Targum Shlishi Supports a Free Digital Version of a Book that Explores the Relationship between Faith and Critical Biblical Scholarship
Targum Shlishi’s support has made it possible for anyone to download a free digital version of the English translation of the book The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible, edited by Tova Ganzel, Yehudah Brandes, and Chayuta Deutsch (Academic Studies Press, March 2019).
The twenty-one essays by rabbis and scholars in the book explore the relationship between the world of faith and the world of critical biblical scholarship and ways in which this relationship can be mutually enriching. The first part of the book is an anthology of rabbinic sources, and the second part is the essays, which discuss how the writers combine their religious beliefs with their critical approach to the Bible.
Making the book available for free download was supported by Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg, who said “The reason I am so passionate about this is that the book makes the case for religiously believing and observant people to open up to modern, critical scholarship in understanding the Tanach. This moves them from simple fundamentalism to a more open minded, credible understanding and practice of Jewish religion. Aryeh [Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi] and I underwent this process and it made us better Jews. It also gives rise to more pluralist and humane version of Jewish religion. I am convinced that many Yeshiva students who could not afford to buy the book would check this out and read it if they could download for free.”
The introduction to the volume is reprinted below. To download a free copy of the book, go here. The book is also available in hardcover from Academic Studies Press (link here), and will be coming out in paperback later this year. To read an interview with Tova Ganzel, one of the books editors, published in The Torah.com on the occasion of the book’s publication in Hebrew, go here.
For thousands of years, the Bible was studied exclusively by people of faith who regarded it as a sacred text given by God. Considerable theoretical and practical importance was ascribed to this study and the literature it produced. Over generations, a worldview developed that this study required the reader to be totally committed to a belief in the integrity and sanctity of the text, and its consequent immunity from human error.
Sources that reflect critical thinking on the composition of the biblical corpus can already be found in classical rabbinic and medieval Jewish literature—for example, in the commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Judah the Pious. However, these early articulations were not sufficient to challenge the basic traditional assumptions about biblical books, their origins, composition, and transmission. The appearance of critical biblical scholarship in the eighteenth century stunned religious readers of the Bible. For the first time, systematic use was made of scientific, analytical tools to study the Bible. Scholars presented methodological approaches and conclusions regarding the composition of the text that contradicted the naïve assumptions of preceding generations. Confronted with the cogency of biblical scholarship and cognizant of the challenges that this research entailed for them, those who believed in the divine origin of the Bible were forced to respond.
Bewildered believers confronted these challenges in several ways. One approach was to ignore the conclusions of this research or to utterly reject them, while scorning the world of science and ridiculing academic scholarship in general. This extreme conservative reaction to the challenge of biblical criticism reinforced a wholescale negation of the Enlightenment in these quarters. Proponents of this rejectionist approach, who eventually came to be known as Haredi Jews, isolated themselves from the surrounding culture and lacked any interest or ability in discerning between its positive and negative aspects. On the other extreme was the belief that the Enlightenment demanded the abandonment of religion, or at least its radical reform.
A third approach developed primarily in central Europe in the nineteenth century. Its proponents chose to study the conclusions of biblical research, to glean what could be accepted from a theological point of view, and to reject, with scholarly arguments, those positions that appeared to contradict Jewish faith, as they defined it. An outstanding example of this exegetical approach can be found in Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann’s Torah commentary and other writings. While this approach attracted many followers, it received criticism from both sides: the Haredi world objected to all contact with the Jewish Enlightenment and science, and the academic world doubted the intellectual integrity of those who approached biblical exegesis with preconceived assumptions about the nature of revelation and divine inspiration that limited their freedom of inquiry. Today, this approach—namely, the qualified acceptance of the conclusions of scientific research coupled with the rejection of those conclusions that do not conform to faith-based assumptions—is increasingly popular in the field of Bible education in modern religious circles.
