Reflections on Orthodoxy and Biblical Scholarship

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by Yitzhak Berger

Introduction

From one perspective, the tense relationship between academic Bible study and traditional Jewish belief seems oddly ironic. Judaism ushered in a theology that would transform the global religious landscape. And to this day, its central monotheistic doctrine enjoys the support of great thinkers and resonates with the deepest experiences of countless religious believers. The study of the Tanakh in its ancient context, accordingly, holds the potential to enrich greatly our appreciation of the foundations of this transformation.

Indeed, scholarship offers much insight into the distinct theology of the Bible and its implications. Consider, among several well-known examples, the creation and flood stories in the book of Genesis. These stories, departing from similar ancient writings, advance a range of novel concepts, including but not limited to the following: the presence of a single, transcendent divine power, a purposefully ordered creation, the elevated position of human beings, and their divine mandate to act morally.[1]

Other important insights emerge from the academic study of biblical law. The Torah sharply distinguishes between civil and capital offenses, unlike other ancient law collections that frequently conflate these categories. Its laws governing human interactions bear a striking religious dimension and, especially when considered in their ancient context, often set a notably high ethical standard. Its rules governing purity and sacrifices shun the demonic component found in similar ancient laws and rituals, instead assigning exclusive power to a forgiving God. Its seasonal festivals acknowledge the benevolence of a transcendent God and the divine relationship with Israel, unlike ancient observances designed to influence deities associated with natural forces. And on and on. We might anticipate, therefore, that the contributions of scholarship would only increase esteem for the biblical tradition, devotion to the belief system to which it gave rise, and observance of the practices that attend it, sustain it, and perpetuate it.

For several reasons, however, biblical scholarship also triggers religious tension. Certain standard traditional conceptions of the Tanakh—relating to its origins, accuracy, and internal consistency—do not match the views of the vast majority of academic scholars, who approach the text from a markedly different vantage point. This discrepancy, in turn, may generate conflict for the committed Jew. In particular, tension may arise for Orthodox Jews, who, because of concerns both theological and prudential, approach with great caution any suggestion of expanding the conventional boundaries of the faith.[2]

The last decade has seen an increase in serious efforts to address the relevant substantive challenges.[3] In this essay, drawing in part on those efforts, I adopt a more practical point of departure, seeking to help struggling individuals navigate the perceived threat to their religious commitments. Toward this goal, I begin with several introductory comments.

First, among individuals inclined toward critical thought, the implications of this type of religious challenge vary widely. On one end of the spectrum, consider a mature, conceptually-minded thinker living a rich intellectual and spiritual life shaped by Jewish ideas and practices, who also appreciates the essential role of Judaism’s ritual and communal structures. Quite probably, for this individual, questions about specific faith claims and their boundaries will pose only a meager threat to Jewish commitment. On the other extreme, imagine a young, more concrete thinker still settling on a path in life, whose religious allegiance rests—in a stark, cut-and-dried way—on the truth of a belief system inculcated by parents and teachers. For this youngster, a serious challenge to even a small component of that system may generate substantial dissonance. Such dissonance, in turn, may result in diminished religious faith and practice, unhealthy suppression of conflict, or a combination of both.[4]

To the extent possible, of course, we must address this problem by offering responses to the substantive challenges. At the same time, those who stand closer to the latter end of the spectrum, who are more likely to experience conflict, may benefit considerably from expanding the rationale for their Jewish commitment. Numerous helpful realizations, while often a product of age and experience, may be embraced by any receptive individual. For example, spirituality, religious community, and the conduct and rituals informed by them provide invaluable structure and meaning. Judaism features profound ideas and richly meaningful practices that endure through the loyalty of its adherents, and whose transcendent origin and value need not depend on a strictly delimited doctrine regarding the text of the Torah, however important that doctrine might be. Observance and devotional study of the Torah offer the prospect of an especially uplifting life. And even in the presence of struggle and doubt, a humble, searching commitment to faith principles—not merely to religious practice—remains a legitimate and beneficial pragmatic approach. By incorporating such propositions, the conflicted individual may confront challenges to specific doctrines with greater equanimity, a higher likelihood of a satisfying outcome, and the simultaneous, unimpeded pursuit of growth in Torah and yir’at shamayim. It bears emphasis, moreover, that Orthodoxy embraces individuals who are deferential in their attitude, even if they experience doubt regarding specific theological principles.

Questions arise, however, regarding what positions truly go beyond traditional boundaries, who makes such determinations, and whether the proper approach may vary for different populations, settings, and individuals. On the one hand, regarding certain issues relating to the Tanakh, we encounter some comparatively liberal positions among classical writers of varying stature and renown.[5] If such positions, however, have traditionally not found acceptance, does Judaism regard this as a sign of their falsehood, scholarly arguments notwithstanding? If it does not, must we nonetheless hold back from embracing such views, at least openly? And if wisdom calls for a policy of caution, what measure of rabbinic consent must we seek before accommodating an unconventional stance?

