“Who Wrote the Bible?” Challenged My Conservative Jewish Education

A single semester in college led to a crisis of faith and identity.


February 29, 2024

Lisa Jacobs

Lisa Jacobs


“Who Wrote the Bible?” Challenged My Conservative Jewish Education

Who Wrote the Bible? by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman

Joy and Guilt in Jewish Education

I am the proud and grateful product of the Schechter Jewish day school system, where I received my K-8 education.[1] As a Jewish educator myself, I can say unequivocally that my time at Schechter shaped my personal and professional Jewish journeys in invaluable ways. The joy that was instilled in me from an early age, which is, in adulthood, inextricable from my Jewish identity, deeply informs how I run the supplementary school I currently direct.

When I reflect on my day school education, which I do often, I can also vividly recall encountering a robust sense of guilt in my Jewish studies classes, specifically Jewish history. One teacher in particular, Mrs. RT, taught Jewish history through an especially persecutory, guilt-laden lens. She persisted in railing against the purchase of German goods even in the 1980s and ‘90s (with middle schoolers)!

To hammer the point home, every Yom Hashoah, Mrs. RT erected a life-size replica of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work will set you free”) gate from Auschwitz at the entrance to the school. I passed through that gate every single year, ages five through thirteen. It was drilled into me that because of centuries upon centuries of persecution, especially the Holocaust, it was my responsibility to carry my ancestors’ legacy forward to future generations. Otherwise, I risked denigrating the memories of all Jews who have died on account of their Jewishness.

To be fair, my days at Schechter coincided perfectly with what scholars largely agree was the height of the Jewish continuity crisis.[2] Buying into this perceived crisis, however, led to a survivalist approach in the Jewish educational setting, aimed at preventing intermarriage, increasing participation in Jewish communal institutions, and enhancing the level of Jewish practice in the home. These behavioral metrics of success can only be ascertained years, even decades into the future and, even then, are grounded in traditional, normative definitions of Judaism.[3] It is understandable then, against this backdrop, that Jewish educators in the ‘80s and ‘90s were operating from a place of existential fear.

Upon reflection, I do believe that— for teachers like Mrs. RT and many others—these behavioral metrics of identity were the ultimate goal of my Jewish education. The message was clear: to neglect my religion and my cultural birthright would be not just heretical, but despicably ungrateful. What a heavy burden to carry! Even now, I feel this responsibility somewhere deep in my core, at a subconscious level, and moments throughout my life, both professional and personal, have demanded that I resurface and contend with it. By these standards, my education should be characterized as quite a success.

In contrast, I would be remiss not to mention Simi, a very special teacher who figured most prominently in my day school upbringing. Simi taught Tanach and music. He was a goofball in the Tanach classroom, and his authentic love of Torah came through in his teaching. Simi’s charming, warm, relational style and his ability to draw children in through his singing and accordion accompaniment made Simi a veritable magnet. He was affectionately referred to by all as the “Pied Piper.” I feel lucky that Simi has continued as a positive mentor of mine into adulthood.

Though Mrs. RT and Simi’s goals were likely both rooted in Jewish identity and continuity, their approaches in the classroom were almost diametrically opposed. Upon reflection, I think that being able to evoke these two early, contrasting archetypes of the “Jewish educator” has helped shape my Jewish educational philosophy over time. I have always known on an intuitive level that I want to be “more Simi” and “less Mrs. RT,” but refining what that means exactly has been a decades-long journey that I am certain will continue to evolve.

I was a very serious student. Though I was certainly not alone, I was the exception rather than the rule in my passion for Hebrew, love of Tanach stories, and enthusiasm for gematria (using the numerical value of Hebrew words and letters to interpret texts), to name just a few of my nerdier tendencies as a student.[4] Even after graduating Schechter and attending public high school, I still was highly involved in Jewish communal and educational activities, including but not limited to USY, NCSY, Hebrew High School, Israeli dancing, Jewish camp counseling, bnei mitzvah tutoring, weekly synagogue attendance, and traditional Shabbat/holiday observance. It is difficult to imagine that anything could shake that foundation of Jewish identity which had been built over the course of my most formative years.

A Single Semester in College Nearly Shattered My Jewish Identity

I distinctly recall sitting in my Intro to the Hebrew Bible class at Tufts University in the second semester of my freshman year, where I was first introduced to the concept of “hermeneutics.” One of our first assigned texts, Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, outlined the documentary hypothesis. It was here that I first toiled with the possibility that God had not handed down the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai.

