No Fear Biblical Criticism: Concluding Thoughts

The time has come to bring this series to a close. The seventh essay in a series written across most of three years, it’s safe to say that this has been a long time coming. In the words that lie ahead I would like to cast a bit of reflective light on the series, beginning with why I chose the name that I did, and then move on to my final topic, the reasons that Orthodox Jews should be grateful for Biblical Criticism.

I began this series in response to a critique of a lack of nuance in the acceptance of Biblical Criticism in part of the Orthodox community. More specifically, I was responding to the people who used this critique as a jumping-off point to be just as lacking in nuance in their bashing of this part of the Orthodox Community. My overall goal throughout this series has been to attempt to find a place in between these nuance-less extremes.

In the service of this goal, I undertook to create a basic introduction to some key issues in Biblical Criticism. My basic assumption in this was that extreme (read: lacking in nuance) responses to something usually flow from a lack of familiarity with that thing. More intimate knowledge of Biblical Criticism and its constituent parts made more accessible via a simple introduction might help to create a communal discourse that was more than the rapid trading of ad-hominems. This assumption led me to an obvious parallel to my project in the field of English literature, No Fear Shakespeare, a line of easily accessible guides to Shakespeare’s plays. The name, beyond being a clever rhyme, alludes to the way that Shakespeare’s looming presence in Western culture makes his writings much more intimidating than they really needs to be. Enabling readers to become more familiar with Shakespeare’s writings helps them to see from the inside that there is nothing for them to fear. Biblical Criticism has a similarly looming presence — in Modern Orthodox culture at the very least — and I thought a parallel project in this area was in order.

The logical starting place for such a project was the Documentary Hypothesis. This idea, that the Torah originated as independent documents that were later redacted together, is what most people think of when they hear the term “Biblical Criticism,” and is the alternative most people see to believing in the divinity of the Torah.1 The first real essay of the series, and likely also the most polemical, was therefore dedicated to discussing how Biblical Criticism is a broad field that encompasses much more than just the Documentary Hypothesis, and how those different fields often critique one another. I argued that Literary Criticism, the careful application of literary study methodology to the Biblical text, provides reason to be ambivalent about, if not to reject outright, the Documentary Hypothesis.

As this was, I believe, the most polemic part of this series, I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the nature of my polemic. Most religious polemics against trends in secular thought focus on the unacceptable nature of that thought from a religious perspective. This type of argument works better the more a person is firmly and solely rooted in their religion. The more a person is immersed in modernity and secular thought, however, the more these types of arguments feel like attempts to hide from the truth. This is why such polemics often include arguments for why a person should shun modernity with all their heart. Modern Orthodoxy, ever concerned about contiguity with the community as it extends to the right, is particularly susceptible to claims that it has lost a proper sense of balance between its Modernity and its Orthodoxy.

I quite consciously chose to take a different approach in my polemic. My argument was not that people need to be more Orthodox, even or perhaps particularly at the expense of being Modern. Instead, I argued that uncritical acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis isn’t being bad at being Orthodox, it’s being bad at being Modern. Modern Orthodoxy means a lot of things to a lot of people, but to whatever degree it means involvement with secular thought, it should mean the best of that thought. That the Documentary Hypothesis is the most popular and well-known aspect of Biblical Criticism does not mean that we should simply accept it, particularly when much of secular thought has criticized, qualified, or moved past it. If we’re going to be Modern, and I do believe we should, we should be the best kind of Modern we can be.

I presented a similar argument in the fifth installment of this series, where I argued that we need to incorporate postmodern theories about hermeneutics and reading rules into our understanding of how we read the Biblical text. I then claimed that Biblical Criticism, particularly the Documentary Hypothesis, does not always take this into account properly, and that there are plenty of sources within the Jewish tradition that resonate with these theories. I went a step further than this in the third installment, where I discussed Lower Criticism and textual emendations, arguing that Modern Orthodox Jews should accept the basic Lower Criticism concept that the Biblical text as we have it is not 100% what it always was, small changes having crept in here and there. I supported this approach with Rabbinic texts, but it was from a literary perspective that I rejected textual emendation, based on scholars who argue that we generally can’t be certain enough to change our texts. I then used some of the same scholars to argue that religious and critical approaches to reading Tanakh are based on fundamentally different axioms about the nature of the text, an idea I will return to at the end of this piece. Finally, from an entirely internal perspective, I discussed the nature of archaeology, an approach to how it might improve our understanding of Judaism and the Torah based on Rav Kook, and some traditional sources for this improvement.

In hindsight, this series was certainly more polemic than I had originally intended it to be. It was both an introduction to some important issues, and arguments about how I think we, as Modern Orthodox Jews, should approach them. But I never claimed, nor would I, not to have a position regarding any of the issues I discussed. I can only hope that my personal view on things did not lead me to unknowingly skew my presentations of the various topics. Perhaps in the coming years I will look back on these essay and cringe at my biases. For now, however, I am satisfied that I have done my best to write with honesty and integrity. I pray that if I return to writing about Biblical Criticism it will be in order to cover one of its numerous aspects that I simply could not write about here, rather than in order to rectify mistakes in this series.

All of that being said, I want to conclude with what I think must be a critical part of any Modern Orthodox approach to Biblical Criticism: gratitude. From a historical perspective, the Modern Orthodox community owes a lot to the field of Biblical Criticism. Advances in our knowledge of ancient Israel and its neighbors in the light of archaeological discoveries has greatly improved our understanding of Tanakh, and is a direct import from Biblical Criticism. Similarly, the literary methods of the “Literary-Theological” approach to Tanakh taught by certain teachers at Yeshiva University and the “Tanakh at Eye-Level” movement popular in Israel (תנ״ך בגובה העינים in Hebrew) owe much, if not all, of their methods to Literary Criticism of the Bible, and of course to secular Literary Criticism more generally. Even beyond literary methodologies, Dr. Yaakov Elman has argued that renewed interest in the Biblical text within Orthodoxy in the 19th century developed in direct response to the rise of Biblical Criticism. While the relationship there was, and has been, largely antagonistic, I still think it’s worth appreciating the role Biblical Criticism played in the birth of contemporary Orthodox interest in Tanakh. Whether our engagement with it is, or has been, positive or negative, Biblical Criticism has contributed in significant ways to how we understand Tanakh today.

Finally, on a more existential level, I think it’s important to appreciate what Biblical Criticism has given to us in terms of how we read Tanakh. As I mentioned above, and discussed more extensively in a few of the pieces in this series, there are serious differences between religious and critical ways of reading Tanakh. The integration and interplay of these methods can be quite fruitful from a variety of perspectives, but they can also be applied separately. The most intense application of a religious approach is probably found in Rabbinic homiletics, where texts from vastly different contexts within the Jewish tradition are brought into dialogue with each other, simply by virtue of being the traditional texts of the Jewish religion. Critical reading, on the other hand, tends to put a rather large emphasis on understanding texts within their proper context. The ability to see this difference — to see how there are two very different ways of reading the Biblical text (and the spectrum of hybrids in between) — gives the religious reader a degree of reflectivity and distance that enables us to better understand the religious approach. It also means that when we do read from a religious perspective, we do choose to do so; we consciously take up our religiosity and our tradition and experience the Biblical text through them.2 It is my hope that this series has aided in creating this reflectivity, and therefore in introducing the reader not just to Biblical Criticism, but also to a more consciously religious relationship with Tanakh.

1. That this is incredibly reductive is exactly my point.

2. I am thinking here of the idea of “second naïveté” laid down by Ernst Simon. See this excellent summary by Elie Holzer. The discussion of Ricoeur in the same paper is, of course, also relevant.

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