The discussion that follows rests on several assumptions. First, with respect to the boundaries of traditionally accepted faith principles, public policy must be set by rabbinic leaders of exceptionally high stature.[6] It is they who, as the foremost custodians of Jewish tradition, feel the weight of responsibility that must inform such highly sensitive decisions. As a systemic matter, moreover, it is they who, toward the goal of preserving a cohesive faith community, maintain the authority to establish suitable parameters.[7] At the same time, it is vitally important that such leaders grasp the genuine conflict felt by a nontrivial share of the population under their guidance. To a religious authority, certain proposed solutions may, on first encounter, seem to warrant resistance. At least for some questioners, however, disqualifying those solutions may yield seriously adverse consequences. In addressing the challenges, therefore, I will encourage that certain moderate, fairly common approaches—which to myself and many others seem theologically legitimate—be regarded as admissible at least in limited settings. The dangers of excluding these approaches, I submit, eclipse any risks that their validation may be thought to present.

Regarding less pivotal issues, the situation differs somewhat. Such issues, much as in the case of practical halakhah, typically do not demand quite the same level of rabbinic input. Consider, for example, the question of the origins of books found in the Prophets and Writings. The authorship of these books—their truth and divine inspiration aside—does not relate to any fundamental principle of faith. Abarbanel, moreover, famously advocates certain positions on these books’ authorship that do not conform to any opinion in Ḥazal, affirming that the views cited in the Talmud need not be regarded as definitive.[8] When addressing questions of this kind, we may, accordingly, without denying the need for religious guidance, more readily seek to adopt a less restrictive approach.

Against this background, we turn our attention to the substantive challenges. While I do not propose to introduce fundamentally new solutions, I offer a succinct presentation of what I regard to be the most helpful approaches, while adding some supplementary observations that I hope will prove beneficial.

Lower Criticism and the Reliability of the Text

Predictably, biblical scholarship places considerable emphasis on establishing the correct text of Scripture. In what is often called “lower criticism,” scholars—based on ancient translations and parallels, manuscript evidence, and reasoned conjecture—regularly propose, and often advocate, readings that depart from the Masoretic text. Where such arguments seem persuasive, they may generate discomfort among the religiously committed. Does the received text of the Torah really contain inaccuracies? And does such a prospect stand at odds with traditional Jewish belief?

Indisputably, since the ancient period, Jews have assigned great importance to the careful transmission of the biblical text. Nevertheless, leading authorities have long acknowledged the presence of variant readings. Medieval Masoretes sought to establish a definitive text, and their work provides the foundation for our printings and Torah scrolls. It remains, however, that our texts—which, in limited respects, feature differences from one another—sometimes diverge from readings attested in the literature of Ḥazal, not to mention in other sources through the ages.[9] R. Akiva Eiger, in his notes on the Talmud, famously provides a partial list of such divergences, including one consonantal discrepancy between Rashi’s text and our own.[10] Commentators and halakhic decisors, moreover, in their discussions of such disparities, invoke a striking account found in Ḥazal: after the upheaval caused by the first exile, Jews had to reestablish the text of the Torah based on surviving scrolls; and where they found discrepancies—sometimes encompassing full words—they relied on readings attested in the majority of texts available to them.[11] This rabbinic statement, as implied quite clearly by some authorities who cite it, acknowledges the presence of abiding textual uncertainties.[12] After all, reliance on a majority of manuscripts, while conforming to proper halakhic procedure, typically does not succeed in eliminating all doubt.

What approach, then, should we take toward newly proposed readings that do not conform to the Masoretic textual tradition? On the one hand—and crucially for our purposes—the possibility that errors arose in some words in the Torah ought not generate feelings of religious tension. Traditional sources, such as those just acknowledged, amply attest to the presence of uncertain readings. And the divinity of the Torah need not preclude some measure of human inadequacy in its textual transmission, especially on account of catastrophic social upheavals.

At the same time, the common approach to the study of the Written Torah has—for good reason—traditionally embraced the Masoretic version of the text. Adopting a critical approach toward the accepted text carries serious risks. First, such an approach may diminish the all-important devotional character of Torah study. Worse, it may trigger unwarranted loss of confidence in the broader tradition, and, in turn, the erosion of religious faith and commitment.[13] It bears emphasis, moreover, that in countless instances, scholars have succeeded in defending—often quite persuasively—Masoretic readings that once seemed impervious to explanation.[14]

All told, then, we may adopt a fairly straightforward attitude toward lower criticism of the Bible. On the one hand, the presence of small textual uncertainties, including in the Pentateuch, does not pose any meaningful religious threat. At the same time, devotional study of the Tanakh should properly focus on the received text. Even in the scholarly domain, moreover, a deferential approach toward the Masoretic text holds the potential to yield important and exciting interpretive breakthroughs.[15] In the final analysis, therefore, textual issues of this kind bear no serious implications for traditional Jewish belief, study, and practice. Such issues, accordingly, hardly provide reason for feelings of religious conflict.

Historical Accuracy

The historical accuracy of the Tanakh is subject to challenges of various kinds. Already at the beginning of Genesis, we encounter material that, understood literally, diverges from scientific conclusions regarding the age of the world and the evolution of species. The account of Israel’s formative history, for its part, as well as some other narrative texts, bear certain inconsistencies with the archaeological data. Some Scriptural accounts, moreover, seem to contradict one another. And others seem designed to conform to literary models, biblical or otherwise. Finally, certain episodes, such as Jonah’s survival in the belly of a fish, strike many readers as fantastical.

