A Campus Rabbi Comes to Terms with Biblical Criticism

After years of yeshiva education and even Orthodox semicha, encountering biblical criticism was a shock to my system. However, my initial fear and disorientation gave way to a new bottom-line understanding of Torah, and it has become part of the message that I use to inspire my students on campus.


January 24, 2020

RabbiDaniel Levine


Daniel Levine


A Campus Rabbi Comes to Terms with Biblical Criticism

© 123rf

I remember when the idea—dreadful, heretical, frightening, rational, intellectual, and beautiful, all at once—took shape in my head. There was a moment, like a light switch that was flipped on, when I realized that my entire worldview, thought process, and philosophy would need to change; there was no turning back, no turning off the light. It was the moment I accepted the fundamentals of biblical criticism.

Converging Evidence

The shift was surprisingly simple. As a lifelong Jewish history junkie, I could see that parsing the different voices in the Torah and applying them to different periods of ancient Israelite history fit perfectly. It wasn’t about one piece of evidence or a “smoking gun.” It was hundreds of such pieces.

The sheer mass of converging data pointed to what I saw as the inescapable conclusion that the Torah was written by multiple authors over several centuries, and that these authors were inspired by political, regional, moral, and sociological changes taking place in their respective worlds. Once this clicked, I was actually shocked that there had ever been a time I thought otherwise.

Why Is No One Talking About This?

Having made this sea change in thinking, I felt as if my life had been turned on its head. “Why had no one taught me about this?” I asked myself. Years of day school education, Jewish summer camps, yeshiva, close relationships with several rabbis, and yet no one had ever warned, taught, or prepared me for my confrontation with academic Bible studies.

The challenge that biblical criticism brings to traditional Judaism is so immense that I was disturbed to watch the rest of the Orthodox community go on with their lives as if nothing pressing needed to be dealt with. Why wasn’t it bothering them that a critical analysis of the text shows that single, Mosaic authorship of the Torah is simply an impossibility, a conclusion shared by just about all academic Bible scholars? I figured that there must be people talking about this in the Orthodox community, but who are they and how do I find them?

Integrating Two Separate Worlds

It took a long time to reorient. I spent months reading book after book, academic article after academic article, combing through intricacies of Jewish history and philosophy, looking for anything that would help me integrate this new understanding of Torah into my life. However, most of the material I found at the time fit neatly into two categories—two separate worlds, really.

In one sphere, there were the religious apologists, offering what seemed to me to be shallow, surface-level arguments as to why the findings of critical scholarship should be discredited across the board. I was unimpressed with this literature and often found the arguments empty and even offensive, full of ad-hominems and character attacks against academics.

The other world I encountered was filled with first-person accounts of people with similar stories of disenchantment toward traditional Judaism, but who were not seeking reconciliation. Having accepted the academic approach to the Bible, many of them discarded Judaism altogether. I, too, felt myself coming dangerously close to this point.

What I really needed, what I was seeking, were people interested in engaging with biblical criticism in a way that was intellectually honest, and at the same time with a love and respect for Judaism. I wanted to find a balance, synthesis, and dialectic between Jewish tradition and values on the one side, and the intellectual honesty of the world of academia on the other.

Eventually, that is precisely what I found. I discovered websites such as TheTorah.com, whole communities of people, scholars and thinkers, dedicated to working out how to integrate the modern framework of biblical criticism into Judaism. This discovery, and all the new ideas and reading material that came with it, helped me to settle into a more productive direction. After some time, I began my own blog and writing, attempting to follow this integrative line of thinking as it pertains to every area of Jewish life.

A Tradition of Challenging the Tradition

In this period of self-reflection, I came to realize that my desire to remain embedded within the chain of Jewish tradition, while remaining intellectually honest and dealing with the challenges of modernity, put me on a well-trodden path of Jewish history.

Every generation of Jews has had to cope with challenges to their inherited tradition—from the challenge faced by biblical Israelites and Judahites in their early development of monotheism, to the challenges to Judaism from the Greek philosophical tradition, to Jews grappling with scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric theory of the universe or Darwinian evolution.

Yes, biblical criticism does seem to present a unique challenge, one which no amount of philosophizing, thumb waving, or exegesis can explain away. Its model of historical development demands re-evaluating the Bible—and by extension Judaism—at every level. But in what may be the greatest test yet of our ability to balance tradition with modernity, I derive strength and inspiration from the great Jewish thinkers of the past who met the challenges of their time, people such as Jeremiah, Philo, Rabbi Judah HaNasi, and Maimonides. My desire is to follow in their footsteps.

Embracing a Bottom-Up Model of Judaism

In the early days of my “academic disenchantment” with traditional Judaism, I was enamored by the explanatory power of critical scholarship. Thousands of questions about Tanakh, from textual discrepancies and suspect narrative structure, all the way to conflicting philosophies and contradictory laws—questions which generations of Jewish sages had spent years attempting to reconcile—were all answered with much greater elegance and simplicity within this new framework. I felt as if I had stumbled upon a hidden trove of knowledge.

As time went on, I found an additional source of inspiration: The very fact that the Torah was written over multiple generations, from points of view within the ancient Israelite and Judahite communities—that itself is a powerful idea! Viewing the Torah as a bottom-up production, representing layers of depth, moral care, and diversity of opinion, seems to me more reflective of how I perceive the various facets of Judaism and how they have been shaped by different Jewish communities and ideas for millennia.

When I study the Torah, I am studying the fundamental questions of philosophy, ethics, law, politics, and communal boundaries that the Jewish community has struggled with from its inception. Knowing that our people, in their nascent stage of existence, were dealing with many of the same challenges that our community is faced with today, allows me to feel that I am directly continuing a conversation, rather being the passive reader of a top-down monologue.

To my mind, the findings of biblical criticism do not negate the religious and spiritual nature of the text, nor the subsequent Jewish endeavor to engage with it. I remain inspired by many of the moral and philosophical principles reflected in the biblical texts—values such as ethical monotheism, the inherent worth of every human, the virtue of debate and diversity of opinion, and the centrality of helping the weak and lifting the downtrodden, to name just a few.

Teaching My Students to Take Ownership of the Torah

When I first encountered biblical criticism, it was a shock to my system that challenged every assumption and premise I had held as an Orthodox Jew. It forced me to reanalyze every aspect of my life. Years later, I find myself a rabbi and Jewish educator, working with students across college campuses, and it is precisely this bottom-up understanding of the Torah’s composition that I use to inspire my students daily. “Judaism is a product of the Jewish community,” I tell my students, “so take ownership of it!” And while that may seem tautological, it is one of the deepest messages that I have come to internalize.

Daniel Levine is a rabbi, Jewish educator, and blogger. He currently serves as Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel Foundation of Orange County.  You can find his articles at whoknowsoneblog.wordpress.com.


View Footnotes