Orthodoxy and the Humanities: A Response to R. Yitzchak Blau
by Rabbi Dr. Seth Avi Kadish
Rav Yitzchak, without getting into the specifics of how the examples in the first part of your article were chosen, nor the kinds of methodologies needed to deal with them, I think that part of your essay is making a single basic point (with which I agree): Biblical scholarship is ultimately part of the humanities.
In the humanities, the pendulum swings back and forth as the generations go by (in a way unlike the hard sciences): There is always room for an alternative approach, so long as a persuasive argument can be made to justify it, which is then subject to the criticism of peers. Though methodologies are improved, and new evidence may come to light, the currently accepted approach may still have no greater claim on the truth than do its alternatives from the past and in the future. This is the beauty of the humanities, and the source of their value and power, because the ever swinging pendulum is also an essential aspect of humanity.
One need not accept the regnant view in any area of the humanities, neither in biblical scholarship nor for Homer. Furthermore, to enter the humanities with an uncommon outlook or a different set of assumptions, far from being a hindrance, is actually a boon. It can open new doors and uncover new truths, provided that it is honestly acknowledged.
A deep subjective faith, grounded in the national memory of Israel about our core experiences, is as healthy and valid as any other perspective. I stand with you on this, not with Rav Zev. And like you I think those experiences matter for our relationship with God. The essential validity of this subjective approach is, in my opinion, the rich inheritance bequeathed by Rav Hasdai Crescas to thinking Torah Jews in the modern world. (I hope to write about that soon in a different forum, as well as address your point that “sometimes quantity is quality” which is true as far as it goes, but in my opinion fails to take medieval assumptions fully into account). So acknowledge your loyalties openly, and go on with that to participate honestly and respectfully in the humanities and in biblical scholarship.
At the same time, as a Torah Jew, there is no need to debate the “Orthodoxy” of people whose intellectual quests take them where you don’t see a need to go. Despite all the current verbiage to the contrary, there is no mitzvah nor any halakhic need to do so.
To engage in this is the עצת יצר הרע, [counsel of the “evil inclination”], its greatest tool today for creating hatred and stifling thought and discussion in Am Yisrael. The yetzer works to cause evil specifically through Torah scholars and committed Jews, whom it has convinced that doing this is both necessary and right. Of course they sound convincing, and many of them like yourself are not at all malicious, but the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah.
The constant effort to define “Orthodoxy” and make decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” has nothing to do with living our covenant with God in today’s reality. The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions. So instead please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you (and to me), not what you think it needs to mean for others.
Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish earned his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied at Yeshiva University were he received his rabbinic ordination and master’s degrees in Bible and Jewish Education. He currently teaches medieval Jewish philosophy and history at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He has also taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education corps and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University’s Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children, where he is involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are meant to be open and welcoming to the entire public. Rabbi Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.