Tag Archives: Conservative Judaism

Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response

By Ben Elton

Ben Elton’s guest post is the 6th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two talks and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available herehere, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here, while our last post, a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter, can be found here.

Yitzchak Sprung is in the middle of a series of posts on this blog exploring whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. We have seen perspectives from Menachem Leibtag, James Kugel, Nahum Sarna and a digest of Hazal and Rishonim who did not believe that the entire Torah was either given at Sinai or given to Moses. All of this discussion and analysis is interesting and much of it is valuable, but there are also problematic elements to his enterprise, which this post is designed to highlight.

We should always attempt to reveal the nuance and complexity of our tradition. Yitzchak has brought to our attention once more, sources in the Talmud which understand that the Torah (by which I mean the Pentateuch) was given not in one fell swoop but over the course of the wanderings in the desert, and that the last few pasukim were dictated not to Moses but to Joshua. We have been reminded that significant medieval scholars held that there may have been some amendments to the text even later than that. Abraham Ibn Ezra has long been known for holding that view; more recently we have learnt that Yehuda HeHassid held similar views. All this is to the good, and we should not be perturbed that the Rambam disagreed and his Principles of Faith reflect his different position. Rishonim do not always agree, indeed that is the foundation for much traditional learning.

However, we should not delude ourselves. There is a vast chasm between these traditional (if sometimes marginal) views and the contemporary approach. Although the academy is perhaps rowing back from the high point of biblical minimalism, the consensus of modern scholars does not accept there was an Egyptian slavery of the entire Hebrew nation, nor an Exodus, a Moses, the Revelation at Sinai, nor the conquest of the Land.1 We cannot reconcile modern scholarship and traditional faith by referring to the sources that Yitzchak discussed. Indeed, as Marc Shapiro has shown (for some reason the radicalism of Shapiro is often overstated), all authorities agree that these events took place and all regard the belief in a direct Divine Revelation as essential.2 This is true of figures as separated by time and culture as Joseph Albo and Moses Mendelssohn.3

So let us be clear. Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship would represent a complete departure from traditional Jewish thought. It means far more than viewing the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles as just one voice in a complex conversation; it means rejecting the attitude towards the Torah held by every Jew until Spinoza and every traditional Jew since. This point too has been acknowledged by scholars and thinkers on both sides of the question, from Joseph Hertz to Louis Jacobs.4 The Documentary Hypothesis shatters the traditional view. The idea that the Torah was written by many hands over many centuries and redacted in the Persian period or later is totally absent from traditional accounts. Even David Weiss Halivni cannot stomach this view, and argues for a Revelation at Sinai followed by a reconstruction of something approaching an original text, which would account for the features which academics ascribe to multiple authorship and editing.5

Further, this change in our view of the Torah would require the construction of an entirely new theology of halakhah, which brings me to my second point. Many have tried to create a new justification for the observance of mitzvot absent direct Divine Revelation. In America, Solomon Schechter took the first steps, followed by Louis Ginzberg and Louis Finklestein. In Britain the same was attempted by a group of figures I discussed in a recent article in Conservative Judaism, culminating in Louis Jacobs in a series of books, pamphlets and lectures.6 Most recently Joel Roth has restated much the same arguments.7 They all suggest that while the Torah may be the result of many years and many authors and editors it has nevertheless received Divine sanction through history, specifically its acceptance by the Jewish People and therefore can still be the basis for a binding halakhah.

There are three fatal problems with this approach. First, it breaks down even for its advocates at some point. Louis Jacobs repeatedly advanced the view that halakhah remained binding whatever our conclusions might be on the authorship of the Torah, but became queasy when it can to institutions such as mamzer, which he attributed to a human, as opposed to Divine element in the biblical text, and wanted to eliminate. The problem being, that in his view the Torah should be regarded as both entirely human and entirely Divine. Gordon Tucker took a similar approach to the prohibition of homosexuality and argued vigorously that he could not exclude his views on the Bible from his thinking about the position of gay Jews and his desire to enable them to find personal fulfilment with a partner, and his belief that God wanted that too.8

The second problem is that this view actually inhibits halakhic change. The traditional view that a Divinely revealed law was given into human hands, allows for reconsideration of its meaning in every generation in the light of its needs. The train of thought that comes from attempting to reconcile modern thought on the Bible with a commitment to halakhah, concludes with the idea that whatever has been accepted is binding. This logically precludes further development because the status quo always has the Divine imprimatur. Of course, this point has long since been put to one side in practice.

