Critic vs Critic – Thoughts on the Berman Brettler Debate

Recently Prof. Marc Shapiro published in Modern Judaism a review of the state of acceptance of critical biblical scholarship among self-defined Modern Orthodox thinkers.  Breaking a taboo, Shapiro claims scholars such as Prof. Marc Brettler, Rabbi David D. Steinberg, and Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, founders of and the Torah And Biblical Scholarship project, as exemplars of this new approach. Shapiro quotes thinkers from Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Rabbi Chaim Navon to philosophers such as Dr. Tamar Ross as jumping on board at different points on the continuum. Shapiro, an erudite hunter gatherer of a research academic, presents a challenging array of examples to demonstrate that the conclusions of academic bible study, with its challenge to traditionally accepted belief, is indeed finding new popularity among a certain segment of Jews who seem themselves as members of a group who in the past would eschew such scholarship.

I vividly remember discussing this issue with the greatest of rabbinic sages, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein ob”m. I had recently read a transcription of a lecture Rav Lichtenstein delivered in which he suggested that there are areas where an Orthodox scholar must not go and questions a believing Jew must not ask. He compared the academic to Abraham who, according to Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation, was asked by God to give up not only his young son, but the belief that Isaac would carry on Abraham’s name as originally promised.  Abraham believed Isaac to be his future and he also believed he understood the Divine will. The “Akedah” event, demonstrated that God would even ask Abraham to give up his understanding of the world as an act of worship of the Almighty.  Rav Lichtenstein suggested, or even demanded, that the Orthodox Jew must, like Abraham, be willing to give up part of himself to demonstrate fidelity to God. There are limits of what one may ask in order to live life as a believing Jew.

I humbly asked Rav Lichtenstein about the biblical critic. Could it be argued that some search for the Divine and that the very process of looking for God leads them to the conclusions of academic bible study? Rav Lichtenstein suggested that he might have phrased the lecture differently had he given it again. I don’t believe for an instant that he would agree with the methodology, assumptions, or conclusions, of much of what passes today as bible study. But my impression was that we need to see the search people engage in a more nuanced fashion.

Reading the recent publication, “In the Eyes of God and Man” by Beit Morasha, I was reminded of this discussion.  “In the Eyes” is a collection of sources and essays on the state of biblical scholarship written by a group of ostensibly Orthodox scholars. In the Introduction, they spell out the critical factor of the search for the Truth encapsulated in their work, “the foundation of scientific, critical, consideration is that science must be value neutral. It is impossible that a priori assumptions, from faith or otherwise, will guide investigations towards conclusions…pursuing the Truth and demurring from all perversion and corruption and only the truth is our guiding light.”  Many scholars attempt to find the truth at all costs and, at least consciously, throw off the burden of past considerations; however, as Daniel Boyarin has claimed, and I think Stanely Fish and others hover behind this notion, no reader approaches a text without bearing on his back all the texts (and readings) which have come before.

This leads me to the latest challenging exchange of arguments between the bible scholars Prof. Josh Berman and Prof. Marc Brettler. Full disclosure, I learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion with Prof. Berman, who is no relation, and was warmly welcomed at Brandeis by Prof. Brettler.

Berman argues that the academy investigation into the Bible is infused with a biased atmosphere which stifles real debate. Conservative scholars, as has been demonstrated in many liberal arts fields, suggests Berman, are dismissed as biased polemicists not worthy of true recognition. The Bible, as dissected and dismembered, by invested academics has become a canvas for political activism more that truth seeking.  Professors, ignoring evidence to the contrary, prefer to proselytize theories which do injustice to the text. Applying modern and anachronistic literary tools, they miss their own misreadings and present a one sided vision of the text.

Brettler, in defense of his work and the efforts of other scholars, condemns Berman for his own biases. Berman, who is an Orthodox Rabbi, is criticized for having an axe to grind.  He goes on to try to give a couple of examples where he thinks his system works.

To be honest, I found the title of  Bretter’s essay, “Biblical Studies: No More Corrupt than any Other Discipline” a bit surprising. He may be right – but that doesn’t necessarily say much. In a period where many are criticizing the inherent problems in the liberal arts, a critique which Thomas Kuhn would probably apply to the “hard sciences” as well, claiming that biblical studies are no worse than other fields may not be very satisfying.

Brettler claims, “The job of biblical scholars, like others in the Humanities, is not to suggest what is possible, but what is probable.” I’m not sure I understand his argument – text criticism is not a math course in probability and statistics but a form of reading and analyses. In Concepts and Categories, Isaiah Berlin cogently argued that historical studies are much more akin to art than science – again leaving Kuhn out of the picture – they do not function with mathematical precision or chemical formulae but rather with feeling and intuition. They speak to way we see the world and are convincing not because of “probability” but they jibe with our experience. That may be very different from reader to reader. And indeed, Brettler admits that the results of biblical studies are speculative and do not meet the bar of philosophic proof.

If scholars and readers can read so differently and if we can put all of our personal religious and anti-religious biases on the table, where does that leave us? How should we read the Bible? Rav Shagar, in Luchot Ve’Shivrei Luchot, powerfully argues that in our post-modern world where we are confronted with a disbelief in arriving at absolute truth, we actually have an interpretive gift. If I can’t reach an absolute truth, then others can’t disprove me with their non-absolute truth. Acknowledging the inability to arrive at the ultimate Truth makes me impervious to the claims of others. Indeed, in today’s world it seems, biblical, and other liberal arts and sciences, cannot make ultimate truth claims. If so, then, to paraphrase Maimondes’ famous discussion on Aristotelian truth claims of the eternity of the world in Guide to the Perplexed II:25, given that both sides lack proof, the religious thinker can choose tradition, or to paraphrase Brettler, one can always choose the “possible” over what some scholars see as the “probable”.

In my mind, while the results of academic biblical scholarship of often interesting and at times convincing, this does not impinge on belief in the Divinity of the Torah.  To quote the Jewish theologian Avraham Joshua Heschel:

The truth is that revelation is a problem that eludes scientific inquiry; that no scholar has ever devised a lens to pierce its mystery. Biblical criticism may have succeeded in finding spot in the sun and in compelling us to modify our conception of how the text was transmitted, but the act of revelation remains beyond its scope. The intellectual adolescence of those who proclaimed Moses has never lived, and if he did he was not a monotheist, is of great interest to the psychologist as an example of iconoclastic tendencies but is of little interest to those who look for spiritual truth. The relatively minor discrepancies within in the Bible may only prove that its words were written in and for many different situations, that its text is an organism rather than monolithic stone. Yet, we must not “disturb the foundation of the temple in order to repair a petty breach or rat-hole in the wall, or fasten a loose stone or two in the outer court” (Coleridge)’” A.J. Heschel,  God in Search of Man, pp. 219-220

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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