Basing Judaism on Truth: Does the Torah Lie?


November 4, 2015

Prof.Marc Zvi Brettler


Marc Zvi Brettler


Basing Judaism on Truth: Does the Torah Lie?

A Torah scroll. 123rf

Over my thirty plus years of teaching biblical criticism, or, as I prefer to call it, the contextual approach to the Bible,[1] I have seen a wide spectrum of reactions by students to the academic finding that the Torah developed over time. For many, myself included (see my essay, “On Becoming A Critical Torah Scholar”), this approach enriches our appreciation of Torah and Judaism. Others, however, have experienced a sense of betrayal—that what they had been previously been taught was a lie, or even that the Torah is a “book of lies.” This is a challenge that TheTorah.com has been asked to address on numerous occasions.

In the post titled “Controlled Exposure or Isolationism,” on the blog with the telling name Emes Ve-Emunah – A Forum for Orthodox Jewish thought, R. Harry Maryles recently explored the extent to which students of different ages at different educational venues should be exposed to what the author calls “biblical criticism,” an unfortunate term, since it suggests to some, like Maryles, that its goal is to “criticize” the Bible. In presenting the issue, the author observes:

“I personally find it impossible to believe that the entire narrative of the Torah never happened. …that it’s just an allegory used to convey God’s message. Because that would make it a lie. Basing belief on lies is not the best way to find God.”

While I sympathize with the fear that motivates this line of reasoning, this statement is highly problematic.[2] It attributes, incorrectly, to biblical scholars the idea that the entire Bible was invented out of whole cloth, a view with which few scholars would concur also assumes that allegories, or symbols, or metaphors all lie, and cannot assist in our search for God. But why should we privilege the literal over the figurative? Do we learn less from novels than from biographies?

Figurative Passages in the Bible

In fact, whether or not the Bible is meant to be taken literally, or only literally, has been debated by the most significant medieval Jewish interpreters and philosophers. It is a remarkable coincidence that several recent TheTorah.com articles have focused on this issue, showing how vibrantly it was debated in the middle ages.[3]

Modern academic scholars continue to debate—often unaware of the important earlier roots of the issue—if particular stories were meant to be taken literally or not. For example, in How to Read the Jewish Bible,[4] I argue that the creation stories were written as myths, not as natural history or science. By “myth” I do not mean a silly or scientifically incorrect story, but a narrative interested in explaining and advocating basic values. That is what torah, in the sense of “instruction” means. Indeed, many traditional mefarshim have understood the initial chapters of Genesis similarly in their insistence that these stories are primarily didactic rather than historical.

Whether to take a story literally or figuratively may be one of the most difficult broad questions in modern biblical scholarship. But certainly not all biblical stories that are set in the past are meant literally. I agree that we cannot, and should not, search for God through lies, but non-literal texts are not lying. But is it a lie when we say, e.g., of a women we love “she is a pearl”?

Even when a biblical text is gets its history wrong, the author need not be characterized as a “liar.”[5] Moreover, does the value of a biblical account reside merely in its accuracy? For example, it is clear that the book of Chronicles reports events in a way that is factually different than Samuel-Kings—and most scholars believe that many of these differences are not based on better, new sources, but on the author’s theological beliefs and historiographical creativity.[6] Is the Chronicler a liar? Can we not learn much that is valuable about God and morality from this work, even while accepting that it is often factually inaccurate? Furthermore, would this need for “accuracy in reporting” apply to midrash or aggada as well? Perhaps some biblical texts are similar to midrash or aggada, and had no intention of narrating the past as it transpired?

Apikursus and the Search for God

Maryles’s post, in an effort to prevent what it believes is apikursus, is also premised on the assumption that Judaism mandates particular beliefs. This is a debatable point, and it has been much discussed especially since the Rambam promulgated this ikkarim, or central tenets of belief. After all— if ikkarim are so central to Judaism, why weren’t such ikkarim collected and promulgated in the period of the Talmud? The work of Menahem Kellner[7] offers important insights into the place of belief in general, and of particular beliefs, in Judaism. It is not an open and closed issue that disagreeing with a particular formulation of the Rambam constitutes apikursus.

I appreciate Maryles’s search for “best way to find God,” but doubt that the unreserved, multiple use of the term apirkursus is the best way to do so. Nor do I agree with his entire approach, which assumes that it is better to declare a priori that the Torah is factually true when in may not be, rather than declaring personal loyalty and attachment to the Torah irrespective of its factual accuracy.

Finally, Maryles’ post, and much of the aggressive response to academic biblical studies in general, assumes that academic biblical scholarship is a disease that requires inoculation lest we get sick. We certainly should discuss, as he suggests, how, when, and where different types of biblical scholarship should be taught, and TABS – TheTorah.com has begun to address this.[8] But we should do so in a more positive fashion, without presuming that we must bring an epidemic under control. It is important to realize instead that exposure to contextual, or historical-critical biblical studies has for many enhanced Jewish appreciation and observance.

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.


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