The third problem is sociological. The attempts by the early leaders of the Conservative Movement to justify a binding halakhah without direct Divine Revelation comprehensively failed. The Conservative laity has never been halakhic and now the Conservative rabbinate is not halakhic either. David Wiess Halivni and Alan Yuter made this point in the 1980s, Ismar Schorsch and Joel Roth more recently. It is an irrefutable fact that the abandonment of the doctrine of direct Divine Revelation leads inexorably to the collapse of traditional Jewish life, with all its meaning, beauty and power.

Where does this leave us? We have to stop pretending. We have to acknowledge that our traditional sources do not bring us closer in any real sense to modern biblical scholarship, although its observations may be useful in prompting our own thoughts, and that was certainly true of Mordecai Breuer (Menachem Leibtag’s teacher) who saw many perspectives in a unitary text.9 We can continue to delve into our own tradition, but in its own terms and not to try to find a way to reconcile with contemporary scholarship. If we want to continue as traditional Jews either in thought or deed then, in the words of Alexander Kohut, higher criticism of the Pentateuch is ‘noli me tangere – hands off!’10

Ben Elton is a second year semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

1 Israel Finkelstein, Amihay Mazar, Brian B. Schmidt, The Quest for the Historical Israel (Society of Biblical Literature 2007)

2 Marc S. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 2004), chapter 7

3 Joseph Albo, Ikkarim and Moses Mendelssohn Jerusalem. See Alexander Altmann’s discussion of the relationship between Albo and Mendelssohn’s dogmatic views in his Moses Mendelssohn: a Biographical Study (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1998), 544

4 J.H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorah’s (Second Edition, Soncino Press 1961), 402; Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1999), 56

5 David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored (Westview Press 1998)

6 Benjamin J. Eton, ‘Conservative Judaism’s British Trailblazers’ (Conservative Judaism 63:4, Summer 2012); Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe (Vallentine Mitchell 1957); The Sanction of the Mitzwoth (Society for the Study of Jewish Theology 1963); Principles of the Jewish Faith (Vallentine Mitchell 1964) A Jewish Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd 1973)

7 Joel Roth, ‘Musings Towards a Personal Theory of Revelation’ (Conservative Judaism 64.1 Fall 2012)

8 Gordon Tucker, Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality (2006) available here: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards/even-haezer#interpersonal

9 See Meir Ekstein, ‘Rabbi Mordechai Breuer and Modern Orthodox Biblical Commentary’ (Tradition, 33:3, 1999)

10 Alexander Kohut, ‘Secular and Theological Studies The Menorah (July 13, 1892), 49. See BAva Batra 111b

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 5): Dr. Nahum Sarna

This is the 5th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two speeches and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available here, here, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here. Additionally, since we are, after all, discussing traditional Jewish belief, it might be worth taking a look at our short summary of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and some of our other posts discussing Jewish belief such as Russ’ six part handbook to the Creation-Evolution Debate and Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?.

Since we’re taking a look at modern biblical scholarship and traditional faith, I thought it might be worthwhile to check out what Professor Nahum Sarna had to say on the matter. Dr. Sarna, who was a professor of Biblical Studies and Chairman of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandies University as well as an ordained rabbi from the Orthodox “Jew’s College“, kept Jewish law. While he is often not considered an Orthodox Jew, possibly due to his career as a biblical scholar and his association with the Conservative Jewish theological Seminary, I think many in the Orthodox community would want to hear from him if he were alive today.

In regards to his personal beliefs, I am given to understand that Dr. Sarna did not believe in labels at all. Rather, he tried to be a good Jew, and left it at that. As I understand, he sat on the Rabbinical Committee at an Orthodox synagogue and studied with several well known Orthodox rabbis, including Britain’s Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. The latter was interested in grooming him as a successor, which is no small praise.

A person who is often (rightly or wrongly) characterized as not being Orthodox, but who does share our commitment to Halakha (Jewish law) raises questions regarding what exactly it means to be a Jew, and an Orthodox one in particular. From reading 3 of his books, as well as much of his excellent running commentary on Bereshit and Shemot, he seems to have been very traditional, though how traditional can a Bible scholar be?

As we said, James Kugel would tell you “very”. I think Sarna would as well, but both of these eminent scholars may be biased on the matter.

On the one hand, reading Dr. Sarna’s books, it is unsurprising to find that they seem very traditionally Jewish in their themes, messages, and values; after all, they are books about the Bible. On the other hand, all of that is aside from the criticism part (“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”).

I can get to those themes another time, but I was just wondering if Rabbi Leibtag’s advice to sometimes reconstruct parts of the metaphorical bridge of Jewish faith  would lead to something like Dr. Sarna’s work.

Anyway, for those of us who want to know Professor Sarna’s views on traditional faith and modern criticism, he has left us a very illuminating introduction to his classic Understanding Genesis. We’ll look at a few of the points he makes there.

