Monday, February 20, 2006

Orthodox Judaism deals with Bible criticism

Maybe one day this blog title will be correct. Right now, it really should be titled "Orthodox Judaism should deal with Bible criticism."

Allow me to explain. With regards to higher or literary Bible criticism, there have been three or four Orthodox approaches.

Early on in the game, there were Orthodox scholars who took it on point by point. Well, maybe not scholars, but there was R. David Zvi Hoffman.

The second approach is the most widespread, which is to pretend it doesn't exist. I think in my entire yeshiva career I heard one roundabout reference to Bible criticism, which is to say that dealing with it meant ignoring it completely.

The third approach is to sort of introduce Bible criticism, either in a 45-minute lecture or in an essay, most of the time being spent summarizing the history of the theory and then maybe 10% devoted to highlighting a weakness or two, and then declaring that as a theory it is dead and has been dead for 90 years.

A fourth approach, which is unlikely to gain much in the way of adherents, is that typified by R. Mordechai Breuer, which allows that the prevalent theory, the documentary hypothesis, is correct insofar as it has identified four strands and the hand of a redactor, but nevertheless the Torah was written be-davka this way and is al pi Hashem be-yad Moshe, just as tradition holds.

The first approach has merits, but is exhausting. If there are a thousand 'problems' which led to the two types of explanations, the traditional Torah she-be'al peh and the untraditional documentary hypothesis, the former provides a thousand answers to the thousand problems while the latter essentially provides one answer to the thousand problems. That means that in order to really have a good grasp of how Tanakh 'works,' with the thousand problems (I made the number up, for argument's sake) one has to do a lot of juggling. On the other hand, a sweeping theory which basically answers the thousand problems in one sentence approaches Occam's Razor a bit more, although I suppose one could argue that "Torah she-be'al peh" is also a sweeping theory. Either way, when Bible criticism is taken on in every detail one usually ends up in quicksand.

The second approach makes some sense, insofar as we could probably make some sort of calculation. If a hundred students are not exposed to Bible criticism by the time they're 20 years old, let's say that 70% will either never be exposed to it, or will be entirely unwilling to entertain it. On the other hand, say that the same hundred students are exposed to it, say, by the age of bar/ bat mitzvah. Maybe then the numbers change signifigantly, maybe 70% wind up with skepticism or doubt. Or at least that must be the calculation made when students, such as myself, could spend almost two decades in an educational environment without any exposure to it (apart from my reading done on my own). But at the cost of never being exposed to what a yeshiva reponse to Bible criticism might be.

The third approach, that of lightly touching upon it and then declaring it dead is probably very good for the majority of people who the second approach dealt with. These classes and essays are like a caffeine jolt. Now the people can feel like they've been exposed to it, know what it is and that its nonsense and discredited. This works well for those who aren't really curious about it.

The fourth approach, accepting the findings but disputing the conclusions, is interesting. But it almost seems like permission to be a kofer with cognitive dissonance. Maybe that'll work for some people (I toy with it), but its hard to believe that one is being totally intellectually honest by drawing no new conclusions from the conglomeration of historical, textual, theological and other types of literary analyses which finds multiple sources in the Torah.

There is a fifth approach which has only been touched on and in my opinion badly needs exploiting.

In this Introduction to the Philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik by R. Ronnie Ziegler we are told
Let us take, for example, the question of biblical criticism. True, the Rav did not write a treatise on this topic because it held no great interest for him personally and because he felt that others, like Rav Chayyim Heller, had more specialized knowledge on the subject. However, he also makes a significant observation in "The Lonely Man of Faith" (p.10) which would suggest that biblical criticism does not pose as great a challenge as one initially would assume. The critics make their case for multiple authorship based on certain anomalies in the biblical text. Rav Soloveitchik points out in response that the Sages and the Rishonim were also sensitive to these textual anomalies, but they offered different explanations for these phenomena because they were working with different assumptions than the critics. In other words, taking note of textual phenomena is one thing, but interpreting the phenomena is something else entirely.


Furthermore, Rav Shalom Carmy points out that two approaches are possible when confronting critics:

A) One can respond to them point-by-point, but then one is playing in their arena and is constantly on the defensive.

B) One can offer a compelling alternate understanding. This is precisely what the Rav does in "The Lonely Man of Faith." Instead of undertaking a detailed critique of the critics' interpretation of the first two chapters of Bereishit, he undercuts their arguments entirely by presenting a cogent alternative. Thus, he DOES actually confront the critics - in an indirect yet constructive manner, rather than in a direct but defensive manner.
This is the fifth view. Whether or not something is a cogent alternative will be judged by the reader. But even though R. Soloveitchik only went down this path for one topic, it would seem to me that rather than undetake a point-by-point refuation (first view), rather then ignoring it (second view), rather than pretending to have conquered it (third view) and rather than simply accepting it and hoping people will still believe (fourth view) scholars need to prevent alternatives, not at the local level, one 'problem'/ one solution (multiplied a thousand times). But problematic 'sugyot' in Torah and Nakh ought to be taken on, as Bereishith 1 & 2 were, and a new view put forth addressing the forest rather than the trees.

Of course a cycnic will say that this is an impossible task, because apart from the one or two areas, like the beginning of Bereishith, it cannot be done. Other cynics on the other end of the spectrum will just say "Phooey, kefira." But until it's been tried, how do we know what the correct Orthodox response to Bible criticism is?


  1. There is actually a sixth - that of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. If I understood it correctly, he basically reverses the entire issue by making the Toshba the primary foundation of Judaism (since it is what dictates how we worship God) and relegates the Torah Shebichtav to a secondary status.

    More than that, he argued that it was the canonization of the Torah at the end of Bayit Sheni that gave it its holy status. The "historical issue" (i.e. the DH) is thus entirely irrelevant because the issue is the praxis (actual avodat Hashem), not the historical details.

  2. Also, I've heard the Rav addressed the Deuteronomy problem by seeing it as the beginning of Torah Shebe'al Peh and interpretation of the Torah, so he actually addressed two issues.



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