Thursday, December 01, 2005

What about the Documentary Hypothesis?

The Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis is a nasty 21-letter word (yes, I am kidding) for Orthodox Jews. In fact, once upon a time it was just as nasty for many non-Orthodox Jews. In a famously titled 1903 speech called "Higher-Criticism - Higher-Anti-Semitism" Solomon Schechter famously denounced higher Bible criticism for its goal of "denying all our claims for the past and leaving us without hope for the future." Today we might say that about the school of Bible minimalists who essentially deny the whole of the historicity of Tanakh. They say that Tanakh is a late Persian or Hellenistic invention that reflects virtually nothing of prior history in Canaan. That the concept of Jews or Israelites simply didn't exist prior to this time, that many of the 'returning exiles' were not in fact native to Canaan (or Palestine as they always call it), but were convinced by the Persians that they were. That earlier personalities in Tanakh are really meant to portray Hasmonean personalities like Yohannan Hyrcanus and so forth. But I digress, a post on minimalism will be forthcoming.

In any case, despite the undeniable fact that the most famous proponent of the documentary hypothesis, indeed it bears his name, Julius Wellhausen, was antisemitic and intensely disliked Judaism, despite this, a majority of scholars are convinced that the Bible really is composed of four sources combined into one. The thing is, one cannot just dismiss Wellhausen's DH for two reasons. One, the messenenger may be passul le-edut in a bet din, but that doesn't impact the obejctive reality of the message. It is true or false on its own merits. Secondly, because he didn't invent it. He essentially systemized observations made by Bible scholars for at least 200 years before him (or even nearly 2000 years, if one includes the recognition of many of the problems he recounted found in the rabbinic writings). He wasn't the first person to claim a J and an E document could be discerned. He put the whole thing together and tied it in a neat bow, along with some theories--now discredited--about the progression and development of Judaism.

But the DH has never been unseated. It's been challenged, its been modified, an entire new school of Bible scholarship willing to examine the Bible as a literary unit has arisen, but it simply hasn't been unseated. Bible scholars continue to insist that utilizing the scientific method which has had so many successes in other kinds of literature that four distinct documents can really, truly be detected in Tanakh. For them this isn't a controverial matter. Just as Rav Aharon Feldman allowed that the stars in the sky really are billions and millions of light years distant: "It is quite obvious that the world appears older than 6000 years. One needs only look up to the sky and see stars billions of light years away for evidence of this." Rav Feldman isn't a scientist, and indeed, he even maintains that the conclusion that our own eyes see is not the entire picture. But he willingly admits that there was no conspiracy of atheist scientists to determine the world to be ancient rather than young. Rather, they utilized the legitimate tools of their trade, tools which are successful in so many areas, and saw what their valid methods uncovered: "the world appears older than 6000 years." Similarly, textual, linguistic and other scientific methods of literary analysis determines that there are four strands or sources that were combined into one unit.

This is beyond dispute to the point that one Orthodox expert in Tanakh, indeed perhaps the world's greatest expert, Orthodox or otherwise, on the Masoretic text of Tanakh, R. Mordechai Breuer concludes just that. Going too far, in my opinion, R. Breuer once wrote that: "The power of these inferences [e.g., the scientific analyses], based on solid argument and internally consistent premises, will not be denied by intellectually honest persons. One cannot deny the evidence before one's eyes." The reason, by the way, that I think he goes too far is because, le-ma'aseh, intellectually honest persons have denied it. Can R. Breuer really be saying that every single Orthodox scholar--including his great-grandfather R. Samson Raphael Hirsch--simply lacks intellectual honesty? And if one needs such things, what about Solomon Schechter? He was not an intellectually dishonest scholar. So R. Breuer goes too far (and, by the way, he does not reject the Mosaic authorship, he just concludes that there are reasons, too complicated to get into al reggel ahat, why Hashem communicated a Torah that looks as it does to Moshe). But his point is not invalidated either. To word it differently, one cannot deny that intellectually honest persons believe the DH. They, too, are not reading Tanakh dishonestly any more than the scientists deliberately falsified evidence of an old universe. Besides, just because the general theme of the DH is what intellectually honest scientific analysis perceives does not mean that ipso facto every element offered by scholars can't be mistaken. This applies particularly to the issue of ordering and dating the four sources, rather than the general principle of four sources itself.

This brings up the issue of how Ha-qaddosh Barukh Hu can expect one to believe what is contra to the evidence. It is essentially the same question regarding the age of the universe or even evolution of the species, which many Orthodox Jews now regard as settled: they're ancient and Darwin was right. Another question is if HQBH even actually requires us to reject the DH. How do we know this?

So....what to do?

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