Tag Archives: Tanakh

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]

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



Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3)

Why is King Shapiro the picture in this post? Keep reading to find out!

Just in time for Shavuot, I’ll post some notes from the question and answer session with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel on modern biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief. The first posts, notes on the presentations from Leibtag and Kugel, are available here and here.

I don’t remember all of the questions, but they can be partially inferred from my notes. The first had to do with the historical accuracy of the Torah.

In regards to this, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized what he had pretty much told us already: The Torah is not a history book. The goal of the Prophets is not to teach us history. Rather, we study Torah for the message in it. Archaeology has the goal of teaching us history, and obviously Rabbi Leibtag thinks this can be important. None the less, to focus on what happened historically seems to be to miss the point in his opinion.

Kugel added to this that it’s hard to argue with archaeologists, but as Rabbi Leibtag said, the texts are out to teach us something other than history. We all know that the Creation narrative bumps up against science. But the point of Bereshit isn’t to teach us science. The lesson there is that we must keep Shabbat, which is separated from the first six days.

Kugel also described an idea at that point which he has described elsewhere, and which we have eluded to before. This is the idea that the Torah is like an old family photo album, which has captions on the photos. The modern scholar tells us to ignore the captions. A picture doesn’t lie, so we should only pay attention to the photographs if we want to know the history of the people in the photos.

We, however, look at the photos in another way. We received not just those photos, but “all those words”, that came with them. We interpret the photos according to the captions, our Oral Torah. “What we care about is what the words mean”, not what took place in history.

On this note, I want to emphasize it is not only that the Torah is not a history book. It is also not a science book. Science is important, but the Torah focuses on what many call “the ought”, that is, what one ought to do. Science tells us how we might do it, but doesn’t provide a reasoning for us to choose one action over another. Without some goal, direction, or philosophy, there’s simply no reason why one “how” should be chosen over another. So why would the Torah be a science book?

There are other reasons to argue against the Torah being a science text book, but this isn’t the place. Back to biblical scholarship.

2) The next question was in regards to the authorship of the Biblical books. Modern scholarship seems to have challenged our traditional beliefs about who wrote the books, so should we still believe in the divine authorship of the Bible?

I think Kugel was the one to answer this. According to what I wrote down, his response was again something he had already said to us: Who cares who the prophets are? If it is divinely given, that’s good enough for us.

We don’t know the rules of prophecy, and contradiction may not be a problem in it, so that shouldn’t necessarily cause us to look for more authors anyway. There’s really no way to prove authorship one way or another.

In regards to the similarities between our religion and others (for instance, the Mesopotamian Sabbath), Kugel noted that we focus on the differences between our religions, presumably because those are the things that will tip us off to the messages in the Torah. Additionally, he noted that if Judaism had no similarities to other religions, it would have had to start from scratch.

This might confuse people as a rationale for the creation of religion; if God is communicating with man, why doesn’t He just communicate a pure divine work that has nothing to do with the rest of the world, let alone other religions?  Won’t people think our religion is just copying others, and that we made it up?

However, the truth is, there are many good reasons for Judaism to look like other religions. The basic reason is that the Torah is the meeting between the divine and man. If you want to see more, I posted about it recently here.

3) The next question had to do with the Sages, and their knowledge of the back-histories of the Bible. If the Sages didn’t know that some parts of the Bible were similar to Pagan writings and religion, why should we trust them? Additionally, would they have cared if they did know?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first, flatly telling the crowd that the question doesn’t matter at all. Again, in his opinion, perhaps the Torah has a history most of us are unaware of or not, but in the bottom line, it is divinely authored (or edited!) and we look for the messages in the Bible. This is what’s important, and we don’t really care about this kind of question.

Kugel chose to elaborate a little more on the question. In his opinion, the Sages were in fact aware of the (now) surprising history of much of Judaism (I suppose we might find it similar to Rambam’s long description of idolatrous histories of the mitzvot in MN starting 3:30-ish), but they did not focus on it. Rather, like Rabbi Leibtag said, they focused on the divine message in the Bible, as opposed to the history of the text. The divine messages and lessons are what they focused on and tried to pass on to us.

Interestingly, Kugel told us at this point that in his opinion, his work and perspectives are a continuation of the tradition of the Sages. Most of us would have thought that a professor of biblical criticism would not consider himself to be so traditional. However, tradition for Kugel is what guides us in reading the Bible. He just seems to think that the Rabbinic tradition is a little different than what most of us think (for instance, in his opinion, many of the Sages probably thought God has a body, despite Rambam’s protestations otherwise in his principles and elsewhere).

4) Finally, one questioner asked about what he termed “the elephant in the room”. It seemed many times during the night that Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel were advocating a position which contradicted our belief in Mosaic authorship of the Torah. This is of course one of Rambam’s principles of faith, and as I like to remind people, Rambam wrote that we should hate and destroy someone who does not believe in his 13 principles. So this is an important question. Should the crowd have lynched Dr. Kugel, before turning to kill Rabbi Leibtag?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first. First, he told us (for the second time that night) that in an argument between Rambam and him, you should follow Rambam.

Next, he recommended that we read Marc B. Shapiro’s amazing (my description) book on the 13 principles, where he lists many traditional authorities who disagreed with the Rambam’s formulated dogmas. These great rabbis and sages throughout Jewish history disagreed with Rambam, and (it seems) it was OK.

Additionally, Rabbi Leibtag conjectured that Rambam may have written the belief in complete Mosaic authorship for the masses. However, his own opinion may have been that it was not heresy to believe the Torah was not entirely authored by Moses (and we’ll remind readers of the opinion in the Talmud that Moses did not write the last 8 verses in the Torah).