One approach to such challenges consists of offering solutions to each individual difficulty. Indeed, in some cases, entirely reasonable explanations seem readily at hand. For example, it is true that no extant records from ancient Egypt mention the Israelite exodus. As often observed, however, this absence should hardly surprise us. After all, it is the victors who would typically memorialize the outcome of a conflict. And in any case, we can only access material that has survived and that archaeologists have succeeded in discovering.[16]

Nevertheless, this kind of approach will not satisfy everyone. First, to some questioners, the available responses to certain difficulties may not seem adequately convincing. To others, moreover, even if each response seems plausible when considered alone, the cumulative force of the challenges may appear too formidable. It is appropriate, therefore, that we explore the viability of another path, which finds a small measure of precedent in traditional interpretation: limiting Scripture’s claim to historical truth. For example, according to one view in Ḥazal, the story of Job bears symbolic meaning only. While we cannot be sure what motivated this position, the apparent unreality of certain parts of the story—especially God’s interactions with the “satan”—probably played an important role. Later authorities, in turn, most notably Maimonides, express a preference for this rabbinic stance.[17]

Indeed, because of Maimonides’ philosophical convictions, numerous biblical accounts posed difficulties for him. Of particular note, his conception of angels did not allow their assumption of a physical form. This led Maimonides to adopt a remarkable position: where the Tanakh describes angels appearing in the physical world, this can only take place in a dream or prophetic vision. He contends, accordingly, that substantial passages, such as the account of angels visiting Abraham, did not occur in the real world. Centuries of commentators, in turn, including some major figures, applied this Maimonidean approach and even expanded on it. Radak, for example, to fit that particular interpretation into the wider biblical context, proposes that Abraham’s subsequent advocacy for the city of Sodom occurred within the same prophetic experience.[18]

Importantly, however, according to these authorities, it is actual biblical figures who experienced the relevant visions. In some sense, therefore, the events are part of the historical account. This Maimonidean strategy, therefore, does not offer a clear-cut paradigm for a more general nonhistorical approach to biblical narrative. Apart from the example of the book of Job, therefore, whose proposed symbolic intent finds support in Ḥazal, it remains to ask if traditional sources offer any precedents for a more starkly nonliteral variety of interpretation.

Even before the advent of modern science, the creation story in Genesis gave rise to much creative interpretation. For many commentators, older scientific conceptions already presented an obstacle to a simple understanding of the account. Throughout history, moreover, interpreters examined this narrative through a theological lens, perceiving—with ample justification—that its main significance lies beneath the surface. At least overtly, however, most such authorities do not discount the story’s historical accuracy. Instead, they explain it in a way that conforms to their scientific conceptions. And even insofar as they assign to it more profound meaning, they do not express denial of its truth as history.

Some notable exceptions, however, hold importance for our discussion. In the early chapters of Genesis, Maimonides perceives a deeper layer of meaning that, in his view, bears paramount significance. Significantly, concerning the six days of creation, he goes a step further, stating that the account “is not [. . .] intended to be in all its parts literal.”[19] This formulation suggests that some parts of the story do not correspond to historical reality at all. Already among medieval authorities, moreover, we encounter a widespread, more ambitious reading of Maimonides’ position: that the broader sequence of creation, instead of representing historical truth, merely signifies the natural hierarchy of physical realities. Ralbag, in fact, endorses this position outright.[20] Furthermore, in reaction to more recent scientific challenges, several leading authorities have likewise allowed a nonliteral reading of the creation story, an approach that—importantly—accords with the scholarly conception of its literary genre.[21]

Nevertheless, the early chapters of the Torah, especially the account of creation, might well comprise a distinct category. Indeed, authorities who allow a purely symbolic interpretation of the creation story often cite the esoteric nature of the subject matter. Their position, therefore, still falls short of a definitive precedent for a wider nonhistorical approach to biblical narrative.

Now it is true that, even in more typical narrative contexts, traditional interpreters occasionally suggest that an apparent factual assertion does not express precisely what occurred. For example, addressing the Torah’s report that Reuben lay with his father’s concubine, Ḥazal famously declare that, as a factual matter, he actually did something less severe.[22] Apart from the case of Job, however, I am aware of only one classical source affirming that a biblical book, because of its genre, presents inaccurate information in a standard narrative context to help achieve its broader objective.

The commentary on Chronicles attributed to Rashi, from its composition in the twelfth century until today, has occupied a central place in traditional interpretation of the book.[23] Reacting to a discrepancy among biblical depictions of the Temple, this commentator writes as follows:

“[Solomon] overlaid [the Holy of Holies] with fine gold” – [Not merely for the rest of Temple but] also for the Holy of Holies, [Solomon] first built walls of wood, and he overlaid them with gold. Because of the exaltedness of the Temple, however, the text does not mention any wood here in connection with the Holy of Holies. It thus imparts (כלומר) that the walls of the chamber that housed the ark were entirely of gold and contained no wood. This constitutes [proper] glorification of the Holy of Holies. [The presentation] in [the book of] Kings proves that this [basic explanation] is correct. [Likewise], we can prove that it is [specifically] because of the glory of the Temple that [the text of Chronicles] makes no mention of wood. After all, [here it] says, “He studded the Temple with precious stones,” whereas [the passage in] Kings does not mention precious stones. How is this possible? Evidently, because this book is a chronicle of the kings of Judah, it conveys that Solomon sought to glorify the Temple.[24]

This passage implies rather clearly that, because of the genre of the book of Chronicles, we must allow, at least to some limited extent, that it does not seek to present impeccably accurate history.

