Rabbi Breuer’s achievement in the study of Chumash can be compared to Rabbi Chaim Brisker’s revolution in Talmud study. Both build on the insights of their predecessors, back to Chazal themselves. Both advocate systematic analysis. Both shift the focus of study from the localized clash of question and answer to the search for underlying principles that would explain the data.
In the academic world this aspect of Rabbi Breuer’s work was received with a thundering silence. Naturally those scholars committed to the Documentary Hypothesis for religious or intellectual reasons would not be eager to discard the consensus, especially as Rabbi Breuer offered not an all out refutation, but rather an alternative method, compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai on other grounds.
Many observant academics had become comfortable with a policy whereby they gained tolerance by publishing only on “neutral” subjects, employing vague formulations that do not require explicit affirmation or denial of ikkarei emuna. Some avoided teaching Chumash altogether to avoid offending either the Orthodox or the secular.
Acknowledging Rabbi Breuer’s work directed unwelcome attention to the ways in which Orthodox students of Bible are divided from their non-Orthodox counterparts.
Many readers of his early articles simply didn’t grasp what Rabbi Breuer was getting at. He used kabbalistic terminology without fully explaining how it was relevant to modern biblical inquiries. I believe he was not understood until his work became known among students familiar with Brisk who could appreciate the analogies noted above.
Even after he became popular there were valid criticisms from those largely sympathetic with his approach: Rabbi Breuer was too exuberantly prone to accept questions raised by Bible critics as legitimate regardless of the particular merits of the case, simply because they were taken seriously in the literature he studied. More important, Rabbi Breuer and many of his followers underestimated the degree to which adopting the vocabulary and stylistic tics of academic Bible study subtly undermines the sense of reverence essential to Torah study. The fact that many live their lives in Torah institutions may have been a drawback rather than a boon – had they spent more time in the university, they might have become warier of this danger.
Misunderstanding and loneliness is the fate of the pioneer. Rabbi Breuer persevered against the indifference of the academy and initial lack of comprehension within the Torah community. He can no longer join us in cultivating the fields he has plowed. But as we continue to expand and deepen his work, it is a duty and a privilege to show gratitude for his initiative and inspiration.
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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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.