Guest Post by Moshe Shoshan
“When a prisoner sees the door of his dungeon open, he dashes for it without stopping to think where he shall get his dinner outside” George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Back to Methuselah
Rabbi Zev Farber has recently produced a carefully and eloquently written monograph arguing that Orthodox Jews should embrace the findings of modern Biblical criticism and incorporate it into their religious worldview. Like Rabbi Farber’s other writings which seek to challenge us to rethink some of the basic assumptions of contemporary Orthodoxy, this piece deserves a careful and thorough response. Unfortunately at this time I am not in position to write such an essay. What I am offering below are a few of my immediate reactions to the piece, which I hope will at least help spur further productive conversation on this matter. I should note that I do not deem it to be my place to determine the limits of Orthodox theology and declare a particular position to be on one side of the foul line or the other. My purpose is rather to consider the extent to which Rabbi Farber’s ideas can be productively integrated into what I think would be generally acknowledged to be an Orthodox worldview.
Where I agree with Zev Farber
In my excursions into the world of Biblical scholarship, which are far more limited than Farber’s, I have come to concur with him on one fundamental issue. The challenges raised by modern Biblical criticism to Orthodox Judaism cannot be countered merely with “Orthodox Biblical Scholarship” which seeks to disprove the claims of academic scholarship on its own terms. I do not believe that using the tools, methods and assumptions of modern critical scholarship it is possible to produce a compelling academic argument that it makes sense to conclude that the Torah is a unified document produced in the wildernesses of Sinai and Transjordan sometime in the final centuries of the Third Millennium BCE. It may be possible to argue that the Torah is more unified and more ancient than biblical scholars commonly assume, but this approach will never produce a conclusion that is in line with traditional understandings of Torah mi-Sinai. We may succeed in dispatching the theories of Wellhausen and Gunkel but Spinoza’s basic arguments against Mosaic authorship and the “mild kefirah” of Cassuto and Kaufman challenging unified authorship will still remain.
This presents a profound challenge to Orthodox Jews who are not willing to dismiss modern academic methodologies. Indeed I believe that this challenge is much greater than R. Farber acknowledges. As such I think that his solution that Orthodox Jews can simply reconstruct their faith in manner that integrates modern scholarship is quite problematic and that we as Orthodox Jews cannot simply embrace it. In my experience the world “down the rabbit hole” of Biblical criticism can often resemble the stark world that Neo encountered after swallowing the pill, more than the sunny environment which Farber describes as his habitat.
Why Torah MiSinai is not like Maaseh Bereshit
Farber argues that Biblical criticism is merely the most recent in a long series of intellectual revolutions that have reshaped the way people understand the world and the paces of God and humanity with in it. Modern Orthodoxy has managed, quite successfully it seems, to adjust its understanding of Maaseh Bereshit and ultimately accept Copernicus and Darwin. In Farber’s view the documentary hypothesis should be no different. Farber is charting a course that Christian and liberal Jewish scholars have already pursued for generations. However, this does not mean that similar path can be easily followed by Orthodox Jews. This is because of the unique place which the concept of Torah mi-Sinai plays in Orthodox Judaism. For Orthodoxy, as for most forms of traditional Judaism throughout history, Judaism is first and foremost (thought certainly not exclusively) a religion of mitzvot, of binding norms whose force in rooted not in a constructed social contract or categorical imperatives but in a direct irruption of the Divine Will into human history. This places an extraordinary amount of the weight of Jewish belief on the acceptance of the concept of Torah mi-Sinai. Indeed as I suggested in the last chapter of my book, Stories of the Law, for Chazal, Sinai may be the only truly significant event in human history. As such, Torah miSinai (TmS) is not as malleable as other tradition Jewish beliefs, such as those regarding God’s creation of and ongoing relationship with the natural world. Unlike for others whose faith is rooted in the Bible, for us, the Torah, Written and Oral is not merely a source or moral guidance and spiritual inspiration but the basis divine commands which represent the frame work of our existence. As such any re-conceptualization of the concept of TmS must provide a grounding for halakha as a heteronomous set of obligations. This is not to say that this can only be accomplished through traditional views of TmS, but it creates an extra burden on those who suggest new interpretations which Farber does not sufficiently address.
Between History and Fiction
My second objection has to do with the way in which narratives function to construct and maintain ideas, values and norms in the cultures in which in they operate. Farber argues that we need simply to reconceive Biblical narrative as fiction and not history.