The force of this comment as precedent, however, depends on various considerations. Some might question this unknown writer’s standing as an authority on theological questions, despite his well-accepted, important place in the history of interpretation of Chronicles. We must also bear in mind the limited scope of the remark itself: the commentator does not overtly apply this principle elsewhere in Chronicles, and so we do not know how far he would be willing to extend it. Quite probably, moreover, the book of Chronicles, in his view, assumes the reader’s familiarity with the text of Samuel. Perhaps, then, according to this commentator, Chronicles conveys certain inaccurate information—in this case, that the walls of the Holy of Holies “were entirely of gold and contained no wood”—on the assumption that the reader knows the Samuel text and will understand that Chronicles exaggerates for the purpose of glorifying Judean kingship. Indeed, if this is true, the word כלומר in the comment might best be rendered “as if to say” instead of “it thus imparts.”

All told, then, how should we regard biblical narratives that, in part because of new insights and discoveries, seem historically confounding? Might we suggest—typically in line with the scholarly consensus—that such narratives are of a sort that allows at least a measure of nonhistorical content? Notably, at least one contemporary mashgiach, based on his conceptions of the position of the Vilna Gaon and of the probable intention of the Zohar, allows a purely allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah.[25] More generally, however, this kind of approach—as when applied, above all, to certain foundational material in the Torah—may result in positions that few would regard as theologically tenable.

When all is said and done, despite the strong need for caution, it bears emphasis that negating this option in all cases would, for many questioners, block the path to viable solutions. Conversely, merely by allowing that biblical stories need not always be historical in all of their detail, we may substantially neutralize a great many difficulties.[26] It seems vital, therefore, that those in a position to determine proper theological boundaries—and, in turn, the limits of this approach in Orthodox discourse—reflect carefully on the dangers posed by any absolute stance.[27] I hasten to add, moreover, that wherever such lines are ultimately drawn, for the struggling individual who, in the quest for plausible solutions, privately gives consideration to this kind of alternative, this presents no contradiction or impediment to robust halakhic observance, devotional study of the Torah, and Orthodox communal participation.

Internal Consistency, Authorship, and Dating

We have seen that one commentator, to explain a discrepancy between two biblical books, assigns—at least in a limited way—some nonhistorical content to the book of Chronicles. Often, however, we encounter the more challenging problem of seemingly conflicting material within a single composition. Indeed, the Torah itself contains apparent contradictions, sometimes within its individual books. Here again, case-by-case solutions will not satisfy every questioner, and the quantity of difficulties may intensify the need for a more encompassing approach.

The expansiveness of some inconsistencies may, at first glance, seem to compound the problem. For example, when God informs Abraham that Sarah will bear him a child, we do not merely find apparently conflicting assertions regarding how God communicated this information. We actually encounter two entirely divergent accounts, essentially one right after the other.[28] Such “doublets” contribute substantially to the claim that the Torah comprises material deriving from distinct, often inconsistent sources. The perceived presence of multiple sources—the basis of “higher criticism” of the Bible—will occupy our attention shortly. It warrants immediate emphasis, however, that apparent incongruities of this sort, considered together with other evidence, need not suggest a lack of internal coherence. Instead, if we suspend our modern literary expectations, such divergences may point more convincingly toward a different conclusion: the purposeful incorporation of meaningful, complementary perspectives within a fundamentally unified text.[29]

Had the Tanakh sequenced its narrative material in a seemingly nonmeaningful way, this might have justified the conception that it merely preserves conflicting accounts of events. Over the last half-century, however, new methods of interpretation have yielded increasing appreciation of the text’s literary artistry. To take just one example, in the early chapters of Genesis, scholars have perceived patterns that transcend proposed source-critical boundaries. While this development has not eliminated higher-critical analysis, it has, in many cases, prompted wide recognition of the purposeful fashioning of the received text.[30]

What specific objectives, then, might explain the Torah’s inclusion of divergent accounts of a single event? Undoubtedly, many readers have encountered Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s approach to the opening chapters of the Torah, which feature apparently incongruous descriptions of the creation of the world.[31] For example, in Genesis chapter 1 God creates humans at the end, instructing them to procreate and to dominate the earth, whereas in chapter 2 He creates a human being at the beginning, subsequently placing him in a garden to work it and preserve it. This dual presentation, R. Soloveitchik explains, expresses different aspects of the human experience. On the one hand, humans hold the potential to dominate the creation and achieve majesty. On the other hand, because they also occupy a place among other creations, they bear the responsibility to care for them as appropriate, maintain suitable relationships, and adhere to certain moral standards in their many interactions.

This explanation offers a model for the kind of analysis we might apply to other doublets and contradictions. Indeed, some scholars adopt precisely such an approach, seeing divergent accounts as meaningful and complementary—sometimes in ways that even preserve the historical compatibility of their seemingly incongruous elements. Consider, for example, an explanation offered by Jonathan Grossman for the above-mentioned doublet pertaining to Abraham.[32] Although God communicates the news of Isaac’s impending birth twice, the astute reader will recognize that the second passage features a crucial difference: in that case, the angel first ensures that Sarah is home, and he then pronounces that she will have a son—not, as in the first instance, that she will bear a son to Abraham. Subsequently, moreover, the text focuses specifically on the reaction of Sarah. This stands in stark contrast to the earlier passage, where, as suggested by several pointed textual differences, Abraham is the key recipient of the message.

