Monday, June 16, 2014
Is it Time? - Dealing with the Challenges of Critical Biblical Scholarship
I'll say it right from the start. The comparison I'm about to make, in a story which is based on a number of gemaras, is imperfect. Therefore the lesson that I'm going to suggest, might not logically follow. I write this, as one who is torn, rather than as a suggestion of what must be. I welcome all responses, including critiques, on and off line.
In the 40 years that he was a businessman, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had seen it all. He'd met some of the most honest and honorable people imaginable. Competitors who had taken the financial hit in situations that they could have blamed on others, refused to overcharge, and been scrupulous about weights and measures. Sadly, but not surprisingly, he'd also met his share of scoundrels. Some of his fellow businessmen had two sets of weights which they used to their advantage. Others mixed water into their wine in order to increase their profits, while some used various devices with hidden compartments to get out of paying taxes, or to trick and mislead others. As Rabban Yochanan sat in the beis midrash, it was of these devices that he now thought. He was teaching the complex laws of tumah v'tehara, specifically as it relates to various utensils. Should he mentions these tools that were used to cheat? If he did, might it not encourage others to make use of them in order to cheat as well? If he did not, it would give people the impression that the chachomim were out of touch and were unaware of the real world outside of the beis midrash. For years, he had only taught these halachos privately, but these tools were becoming too ubiquitous in the marketplace to ignore. Pretending that this was not the reality was no longer an option. He had no choice. He would, for the first time, publicly discuss these vessels, and people would choose how they would respond.
In the past year, academic bible study has made it into the Orthodox world through a website that is committed to openly dealing with the issue in order to “address the challenges modern biblical scholarship poses to traditional Jewish faith and observance”. I and many others have been uncomfortable with the website dealing with such a sensitive topic in a public forum. My standard comparison is to the Rambam's “Moreh Nevuchim”. In the introduction, Rambam made it clear that he would not clearly spell out his particular beliefs, hiding them as it were, among seemingly contradictory statements. He was quite successful. In some ways, the Moreh is, to quote Winston Churchill's description of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. In reading the plethora of scholarship on Rambam's true beliefs, one sees how much the Moreh is an “aspaqlaria sh'eina meira”, serving essentially as a mirror to the one who seeks to interpret it. Rambam understood that not everyone would be able to understand, incorporate or make peace with all of his views. For that reason, he kept them well-hidden and out of the public view.
I have begun to wonder whether this is still a reasonable comparison. When everything is just a Google-search away, are we really living at a time when information about biblical criticism can really be kept off the communal radar? What message do questioners receive when they find few, if any, scholars who can cogently deal with their questions? Rather than suggesting that the sight is illegitimate, and that it should not exist, is it time to recognize that sites like this are not going anywhere, and that it is time for all those who love Torah, believe in its divinity, and have something to offer, to join the debate? What would Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai do?