Biblical criticism has always been shunned as heretical by the traditional Jewish community. Recently, however, a new website (thetorah.com) has been created that states, “if traditional Judaism is to thrive then it must address biblical criticism.” This is the result of many believing Jews who ignore the fact the biblical criticism even exists. As one friend of mine put it to me, “As religious Jews we are all in denial on one level or another about biblical scholarship.”
Clearly any type of system that requires its adherents to deny their own thoughts or what they know to be true cannot be sustainable in the long term. But, it seems to me that one need not be in denial with regard biblical criticism. Here is why.
In order to be challenged by biblical criticism one must accept a number of assumptions. First, one has to assume that all ancient texts lend themselves to this sort of criticism. Second, we need to assume that this type of textual analysis always leads to the an outcome that is accurate. Third, we have to assume that the alternate ways of analysing the texts, including those used by classical commentators are incorrect. All of these assumptions are reasonable.
Yet it seems just as reasonable to say that the Torah is a complex text that was written by one–in my view Divinely directed–author using multiple literary styles to create a text that can be analysed from many different angles. This, one might argue, is the genius of the Torah. Thus, one may conclude, by subjecting it to textual criticism one gets results which are correct in terms of the discipline of that type of textual analysis, but are factually inaccurate.
Both of these approaches involve the acceptance of assumptions that cannot be proven. The question then is which one do I choose to believe in. I have chosen to believe in the later. Not because I want to be a part of Orthodox Judaism which would preclude the former view. Rather it is because of the contribution the Torah, as a Divine text, makes to my life.
A complex text such as the Creation story is a prime example of this. For the bible scholar the complexities of the text has to do with the merging of multiple narratives from different authors. For one who believes that the text had one Divinely directed author the complexity of the text contains deep ideas relating to the relationships between God and His creations, mankind and the animal kingdom and man and his fellow man. All of these lessons and ideas add a huge amount of value to the life of the believer.
Each and every time I open the Torah and am confronted by a difficulty in the text I have a choice on how to try and resolve the difficulty.
I would rather try and tease a life lesson, which I believe to have a divine quality, from the difficulty inherent in the text than suggest that the complexity was a result of human error or multiple narratives.
Clearly I am aware of biblical criticism and, in fact, use the tools of textual criticism in my study of the Talmud — a text that uniquely lends itself to this type of textual analysis. However, when it comes to the Torah I prefer a mode of interpretation that adds value and meaning to my life over one that relegates the study of Torah to a mere academic pursuit. The more Torah I learn in this manner the more my conviction and belief that it is in fact a Divinely directed text intensifies.