What Academic Bible Gets Wrong… And Right
As an undergraduate, I loved the synthesis of traditional Torah and secular wisdom. My undergraduate degree was in French Language and Literature. I read Aristotle and Kant for fun. I delighted in how Maimonides and Rabbi Soloveitchik imbibed secular ideas, and absorbed them in the name of traditional Judaism.
In a similar vein, I have found that academic Bible can enhance some people’s appreciation for Tanakh. At the same time, many professors do not approach Tanakh with reverence. For this reason, some segments of the Orthodox community have been skeptical of academic Bible. The religious individual approaches Tanakh with a sense of God, faith and reverence, expecting to find religious inspiration. These traits are not always present in academic Bible scholarship. Currently, certain segments of the Jewish community are at a crossroads about how (if at all) to teach academic Bible to the next generation. What follows — it should be stressed — are my personal encounters.
As an undergraduate, when my colleagues resented the Bible requirements, I was eager to learn Tanakh with academic scholarship. I took four undergraduate and three graduate courses; I devoured scholarly commentaries. I would sooner consult Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom before Rashi and Nahmanides. Much of this work was technically heretical, but I believed that academics were more objective. I revered the Rishonim for their mastery but considered them less advanced than modern scholars because of their tenuous fealty to fantastical Midrashim and rabbinic hyperliteralism. Yet as the semesters drew on, I began to recognize the limitations of academic Bible as well.
First, I observed a lack of reverence for the text of the Tanakh itself. Academics often assume the received text is corrupt and/or written without Divine inspiration (called lower criticism and higher criticism, respectively). Scholars frequently opined that the biblical text was written in a certain way to further the agenda of an ancient editor. For example, many academics envision a rivalry between the followers of Moses and followers of Aaron about who would earn the priesthood; ultimately, the Aaronides won out, which is why the text was edited to indicate that Moses anoints his older brother. Bible scholars often did not hold the sacred text in the same esteem that I did. Many academics believe Tanakh to be the work of man, and some consider it a poorly edited work at that.
Second, many academics were overly insulting towards the biblical figures as people. For example, Nahum Sarna writes that the patriarch Jacob “is portrayed as having acquired the birthright, first, by the heartless exploitation of the suffering of his own brother and then, by the crafty deception practised upon his blind old father” (“Understanding Genesis,” p. 183). While Midrashim and Rishonim think critically about the actions of our forebearers, there is a world of difference between questioning specific actions and characterizing a person as a scoundrel.
Third, academics neglected or even mocked the traditional sources, while over time I became more interested in learning from traditional viewpoints as well. I wanted to see how traditional commentaries addressed questions academics were asking. Academics demonstrated hubris in assuming that when a particular scholar asked a question, nobody had ever asked it earlier. With few exceptions, most academics couldn’t care less about traditional Jewish interpretation. In many of the Bible classes I took, we never studied a piece of Talmud or comment of a Rishon seriously.
Fourth, I remember having a conversation with a professor about some detail I’ve since forgotten. The professor proclaimed that the Bible lifted this idea from another culture. I asked him why he thought we had taken it from them, and not the other way around. He replied, “We were a small culture so we probably didn't develop it.” Taken to its logical extreme, that statement — and attitude — indicates that there is nothing unique about the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is no different than other ancient Near Eastern texts, just luckier.
Fifth, the academic culture was intolerant. Once in conversation, a professor asked what my father did for a living. I responded, “He works for the Republican caucus of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.” This professor replied, “All Republicans are resha’im merushaim,” using a yeshivish term for “extremely wicked.” Regardless of one’s political opinions, to say such a thing to me — and to accuse my father of wickedness merely on account of his post as a bureaucrat — was offensive and did not foster an open environment of learning and mutual respect.
My personal turning point was editing a book for a professor whom I knew to be a mentch, ma’amin and yorei Shamayim. I asked him why his writing was lettered with J, E, P and D, the jargon of the Documentary Hypothesis, which Orthodox Jews regard as heretical. He replied that if he didn’t write that way, the academic community would not consider his conclusions.
I was stunned. This God-fearing professor who believed in Divine authorship of the Torah was forced, for professional reasons, to feign that he believed a heretical doctrine. Clearly there are challenges for a religious individual to partake in the discipline of academic Bible.
It is no surprise that many religious people demur to the study of academic Bible. To recapitulate: (1) academic Bible assumes the text is not of Divine authorship and is edited (sometimes sloppily) by man, (2) it is excessively critical of biblical personalities, (3) there is a neglect or mockery of traditional sources, (4) it denies the uniqueness of Tanakh, (5) it is hostile and does not foster an environment of openness.
