An Interview with Dr. Tova Ganzel
On the religious challenge of academic biblical scholarship. Highlighting the new Hebrew book People of Faith and Biblical Criticism
Dr. Tova Ganzel is the Director of the Midrasha at Bar Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan and is trained as a yo’etzet halakha (women’s halakhic advisor). A former Tikvah Fellow, Ganzel is the recipient of a number of prestigious academic awards and grants. She is the author of A Visionary’s Oracles – From Destruction to Restoration, Studies in the Prophecies of Ezekiel (Tevunot-Herzog, Alon Shvut 2012 [Hebrew]).
בעיני אלוהים ואדם: האדם המאמין ומחקר המקרא
A group of rabbis, Torah scholars, and academic Bible scholars got together in Beit Morasha in Jerusalem in the years 5772-5773 (2012-2014) to study together and discuss the meeting between the world of faith and the world of critical biblical scholarship.
The tension between relating to the Bible as a holy book and to the Torah as Torah from heaven, and the religious and moral obligation to search out the truth without false pretenses, leads to conflicts between the critical, scientific approach and its conclusions and foundational premises of simple faith. Some worry that critical Bible scholarship will uproot the basis of their faith. Others worry that clinging to one’s faith will compromise his or her scholarly integrity.
The contributors to this book believe that faith and critical biblical scholarship strengthen and enrich each other, making the study of the Bible and its conclusions more fruitful. The fruits of this academic seminar have been collected into this volume, to which we added works from other rabbis and scholars from Israel and abroad.
The first section of the book is particularly significant, for in it we present the Tanach student for the first time an exhaustive collection of sources from the classical rabbis until modern times. These sources show that Jewish sages throughout the ages approached scripture and its interpretation with tools that are similar to those of the modern Bible scholar. They deal with text problems, historical questions, contradictions, ethical problems, and theology as well as questions of structure and form, redaction, language and literary merit. This collection of sources forms the necessary, factual basis for anyone who wishes to deal with the topic of the science of biblical studies from the perspective of a religious person, who feels bound to keep the Torah and its commandments.
The book explores the following questions, among others:
- Is it possible for a person who believes in Torah from heaven and feels obligated to keep the commandments to accept the idea that part of the Torah was written after the death of Moses?
- Is it possible for a person who believes in the holiness of the Torah to accept the idea that the Torah’s mitzvot as recorded in Parashat Mishpatim are responding to the laws of Hammurabi?
- Is it possible for a person who believes in the holiness of the Bible to accept that the book of Ecclesiastes was written during the Second Temple Period and demonstrates the influence of Greek philosophy?
- Is it possible for a person who believes in prophecy to accept the idea that the description of the future Temple in Ezekiel is influenced by the architecture of Babylonian temples which he came in contact with in exile?
1. What is in the book? What is it about and what kind of issues does it tackle?
TG: The book deals with the challenges that face any believer who applies his or her critical faculties to the study of Bible.
2. Can you share with us some moments in your own journey? How did you first deal with the challenges of academic biblical studies? How did you come to put together this book?
TG: Like many people, I went through my own personal journey to get to where I am. The process strengthened my identity as both a person of faith as well as an academic scholar. I can share some details of my path with you, but this is a journey which those who wish to make must do so on their own, in a way, time, and place that works for them.
As I mentioned in the Ynet piece (link), I was searching for a book like this since I was in high school. My need for it grew stronger when I was doing my national service and had ongoing discussions with Anat Ravah z”l (she and her husband Doron died in a car accident over a decade ago) regarding her undergraduate work in the University of Haifa as a bible student. It was then that I decided that I wanted to study Bible in college and investigate the reasons for the different perspectives on the Bible that Anat and I had, to try to understand what stood behind them.
During my first year in college (at Bar-Ilan), I asked rabbis and academics to answer the questions with which I was grappling, and I came to realize that my core stance—religious but critical thinking—was not something I held in common with many others.
On the religious side, many of the rabbis responded to my concerns by relating to academic Bible study as it was practiced in previous decades. On the academic side, many of the scholars dismissed religious issues as something entirely personal and not worthy of serious discussion or engagement.
Thus, my need for such a book was acute during my undergraduate studies in university, but it didn’t exist. Eventually I realized, since there was no other option, I would have to spearhead the writing of such a book.
3. Can you tell us more about the group of rabbis and academic scholars that met together for two years to discuss issues of Jewish observance and belief and critical biblical studies?
TG: At one point, I turned to Professor Benny Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha, which ended up hosting the group. He brought Rav Yehudah Brandes on board and I brought Prof. Baruch Schwartz on board, and then the three of us, Yehuda, Baruch, and I, brainstormed on the invite list. In order to ensure that the conversation would be honest, serious, and deep, we understood that the group should run by each participating member reading material in advance and discussing it together. All this was in conjunction with an agreement that the conversation would be honest and behind closed doors, so that all of the participants would feel secure.