A fourth approach has gained ground among religious intellectuals and academics, but it has yet to make a significant impact on the religious public. This approach recognizes the legitimacy of the questions posed by biblical scholarship. It accepts the underlying rational assumptions that are necessary to answer these questions, without perceiving this acceptance as a challenge to belief in God, acceptance of the Bible’s sanctity, or commitment to observance of the commandments according to halakhah. This approach does deal directly with biblical criticism, yet it allows the possibility of engaging in academic research without a priori restricting potential conclusions. Proponents of this approach attempt to clarify—theologically, conceptually, and philosophically—how to live a religious life based on belief in God and the observance of the commandments, without basing that belief on factual knowledge that can be refuted by science—for instance, the historical authenticity of the various parts of the Bible, the integrity and unity of each of the biblical books, the date of composition of biblical literature, and the identity of its authors.
A famous example of this approach is the solution proposed by Rabbi Mordechai Breuer to the question of the unity of the Torah and its date of composition. Rabbi Breuer argued that the theory known as the documentary hypothesis, as propounded by classical biblical scholarship from the middle of the eighteenth century until today, should be accepted. The documentary hypothesis maintains that the Torah is a compilation of several disparate documents woven together to create a new text. However, in contrast to the original hypothesis, which holds that these documents were created by various literary schools active in the Land of Israel in ancient times, each of which related the events and the commandments found in the Torah in its own way, Rabbi Breuer maintained that these disparate versions were all written by God, the author of the Torah, who relayed them to Moses after they had been combined. The foundation of critical, scientific thinking is impartiality: preconceptions, faith-based or otherwise, cannot be allowed to direct research to certain conclusions. Thus, an archeologist, for example, should approach his excavation without any prior assumptions about the secrets buried in the earth or the conclusions that could be derived from them. Seeking the truth and rejecting any distortion or falsification are also the foundations of the fear of God. A God- fearing archeologist, who recoils from falsehood and distortion and is guided only by truth, should feel obligated, precisely because of his or her faith and religious commitment, to accept the facts as they emerge from the excavations and research. On this point, scientific method and the principles of faith converge. A nonreligious archeologist who distorts his or her research for extraneous reasons, such as political beliefs or the desire to find favor in academic circles by adhering to accepted opinions, betrays the principles of academic research. Likewise, a religious archeologist who allows adherence to accepted religious beliefs, or the opinions of the religious public, to influence the conclusions that he or she draws from his or her research betrays religious commitments.
It is therefore of upmost importance to develop religious approaches that free academic research from external coercion, and, at the same time, free the religious world from its fear of academic research. This development will con- tribute to the advancement of impartial research, as well as to the formulation of a clear, courageous, unbiased faith. Adherents of this faith will not fear the use of scientific methods, but will adopt them enthusiastically, recognizing that the search for truth is a religious obligation.
This is true in all academic fields, including Jewish studies. However, the challenge presented by the study of the Bible and its interpretation is especially great, as is the importance of developing new approaches that allow unbiased scholarly research of biblical literature and related fields. These approaches must entail, first and foremost, interpreting the text according to the contextual meaning (peshat); examining the processes of composition and transmission; studying the history and culture of the biblical world in order to examine the Bible in its own cultural context; understanding the beliefs and opinions expressed in the Bible; and analyzing the Bible’s literary style and genres. Approaching the Bible from these perspectives, without rejecting belief in God and the obligation to observe the commandments, is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Critical biblical scholarship is well known, well respected, and very convincing; it is impossible to ignore or reject it.
This book originated in a research seminar that took place at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem in 2009–2010, attended by both Torah scholars and university-based biblical scholars. In lively group discussions that were held, questions were clarified and potential solutions were examined. The participants took turns presenting their personal outlooks and ideas, which were then critically, congenially, and constructively analyzed by the group.