Still, the reader may find it awkward that God must impart the information a second time. For Grossman, however, this problem finds resolution in the compositional technique of the wider story: the Abraham narrative, he argues, consists of a carefully structured sequence of episodes that gives expression to the dual themes of covenant and family. Although the patriarch, therefore, has already heard the news in a prior, covenantal context, another divine message suitably arrives for the purpose—as Abraham would have understood—of reassuring Sarah in a familial context. Significantly, if this approach is correct, it offers more than just a plausible explanation for the seemingly repetitive presentation. Beyond that, it provides a meaningful, unified perspective that finds corroboration in the broader narrative. The reader who grasps the compositional method, therefore, will perceive a coherent, illuminating textual sequence, not an intractable redundancy or contradiction.

To reconcile other apparently conflicting passages, within a single book or otherwise, it is again important that we suspend certain modern expectations and modes of thinking. This point finds repeated emphasis in the work of Joshua Berman, a scholar who has subjected long-standing higher-critical conclusions to substantial reevaluation. For example, Berman argues, the book of Deuteronomy, as a speech delivered by Moses, does not merely exhibit distinct stylistic features. More than that, because of certain standard ancient modes of the application of law, Moses legitimately saw fit, at that stage of Israel’s sojourn, to present some laws differently from how he did earlier. What seems contradictory to the modern reader, therefore, may have posed no difficulty for the ancient Israelite audience.[33]

Indeed, by recognizing the limitations of our cultural assumptions, we open a path to resolving even some of the most intractable problems. For instance, where biblical genealogies feature multiple, blatant inconsistencies, satisfying solutions may seem especially elusive. One leading biblical scholar, however, in an influential article that draws on comparative data, observes that such disparities are an expected feature of orally transmitted genealogies even today.[34] Thus:

To the Western observer, the most striking characteristic of oral genealogies is their relative fluidity. [. . .] Such genealogical alterations may occur within a relatively brief period, and it is not unusual for major genealogical changes to take place within a single generation. Furthermore, some societies maintain several variant versions of the same genealogy and seem untroubled by the apparent genealogical contradictions that result. When puzzled Western anthropologists ask which of the genealogies is “correct,” the reciters of the genealogies often reply that all of them are correct.

Such disparities, moreover, need not originate in any kind of error:

A far more important reason for genealogical fluidity is related to the function which the genealogies have within the societies that use them. Frequently the concept of lineage is the basis of social organization. A lineage system uses the biological family as a model and then expresses all social relationships as kinship relationships.

Accordingly,

when genealogies are used to express social relationships, the genealogies must change when the social structure changes.

Importantly, this sort of fluidity applies equally to genealogies that appear in ancient sources: such writings, too, may feature divergent accounts, each one serving a purpose in its context. In the case of the Bible, therefore, where conflicting genealogies may serve similarly purposeful ends,

the interpreter should not attempt to harmonize the variants or correct the “errors,” [because] to do so would obscure the point that the biblical writer is trying to convey.[35]

Now to some readers, it may seem entirely plausible that, just as societies sometimes construct the same basic genealogy in different ways, the Torah similarly adopts this method. Others, however, may prefer a variation of this approach: that the Torah, in presenting apparently inconsistent data of this type, incorporates material—in a judicious and purposeful way—from humanly devised sources that did not originate as Mosaic prophecy. Indeed, in the case of apparently contradictory narratives—of the sort that may be seen to provide complementary perspectives—many readers might likewise wish to propose that the distinct versions were already in circulation, and that the Torah chose to deploy them for its own purposes. It is crucial to recognize, therefore, that although this approach may generate some instinctive theological discomfort, claims of this kind appear in multiple traditional sources. For example, Abarbanel, following the view of his mentor R. Joseph Ḥayyun and drawing on an affirmation by Ḥazal, contends that much of Deuteronomy originated as Moses’ own creation, and that only later did God decide to include it in the Torah. More generally, in fact, R. Ḥayyun applies this principle to certain quotations of human figures in the Torah, as does Abarbanel to poems recited by the Israelites at various junctures in the wilderness: the divine incorporation of this material, according to these authorities, does not preclude its origination in the human realm.[36]

Significantly, moreover, this approach helps explain the presence in the Torah not only of certain apparent contradictions but also of formulations, motifs, and literary forms that already appear in other ancient writings. That is, where passages in the Torah—including its creation and flood stories, law collections, and more—feature parallels to texts that were circulating before the revelation, this may bespeak the Torah’s intentional deployment of ancient conventions for the purpose of imparting its own distinct teachings. The familiar packaging, after all, would have enabled better communication with the Torah’s original audience and, more significantly, served to highlight its moral and theological departures from other ancient systems of thought. This rather common approach, in fact, calls to mind Maimonides’ conception of the Torah’s sacrificial system. Just as that familiar type of worship, in Maimonides’ view, best facilitated Israel’s transition to proper service of God, the Torah adopted standard ancient literary models to advance its transformative religious ideas most effectively.[37]

At the same time, the reader who sees doublets and apparent contradictions as a product of the Torah’s complementary deployment of existing material may eventually encounter a problem. Specifically, how does this approach account for incongruities relating to events that occurred near the end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness? After all, according to the standard traditional view, Moses finished transcribing the Torah at the end of that sojourn; and it seems improbable that distinct accounts of an event would have emerged quite so quickly. Indeed, questioners who, in the case of those particular incongruities, are unpersuaded by other solutions may find themselves doubting the traditional dating of the Torah, and, in turn, its standing as a product of Mosaic prophecy.[38] Numerous other challenges to the traditional dating, moreover, arise from higher-critical claims regarding when the perceived sources were most likely composed, as well as from certain motifs and formulations that do not fit the period of Moses in an obvious way.

