing biblical criticism.
1. Truth as Religious Value
בבלי שבת נה. אמר רבי חנינה: "חותמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא אמת."
b. Shabbat 55a Rabbi Chanina said: “The Insignia of the Blessed Holy One is truth.”
Ignoring what one deep down knows to be true leads to cognitive dissonance. This is the case for those of us who began with more fundamentalist beliefs, who then studied source/redaction criticism and found its fundamental conclusions to be convincing. For us, denial is not only psychologically unhealthy, and intellectually dishonest, but it is also religiously problematic.
The Talmud relates that certain prophets refused to express praises of God once spoken by Moses when the empirical evidence plainly contradicted their implications:
בבלי יומא סט: משה אמר (דברים י:יז): "הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא." אתא ירמיה לא אמר "נורא" (ירמיה לב:יח), אמר: "גוים מקרקרין בהיכלו ומשתחוים לצלם איה מוראו?!" אתא דניאל לא אמר "גבור" (דניאל ט:ד), אמר: "גוים משתעבדין בבניו איה גבורתו?!"
b. Yoma 69b Moses said (Deut 10:17): “the great God, mighty and awe-inspiring.” Jeremiah came and didn’t say “awe-inspiring” (Jer 32:18) for he reasoned “the gentiles are reveling in his house and bowing to an idol—where is the awe?!” Daniel came, and he didn’t say “mighty” (Dan 9:4) for he reasoned: “the gentiles have put [God’s] children in servitude—where is the might?”
The Talmud continues by explaining how these words were returned to the liturgy by the Men of the Great Assembly (in line with the use of these words in Nehemiah 9:32), who found ways of seeing evidence of God’s might and awe, even in troubled times. The Talmud then continues:
ואינהו היכי סמכי אנפשיהו ועקרי מילתא דאמרה משה? אמר ר' יצחק בן אלעזר: "יודעין בו בהק'ב'ה' שאמתי הוא ולא כזבו לו."
And they (=Jeremiah and Daniel), how could they rely on themselves and undo words that Moses himself said? Rabbi Isaac son of Elazar said: “They knew that the Blessed Holy One is a proponent of truth, to whom they would not lie.”
Pursuing and embracing truth in our understanding of God and the Torah, regardless of any apparent contradictions with tradition, is a religious value. Following the truth is nothing short of a religious imperative, an adherence to authenticity in relation to God, and a fulfillment of imitatio dei. As Maimonides wrote (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:47):
For only truth pleases Him, may He be exalted, and only that which is false angers Him.
2. Knowledge of God as a Prerequisite
דברי הימים א כח:ט וְאַתָּה שְׁלֹמֹה בְנִי דַּע אֶת אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ וְעָבְדֵהוּ בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם וּבְנֶפֶשׁ חֲפֵצָה...
1 Chron 28:9 And you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve him with single mind and willing heart…
The first mitzvah Maimonides lists in his introduction to the Mishneh Torah is to know about God:
מצוה ראשונה ממצות עשה לידע שיש שם אלוה שנאמר (שמות כ:ב, דברים ה:ו): "אנכי יי אלהיך".
The first commandment among the positive commandments is to know that God exists, as it says (Exod 20:2, Deut 5:6) “I, the LORD, am your God.”
In the opening chapter of the “Laws of the Torah’s Foundations”—the first section of Sefer Mada, which is the first book of the Mishneh Torah—Maimonides explains that part of the requirement to fulfill this obligation is to comprehend, to the greatest extent possible (though inevitably inadequate), the nature of God’s existence.
The third positive commandment in Maimonides’ list is love of God:
לאהבו שנאמר (דברים ו:ה, יא:א): "ואהבת את יי אלהיך".
To love him, as it says (Deut 6:5, 11:1) “You shall love the Lord your God.”
At the end of the “Laws of Repentance”—the final section of Sefer Mada—Maimonides explains that love of God is a direct function of the level of one’s knowledge of God. He continues:
הלכות תשובה י:ו ועל פי הדעה על פי האהבה אם מעט מעט ואם הרבה הרבה. לפיכך צריך האדם לייחד עצמו להבין ולהשכיל בחכמות ותבונות המודיעין לו את קונו כפי כח שיש באדם להבין ולהשיג...
Laws of Repentance 10:6 Based on the knowledge comes the love, if a little then a little, if a lot than a lot. Therefore, a person should focus on understanding and appreciating wisdom and science that inform him about the Creator as much as the person is capable of absorbing and comprehending…
In my own journey, thinking critically about the origins of the Torah and its authorship led to much broader reflection about the nature of God, revelation, transcendence vs. immanence, prophecy, providence, and related topics. Thinking about the Torah’s composition led me to all sorts of questions and revised assumptions about God and God’s relationship with the universe.
