Embracing the Tension between Traditional and Critical Scholarship
Exposing readers to modern critical scholarship and traditional Jewish commentary, not treating them as mutually exclusive, is one of TheTorah.com’s most significant contributions.
Close to my heart is the tension between the modern critical understanding of the Bible and the approach of traditional Jewish Bible commentators. As a student in Israel in the early 1970s I studied Bible intensively in two very different frameworks. In yeshivah and in classes with the late Nechama Leibowitz, I was exposed to intense study of the Bible through delving deeply into the traditional Jewish commentaries. My teachers steered clear of the findings of the critical academic study of the Bible.
In my university studies, in contrast, my instructors used critical methods, but most of them had little interest in and sometimes even a dismissive attitude toward the ways Jews had traditionally studied the Bible. One of my teachers in yeshivah summed up the prevailing situation well when he told me that the Bible we were studying in yeshivah was “not the same book” as the one studied at the university.
I was never attracted to the idea of dismissing either approach. My doctoral dissertation attempted, in part, to demonstrate that many of the ostensibly new insights of modern scholarship had already been taught by peshat commentators like Rashbam in the 12th century, and that critical scholars might benefit from studying medieval Jewish peshat commentators.
This tension between Jewish traditional and modern critical readings of the Bible can still be felt in most yeshivot and universities, but thankfully not in all. The Bible departments in most Israeli universities now have courses that focus on traditional Jewish commentaries. Scholars like Professor Uriel Simon of Bar-Ilan, who teaches literary approaches from an academic perspective, and the late Professor Moshe Greenberg, who taught the Bible critically at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but also studied, wrote about, and was inspired by traditional Jewish Bible commentaries, deserve much of the credit.
In the more liberal Israeli yeshivot one can sense the influence of the late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer and his disciples who defend tradition but make use of insights from critical scholarship as well. Outside of institutional frameworks, most Israeli (non-Charedi) religious Jews who value traditional Bible commentaries also have respect for critical tools like archeology and comparative Semitics and recognize that they help us understand the Bible better.
In North America, though, for reasons I cannot go into here, the tension between the two approaches is still as strong as ever. Except for in TheTorah.com! For me, the site’s most significant contribution is that it exposes Jewish readers both to modern critical scholarship and to the study of the traditional Jewish commentaries, refusing to see them as mutually exclusive.
It may be too soon to assess the contributions of the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of essays that have appeared on TheTorah.com during its first ten years. Wherever I go, I find Jewish readers in synagogues benefitting from the insights of modern scholarship AND of traditional Jewish commentaries in print-outs of high-level essays about the weekly parashah. TheTorah.com’s reach is much wider, but even just for this, the work deserves our praise.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.