Ten Questions with Rabbi Zvi Grumet
A Jewish educator shares his thoughts about the struggles religious students are having with academic Bible and the need for a more sophisticated understanding of Torah
Zvi Grumet was ordained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and holds an Ed.D. from the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University. He is the author of numerous articles in both Tanakh and education, and has edited various publications, including Jewish Education in Transition. Zvi’s new book, Moses and the Path to Leadership, (Urim Publications), will be available at the beginning of 2014. Rabbi Dr. Grumet is a senior staff member at The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education where he is the editor of Jewish Educational Leadership. He is coordinator of the Tanakh Department at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, and is a faculty member at Pardes Institute and at Hebrew College (Boston).
1. When Project TABS’ website, TheTorah.com went live, you contacted us and told us that you had been considering starting an online resource or database for observant students struggling with the findings of academic biblical scholarship; what inspired this idea?
I often get queries from my students learning in universities who are struggling with things they are learning in their classes. Occasionally, I get to visit the campuses where I am bombarded by questions that students have. Anecdotally, more than one student has confided in me he finds the academic evidence far more compelling than the dogma he was taught and that he is struggling religiously as a result. I thought that it would be valuable to create a centralized, easily accessible resource, so that students with questions could have a place to turn to do some serious reading and thinking.
2. What kind of questions on Tanach are challenging students/ people?
There is no single answer to this, but I think it is fair to categorize them into three main areas. First and foremost is the issue of source criticism (or the Documentary Hypothesis). Second is the question of historicity – the biblical chronology differs substantively from accepted versions of the histories of the ancient Near East. The third area, although much less burning, is the issue of the accuracy of the text. This is usually spawned by students curious about keri u-ketiv.
3. How would you respond to someone who shares with you that the Torah seems to have more than one author or that the tradition (mesorah) lacks key knowledge about the development of Torah/ Tanach?
First, it is important to validate the question and not dismiss it as inappropriate. Second, students need to understand that there is a very broad range of opinions within the tradition on most of their questions. Amnon Bazak’s recent book, Ad Hayom Hazeh, (many of the chapters are available in English at www.vbm-torah.org/tanakhstudy.html) is a very valuable addition to the growing body of literature available and addresses many of the relevant issues which regularly come up. I am not afraid of any of those positions being brought seriously into the discussion. At the same time I think that it is important for them to see that there are role models who understand or even struggle with the same questions that they do, but nonetheless remain fundamentally unshaken in both their belief and practice as halakhically committed Jews.
4. Ultimately, how do you go about answering their questions?
I am not interested in providing students with the answer to anything, because I do not believe that there is such a thing. Rather, I will engage and explore with the student, first to investigate the real nature and depth of their question, and only then begin to suggest to them some reading material that we can later discuss. That way the students can find approaches with which they are comfortable.
5. Do the findings of academic scholarship challenge you personally? What part of the Torah do you find most challenging?
This is an interesting question. I think that I have long passed the time when these questions troubled me deeply, since I am now aware of the range of possibilities. I fully recognize that the questions raised by the academic world are, to a large extent, genuine and meaningful. The answers provided by the academic world, however, I often find less than compelling. That leaves me with the questions, many of which any astute reader of the Torah will come up with on their own. The challenges I face are not theological, but exegetical. If there are two creation stories or multiple presentations of Pesach in the Torah, the challenge for me is to understand why.
Personally, I am a great fan of literary approaches to the Torah. One of the central premises of this approach is that the focus is on the text as we have it and as it has been transmitted. Regardless of how the text came to be, the bottom line is that the text we have is unitary and sanctified, and that presents the challenge of how to unravel the many meanings within based on how it is written.
6. Do you read academic commentaries on the Torah?
I often find myself consulting academic commentaries. Sometimes I want to see who else has discussed the issues I have found in the text, and I am less likely to find them addressed in traditional commentaries. Sometimes I discover valuable insights from outside my sphere of knowledge or observations with the text that I missed. Those observations are particularly valuable, as they challenge me further in my own exploration and help me construct meaning from the text as we have it. That being said, I am wary of the effect that regular reading of material written from a perspective radically different than my own can have.
7. Putting aside the question of whether the findings of academic scholarship are within the purview of Orthodox Judaism or not, do you think that Orthodox Judaism will be better or worse over all if it finds a way to integrate the findings?
Ultimately, the study of Torah is about a search for truth. Many of the Rishonim, like the Rambam and Ibn Ezra, as well as many Acharonim, drew conclusions about Torah regardless of statements within Chazal, because they were searching for truth. (How they dealt with the contradictory statements from Chazal is an entirely different discussion.) One of the results of the accessibility of higher education to the masses is that the search for truth (as well as the definition of truth) is no longer the pursuit of the elite few but has become accessible to all. Too many Jews are walking around with sophisticated knowledge in a variety of areas in their life but very unsophisticated knowledge of Torah. In fact, many of them have been taught that the search for sophisticated understanding of Torah is beyond the pale. That leaves them one of two options – to turn off their thinking caps when it comes to Torah and move into submission mode or to become increasingly uncomfortable with or distanced from their Jewish side.
The exposure to sophisticated thinking in Torah (such as the methods or the findings of academic biblical scholarship) offers a third alternative, one which allows them to respects both their religious and intellectual sides without having to sacrifice one of them in either an intellectual or spiritual akeidah.
8. How should these issues be broached with the public?
Chazal were concerned with what kinds of issues should be discussed in different forums – both public and private. I do believe that, considering the easy access everyone who wishes to know about academic biblical studies has to the information, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and that we cannot afford to leave these discussions for select individuals. That being said, I deeply believe that sophisticated thinking is appropriate for sophisticated people, while other people need a presentation of ideas, which is simpler and easier to digest. Sophisticated thinkers presented with simple dogma will chafe, while less sophisticated thinkers presented with complex ideas will not know how to process them. Given that I consider myself more an educator than an ivory tower scholar, these are concerns with which I struggle all the time.
9. There those that say the Orthodox communities in Israel are more open, do you think this is so? In the communities of which you are part (in Israel), do you sense a growing openness to the findings of academic biblical studies?
While there are definitely pockets and individuals on the American Orthodox scene who dabble in academic bible study, it definitely seems to me that there is wider acceptance in Israel than in America. There is no question that I encounter an increasing number of halakhic people in Israel who are comfortable, in one sense or another, with the academic scholarship in Bible. Machon Herzog has become a center for integrating literary, archeological, and other finds into the traditional study of Tanakh while remaining fiercely committed to Talmud Torah and shemirat mitzvot as primary Jewish values. It is not hard today to find Orthodox Bible professors in universities who live within the academic world.
10. As someone who has lived in America and Israel why do you think this Israeli Orthodox Jews are more open to this kind of scholarship?
There are probably multiple reasons for this. First, Tanach study in Israel has been an integral part of the culture across many communal sectors, and together with that a greater interest in the ancient Near East and the “findings in the field” (both literally and figuratively). Israel is the land where Tanach is lived, and particularly for Orthodox people the Tanach in Israel takes on special significance.
Second, and this is a topic for a longer discussion, there is no Orthodox “movement” in Israel because there is no significant Conservative or Reform movements in Israel. This is very significant, as many of the dogmas associated with Orthodoxy are reactionary responses to the perceived threats from the other movements. Those reactions force the movement to draw an increasing number of “red lines” in order to continually define the boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out.” By contrast, the lack of any real threat from the Conservative or Reform movements in Israel allows Orthodox Jews to explore things with greater latitude. But, as I said above, this is just the opening to a much larger discussion.
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