Interview

Ten Questions with Orthodox Blogger DovBear on Academic Biblical Scholarship

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January 9, 2014

DovBear has been blogging at dovbear.blogspot.com since 2004. A member of  the first generation of Jewish bloggers, he has published close to 10,000 posts discussing nearly every Jewish topic and generated over 5 million page views. In 2007 several of his earliest parsha posts were assembled into a book.

Ten Questions with Orthodox Blogger DovBear on Academic Biblical Scholarship

1.  This week we published an expanded version of a blog you posted in January 2010 highlighting a critical observation from Modern Biblical scholarship on shirat hayom -Song of the sea, How did you begin blogging about Biblical Criticism?

I suppose I started blogging to defend the centrist Orthodoxy in which I was raised. For  some reason, my blog attracted skeptics, notably the infamous Mis-nagid, who made arguments and pointed me to books I couldn’t ignore. Evolution was never a problem for me – thanks to a wise teacher who taught us what the Tiferes Yisroel said about fossils, – but bible criticism was.  If you slog through all of my thousands of posts, you can  chart the progression as I gradually went from opposing biblical criticism, to flirting with it, to granting it equal footing.

2. When did you first begin to think critically about the mesorah (tradition)?

I was always skeptical, never afraid of new ideas. I was always tickled, rather than scandalized, when I found something that upended my old way of thinking about things. In my 20s I read Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll, and his account of how the Church’s ideas changed and developed over time affected me profoundly. I still remember the moment, almost 15 years ago, when it hit me that if such a thing had happened in Catholicism, it undoubtedly occurred in Judaism, too.  Once I accepted the paradigm change, the dominoes fell rapidly. I started to think of Judaism as something contingent, rather than inevitable, and I started seeing evidence of Judaism’s change and development in almost everything. But at first that understanding was restricted to the development of rituals and interpretations.

3. So, do you believe the Torah itself developed over time? How? 

I know that when I began my blogging career, I was 1000 percent certain that every word of the Torah was dictated by God, and that this belief was essential to Judaism. A lot has changed, and not because I wanted to change. I simply encountered evidence. Here is what I believe now. Irrespective of what was contained in the original revelation itself, the Torah we’ve inherited is not the work of one author. I say this primarily because my faith in God is not matched by my faith in men. People make mistakes, and we know there were scribal errors, some of which are pointed out by Razal.  People, often motivated by the best intentions, but sometimes compelled by their lesser angels, try to change things that seem wrong or unpious and we know, as Rashi agrees, that there were scribal insertions.

For decades, a rag tag remnant of our ancestors were exiled in Babylonia, and we know that they came back ignorant of things like Sukkos. So it isn’t hard for me accept that texts like the Gilgamesh epic were incorporated, over time, into whatever God revealed to Moses on the mountain, and it isn’t hard for me to accept that scribes made deliberate and accidental alterations, or that material was lost during the period that most of us worshiped idols. In fact, textual witnesses like the LXX or Rashi’s dibur hamaskil often help us discover those deliberate and accidental alterations, and the Torah itself references lost books like the the Book of the Wars of the Lord.

4. What about some of the other core faith claims challenged by modern academic biblical scholarship. Do you believe in a revelation at Sinai or the Exodus from Egypt?

I believe there was a revelation at Sinai. I don’t claim to know the content of that revelation, but I can accept that laws and stories were part of it. I do believe our ancestors were slaves in Egypt and that the era of slavery ended among what were understood to be portents and wonders. The Tanach isn’t sure if there were seven or 10 plagues, and the specifics of most of those plagues are understood differently by different interpreters, so I confess to being honestly uncertain about some of the details myself.

5. Has your new understanding of the Torah and the mesorah hurt your faith?

Not really. I still believe in God- -I’ve never been given a good reason not to–and I am still a committed and observant Jew. The irony is that not all of the changes I experienced over the course of my blogging career have been in the direction of faith-abandonment. I’ve always been a reader, and a wannabe scholar, but it was only in the last 10 years or so that I’ve become a serious learner, too. Gemara now fascinates me in a way it never did before, though, of course, I learn it with an eye towards evidence of development, and insights into the beliefs and practices of its particular time and place. I keep regular sedarim, and I learn daf yomi. I send my kids to Torah schools.

6. Why are you still observant?

Like most of us who were raised Orthodox, I have no appetite for pork, and no desire to exchange the joys of the frum Jewish Shabbos for the errands and bustle of a secular Saturday. But there’s more to it than that. I continue performing mitzvos because the  act of performing them is significant to me. Let me explain: We all do things for the sake of some combination of payoffs or perceived payoffs. I go to work because I get a check and job satisfaction and the chance to interact with interesting people. I make Indian noises at a Braves game because its fun to feel like you’re part of something large and powerful. And so on. 