While coming to terms with the notion of multiple human authors of the Torah over the course of multiple centuries, I began to ask myself: Did I honestly conceive of a God who dictated words, aurally, to one man 3300 years ago? Indeed, my Maimonidean conception of an incorporeal God should have let me to question this scenario, but it was actually my encounter with biblical criticism that forced me to question how an infinite, incorporeal God, who is definitionally other and removed from all physical space and time, could have dictated, aurally, employing human language, to any human being.
Similarly, the more I came to terms with the human role in the composition of the Torah, the more I revised my understanding of what we mean when we speak of the divine origins of the Torah. How could a divine revelation in a given time and place offer permanent moral direction when society and its mores are always evolving and dynamic?
I came to understand the Torah not as a literal dictation of the words of God but as the sacred translation of the perceived divine echoes in the universe into the written word by the prophets and sages of old. Ultimately, this process has helped me advance in my fulfillment of the religious imperative to know God and move past a conception of God that hadn’t fundamentally evolved since I was child. As Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote:
זרעונים ה:ד את המעצור היותר גדול ברוח האדם, בבאו לכלל דעת, מביא מה שהמחשבה האלהית היא קבועה בצורה מיוחדת וידועה אצל בני אדם מפני ההרגל והדמיון הילדותי. זהו נצוץ מהפגם של עשית פסל ותמונה, שתמיד אנו צריכים להזהר בו הרבה מאד...
Seeds 5:4 The greatest impairment for the human spirit, when the person reaches the age of understanding, is when the person’s idea of God becomes crystalized in a specific way due to habit and childish imagination. This is a form of sin of creating an idol from which we must always take care to stay very far away….
3. Increasing God-Awareness
תהלים יט:ב הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד אֵל וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ.
Ps 19:2 The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork.
Recalibrating my understanding of the divine origin of the Torah highlighted the divinity that was also latent everywhere else. If the Torah is not a literal dictation from God, but more of a translation of perceptions of the divine by humans into text, I began to think that other avenues may be available through which a religiously sensitive person can perceive God. To the religiously attuned individual, nature, music, art, even human achievements in general, can all be experienced as, in some sense, divine emanations. Such an approach brings a greater awareness of God into one’s life.
At the same time, understanding that the Torah derives from a human attempt to translate the divine helped me strike a less defensive, and humbler, stance vis-à-vis other faith traditions in the world. Rav Kook writes:
לנבוכי הדור יד:יג ישנם אחרים שסוברים, שאי אפשר לאדם שיהיה לבבו תמים באמונה בתורת משה אמת כראוי, כי אם כשיחשוב שאמונות אחרות כולן הן שוא ותפל, ואין שום יתרון למחזיקים בהן. והדבר הוא ללא אמת.
For the Perplexed of the Generation 14:13 There are other people who think that a person can only properly have perfect faith in Moses’ true Torah so long as one also believes that other faiths are all “false and foolish,” and that there is nothing positive in holding fast to them. But it’s not true.
לנבוכי הדור ח:ט הדבר יתכן להיות שהיתה בזה מצד המיסדים הערה אלהית להיות משתדלים בשכלול חלק רשום מהאנושות לפי הראוי להם.
For the Perplexed of the Generation 8:9 It is possible that the founders [of those religions] had a divine idea for them to strive to improve the impressionable part of humanity however much they could…
God’s echoes in the universe are perceived and then articulated in a myriad of ways, by different people, across the world and at different times. I would take it a step further and suggest that these alternative faith traditions, though not my own, can offer insight about God and God’s world to which, perhaps, my faith tradition is less sensitive.
In sum, refining my understanding of God’s presence in the text of the Torah serves as a powerful impetus to be sensitive to the divine echoes that are present all over the world. As the seraphim declare in Isaiah’s call narrative:
ישעיהו ו:ג קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
Isa 6:3 Holy, holy, holy! YHWH of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!
4. The Joy of Torah Study
תהלים קיט:צב לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי אָז אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי.
Ps 119:92 If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my misery.
One of the most essential forms of worship for the devout Jew is the study of Torah. Along with the angst of my first foray into biblical criticism, I also simultaneously experienced an authentic sense of pleasure in the Torah I was learning. Many of the academic explanations I encountered were a source of delight, enjoyable moments of Talmud Torah. Eliminating an apparent contradiction after peeling back various strata of the text to reveal different voices reveals a beautiful tapestry of diverse theological perspectives: understanding P’s conception of God vs. that of J, for instance, or seeing the different presentations of the festivals.
