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Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Bible Study

by Ben Zion Katz

Dr. Ben Zion Katz’s  guest post is the 7th 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, and a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter can be found here. Our last post, a thought provoking guest post by rabbinic student Ben Elton, is called Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response. It is available here.

The Torah is the basis of all Judaism. In traditional Jewish thought, the Torah is considered to have been dictated by God to Moses, and the text of the Torah that we possess is considered to be a record of that revelation. It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter.

It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter. (from Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Journey-Through-Torah-Documentary-Hypothesis/dp/9655240886)

At present, the Modern Orthodox intellectual world is engaging academic Bible study with renewed vigor.  In addition to this website, there is also thetorah.com and the recent comments by Professor Marc Shapiro on the Seforim blog, for example. Perhaps the plethora of books dealing with this topic on an accessible level by authors such as Richard Elliott Friedman, James Kugel, Marc Brettler and others, or the teachings of Rabbis Bin Nun, Leibtag, or Bazak in Israel to name a few, are a factor.  Whatever the reason, I am excited by the current intellectual activity, as I have been thinking about this issue for 40 years.

A scholar by temperament, I cannot shut off my academic brain when I study Jewish texts.  On the other hand, as a practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I require hard data to change my practice.  With this outlook, I believe that Orthodoxy today is less broad than the Rabbinic Judaism of centuries past, but also that modern, academic Bible scholarship is not the hard science its practitioners claim it to be.

As most people reading this blog are undoubtedly aware, the leading academic theory as to how the Bible came to be written is the documentary hypothesis (DH), often associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).  The DH claims that the Torah was preceded by 4 separate sources (or “documents”), each of which told the history of Israel in its own way.  These purported documents were later edited together, thus accounting for some of the apparent duplications and contradictions found in the Torah.  Of course, these discrepancies had been known for centuries, but were by and large dealt with by the rabbis on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a single, over-arching theory.

There have been attempts to deal with the DH by serious Orthodox Jewish thinkers for over a century.  David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) wrote Biblical commentaries that attacked the DH on its own terms, as well as an entire book Ra-ayot Machriot Neged Wellhausen (Convincing Proofs Against Wellhausen, Jerusalem, 1928; available at Hebrewbooks.org).  Professor Umberto Cassutto also attacked the DH on its own merits in his famous Eight Lectures (translated by Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem 1961).  Rabbi Dr JH Hertz in his monumental English commentary on the Pentateuch also attempted to deal with the DH, mainly in the Additional Notes at the end of each book of the Torah.  The late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer essentially accepted the conclusions of the DH but placed them in a religious context by claiming that they were all authored by God (see for example the chapters related to Rabbi Breuer’s approach in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. By S Carmi, Jason Aaronson, 1996).  David Weiss HaLivni, in his books Peshat and Derash (Oxford, 1991) and more fully in Revelation Restored (Westview Press, 1998) argues that the Torah was improperly preserved during the Babylonian exile and had to be restored as best as it could be by Ezra after the return to Judah in the mid 5th century BCE.

In the first 2 chapters of my recent book A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis (Urim, 2012), I critically examine the linguistic and literary evidence for the DH.  In chapters 3-8 I demonstrate that traditional Bible exegetes can be quite analytical.  In the concluding chapter I provide a synthesis that I believe to be both traditional and academically sound.

Since my book appeared, Dr. Joel Baden published The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale, 2012), which focuses solely on the literary aspect of the DH, arguing that the latter is primarily a literary solution to a literary problem.  Dr. Baden also assumes that there was a single, minimalist compiler who edited the disparate sources.  However, as I point out (Jewish Bible Quarterly, in press) there are literary difficulties with Dr Baden’s admittedly clever solutions.  The “documents” that Dr. Baden isolates are not as complete or consistent as claimed, nor is the compiler as consistent or minimalist as advertised.

On the other hand, it is not as if modern scholarship has nothing to teach even the most Orthodox of Bible students.  For example, the tragic story of Yiphtach and his daughter (Judges 11:29-40) cannot be understood without realizing that houses in ancient Israel were constructed on 3 sides of a courtyard, where the animals were kept; thus when Yiphtach rashly vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house after his battle with the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31), he undoubtedly thought the first thing that would come out to greet him would be an animal  from his courtyard, not his daughter.  Egyptologists explain that Joseph’s Egyptian name Tzaphnat Pa-aneah means “sustainer of life” an apt name for the one who saved Egypt from famine, and that Moses’ name means born of (water), just as Ramses’ name means born of Ra.

Academic Bible scholarship offers the same serious challenges to traditional Judaism as did evolution.  The latter, however, was backed by hard evidence (fossils, DNA, etc., etc.) and most of the intellectual Modern Orthodox world has accepted evolution in some manner and Torah as two different manifestations of truth.  Until such hard evidence becomes available to support the DH (eg finding an ancient scroll in the Judean desert resembling one of the purported Pentateuchal sources, for example), I do not believe we need to swing open “the gates of figurative interpretation” (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Book II, chapter 25) quite that far.

Ben Zion Katz M.D. is author of A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis [Urim, Jerusalem, 2012]

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