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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5 Comments

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

  1. Le Newyorkais

    Oy, another recycling of the “but it does not matter” qualifier, so very popular with the Conservatives.
    This school accepts the obvious truths of the scientific study of the Scriptures, but it says “don’t u worry about it; no matter what, there is a God.”
    for example tell me that God did not write the Bible, and I will say it does not matter. Why? because it was INSPIRED by God. “Mr. Scholar, tell me that the Jews never left Egypt, if they were ever there in the first place. Well, it is true, but does not matter–cause we STILL believe that God liberated us from the slavery of the MIND (or some other such BS).
    Nothing will stop people from believing anything they like.

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