Only recently has there begun to emerge, in the works of Berman, a systematic, well-informed effort to reassess the conclusions of higher criticism and related issues, and his writings will prove substantially helpful to many questioners. Beyond calling attention to Berman’s work, however, I conclude by addressing some Jewish sources that, in response to certain claims of biblical scholarship, are often invoked to help reconcile those claims with the boundaries of traditional faith. Specifically, I refer to writings that suggest, however controversially, the possibility of post-Mosaic material in the Torah.

The Talmud records a debate concerning the Torah’s last eight verses, which recount Moses’ death.[39] One opinion affirms that Joshua wrote these verses, whereas another insists that Moses wrote them before he died. Maimonides, for whom the Torah’s distinctiveness depends—apparently—on its transmission through the unique prophecy of Moses, declines to acknowledge even the possibility of Joshua’s involvement.[40] On the other extreme, Ibn Ezra not only embraces that alternative but expands on it, asserting that Joshua wrote the last twelve verses, beginning where Moses ascends the mountain on which he was to die.[41] Ibn Ezra, furthermore, near the beginning of his commentary on Deuteronomy, makes an oblique reference to a “secret” pertaining to certain scattered formulations in the Torah, implying—or so it seems—that they are similarly post-Mosaic. Later interpreters, in turn, debate whether or not Ibn Ezra actually meant to adopt this radical position. One medieval writer, defending the straightforward reading of Ibn Ezra’s comment, goes as far as to declare that, as a general matter, it was legitimate for later prophets to add clarifying remarks to the Torah’s narrative passages.[42] Significantly, moreover, some surviving material from the medieval Ashkenazic pietists, including statements generally attributed to R. Judah he-Ḥasid, likewise affirm post-Mosaic changes to the Torah.[43]

What implications, then, do these positions have for our contemporary challenges? It warrants immediate emphasis that, because these views push the boundaries of a widely accepted principle of faith, we cannot freely draw on them to resolve difficulties. Indeed, beyond the intrinsic need for theological caution, we face deeply serious pragmatic concerns. Overwhelmingly, Judaism has regarded the Written Torah as sacrosanct, taking for granted its revelation by God during Israel’s sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. Any complication of this perception, therefore, may threaten the foundational religious suppositions—and ultimately the commitment—of Jews both individually and collectively. In addition, because such an approach, in a rather conspicuous way, departs from Maimonides’ formulation in favor of a less restrictive stance, it risks prompting more general confusion about the reliability of traditionally accepted beliefs, which have typically conformed to Maimonides’ thirteen principles.[44] Furthermore, any sense of discontinuity with the basic theological assumptions of classical authorities generally, whose writings form the corpus of sacred literature, might similarly endanger commitment to tradition. Finally, this kind of approach may prompt the integration of a detached, higher-critical perspective into Torah study—including on a communal level—a prospect that risks seriously diminishing the essential devotional character of the enterprise.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss the parallel threat that the scholarly challenge poses for many people. In response to this dilemma, multiple Orthodox writers have chosen to alert their readership to the scattered Jewish sources that feature less restrictive positions, albeit without asserting their legitimacy as precedent.[45] This approach, which I follow here, has the benefit of maintaining appropriate caution while simultaneously providing meaningful comfort to those experiencing serious religious conflict. For even if such positions—for important reasons—remain outside the boundaries set by contemporary authorities of suitably high stature, the presence of marginal sources that espouse these disputed views helps underscore that conflicted individuals, despite experiencing skepticism toward the mainstream position, need not feel that they are living a contradiction by upholding a strong commitment to Jewish tradition. Instead, such individuals may bracket out their theological questions, while maintaining—as did those who formulated the disputed views—their firm adherence to that tradition.

For religious mentors who adopt this nuanced approach, its parameters must inevitably vary. In many settings and communities, exposure to such views might benefit only small numbers of people and cause harm to others, and the best policy may call for addressing these issues privately on an as-needed basis. To questioners themselves, however, I reiterate the importance of maintaining proper perspective: struggling with the challenges posed by biblical scholarship, even when answers may seem elusive, presents no conflict to energetic commitment to halakhic observance, devotional study of Torah, and participation in Orthodox Jewish life. Indeed, for all the value that such commitment yields for individuals, their families, and their communities, rarely do those who choose this path reflect on their decision with regret or disappointment.

Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Berger is Professor of Biblical Studies at Hunter College and a musmakh of Yeshiva University. His publications include Jonah in the Shadows of Eden (Indiana University Press, 2016) and the forthcoming Radak on Creation and Beyond (SBL Press, 2022).