4. How did you choose the contributing authors for the book?
TG: First, we invited each of the participants in the group to write. Most of them agreed. We also turned to people who did not participate in the group for one reason or another, but whose voice we wanted to hear, and invited them. In addition, since the existence of the group and its project came to people’s attention through word of mouth, some people turned to us to say that they had something to contribute and we were happy to hear it. Finally, in cases where we felt that a given topic was not being covered, we asked particular individuals for a contribution covering that topic.
5. Is there significant disagreement among the authors on core topics?
TG: The book does have some pieces that offer contradictory solutions or ideas. This occurs, for example, in the section on the giving of the Torah.
6. R. Yehuda Brandes is quoted (in the Ynet piece) as saying “the time has come; this generation is demanding [a book like this]” ( ““אבל הגיעה השעה, והדור דורש ). What are some of the things you see that made you believe the time has come for a book like this?
TG: It is enough just to look at the numbers of Torah observant students and professors who study and teach Bible in universities for the need to be obvious. Moreover, we live in a time when information is available to all; people need not work very hard to find out about the difficulties critical scholarship poses. We thought it would be useful for readers to have access to the various approaches to the problem, be they past or current, that have already been formulated and, thus, we included a long section of relevant quotes in the beginning of the book.
7. What is the meaning behind the title of the book בעיני אלוהים ואדם, In the Sight of God and People?
TG: The name, which is a quote from Proverbs 3:4 (“and you will find favor and approbation in the eyes of God and people”) has a double meaning. First, it reminds us that the answers to many questions are in the eyes of the beholder. Second, it is a kind of prayer, in line with the verse from Proverbs, reused in liturgy (in ברכת המזון, the grace after meals), that the book will find favor both in the eyes of people and in the eyes of God.
8. Does the book deal with the core faith challenges presented by modern academic scholarship, such as the ahistorical nature of the Torah’s core narratives, or the non-Mosaic authorship of the Torah, comprised from several documents or sources?
TG: I think it does, but to get a sense of how you will need to read the book.J
9. What has the reaction to the book been in various circles in Israel? Have you shown the books to any leading rabbis? What did they say?
TG: For now, the responses have been positive, more than we expected. We have received congratulations on the publication of such a timely work. The book isn’t even in stores yet and I have already heard that it is bringing about substantial discussions and debates at Shabbat tables—a valuable and encouraging response in my view.
10. What role do you think this book will play in helping others deal with the same challenges that you faced?
TG: I am not sure, but I imagine that the existence of the anthology of sources together with the articles communicates the clear message that the challenges posed by academic biblical studies are something that many have given serious thought to in the past and the present. This in and of itself is significant.
11. Who is the book’s intended audience?
TG: Anyone whom these questions interest.
12. How early do you think such issues should be introduced into the curriculum?
TG: I think that the question of when to introduce these problems is purely a social issue. There is no correct time, as such. The main issue is to be ready for when the questions and problems begin to arise naturally. The challenge of when to begin speaking about these issues is especially acute in the English speaking world, since the information is readily accessible in very readable forms, such as Marc Brettler’s How to Read the Jewish Bible, and James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. It is important for people to know that there is a place they can go—whether it be school, a post high-school program, a synagogue, etc.—in order to speak to somebody who understands these issues, and can discuss them honestly and tranquilly.
13. As an Orthodox Bible scholar, do you believe that there are any questions about the Bible that are off limits?
TG: No. People should feel free to ask about anything.
14. Several years ago, you spent a year in the States as a Tikva Fellow, where you were frequently a scholar in residence. Do you think that the attitude toward academic study of the Bible is similar or different in Israel and the States?
TG: Sadly, it is difficult for me to answer that question. The truth is that whenever I speak somewhere, not in an academic venue, usually in an Orthodox synagogue or a similar venue, the first thing people notice (sometimes the only thing unfortunately) is that I am a woman. This is true in Israel as well as the United States. It would have been great had the fact that I am a Bible scholar been something interesting or challenging to the audience, but it has not been so. Instead, I mainly get warm feedback about how well my divrei Torah were received among the lay audience, and how my talks were clear even to the women sitting at the far side of the women’s section.
15. You are familiar with TheTorah.com—do you feel that it fulfills some of your goals? How do you feel it differs from the book you helped to edit?
TG: In many ways the book and the website are responses to the same challenges. Perhaps the main difference is that these essays have been published together as a single book, after a process of group discussion and deliberation.
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Dr. Tova Ganzel is a Senior Lecturer at the Multidisciplinary Department of Jewish Studies at the Bar-Ilan University and Head of the Cramim Jewish Studies Honors Program. She was the director of the Midrasha – Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University and is a certified women’s halakhic advisor (yo’etzet halakha). She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar-Ilan and is a renowned figure in the world of Jewish education for women. Her most recent publications include The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible (2019), Contextualizing Jewish Temples (2020), Ezekiel: From Destruction to Restoration (2020), and Ezekiel’s Visionary Temple in Babylonian Context (2021). Her research focuses on: prophetic literature; ancient Near Eastern temples and second temple texts; the Jewish reception of biblical criticism from the eighteenth century to the present; and women as Halakhic Professionals.