In his view this will not completely undermine our religion because in fact fiction is a better transmitter of the sort of truths that really matter than is history. This argument about the value of fiction, which has been put forward in different forms by many modern writers and thinkers, from Tolstoy in War and Peace to Stanford professor Joshua Landy in his recent How to Do Things with Fictions, is one to which I am highly sympathetic. It rests however on a dichotomy between “history” and “fiction” which is a distinctive product of modernity. Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism like most ancient and traditional cultures did not recognize such a distinction. Rather, they operated with a unified category which I call “storytelling”. In this view, the “truth” that inheres in some stories cannot be pulled apart into categories such as “historical,” “moral” and “metaphysical” truth. Stories were evaluated by the way in which they integrated all of these truths into a single narrative framework. In modern Western history it was only fairly recently that people have begun rigorously distinguish between the truth claims of different types of narratives. Thus in the late eighteenth century the writing of novels on the one hand and critical history on the other emerged as two fully distinct and dominant modes of narrative in European culture. (To be sure this account is highly over simplified, ignoring important precedents both in the Hellenistic world and among Medieval, including Jewish thinkers, but I think it will serve our purposes for now.) We should not underestimate the power of traditional narrative structures in which historical, moral and metaphysical truth are presented in a single mutually re-enforcing structure. Modern Western culture has paid a significant moral and spiritual price for its predilection for dividing libraries and best sellers lists into “fiction” and “non-fiction”. The continuing power of narratives that lay claim to historical as well as other forms of truth can be seen in the great scandals that have erupted in recent years surrounding best-selling “memoirs” that have been revealed to be pure fictions invented by their authors. If fiction is just as good at delivering what we seek from stories as “fact,” why did so many readers feel so betrayed? These authors had fraudulently laid claim to the status of being a “true story” in order to gain for their narratives a power over the reader that they did not deserve. Before calling for the Bible to be placed on the shelf with Jane Austen and not Gibbon, we would do well to consider the potential implications for those whose religious faith is in rooted in the Bible.
To be sure, I do not believe that it is possible to go back up the rabbit hole to world in which the truth to found in narratives is unified. Indeed, I argue that much of the corpus of rabbinic narrative cannot be accepted as historical. However, I would not deny that there is a great advantage to faithfully maintaining the sacred canopy of an all-inclusive narrative structure, which offers us the shelter of a historical, moral and metaphysical reality all in a single location. For many reasons, this price for abandoning this model is exponentially higher when it comes to Biblical narrative. Farber may find it necessary to classify the Torah as fiction, but he should not under estimate the difficulty of maintaining an Orthodox worldview and practice based on fictions alone.
“Greetings Dr. Farber, Do you want to play a game?”
The challenge of modernity to traditional religious worldviews is not limited to the fragmentation of truth. The ultimate challenge lies in the secular nature of the modern thought. The most fundamental assumption of all critical historical study is olam keminahgo noheg. History is part of the humanities and past events must be interpreted in human naturalistic terms. A historian who explains historical events by recourse to claims of divine intervention is no historian. As such the most fundamental underlying assumption of modern Biblical scholarship is that Bible must be human document produced through the same processes as other ancient texts, and not a product of revelation. Certainly many individual scholars who believe in the divinity of the Bible accept the principles of critical methodology only provisionally, using its tool to gain valuable insights into the text without accepting its fundamental assumptions. However, the ultimate telos of academic Biblical scholarship can only be the rejection of the very notion of Divine revelation. Once I show that the Bible can be understood using the same tools and categories as the Upanishads or the Koran, why should I view it as being metaphysically distinct from those texts? As such Orthodox Judaism and Biblical criticism would appear to be opposed to each other not only in their conclusions but in their very premises. To a certain degree, to quote the computer “WOPR” in the 80’s movie Wargames, “The only way to win is not to play at all.” Of course I reject fundamentalist positions such as those of R. Tau, R. Aviner and their followers which oppose any influence from secular Biblical tradition on our study of Tanakh. On the other hand, I see the notion that Farber seems to be advancing, that Orthodoxy and the methodology and assumptions of critical Biblical scholarship can simply be synthesized into a single world view, to be an inherently unstable and problematic position.
While I respect Rabbi Farber’s conclusions on a personal level, I am unsure as to whether or not they can be successfully integrated into a worldview that fits a conventional definition of Orthodoxy. I am concerned that a community that embraces such an approach will not in the long term remain committed to a covenantial life and worldview. Nevertheless, I believe that the search for truth of all sorts using the most compelling tools to which we have access is itself a religious imperative for those of us who believe in a God whose seal is Truth. As such, it cannot be jettisoned because it is not compatible with other divine imperatives. But I have no way relieving the tension that this position creates for the Orthodox Jew. I cannot even offer my teachers’ fun a kasha shtarbt man nisht- “no one dies form a question” with full confidence, because in my experience some people do “die” or at least get sick from nursing certain questions without relief. All I can say is that we need to continue moving forward, acknowledging the short comings and strengths of both traditional and academic approaches.
Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan teaches rabbinic literature and Biblical interpretation at the Rotheberg International School of The Hebrew University and at the religious teachers college at Givat Washington. He is the author of Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah (Oxford University Press, 2012)