Professor Baruch Schwartz of the Hebrew University took an active part in directing the seminar and editing this book in its initial stages, and we would like to express our thanks for his important contributions. We also remember with admiration and affection, as well as with sadness at his untimely passing, our dear colleague, the late Professor Hanan Eshel. Hanan continued to participate in the discussion sessions until his final days, despite the pain and complications that he suffered from his illness. We learned a great deal from his wisdom and sensitivity during the seminar, but sadly did not merit his written contribution or his blessing upon the completion of the project. We would like to dedicate the fruits of our study to the memory of Hanan Eshel, a man of faith and truth.
During the seminar, we realized that a compilation of source documents from traditional Jewish literature, including commentaries and works of Jewish thought, was a necessity. These sources, scattered throughout rabbinic literature in a variety of contexts, are frequently cited in essays and polemics, but have never before been presented in an organized manner to an astute readership eager to delve more deeply into the subject matter. Dr. Yoshi Fargeon agreed to our request to compile and edit a selection of primary sources that form the basis for the discussions in the specific articles in this volume, as well as throughout the scholarly literature on the subject. He also carefully reviewed the English translation to ensure that it reflected the original source and was understandable to the reader. This anthology includes sources that span from the classical rabbinic period through the current era. These pertain to textual problems in biblical studies, historical questions, theological issues, inner-textual contradictions, and questions about dating and editing. This compilation, the first of its kind, is a significant contribution to research, as well as an important tool for scholars and students, present and future, who are engaged in the study, teaching, and facilitation of public discussion on this subject. The anthology comprises the first section of the book.
The second section consists of a collection of articles that present a spectrum of opinions, approaches, and observations by religious thinkers, scholars, rabbis, and teachers engaged in the study and teaching of the Bible. Some of the participants in the original seminar contributed articles to this volume, but we have enlarged the group of contributors to include scholars in relevant fields from academic institutions throughout the world.
All of the authors accept the challenge posed by the encounter between the world of faith and the observance of the commandments, on the one hand, and the world of biblical scholarship, on the other. The writers attempt, each in his or her own way—focusing on the questions and topics most personally meaningful to them—to present a religious outlook that is committed to the Torah and its commandments, and, at the same time, capable of incorporating academic approaches from various fields of biblical scholarship. These approaches include the examination of surrounding cultures that influenced the development of Israelite religion, as well as the use of historical, archeological, and philological findings that often challenge a simplistic understanding of the Bible’s historical authenticity.
The search for ways to “resolve the controversy” between the academic approach to the study of the Bible and religious belief does not entail the prima facie acceptance of any particular conclusions. The validity of certain academic approaches propounded by various schools of thought and the authenticity of specific findings raised in the research literature are outside the scope of this work. Nor is it our intention to decide among conflicting positions, or to reconcile them. The articles in this collection offer possible ways to reduce the tension between, on the one hand, belief in the sanctity of the Torah and the consequent obligation to observe the commandments, and, on the other, the intellectual obligation to impartial analysis, which is also a religious imperative. The purpose of these articles is not to engage in biblical criticism as such or to examine the conclusions of biblical research, but rather to define the meaning of belief in “Torah from heaven.”
The articles have been divided into four sections:
Section One: General Overview
- The articles in the first section address the religious response to biblical criticism from a general theoretical perspective. These articles address the fundamental questions that inspired this book:
- Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster challenges the very existence of a direct conflict between faith and science.
- Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes demonstrates the affinity between modern biblical criticism and rabbinic midrash.
- Professor Marc Zvi Brettler advocates a literary-mythological, rather than historical, approach to reading the Bible as a religious text.
- Rabbi Dr. Adiel Cohen explains how two traditional Jewish scholars, Rabbi Elia Benamozegh and Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, assimilated the insights of modern scholarship into traditional, almost mystical, biblical commentaries.
- Professor Tamar Ross suggests a new solution to the conflict between faith and biblical criticism based on subjective perceptions of God and revelation proposed by the later kabbalists.