I found the academic analysis to be intellectually exciting and gratifying; it helped illuminate the different theologies and viewpoints that are apparent in the text. By removing all superimposed historical assumptions regarding the origin of this text, by identifying the different layers, I was able to gain a much deeper appreciation for the consistency of each of the theological assumption therein, and allow each perspective to have its own moment of expression. These discoveries continue to be exciting, and religiously invigorating, for me.
תהלים קיט:צז מָה אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ כָּל הַיּוֹם הִיא שִׂיחָתִי.
Ps 119:97 Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation all day long.
5. Serving God
זוהר ויקהל אנא עבדא דקודשא בריך הוא.
Zohar, Vayakhel I am the servant of the Blessed Holy One.
Perhaps the most difficult matter to articulate is how living a religious lifestyle, ostensibly based on the acceptance of a literal command of God, can still be meaningful if one believes that the Torah, while the result of a kind of encounter with the divine, is, in the end, a product of human hands and includes multiple voices with conflicting perceptions. The way I think about this connects with how I see religion.
As I understand it, religion is a response to an intuitive perception of a transcendent force within the confines of the temporal and spatial finitude of this universe. For those who experience this perception, it inspires in us a multitude of feelings including love, gratitude, admiration, awe, and terror. As a result, we attribute to the divine a wide gamut of appellations, all borrowed from the realm of human relationships—the only experience we know—such as: Father, King, Commander, Shepherd, Friend, Spouse, and more.
Humanity has spent millennia attempting to articulate and concretize our relationship with this intangible force. For the Jewish people, the articulation and concretization of this experience is the Torah, whose laws go back to Israelite prophets and sages of old. The Torah’s articulation of what God expects from us reflects a genuine attempt to translate perceptions of the divine transcendent force into word, belief, and action. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in God in Search of Man (p. 220):
The truth is that revelation is a problem that eludes scientific inquiry; that no scholar has ever devised a lens to pierce its mystery. Biblical criticism may have succeeded … in compelling us to modify our conception of how the text was transmitted, but the act of revelation remains beyond its scope.
The history of the text and its composition may be human, but the book and its laws symbolize and encapsulate one people’s early steps to translate the divine echoes in the universe into words and actions. In this tradition, God as Commander takes a central role, but this is a metaphor. Just as we do not mean that God is literally our father when we refer to God that way in prayer, neither must we mean that God is literally our commander when we discuss our obligation to keep Torah laws. My decision to adhere to these “commands” is based on a profound experience of self-perception, i.e., I feel like I am commanded.
Commandedness as a Form of Religious Agency
Even the most fundamentalist adherents to mitzvah observance keep the mitzvot because they are exercising a choice: whether due to accident of birth, social/cultural reasons, because they find the Torah intellectually compelling or spiritually meaningful, or because they sincerely think that God literally commanded it; they feel commanded and have chosen to live their lives accordingly.
The same is true for individuals, like me, who accept the historical conclusions of biblical criticism, but still feel the obligation to adhere to the norms of Torah law. I too was born into it; I too appreciate the social/cultural aspects of religious Judaism; I too find many of its tenets to be intellectually compelling and spiritually meaningful. While I do not believe God literally composed the book, or dictated its words or laws to Moses, I do believe that the text reflects a human attempt to transpose the divine echoes in this world into the written word, and we choose to commit to its demanding lifestyle.
And that is why, even after accepting the historical conclusions of biblical criticism, when I find myself with my head on my pillow, at 11:52 p.m. after a long day, and I suddenly remember that I forgot to daven maariv (recite the evening prayers), I will roll out of bed, and daven. Without this commitment, I feel like I lose my relationship with God the Commander.
Only after my journey through biblical criticism did I appreciate the power of this metaphor, and the irony of how living a life of commandedness is a powerful expression of human agency vis-à-vis God. I have come to find this insight profoundly inspiring. It has forced me out of a slumber of sorts, of rote subservience—and into intentionality in religious expression.
תהלים קיט:יח גַּל עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה נִפְלָאוֹת מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ.
Psalms 119:18 Open my eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Your Torah.
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February 13, 2023
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Rabbi Noam Shapiro studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and at Yeshiva University, where he received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in Judaic Studies (Jewish History) from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. After teaching in Jewish day schools in America and gap-year programs in Israel for nearly a decade, he now serves as the COO of a nano-optics startup company in Jerusalem. He lives in Efrat with his wife and four children.
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