Surely there are religious individuals who can navigate these obstacles and emerge unscathed or even edified. I have worked with — academically, professionally and personally — truly great, God-fearing academics who have forever enhanced my appreciation of Tanakh and its messages. I would be spiritually poorer had I not encountered them, and I hope I have expressed my gratitude to them satisfactorily over the years. Here are some places where academic Bible excels:
First is comparative Semitics. Classical and Medieval sources did not have access to the inscriptions and documents of the Ancient Near East that have been unearthed in the past two centuries. These discoveries can help us understand the meaning of biblical words, both common and rare. Academics have tools the Rishonim did not. For example, the word shotrim might very well be “scribes” (or “court reporters”), based on the Akkadian word for “write.” This meaning reemerges in the word shtar, “contract.” (Compare this to Rashi’s definition of “enforcers.”) A discussion of a word’s meaning will benefit from comparative Semitic analysis. For example, the first chapter of my book on holiness (“A Theology of Holiness,” pp. 23ff) analyzes how the root k-d-sh is used in other Semitic languages.
Second, modern commentaries excel at providing comprehensive cross-references of words and concepts, spanning biblical, ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, Christian and Greek sources. Rishonim will often use one or two prooftexts, and with few notable exceptions look beyond traditional sources. Academics can supply more exhaustive lists.
Third, the historical context is important. For example, did the story of Esther occur immediately before the Second Temple was built, or once construction was underway? The story becomes far more critical of the Jews if we read it against the backdrop of a Temple in the process of being reconstructed.
Fourth, related to the historical context, is the religious context, which is crucial because the Bible is primarily a religious work. When there are purported parallels between ancient Near Eastern beliefs and biblical ones, it is essential to examine how the Bible treats those beliefs, whether by accepting, modifying or rejecting them. For example, I have examined the possibility that the ten plagues in Egypt were a response to Egyptian belief, showing the futility of pagan deities. Some of this material is already in the Rishonim, but academics deal with these questions more fully.
Fifth, academic Bible excels at showing how plots and characters develop. Some traditional comments show this development, but it is rarely fleshed out. Traditional sources level out the characters and transform them to archetypes. For example, there is a common trope that Abraham represents chesed (lovingkindness), Isaac represents gevurah (strength) and Jacob represents tiferet (splendor, a synthesis between the two). Similarly, on the phrase hu Mosheh ve-Aharon, which is grammatically awkward, Rashi writes that Moses and Aaron remained unchanged in their mission and their righteousness “from beginning to end” (on Exod. 6:27). Such analysis reduces these personalities to automata: Did Abraham have doubts when he was told to travel to the land of Canaan? Did Moses have doubts when the nation’s rebellions were at their bitterest? Robert Alter is absolutely correct that there is great value in reading the Bible as literature, meaning focusing on linguistic cues and character development.
To summarize, academic Bible's greatest contributions are (1) comparative Semitics, (2) providing comprehensive parallels, (3) examining historical context, (4) examining religious context and (5) literary reading and character analyses.
There is an added difficulty in translating academic Bible for a curriculum en masse. Browbeating traditionally-minded students to enroll might compel them to complete a college course or two, but it will not facilitate their appreciation of how academic Bible might enhance their religious growth or appreciation of God and Jewish identity. Rather, here are some questions we should be asking:
- How do we properly teach a synthesis of Masorah and academia, if at all? Are we overloading our students with too much information and not enough critical analysis? Synthesis, the forerunner of Torah Umadda, is about actively accepting certain aspects and just as consciously rejecting other aspects.
- Should there be Bible classes that just use traditional Jewish sources without academic ones?
- How accountable are the professors? Should they have Orthodox explanations for the questions that academic Bible poses? Are professors responsible for their students’ spiritual welfare or for merely teaching the text according to the academic method?
- Should there be a class based on the principle da mah le-hashiv, “know how to respond,” to a heretic? In other words, should there be a course — either mandatory or elective — that focuses exclusively on how to respond to academic heresies?
- Should we focus on the Bible’s contribution to Western thought at large? One can barely read Locke or Hobbes without encountering scriptural passages. Capitalism and communism, nationalism and universalism, parochialism and egalitarianism, slavery and emancipation, pacifism and militarism have all been imputed to have their roots in the Bible. In other words, is the Bible an academic discipline, or should we examine its impact on world history?
Tanakh is open to many modes of interpretation. Some individuals find academic Bible enriching, others find it disgraceful and permeated with heresy. Some can navigate the ancient Near Eastern parallels to find reward, some find it a path of confusion and others find it a waste of time. There is no question that academic Bible poses significant theological risks. Whether those risks are worth the reward is something that each student of Tanakh needs to decide. That decision should be made on the grounds of halakhah, hashkafah, a priori preferences in Torah learning and the religious resiliency of the students. An Orthodox Jew, even a so-called “Modern Orthodox” Jew, has excellent and justifiable reasons for expressing healthy skepticism. In other words, each person has every right to pursue a path of religious growth he or she finds most conducive. We should never sacrifice our students’ spiritual welfare on the altar of devotion to the academic method. If in pursuit of the fruits of academia, our community chooses to accept the risks, we must be cognizant and even vigilant. Whatever choice we make, we should make that choice with an eye on growing intellectually, emotionally and above all religiously.
Alec Goldstein received his B.A. and ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the founder of Kodesh Press (kodeshpress.com) and author of “A Theology of Holiness: Historical, Exegetical, and Philosophical Perspectives” (2018).
Photo Caption: It is no surprise that many religious people demur to the study of academic Bible.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons