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?


  1. a couple of observations (i am pretty much critical/secular):

    most of the work i read on modern biblical crit is not all that convincing to me. i think a lot of Jews who look at this stuff in a rather casual way find it kind of boring/unconvincing.

    i am struck, however, by the near unanimity of anyone who has intensively studied the topic in grad school that the Torah is definitely a composite doc written over hundreds of years (at least according to the evidence they have uncovered/studied.)

    this unanimity (of late) seems to extend to haredi, dati leumi, secular, Jewish, atheistic, gentile scholars who have really "done the work" in a secular university.

    i am still waiting myself, however, for a really solid laying out of the evidence -- something really meaty and comprehensive -- whatever it is they are doing in grad programs that is leaving all students fairly certain that the five books were arrived at over hundreds of years.

    my second area: i went to a BT yeshiva and really enjoyed it. however, i was stunned that Jews there seemed intent on proving/believing that the Torah was/had to be of Mosaic origin and was definitely/conclusively divine in origin.

    i am still stunned that this is a "Jewish" view of our religion. i just always thought (in my heart, not through any particular training) that Jews were just unafraid of any attacks on the religion because the religion was impervious, because no one really believed anything that was possibly too-hard-to-believe was anything that mattered.

    i still believe that OJ has become much more "goyishe" in its approach to religion -- and i think the reason is very, very simple: fear of assimiliation, intermarriage, and the abandonment of the religion (all as a result of the Enlightenment/welcoming of Jews into society.)

    To me, the whole fear of Mod Bibl Crit is goyishe. But I think i represent an "old" Jewish model - one that didn't fear anything -- but probably realistically because no host country would ever let us assimilate anyway! it was a non-starter, and the Jewish community (shtetl) reflected ALL positions (because where was any Jew really going to go anyway? and even a Jewish communist or atheist was going to marry a Jew, so who really cared?)

    today it is different and I feel the Jewish (OJ) response is really terrible (but perhaps people don't see any other way.)

  2. Are you seriously asking how a tanna would respond to a person who are kofer in torah she'b'ksav and torah she'ba'al peh and tries to convince others of his position?

    What would Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai do? He would at the very least satisfy moridin v'lo maalin.

    1. So you advocate killing a person who is struggling with his emunah?

  3. I advocate nothing. You asked what Yochanan Ben Zakkai would do, and I answered that he would be noheig al pi din, and the din in the case of those who, assuming they were not raised to such beliefs (and thus are tinokim she'nishbu), are openly and famously (the Rambam's language is l'acher shenisparsem she'hu kofer) kofer b'torah, the halacha is clear: moridin v'lo maalin. The Rambam even states that doing so is a "mitvzah gedolah."

    Primary source materials can be found by starting in Perek 3, Hilchos Mamrim and Tu"sh CM 425, and following the marrei mikomos from there.

  4. “Is it Time? - Dealing with the Challenges of Critical Biblical Scholarship”

    I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    The reason is simple. The evidence against the likelihood that God authored the Torah as we have it today (TAWHIT, my invented term)) and also that Moshe was the single scribe that recorded it all is overwhelming, i.e. the Rambam’s 8th Principle. While there exists little to no evidence in favour of TAWHIT.

    It isn’t just the Documentary Hypothesis to consider. Even if one were to demolish the DH

    It’s an agglomeration of many aspects of the contents of the Torah…

    1) No rational mind (hindered by faith) would believe that Devarim and the rest of Torah were authored by the same writer,
    2) faulty science (creation story mainly)
    3) faulty history (flood story mainly)
    4) all kinds of archaeological evidence .
    5) immoral, faulty and unjust commandments
    6) erroneous and anachronistic text
    7) arguments from the narratives of N’Kh.

    The time has come to admit to the incorrectness of the Rambam’s 8th principle.

    The problem is that most think that without the 8th, Judaism will disappear.

  5. @david a. would u mind explaining how it would not disappear.
    I certainly only find points 1 and 6 plausible to even a slight degree.
    The other points are fairly explainable.

    1. >>>> would u mind explaining how it would not disappear.

      I honestly don’t know the answer to your question, but what I do know is that any religion based on forcing people to believe in creeds that can be proven NOT true does not have much of a future. And, every day that goes by some new piece of evidence strengthens the thesis that the Torah developed over time, while the belief that God authored and Moshe wrote it has NO proof to support it (aside from the poor Kuzari argument). It is simply based on blind faith.

      Here’s the catch-22. If God really has a special relationship with us, I trust He will do something about the problem.

      >>>> I certainly only find points 1 and 6 plausible to even a slight degree. The other points are fairly explainable.

      Explainable, Maybe by or for you….not to most biblical scholars

      It is very difficult to elaborate on these points in one small comment, but I’ll give it a shot.
      Re: Point 2. kindly explain the fact that the creation story (the first few verses of Breishit) was obviously written by someone who was ignorant of the true structure of the universe.

      Eg. What is the “rakia”and the waters above? According to the Talmud (pes 94b), the rakia is some kind of dome covering the earth into which the sun and stars were embedded, coincidentally what the Persians and the ancient Babylonians thought about the sky, but certainly nothing that we know about.
      And what exactly is “Shomayim”, if it is separate from the Eretz (ie. Earth) as verse one implies, then it can’t mean the universe as we understand it?.
      What was “Oir” referenced before day 4, when the sun was created?
      Point 3. Mabul. The evidence is fairly conclusive that NO flood occurred 4000 years ago.
      . Arguments against the flood having occurred that need to be explained, not just dismissed.
      § 5000+ yrs Continuous history in Egypt & Mesopotamia.
      § Dozens of arch digs with strata going back 4000+ years and no traces of a flood interrupting the strata,
      § Plants that are over 4000 years old, varves, ice cores, etc.
      § Diversified genetics that needed more than 4000 years to come about.
      § How come none of Noah descendants were monotheists or none had a recent flood mythology or didn’t know the purpose of the rainbow

      Do you actually believe a global flood destroyed all living matter 4000 years ago. The evidence against this is so overwhelming and is considered conclusive by most (non-faith impaired) people.

      Point 4.

      Just a few ideas.

      § Diversified Languages go back 1000s of years. The Tower of Babel story is simply nonsense. Arch. claims that Hebrew was a very minor language developed much later than the times of the patriarchs.
      § Egypt controlled the western and southern portion of canaan and it would have been impossible for the B’Y to conquer Canaan without contending with the Egyptians. A piece of information not known to the authors of the Torah and the Book of Joshua.
      § The idea of 3-4 million people leaving Egypt and destroying their army is archaeologically untenable for many reasons.
      § Arch. claims circumcision was common, and not unique to the descendants of Abraham.

      Etc. etc. etc.

      Don’t have much time…. Will try write something on Point 5 & 7 later.

      Point 7 is very important and fairly compelling.