That’s the basic explanation for mitzvah-keeping, too. We perform religious rituals for the same reason that we perform secular rituals, namely because the act of performing those rituals provides some kind of payoff, a payoff that’s personal, subjective and therefore indisputable. Here’s an example:  I don’t think anyone waves a lulav merely because he thinks God told him to do it. There is more to it. I think we wave lulavim for any combination of the following three reasons: (1) we find significance in listening to God in this instance; and/or (2) because we expect a payoff in the form of schar (reward); and/or (3) we receive some secular payoff in this world, a payoff like a feeling of satisfaction or the admiration of peers from doing “the right thing.” 

In short, I’m observant because the Orthodox life carries significance for me, and, because it provides me with some kind of payoff; what’s more: every self-aware Orthodox Jew would give the same answer.

7.  How do you understand your views fitting in with a traditional understanding of Torah?

I’m not sure there really is a traditional understanding of the Torah. The traditional interpreters did not have one universal understanding of the Torah’s claims and demands did they? The midrash isn’t a monolith. Its full of disagreement about what the Torah is really telling us. In fact, but now the Torah itself doesn’t really say anything at all. Instead, claims are made on the Torah’s behalf by its interpreters. For instance, the Torah never says “The universe was created 5000 years ago”; rather this is a claim made by an interpreter who’s looked at the text, made various assumptions, and arrived at a number. Likewise, the Torah never says, in so many words, that “Noah’s flood covered the whole world.” As with the other example, this is a claim made by a Torah interpreter.  So, in almost all cases, when you puff yourself up and declare your loyalty to the Torah what you’re actually doing is swearing allegiance to a particular interpretation of the Torah. Is there a difference? Yes. Because even if frumkeit demands that you consider the Torah infallible, there’s no good reason to say the same thing about Torah’s interpreters. Let’s remember that the interpreters often disagreed with each other. They made claims that have been proven false and, most importantly, it was once possible and permissible, even by the standards of frumkeit, to defeat their interpretations with an appeal to facts.

Nowadays we double down on the claim instead. I think we need to stop tossing ourselves into these kinds of intellectual black holesI think we need to go back to reinterpreting verses in the light of new information.

8. Have you spoken to rabbis about these issues?

No, not unless they’ve commented on my posts or sent me emails. Its just not something I would ever consider doing. Some people run to rabbis with their questions, crises and concerns, and others don’t. I’m in the latter category. I turn to books instead.

9. How do you think the Orthodox world should deal with the issue of academic biblical scholarship? If DovBear were in charge, what would he tell them to do?

The Orthodox world should stop being afraid of its own shadows. Ibn Ezra disagrees with the Talmud on the numbers of verses that were written by Moses and broadly hints that at least four other Torah verses were composed long after the revelation and nothing bad happened. Tosofos famously points out that the spelling of totafos that Rav Tarfon uses to darshan a halacha does not appear in our Bible and Judaism continued. Our religion is not fragile. It can adapt to new understandings of itself and its origins. – and always has. If I were in charge, I’d tell our Rabbis to engage the scholars with their best arguments and to let the chips fall where they may. If you can’t win the day in the free marketplace of ideas, you’re probably wrong, and if you’re wrong why cling to the mistake?

10. Who are your favorite biblical scholars?

Among the academics, the winner is Robert Alter. I never write a post about parsha without checking his translation and his commentary. I’m also a big fan of his arguments against the Documentary Hypothesis. He’s brilliant at showing how themes and keywords or authorial objectives are picked up across biblical texts that other scholars insist were produced by different writers. His work was the original inspiration for my Parsha Notes.  I was so impressed by the literary observations he made, I wrote them up in what developed into an ongoing series of posts that briefly list what I consider the exegetical highlights of each parsha. 

Another scholar I enjoy reading is James Kugel. His work on how midrashim develop, specifically the work he published as “Traditions of the Bible” and “The Bible as it Was”, was very influential to my thinking.  It continues to astound me that so that many of the midrashim we learn in school as God’s official truth, first appeared, in slightly different forms in deuterocanonical works, centuries before they were collected into the famous midrashic anthologies. Kugel’s work also helped me establish to my own satisfaction that the authors of midrashim often believed their interpretations to be the historical truth even when those interpretations seem fanciful to us.

Among the classical commentaries, my current favorite is Kli Yakar, and my favorite modern rabbinic commentators are R. Josh Waxman of Parshablog and R. Menachem Leibtag. I check all three of them (almost) every week.

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