Most of us never stop to think about modern biblical scholarship, and in the Orthodox community my impression is that it’s generally viewed as either a danger to be avoided, or a seriously misguided approach to the Torah and the rest of the Bible.
But is this really true? Lincoln Square Synogogue’s Community Scholar Elana Stein Hain just organized a forum on the topic, with two presentations and a question and answer session from two of the most prominent Orthodox Bible scholars today, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel. Rabbi Leibtag is a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, as well a prominent teacher, lecturer, and writer on TaNaKh (Bible). He regularly lectures in both Israel and North America. Dr. Kugel, a world renowned expert on Biblical scholarship and author of “How To Read the Bible” (among other fascinating works), was a professor at Harvard before retiring to Israel and Bar Ilan University.
Both speakers were superb, and I want to share some interesting points I wrote down from their presentations and answers. I’m a long time Kugel fan, so getting to hear him was very exciting for me, and I actually (and probably very awkwardly) asked him to take a photo with me. Why not?
I’ve never heard Rabbi Leibtag before, but I’ve heard high praise lavished on him, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m definitely going to check out his writings now, and I’m excited to learn some new things.
One of the most interesting points that came out of the evening was a fundamental disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag, but I’ll get to that later.
Rabbi Liebtag spoke first. He was an entertaining speaker with some surprising views, but I think his perspectives would be considered a lot more mainstream in Israel.
If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Leibtag views modern biblical scholarship as a tool in studying Torah. This means that while we believe (unshakably) that God gave us the Torah, we don’t know exactly how this took place. Modern scholarship delves through history to find out what actually happened, and thus sheds light on this question.
This can be compared to modern science telling us how God created the world. It is our belief that He did so, but we don’t know how, exactly. Science and modern scholarship become tools to answer these questions, though in Leibtag’s opinion, archaeology is still in the baby stage.
This being the case, scholarship is not only not a danger, but a useful tool in our toolbox (this is his phrase).
The problem with modern scholarship really comes in when it comes to teaching it. In Rabbi Leibtag’s opinion, God created the world to have nations. He then chose one nation as His servants in order to bring Godliness to the world. This is the goal of the Torah, and the question is what role scholarship plays in this goal.
As we said, it is a tool in his opinion. The problem with scholarship is as follows:
The goal of Godliness may be likened to a bridge. When building the bridge, we need many parts. The cement, the pillars, etc. Sometimes we need to replace parts, and so too we sometimes replace parts in our belief system.
In his opinion, the parts we replace should not be viewed so much as traditional beliefs, but as traditional understandings of traditional beliefs. Thus, our understanding until this point in time did not include modern scholarship. Now it does, and our understanding has been somewhat adjusted.
However, the tool of modern scholarship is a “power tool”, and it’s not for kids. When we replace parts of the bridge, we need to do so carefully. If you’re ready, it’s a great tool. If you’re not, the bridge may fall apart.
That was really his main speil, I think. Importantly, he mentioned that he believes we should bring new understandings to the Torah. He quoted his teacher Rabbi Bruer as saying “You should read Torah like Rashi did: Without Rashi”. Therefore, while some understandably take the approach that a new interpretation must be wrong or one of our past interpreters would have thought of it already, the best approach is actually to read the Torah anew in every generation.
If we did not do this, no one would ever have written a commentary after Rashi, or Ramban, etc.
Tied into this point is the role of subjectivity in reading the Torah. While there are many objective tools (language and theme connections, contradictions, similar stories, etc.) in the end we make a subjective choice of how to understand the Torah, and this is our hiddush, novel understanding.
The Torah is not a book which makes simple clear points like a law book, which wants you to know exactly how to act. Rather, the Torah has many different voices, repetitions, contradictions, and styles, all of which invite the reader to delve into the text, rather than to skim it. To simply read the Torah like a book of directives is to miss how one should read Torah.
His quote of the night was in regards to this. In his pithy phrasing the Torah is “not an artscroll how to think book.” It takes effort to read it, and we have to engage in deep study and thought to use objective tools to come to a new subjective conclusion.
Part two will follow with some of Dr. Kugel’s remarks.