Op-ed

When a Teacher Believes Biblical Criticism Is Worse Than Pornography

In a Modern Orthodox school in the Tri-State Area, a Jewish day school sophomore is publicly rebuked and shamed by his rabbi for reading academic biblical scholarship.

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January 29, 2018

When a Teacher Believes Biblical Criticism Is Worse Than Pornography

This incident, which transpired a couple of years ago, was written up by a student and submitted to TABS by his parents, with the student’s permission.

My father, an avid reader of TheTorah.com, gave me several articles about that week’s parasha to take along with me on a school shabbaton, since I am interested in biblical scholarship. I also took with me a book that I had been reading for a while and was almost done with, Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.

On Shabbat morning, I joined my grade for Shacharit, holding my tallit bag with my articles/book inside of it. I sat down next to some of my friends, and figured that since there were some pretty frum teachers with us on the trip, I would read the articles but not take out Who Wrote The Bible?to avoid upsetting them.

When the services ended, in order to be able put the tallit back in its bag, I needed to take everything out to make space. Not really thinking about it, I took out Who Wrote The Bible? and left it on my seat. A few seconds later, my Gemara rabbi walked behind me and picked up the book and started examining it, looking at the cover and the back, etc.

Hoping to distract the rabbi, I whispered to my friend as quietly as I could, “The book, the book, I left the book!” My friend understood what was happening and tried distracting the rabbi in the hope of somehow taking the book from him, but he was not distracted and started asking again and again, “Whose book is this?!” Left with no choice, I turned around and answered, “Mine.”

The rabbi then went off on a rant in front of all of my friends about how wrong I was for reading this book. What stood out the most was when he said: “I’d rather you look at pornography than this!” He went on to say how the author of the book, Richard Elliott Friedman, was an “idiot” and that I could tell him (REF) that he said so.

I tried to respond and explain my side, while staying respectful at the same time to avoid saying anything that I would end up regretting. Eventually, the rabbi finished his rant and walked away. My friends and I looked at each other, completely astonished.

Needless to say, what happened really upset me. I was not really surprised about his opinion of the book, but the way he publically addressed this issue (and me) was insulting. It felt like he was trying to make an example of me, which is why he was so loud. Happily, my friends’ reactions were similar to mine and I received a lot of support from them.

A few weeks later, during a fire drill, the rabbi pulled me aside. He said that he wanted to explain himself and the way that he had acted on the shabbaton to me. Obviously, the head of school had spoken with him, and I figured he was going to apologize, to say that he got “carried away” or something like that. Instead, he started explaining to me that the reason he said what he said was because he felt as if his son was “about to touch the flames.” In other words, he was still trying to justify not just his opinion but his behavior.

This was too much and, rightly or wrongly, I had had enough. I took up the argument again, but this time without holding back. The conversation went on for around thirty minutes, and touched on matters having to do with God and the Bible.

The rabbi claimed that books like Who Wrote the Bible? are too biased for someone like me to read. He made recourse to weak analogies and kept resorting to the same rationalization, “Do you think that the 2 million Jews at Mount Sinai would all lie about the receiving of the Torah?!” Eventually, I gave up arguing with him and asked if we could end the discussion. (I am still a student and he is still a teacher.)

Before my parents switched me to a different class, I was in his Talmud class 5-7 times a week, which was very frustrating. One day we read a story about Rav Acha and the 7-headed demon (b. Kiddushin 29b), which he seemed to take at face value. How was I supposed to sit through this day after day, and listen respectfully to this kind of fanciful approach to Judaism while at the same time he refuses to offer any respect for my desire to approach things like a modern person?

Editor’s Postscript

This anecdote highlights the level of shame which Orthodox circles often attach to the study of biblical scholarship, and the humiliation to which inquisitive students are sometimes subjected when seeking compelling answers about the Torah.

Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of hesitancy and even fear among the traditional community to engage publicly with academic scholarship.  Yet, interest in this approach continues to grow. We see it directly, reflected in the continued upward trend of readership on TheTorah.com.

The readership trend on TheTorah.com

Our website has struck a chord with tens of thousands of people and is meeting a distinct need: the desire for an intellectually honest and respectful approach to the Torah. (See the essay on the 4th Anniversary of TABS.)

We recognize, however, that embracing critical scholarship as a community raises a number of important and challenging questions from a chinuch (educational) perspective, questions of relevance to schools, teachers and parents alike. For example:

  • At what age should a parent introduce a child to the idea that the Torah is not necessarily historical? To biblical scholarship?
  • What can parents (and students) do when schools or teachers are hostile to academic approaches to the Torah?
  • Should schools be teaching academic approaches to the Bible? If so, how and when?

Questions such as these do not have easy answers. But we would like to take this opportunity to start a conversation, to begin the work of addressing these questions.

If you are an educator with thoughts on the issue, or a reader with anecdotes of your own that you would like to share, we invite you to be in touch with us at editors@thetorah.com.

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