1) There were many, many books written by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. More than twenty books which we no longer have are mentioned in the Bible, and it seems likely that there would have been many more. In fact, in Dr. Sarna’s opinion, there were other holy books, even, that we no longer have. These books likely disappeared  for many reasons, including the difficulty of distributing books at that time in history, the high rate of illiteracy, the then harsh labor involved in writing and copying books, the weather in the Land of Israel, and the many conquerors who tramped through Israel throughout history, leaving destruction in their wake.

The Bible, however, did not disappear. Why not?

“There is one simple explanation. The books of the Hebrew Bible survived because men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God, sacred literature. We can no longer know the criteria of selectivity adopted by those who fixed the Cannon of Jewish Scriptures. Certainly, there must have been other books regarded by the people as being holy at one time or another, but why they did not enter the final Cannon cannot be determined. Yet it is beyond doubt that it was not the stamp of canonization that affirmed the holiness of a book; rather the reverse. Sanctity antedated and preconditioned the final act of canonization. The latter was in most cases a formality that accorded finality to a situation long existing….Ultimately, it was this conviction that preserved the Bible and gave it irresistable power.”

It seems to me that Sarna has described the traditional situation here. The Mishnah mentions the canonization of certain books, and it stands to reason that even those who opposed including the Song of Songs in the Bible thought it was divinely inspired, as Sarna says. Sadly, most of us no longer think the Bible is important at all, and the point seems moot.

2) According to Dr. Sarna, the intellectual movements which led to humanism and the rejection of religious authority naturally challenged faith and the theocentric (God centered, as opposed to man centered) nature of the Bible. The critical methods used in the 19th century when approaching the Bible of course posed their challenge as well, specifically in regards to the belief that the entire Torah was dictated word for word to Moses.

According to Sarna, the “fundamentalists” did not help this situation.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self -exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religions position than a judgement upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of the conscience.”

This approach, Sarna tells us, led to many people considering Bible study childish, since they were not encouraged to study it in a serious and challenging way in school. Naturally, having been taught it in a simplistic way, they began to consider Bible study inferior to other areas of study.

The truth is, I have had a few teachers myself who indeed taught us that our conscience and thoughts were a disruption to the service of God, and not a part of it. These teachers weren’t fools, but were smart, charismatic  and effective communicators, some of whom I learned a lot from. Additionally, I have met many, many similarly intelligent and wonderful people who think that is is important for our religion that we find God inscrutable, and that we ought to ignore what may seem to us to be a clear fact.

This of course reminds us of Rambam’s statement:

“My endeavor, and that of the select keen-minded people, differs from the quest of the masses. They like nothing better, and, in their silliness, enjoy nothing more, than to set the Law and reason at opposite ends, and to move everything far from the explicable….But I try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order….” (Essay on Resurrection p. 223, available here.)

3) Finally, commenting directly on our problem, Dr. Sarna says the following:

“Of course, the fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to “tradition”, by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them.”

Dr. Sarna, then, assumes that some of the Medieval authorities (Rishonim) may have engaged in modern criticism themselves, if they were alive today. In light of what we have seen in our last post, this doesn’t seem impossible, but I don’t know.

Finally, Dr. Sarna says the following, which perhaps best summarizes his position on modern scholarship and traditional faith:

“Another misapprehension, shared alike by the followers of “pietism” and “scientism”, was that the recognition of the non-unitary origin of the Pentateuch must be destructive of faith and inimical to religion. But is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four? Surely God can as well unfold His revelation in successive stages as in a single moment of time.”

Continuing on, Dr. Sarna notes the many shortcomings of modern criticism, including a “bias against the people of Israel” and “unsupported or insufficiently supported conjecture”. None the less, in his opinion, the Torah has come from more than one document, and “this is a fact that has to be reckoned with.”

With all of this in mind, we see that Dr. Sarna takes biblical criticism very seriously, but doesn’t see it as a real challenge to faith. Rather, it:

“provide(s) the means to a keener understanding…and may prove to be the key to a deeper appreciation of their religious message. Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.”

I think, if we may compare Dr. Sarna’s opinions to Rabbi Leibtag’s and Dr. Kugel’s, that we may say in short that he seems to agree with Rabbi Leibtag that modern tools can be used to strengthen faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re in complete agreement on all important issues, but in the basic question of reading the Bible anew with modern tools, it seems they agree. Dr. Kugel, on the other hand, disagrees and emphasizes the need to read the Bible in the traditional way, while making use of the full breadth and depth our tradition. I have been told he does not think highly of Dr. Sarna’s approach, and since they so strongly disagree on this important question, we can see why.

At any rate, this provides another voice dedicated to keeping Jewish law to our discussion. I think next time we’ll check out Umberto Cassuto, who was a Chief Rabbi in his home town in Italy, before he fled to Israel to become a celebrated Bible professor.

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