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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Biblical Criticism’

Can One Be a Shomer Torah u’Mitzvos and Accept Bible Criticism?

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Another voice has entered the online discussion about Bible Criticism and orthodox Judaism. Professor Jacob L. Wright is an orthodox Jew who has studied, taught, and written extensively on Bible Criticism.

He made waves Pesach time when he published a provocative article on the Huffington Post where he talked about “The Myth of Moses.” In his article he explained that his view of the Bible is that it is a composite work with each layer added for a specific reason. In the Moses story, there was a need to justify the existence of an Egyptian prince named Moses who saved the Israelites and establish him as a bona fide Israelite. So the Bible tells the story of a boy who was cast off by his mother into the Nile. This story has very obscure references as the names of the major players in the story are not mentioned. Later, the story was viewed as salacious so new details were added as a prologue to the story.

If it weren’t the Bible and I weren’t orthodox, this would be a great theory to explain anomalies in the text. But it is the Bible and I am orthodox so it hardly sits well with me when the Bible is explained away as myth.

Professor Wright was interview by Professor Alan Brill on his Kavvanah website. The interview is worth your time and consideration if you don’t mind reading what is widely considered to be absolute kefira.

The first important thing in the interview is the introduction where Brill outlines the current status of Biblical Criticism. It’s required reading so I copy it in full here:

As background, the problems of the Bible go back to the tenth and eleventh century Islamic critiques of the Bible by Ibn Hazm and others. Second, modern figures such as Spinoza and Jean Astruc sought to understand the Bible as a human book using the same tools that we use to understand Greek and Roman books. And in the 19th century, Wellhausen popularized a theory that the Pentateuch had four authors. But the important part of his theory was that the ritual and priestly material was a priestly Pharisaic digression from the original pure faith of the prophets necessitating Christianity for a restoration. Hence, Solomon Schechter called it higher anti-Semitism, David Zvi Hoffman showed that Leviticus is not in contradiction to the rest of the story, Kaufman showed that the prophets assumed the priestly material, and Cassuto showed based on Sumerian and Akkadian sources that the divisions fail.

Well, Wellhausen was writing a century ago, with the aforementioned defenses all formulated in a post WWI climate. For at least forty years the field was already given to authors such as Gunkel who assumes the Bible is legend, the way Gilgamesh is legend. And Martin Noth who assumed most of the narrative was formulated originally as oral traditions- read here. Questions of redaction were not tied to Wellhausen, or even literary documents, but to oral traditions.

What do historians currently think about the context of the Bible? They assume that it was written between 720 BCE and 587 BCE, between the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem, with some editing until the end of Ezra’s life circa 440 BCE. (Minimalists make it more recent and Evangelicals defend the chronological dates.) They work from parallels to Assyrian texts, the nature of script, linguistics, and reconstructed context of author. Little of this has anything to do with literary doublets. If you want to reject historical criticism, then start learning ancient linguistics and texts contemporary to the Bible. No harmonization of passages changes this dating nor does anything from Cassutto or Hoffman affect it. (However, Prof. Josh Berman is seeking to shift the discussion from Assyrians to the Hittites in 1300 BCE, an effort that may be accepted by the Orthodox but does not promise to have much of an impact on the experts. But it is better than refuting Kugel, who is not a historian of ancient Israel or source critic so the critique does not help.)

This past May there was a major conference at Hebrew University on“Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory;” if you are interested in these topics, then that was the place to be. The conference opened up with a clear statement that there are three approaches: a Documentary approach (not based on Wellhausen but on Noth and others) where there are separate documents; a Supplementary approach,where a single document get more and more complex; and a Fragmentary approach, where we cannot separate out authors or layers anymore.

Torah M’Sinai According to Professor Tamar Ross

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Professor Tamar Ross was interviewed by Professor Alan Brill over at Kavvanah about Torah M’Sinai and Biblical Criticism. To be honest, when I read the interview I was unable to comprehend what she was trying to say. Only after a lengthy Facebook conversation and some posts by Gideon Slifkin did I get her approach, sort of.

Her words are very dense and quite cryptic but I think this what she is trying to say.

In her opinion, we have two immovable objects. We have Divine Revelation and the requisite belief that God gave the Torah to us in its complete form and we have Biblical Criticism which in her opinion asserts that the Torah has evolved from multiple authors and multiple eras. Something has to give. For most people, ignorance about one or the other is the turning point. People who know more about Biblical Criticism than TMS are more likely to think that the Torah is not Divine. Those who know more about (the Orthodox Jewish) approach to Torah than Biblical Criticism are more likely to think that Biblical Criticism is just a theory or soft science with more biases than religious approaches to Torah.

I am not here to take sides and apparently neither is Professor Ross.

Ross’s basic idea is that “revelation” was not a one time thing. The revelation continues as the world progressed and however the Torah was emended or edited after Sinai was part of revelation. In order to make this sound religious, Professor Ross uses all kinds of fancy kabbalistic “logic” to make this approach kosher. In short, God is not bound by time so everything is really happening at once. Revelation can’t be just a moment in time and God is continually revealed through the evolution of Torah. Apparently there are allusions to this kind of theology in classical sources. Also, the thing that make our tradition unique is only that it is our tradition. I’m not sure how and why this fits in, but she does say it.

Read the entire interview because the bulk of it is really about what this approach is not as opposed to what this approach actually is. But what is it?

Well, it’s not Orthodox. That’s for sure. But as has been pointed out, it’s not that far off. In terms of how the charedi world sees Mesorah and Daas Torah, the assumption is that God is “signing off” on the developments of Orthodox Judaism is part and parcel of how charedi Judaism works. So is it so hard to hear that God functioned the same way with regard to how the text of the Written Law evolved? Granted, the Written Law and Oral Law have different parameters and roles and I am not saying that these two ideas are the same. I am merely pointing out that the two ideas are similar.

Is this idea viable or useful?

I don’t think so. First of all, simple ideas are popular. There is a reason that more nuanced positions are less popular than bombastic theories of everything. People like when things are simple. The fundamentalist version of Torah M’Sinai is simple and not nuanced at all. It’s also pretty popular. If you want a theory to be popular it needs to be simple. Professor Ross has proposed a very complicated theory that is very difficult to articulate. It’s not going to gain much traction because of this fatal flaw.

More importantly, I think that an idea like this is not likely to help actual people. People who believe in the fundamentalist version of Torah M’Sinai don’t need this. People who reject Torah M’Sinai are not usually looking for creative way to believe in Torah M’Sinai. Further, I am not sure that this path will lead people who reject fundamentalist Torah M’Sinai to mitzvah observance. I think they want to do what God says to do, not what men say to do as a part of God’s slow revelation.

However, there are a few people in the middle who I am confident that this approach can help. Some people just want some theological basis to be orthodox and this can potentially serve that small group. If we believe in the primacy of keeping Torah and Mitzvos then we should welcome creative ways that are somewhat theologically sound to help more people accomplish this goal.

Melt your brain and read the interview here: Kavvanah

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