The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith
Rabbi Herzl Hefter
In recent weeks we have been witnessing a vibrant debate within the modern Orthodox community concerning the authorship and historicity of the Torah triggered by a thought provoking piece by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has revolved around what one is “allowed” to believe rather than striving to understand what one should believe -אליבא דאמת- authentically. What we believe should be driven not by fear and submission to authority but by passion for truth and trust in God and the Torah. If we believe in the Torah, we cannot live in fear or denial of scientific inquiry (whether in the natural sciences or the humanities).
As a community, the first step of freeing ourselves from this fear is to understand from where it derives. The general tone of modern society is pluralistic. Truth (with an upper case T) has been replaced by subjective “narratives.” Consequently asserting allegiance to a particular tradition and maintaining a distinct identity is very difficult. In this challenging environment we naturally seek an anchor in certainty which can justify our commitment and construct our particular identity. For many years that anchor has been our belief that the Torah in its present form was communicated by God directly to Moshe. If that belief is undermined, how can we maintain our religious commitment to Torah and mitzvot and our particular identity as Jews?
Our religious beliefs, convictions, commitments and adherence to practice cannot be held hostage by rigid dogma which asserts historical truths yet demands immunity from inquiry. By accessing our own Kabbalistic and Hassidic traditions which are rooted in Chazal, we can free ourselves from the necessity of asserting historical truths while maintaining and actually fortifying our belief in God and the Torah. Our tradition affords us the instruments with which to encounter biblical criticism without bias and apologetics and come away more committed as Jews. The encounter with modern biblical scholarship actually affords us an opportunity to clarify and refine two crucial and inter-related faith issues: 1) The nature of the Torah and 2) the nature of Divine revelation.
The Nature of the Torah
It is safe to say that the basic assumption of “Torat HaSod” is that the Torah needs to be read symbolically. That means that the elements in the stories of the Torah and the stories themselves point to a Divine reality and that their value does not rest in their literal truth. Thus, for example the Zohar (Bereishit 7b) divides the word “Bereishit” to read “Bet” (=two) “Reishit,” namely two beginnings, one revealed and one hidden. On one level the biblical narrative in sefer Bereishit tells of the creation of the cosmos by God. Yet, according to the Zohar, this narrative is an outer manifestation of a deeper story, the story of how God is revealed to us. The “pshat” narrative is a garment (levush) which paradoxically both obscures and facilitates the revelation of this spiritual reality. The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.
Rav Kook shared this assumption when, back in 1908, he responded to the “biblical criticism question” of his day, namely how to relate to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. His response is so important and relevant that I wish to quote part of it here. (Igrot HaRaayah no. 134. The translation is my own).
Concerning opinions which are derived from recent scientific investigations which on the whole contradict the straight forward meaning (pshat) of the words of the Torah:
“In my opinion … even though these theories are not necessarily true, we are not at all obligated to deny them and stand against them. This is because it is not at all (stress mine-HH) the point of the Torah to inform us of simple facts and occurrences of the past. The main point (‘ikar) is the inner content (tokh). … For us it is of no consequence whether in fact there ever existed in this world a golden age (i.e. the Garden of Eden – HH) in which mankind lived in spiritual and physical bliss or [not]… and thus when we have no vested interest we can judge [these new theories ] fairly.”
The intellectual integrity displayed by Rav Kook in this last sentence should not be lost upon us and should serve as a model for emulation for those engaged in this discussion.
The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality. It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation.
The Nature of Divine Revelation
In order to assert this, of course, we need to refine our understanding of Divine revelation. And so we come to our second point. Though this short essay is not the platform to properly flesh out differing views concerning Divine revelation, I will bring one or two Hassidic sources which are representative of a school of thought. Rather than thinking about revelation as something which originates “out there”, the great Hassidic masters turned the focus inwards and spoke of the heart as the seat of revelation. R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkat HaTzadik 261) writes that the burning palace (birah doleket) which gives birth to the faith of Avraham is the burning of his very own heart. Faith in God (as well as the Torah) is produced by the encounter with God which transpires in the heart and not necessarily through history or nature “out there”. R. Ya’akov Leiner of Radzyn goes even further than R. Zadok when he writes that if one was to be conscious of the mystery of one’s own spirit which rests in the heart, that would be tantamount to knowledge of God. (Beit Ya’akov, Mishpatim no.4). This doctrine is held to be true not only (or even primarily) for the individual but for the nation of Israel as an organic whole. R. Zadok HaKohen repeats many times the midrash from Shir HaShirim Rabbah (5:2) “The Holy One Blessed Be He is the heart of Israel.” This means that the will and presence of God in creation is manifest through the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.
The instrument of Divine revelation is the human heart; it is in the heart that He dwells and through the heart that (to the extent that it is at all possible) He may be known. To be sure, the heart of which we are speaking needs to be refined and sensitized through rigorous involvement in the study of Torah and avodah. None the less the ultimate platform for the revelation remains the emotive and intuitive faculty symbolized by the heart.
Thus, our God is not only a hidden God (El mistater) but a subtle God as well. God stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation. As a matter of faith, I believe that in the ancient history of our people we experienced such a stirring of our communal heart. God, fashioning our collective consciousness launched our tradition and civilization in the course of which our Torah came to be. Is the Torah then human or divine? The answer is paradoxically, yes.
There is a tremendous tactical advantage to this approach. Because of the minimal truth claims that it makes, it is unassailable by any scholarship. Yet the real advantage here is spiritual. The friction generated by the encounter between biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism and the consequent undermining of long-held truth statements can actually strengthen our commitment and identity. Considered faith is far more meaningful religiously than adherence to dogma. A religiosity which affirms the immediacy of the Divine in the human heart feeds a sense of urgency to make that presence manifest. This urgency can serve as the catalyst which ultimately invigorates our commitment to avodat HaShem as Jews and as human beings created in the image of God.
Rav Herzl Hefter is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rav Yerucham Gorelikזצ”ל and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל. For the next ten years, Rav Hefter continued his Torah studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Most recently, Rav Hefter taught advanced Talmud to the Kollel fellows at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat. Prior to that Rav Hefter taught Yoreh De’ah to smicha students at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University for 17 years and served as the head of the prestigious Bruriah Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the Torah M’Zion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. Rav Hefter combines a passion for Lithuanian style Talmudic analysis with the study of Hassidut