However, one may also interpret the Rambam away from what he seems to be saying, in Leibtag’s opinion. It is not so much that Moses wrote every word of the Torah, that is important to Rambam to emphasize. Rather, Rambam wants to emphasize that every word came from God, and that it is all true. To focus on the authorship misses the point.

(I have to note here that on its face, this seems like quite a stretch as an interpretation.)

At any rate, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized that the Bible has a message for us, and to focus on who wrote Isaih and how many authors it had simply misses the point. There is a call to us, and we must listen.

Finally, Rabbi Leibtag told us that there is no fourteenth principle of faith that Rambam is always right. Perhaps he got this one wrong. This was one of the highlights of the night in my opinion.

Happily, we have now reached the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag. Leibtag speculated that Dr. Kugel would tell us only to study the Bible with our present traditions (the “captions” which Dr. Kugel mentioned earlier). In Leibtag’s opinion, however, we created new traditions, and we survive challenges through our Torah study.

Dr. Kugel then stood to also answer this question, and also began by recommending Dr. Shapiro’s book. He also recommended Dr. Menachem Kelner’s “Must A Jew Believe Anything?”. These are two of my favorite authors, so I will happily tell you here that I felt quite validated hearing this.

Dr. Kugel also raised the possibility that Rambam was writing for his time when he posited a pure Mosaic authorship for the Torah. At the time, it was a common Muslim attack on Judaism that Ezra had falisified the Torah, and that our Jewish tradition was in fact false. In response to this, Rambam wrote that not one word had been changed since Sinai, when Moses received the entire Torah. This would have aussuaged doubts in the Torah.

The last thing I’ll note before closing up over here is that Dr. Kugel told us that in his opinion, to read the Torah by focusing on the words without our tradition (as many Orthodox Jews, including Rabbi Leibtag at times, do today) is an exercise that must end with biblical criticism. In his opinion, there is no realistic line that can be drawn.

Dr. Kugel lingered for some time after the question and answer session, and he said many more interesting things to the group of people who pestered him, including being very gracious to the weirdo who asked him for a photo. Additionally, he remembered my wife from his class a couple of years ago, which was completely awesome. Finally, I asked him to sign his book “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief”, which is a superb book which I highly recommend. Having said that, I really recommend all of his books that I have read.

I think, if there is anyone left who is interested, that I’ll continue this little series with a follow up or two. In my next post I might include some of the things Dr. Shapiro wrote in his book about great rabbis in our history who did not accept a complete Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is really interesting. Additionally, he wrote recently on the Seforim Blog about divine authorship, and it’s worth checking out. Just to be clear, I recommend actually buying this book so you can have it around.

After the Shapiro post, I think I might post about Sarna or Cassuto, or maybe Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman. We’ll see. I have a feeling I might be the only interested person by the time we get to that.

Have a Chag Sameach!

PS. I feel that after the first two posts, I should include another great quote from the night. Besides for Rabbi Leibtag’s remark that there’s no fourteenth principle that the Rambam is always right, the winner is probably Dr. Kugel’s statement that “I’m not schizophrenic”. People seem to think that to teach biblical criticism and believe in divine authorship is only possible for a split personality. Based on the things he said to us, I believe him; what do you think?


Filed under Philosophy, Tanakh/Bible

“Eleh Moadei” According to the Gra

by Rabbi David Eisenman

It is by now well-known that the Vilna Ga’on’s learning towards the end of his life focused on reading Tanach (Bible) very closely, and finding in the nuances of the Torah bases for  the entirety of our system of halakha (Jewish law).

One striking instance of this can be seen in the The Vilna Ga’on (Gra’s) revolutionary explanation of a seemingly simple pasuk (verse) in this week’s parshah (Torah portion). Vayikra (Leviticus) 23 is a list of all the mo’adim, the holidays, starting from Pesach and ending with Sukkot.   This list is introduced in 23:2, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them [these are] the holidays of Hashem, that should be designated as Holy Days.” Verse 3 then continues. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day it is Shabbat Shabbaton …, you may do no work [on it]”   Then verse 4 begins listing the Mo’adim.

Asks the Gra: First, verse 3 seems completely out of context—verse 2 introduces a list of the Mo’adim, a list that begins in verse 4.  Verse 3 is about Shabbat, most certsinly not a mo’ed.  What is that verse doing here?  And second, why is the Seventh Day that this verse mentions— Shabbat—referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” and not just as Shabbat?

The  Gra suggest reading verse 2 completely differently from its simple meaning, and reading it in a way that supports the halakha that one may cook on yom tov (holidays), but not on Yom Kippur.

Suggests the Gra:  The six days referred to in verse 3 , days on which work may not be done, refer to the six days during the year which are mo’adim, but in which we may cook: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, The first and last days of Pesach, and Shavu’ot.  (Of course, we are speaking of the ideal calendar, not the chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) calendar, with its second days of each of these yom tovs.)  These  are the six days the Torah is referring to, on which one may work.  The seventh day on which one may not work is Yom Hakippurim, a day on which cooking is forbidden, and a day which is referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (e.g., Vayikra 23:32).

Thus, our pasuk is not at all out of context: it introduces the mo’adim as a whole, and introduces us the basic difference between them and Shabbat Shabbaton. With this explanation in mind, we see that Shabbat is not mentioned at all in this verse.  A great example of how deeply one must dig when reading the Torah.

Leave a comment

Filed under Parshah