The prior entry in this symposium is here: link

The next entry in this symposium is here: link


Endnotes:

[1] Several works by scholars of the Bible highlight its distinctive ideas—of the kind mentioned in this paragraph and the next—in a way that is accessible to a wide audience. Nahum M. Sarna’s Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken, 1966) and Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken, 1986) have been highly influential. More recent examples include Joshua A. Berman, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), and Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Philadelphia: JPS; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Needless to say, the contrasts that I list here lend themselves to far more nuanced discussion.

[2] A long-standing Jewish tradition, represented already in the Mishnah (Ḥagigah 2:1), affirms that certain theological notions, even if correct and legitimate, must remain unarticulated except in highly circumscribed settings.

[3] Among contributions by biblical scholars, the work of Joshua Berman stands out for its scope coupled with its mainstream Orthodox perspective; see his recent popular and affordable book, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2020), which also contains references to his academic publications that provide more detailed arguments for his claims. Other substantial works targeted to a wide audience include Amnon Bazak, To This Very Day: Fundamental Questions in Bible Study (trans. Kaeren Fish; Jerusalem: Yeshivat Har Etzion and Maggid, 2020), a discussion of a range of issues by a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion; and Tova Ganzel et al eds., The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), a collection of articles that, in many but not all cases, conform to mainstream Orthodox theology. The popular website thetorah.com, when confronting questions of this kind, generally embraces the challenging results of biblical scholarship—as do some printed works that address these issues—while incorporating a range of theological responses. The present essay operates within more traditionalist parameters, informed by acute concern about theological limits and by pragmatic and systemic constraints aimed at preserving the foundations of the religious culture of Orthodoxy.

[4] Living in accordance with certain faith principles generally involves some limitation of one’s interrogation of those principles, and halakhic sources give ample expression to this notion. Beyond a certain point, however, such avoidance may become counterproductive both religiously and otherwise. When I speak of unhealthy suppression of conflict, my concern is for individuals who have reached this precarious stage of inquiry.

[5] In the course of the essay, I refer to several of these unconventional positions.

[6] Among other considerations, of course, such policy decisions rest on substantive evaluation of the theological questions.

[7] I do not discount additional considerations such as the siyata dishmaya merited by such rabbinic leaders, but the reasons mentioned above seem likely to gain the assent of a larger share of readers.

[8] Abarbanel’s discussion appears in the introduction to his commentary on the Former Prophets. A large number of sources pertaining to various issues, collected and annotated by Yoshi Fargeon, comprises the first half of Ganzel et al, The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible, which is freely available here. A translation of the relevant passage in Abarbanel appears in that section of the book on pp. 75–76. See also p. 77 for a similarly important, widely cited comment of R. Joseph Kara at I Samuel 9:9.

[9] The most prominent discrepancy among our Torah scrolls involves the first word in Genesis 9:29, where the highly regarded Yemenite tradition attests to ויהיו instead of the common variant ויהי. 

[10] The list appears in Gilyon Ha-Shas on Shabbat 55b. The variants are mostly nonconsonantal.

[11] The passage appears in multiple rabbinic sources; see, for example, Yerushalmi Taanit 4:2, 68a.

[12] See, for example, Radak’s introduction to his commentary on Joshua, and the responsum of Rashba—along with other references—cited in the Hebrew essay by Shlomo Zalman Havlin available here.

[13] In this connection, it is important to raise awareness of traditional sources affirming that, where Ḥazal derive laws from the nuances of biblical formulations, these laws also bear the independent force of tradition. In particular, see the medieval positions, especially of various Geonim, summarized in Jay M. Harris, How Do We Know This? Midrash and The Fragmentation of Modern Judaism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), 76–86.

[14] In particular, I am partial to Richard Steiner’s various defenses of Masoretic readings. See, for example, his discussion of Deuteronomy 33:2 available here. On an entirely different matter, it is worth mentioning Steiner’s argument that, despite perceptions to the contrary, various biblical passages presume the existence of a soul that survives the death of the body. (The relevant study is available here.) In this connection, we must remember that a great percentage of the Bible, including the Pentateuch, concentrates mainly on the responsibility of the Israelites—individually and collectively—to cultivate a society based on newly revealed conceptions of God and the divine will, with emphasis on the national implications of their degree of compliance. Only a limited number of biblical texts, by contrast, give priority to questions pertaining to the life trajectory and personal destiny of the average individual, and it is there that we would most expect to find references to a transcendent soul. With this in mind, especially if Steiner’s broader argument is correct, we may easily perceive certain biblical formulations—e.g., “But God will redeem my nefesh from the grasp of Sheol, for He will take me” (Psalm 49:15)—as affirmations of the survival of a nonmaterial soul.

[15] I do not address further the Orthodox scholar’s role in addressing seemingly problematic Masoretic readings, as the matter is of limited consequence for the wider population.

[16] On this latter point especially, and on the general absence of extrabiblical evidence for a population of Hebrews in Egypt, see the expansive discussion in Chapter 3 of Berman, Ani Maamin.

[17] See Bava Batra 15a; Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 3:22.

[18] Maimonides, Guide 2:42; Radak at Genesis 18:1.

[19] Guide 2:29 (trans. M. Friedlander).