- Rabbi Yuval Cherlow shares a response he wrote to a letter received from a student experiencing a crisis of faith precipitated by the study of biblical criticism. Rabbi Cherlow explains how the study of biblical criticism can in fact strengthen religious faith and observance.
Section Two: The Revelation at Sinai and its Interpretation
- The articles in the second section focus on the revelation of the Torah at Sinai.
- Rabbi David Bigman demonstrates how stylistic variety within the biblical narrative attests to the multifaceted nature of the revelation and the biblical text itself.
- Professor Benjamin Sommer suggests that the Bible should be considered oral law because it is composed in human language that develops and interprets divine command.
- Rabbi Dr. Chezi Cohen emphasizes that the Torah is the word of God as given to man. Biblical exegesis must take into consideration the human nature of the Torah’s recipients.
- Rabbi Dr. Avraham Shammah compares the descriptions of revelation in Exodus and Deuteronomy, calling attention to philosophical and theological questions and identifying the significant and fundamental characteristics of each.
Section Three: Ethical Challenges
- The articles in the third section discuss questions arising from the discrepancies between modern religious ethics and the ethical positions reflected in the simple meaning of the biblical text.
- Dr. Chayuta Deutsch demonstrates that most of the interpretations of the Binding of Isaac are rooted in the cultural context of the commentator as well as in his basic system of beliefs, and argues that contemporary Bible readers have a moral and educational obligation to examine Abraham’s response against the backdrop of the historical period in which he lived.
- Professor Hananel Mack explains how Manasseh, King of Judah, whom the Bible portrays as a mass murderer and idolater, is depicted in rabbinic literature as a Torah scholar and biblical critic avant la lettre who asks challenging questions about the biblical text for which the rabbis must find answers.
- Rabbi Dr. Amit Kula compares different explanations of divine providence with exegetical methods, and delineates three basic approaches: apology, denial, and “terraforming.”
Section Four: The Bible in its Historical Context
- The fourth section is comprised of articles that discuss the significance and challenges of examining the Bible in its historical and cultural context.
- Professor Yoel Elitzur argues that the usage patterns of the names of God provide internal textual evidence for the authenticity of traditional biblical chronology.
- Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman compares biblical law to The Code of Hammurabi, and concludes that the laws in the Bible should be regarded as non-statutory.
- Dr. Tova Ganzel delineates the influences of the surrounding Babylonian culture on Ezekiel’s prophecy, including his vision of the future temple, and discusses the theological challenges posed by this discovery.
- Rabbi Avia Hacohen examines the responses of Rabbi Tzadok ha-Kohen of Lublin and Rav Kook to the question of the connection between the Bible and ancient Near Eastern legal codes.
- Rabbi Yaakov Medan argues that the use of critical analysis of ancient non-Jew- ish sources enhances our understanding of Jewish sources.
- Dr. Haggai Misgav demonstrates how archaeological finds can be used to develop new exegetical methods and sophisticated understandings of the text.
- Dr. Rivka Raviv surveys several central themes in the study of the book of Daniel where the religious approach conflicts with the conclusions of biblical criticism. She argues that these conflicts can inspire a thorough search for answers that leads to a deeper understanding of the biblical text and its classical rabbinic commentaries.
Neither the editors of this volume nor the contributing authors presume to offer a perfect solution, simple and easy, to the difficulties and disquiet engendered by the encounter between the traditional world of faith and academic research. Our goal is to share with our readers our questions, challenges, and search for potential solutions, as well as our realization that belief in the divine origin of the Torah is not threatened by the truth or by critical scholarship. As the spiritual leaders of Judaism have shown through the ages, religious Jews are more than capable of confronting the challenges posed by scientific advances and cultural changes in the outside world.
If this volume generates discussion, study, and creative output, our efforts will have been rewarded.
If this volume generates discussion, study, and creative output, our efforts will have been rewarded.