Latest update: July 15th, 2013
There are great teachers whose impact is limited to their students. Greater still are those whose students initiate students of their own. The greatest teachers, however, influence not only the direct line descending from them, but an entire climate of thinking. All of us are their talmidim.
Twentieth-century Orthodox Bible study boasts two such figures. Nechama Leibowitz’s writing, teaching and broadcasting turned the exacting, microscopic study of Jewish parshanut into an exciting and popular pursuit. And Rabbi Mordechai Breuer fashioned the tools that enabled Orthodox students to confront the literary problems raised by modern biblical criticism. He entered a situation where the Orthodox approach was an apologetic one, in which the Torah was to be defended against heretical assault.
By the time he died last month, Rabbi Breuer had transformed the encounter with kefira into a positive act of Torah study. Where his influence is felt, the literary questions posed by the Bible critics are treated no different from other interesting questions endemic to Torah study: questions are a spur to chiddush and deeper understanding rather than a cause for discomfort or panic.
Rabbi Breuer, who passed away Feb. 24 in Jerusalem, spent his life in the tents of Torah. Though he associated with university people, his vocation was teaching at yeshivot and women’s institutions of higher Torah learning. His scholarly publications must be viewed as part of his primary commitment to talmud Torah in the classic sense of the phrase. He is responsible for two major enterprises, each of which could constitute a lifetime’s work.
The first was relatively uncontroversial. Rabbi Breuer devoted many years to clarifying the mesorah – the best tradition preserving the biblical text. This aspect of his work culminated in his publication of the Keter Aram Tzova and in his consultation on Mosad HaRav Kook’s Daat Mikra project. His work was respected and recognized among academicians regardless of their religious beliefs. He received the Israel Prize in 1999.
By contrast, Rabbi Breuer’s other great quest isolated him from the academic consensus and frequently baffled other Orthodox thinkers. The Higher Critics, who have become dominant over the past two centuries, profess the Documentary Hypothesis. According to them, the Torah comprises several sources, with different authors who represent conflicting outlooks and traditions about Israel’s history and laws. They point to phenomena well known to any reader of the Torah.
Traditional readers, of course, were hardly naive about the scholarly discoveries. The critical analysis of Bereishit, for example, was much concerned with the different names of God: by assigning all mentions of the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name for God found frequently in Chumash) to one source they could separate the passages ascribed to that source from other supposed authors. But, countered the defenders of tradition, Chazal had long ago anticipated the distinction between the different names of God.
The Tetragrammaton, if we may simplify the matter, denotes God’s quality of mercy. On the other hand, Elokim denotes the attribute of judgment. The Rabbis applied this distinction to the opening chapters of Bereishit, teaching that God had intended to create the world according to the principle of strict judgment (chapter 1), conjoining it with the Tetragrammaton (meaning the quality of mercy) in chapter 2, only because a world of strict law is not viable. A complex message requires a complex mode of communication.
Chazal were even more keenly aware of inconsistencies in the legal sections, as any student of Talmud and halachic midrash can attest. While a straightforward reading of isolated halachic passages might imply conflicting halachic conclusions, Torah she-b’al Peh does justice to all the relevant parashiyot.
Where the Bible critic discovers a multitude of cacophonous authors, juxtaposed by an editor who only fitfully and unsuccessfully contends with the abundant contradictions, traditional commentators perceive a complex message. To quote one of Rabbi Breuer’s favorite pesukim: “Achat dibber Elokim, shtayim zo shama’ti” (God speaks one truth; we hear multiple voices).
Such responses draw upon Chazal and traditional commentators. Rabbi Breuer systematizes these approaches but he offers more. Where his predecessors had generally been satisfied to present a plausible reconciliation of localized problems, Rabbi Breuer’s frame of reference is the Torah as a complex system of texts. He is not only interested in explaining, for example, what different, seemingly disparate details of the Torah dealing with Pesach mean – why Shemot insists that the sacrifice cannot be boiled, while Devarim uses the generic term bishul, to cook; or why Devarim includes the chagiga, while Shemot omits it – but in establishing what each “voice” of God is about and what partial truth God is communicating in each passage, which must then be understood as part of the total message of the Torah.
About the Author: Rabbi Shalom Carmy is professor of Jewish studies and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and editor of the Torah journal Tradition.
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