[20] The relevant discussion appears in Ralbag’s philosophical work Wars of the Lord, 6:2:8.

[21] See the citations and the accessible discussion in Chapter 14 of Natan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution (New York: Zoo Torah and Yashar Books, 2006).

[22] See Shabbat 55b.

[23] This commentary, which was not in fact composed by Rashi, is the subject of an exhaustive study by Eran Viezel, The Commentary on Chronicles Attributed to Rashi (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2010).

[24] See at II Chronicles 3:8.

[25] See at length Chapter 2 of Rabbi Avraham Rivlin, יונה: נבואה ותוכחה (Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, 1988/9).

[26] Where biblical motifs serve an apparent literary purpose, some will undoubtedly prefer to regard them as historical nonetheless—a position that, in all probability, accords with the approach of Ḥazal. For example, when Ḥazal  make the straightforward and widely accepted observation that the names Maḥlon, Kilyon, and Orpah bear unfavorable meanings that reflect those individuals’ roles in the story (Ruth Rabbah 2), it seems likely that they regarded the suitability of the names to have been divinely orchestrated.

[27] It bears noting that Berman’s contributions, in Ani Maamin and in the studies on which it is based, adopt a non-absolute position on this question.

[28] The accounts appear, respectively, in Genesis chapters 17 and 18.

[29] While this kind of approach is often associated with Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, who applies it in a highly detailed and ambitious way, I invoke it here in a more general way that justly finds greater acceptance.

[30] One widely cited treatment appears in Gordon J. Wenham, “The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978): 336–48. In this connection, see at length Chapter 5 of Berman, Ani Maamin.

[31] See his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, available here.

[32] See Chapter 9 of Jonathan Grossman, Abram to Abraham: A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative (New York: Peter Lang, 2016), as well as his introductory discussion of the wider structure of the Abraham sequence. It warrants mentioning the original and more affordable Hebrew version of the book, אברהם – סיפורו של מסע (Tel-Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth, 2014).

[33] See Chapters 4 and 6 of Berman, Ani Maamin.

[34] Robert R. Wilson, “Between ‘Azel’ and ‘Azel’: Interpreting the Biblical Genealogies,” Biblical Archaeologist 43 (1979): 11-22. The first three quotations below appear on p. 12 of Wilson’s essay. The fourth one appears on p. 19.

[35] To cite a specific example, in this article I offer an explanation of the deployment of genealogical lists in Chronicles, including the moderately disparate, seemingly redundant genealogical accounts in I Chronicles 8 and 9.

[36] See Abarbanel’s introduction to Deuteronomy and his comments on Exodus 15 (translated, respectively, on pp. 28–29 and 312–13 of Ganzel et al, Believer). A Hebrew edition of the relevant essay by R. Ḥayyun is available here. The rabbinic statement concerning Deuteronomy appears in Megillah 31b. It bears emphasis that, even if the Torah adopts certain humanly constructed motifs and formulations, they may simultaneously yield deeper, divinely ordained meanings.

[37] See Guide 3:32 and 3:46. Compare Berman, Ani Maamin, 78, and the wider discussion there.

[38] For example, in Deuteronomy 1:37, Moses seems to say that it is the sin of the spies that prevented his entry into Israel—not any failure of his in connection with the waters of Merivah (Numbers 20). While traditional interpreters offer solutions to this discrepancy, readers who prefer to apply the method presented above may encounter the problem that I describe here.

[39] See Bava Batra 15a.

[40] Note especially Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:6, where this alternative is conspicuously omitted. See also Maimonides’ sequential presentation of his seventh and eighth principles of faith, which respectively concern Mosaic prophecy and the origin of the Torah. (Maimonides’ principles in their full and original form appear at the end of the lengthy preface to his commentary on perek Ḥelek in Mishnah Sanhedrin, available here in Hebrew and English.) On the question of the relationship between the perfection of the Torah and the unique prophetic capacity of Moses, see p. 150 of the recent treatment by Charles H. Manekin here; and see his wider essay for a defense of the internal consistency of certain relevant statements in Maimonides’ works.

[41] See his comment on Deuteronomy 34:1.

[42] See the citations and translations of R. Joseph Bonfils in Ganzel et al, Believer, 45–48. As noted elsewhere in that volume (pp. 60, 315), the writer in question is specifically R. Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils.

[43] See Ganzel et al, Believer, 49–51, 54–55. For discussion of other possible sources, see Berman, Ani Maamin, 203–213, and Chapter 2 of Bazak, Until This Day. On the question of the attributions to R. Judah he-Ḥasid, see most recently the essay by Marc B. Shapiro here.

[44] A substantial discussion of proposed exceptions appears in the widely cited treatment by Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford and Portland: Liverpool University Press, 2004).

[45] See the references to Berman and Bazak in note 43. For a discussion of contemporary figures who adopt a more liberal stance, see Marc B. Shapiro, “Is Modern Orthodoxy Moving Towards an Acceptance of Biblical Criticism?” Modern Judaism 37 (2017): 165–93.

About Yitzhak Berger

Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Berger is Professor of Biblical Studies at Hunter College and a musmakh of Yeshiva University. His publications include Jonah in the Shadows of Eden (Indiana University Press, 2016) and the forthcoming Radak on Creation and Beyond (SBL Press, 2022).

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