I remember pouring over the pages of Friedman’s book—confused, angry, and resentful. I had been taught for years that the Torah was miSinai (from Sinai). How could it be possible that this was not the Truth? Furthermore, what did that mean about the entirety of my Jewish education up to that point? When confronted with the evidence in Friedman’s book—the doublets, the incongruencies, the repetitions—I was thoroughly convinced that the Hebrew Bible, and most significantly the Torah, had indeed been written by human hands.

I felt manipulated, and hoodwinked by my earlier education. Following that first semester, I spent a good many years feeling disenfranchised from the religious aspects of my Judaism. Those years were filled with questioning, searching, and hard conversations with professors, friends, peers, and family members. In fact, I owned two copies of Friedman’s book, one well-worn and highlighted copy, and a second that I could loan one out to friends and colleagues. I was really trying to get to the bottom of… something. I vacillated between reluctant participation in community and family rituals and utter rejection of my Judaism. The ostensibly strong foundation that had been fostered over years by my intentional, Conservative Jewish upbringing had been nearly shattered in a single semester.

Those years were challenging and painful, but through my toil, I came to the conclusion that the Tanakh, as both the chronicle of my ancestral narrative and the enduring text of my ancestral heritage across millennia, offers wisdom and insight regardless of authorship. Jewish Studies teacher Susie Tanchel captures my own experience with notable insight and accuracy. She writes:

In my high school teaching experience, almost all students, regardless of denomination, have internalized some version of a belief in the Torah’s divine authorship at the core of their religious worldview. Consequently, learning source criticism can initially be controversial, provocative, and even threatening, to students’ religious beliefs and practices.

It requires them to confront the possibility that the Torah is the product of human writers, which frequently leads to their questioning the continuing sacredness, veracity, and authority of the text.

But it can also help students feel a stronger connection to the text, as they find support for their long-held intuitive beliefs of human authorship, learn the early history and the development of their religion for the first time, find it easier to connect to the text as a whole when objectionable parts can be contextualized historically, and/or find their traditionalist religious commitments stronger after having engaged with theories of human authorship.[5]

Despite the many challenges it poses, teaching the documentary hypothesis to students in a Jewish educational setting accomplishes several goals that potentially safeguard against the type of years-long turmoil I endured. In a setting where Judaism—practice, values, culture, ritual, sensibilities, etc.—is taught and promoted in both explicit and implicit ways, teaching biblical criticism is an inspired and inspiring choice.

First and foremost, it sends the message that there is space within Judaism to acknowledge the human authorship of the Torah, and that it is permitted—and even encouraged—to question divine authority. Secondly, it shows trust in the students to process and integrate potentially provocative content that may very well fly in the face of their own understandings of Judaism. Lastly, by doing so in a “safe” Jewish educational space, Jewish educators can help guide students through the religious identity turmoil that can ensue from studying such controversial material.

I did not have the benefit of this safe, Jewish space of challenge and trust where I could process my feelings with like-minded peers, facilitated by a knowledgeable and committed Jewish educator. Instead, my Conservative Jewish education spoon-fed me exactly what I was supposed to believe with little room for questioning or doubt. The “truth” of biblical authorship was not presented to me until I unsuspectingly came to pursue it in a non-Jewish, academic setting. This distinction made all the difference in how I processed both the information itself as well as my own deeply personal reactions to it.

After working through the early educational missteps which destabilized my relationship with my Jewishness as a young adult, I emerged more resolute in my Judaism and with a stronger, more mature, and nuanced relationship with my Jewish identity. Now, as a Jewish educator, I have the opportunity to “course correct” with my own students.

Lisa Jacobs is the Director of Family Education and Engagement at Bet Am Shalom Synagogue, a Reconstructionist community in White Plains, NY. She previously served as Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Massachusetts. Lisa holds a B.A. from Tufts University in Child Development and Comparative Religion, an M.M. from the New England Conservatory, an M.A. from Lesley University in Expressive Therapies, and an M.A. from George Washington University in Israel Education. Lisa is a board-certified music therapist and licensed mental health counselor, has performed as a vocalist with the Klezmer Conservatory Band and other Boston-based ensembles and has written, composed, and arranged pieces for Jewish a cappella and choral groups in the Northeast.


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