Out of the long laundry list of complaints facing today’s Conservative Movement, the debate over the origins of the Bible hardly seems the most urgent.
Indifference toward Israel produced Birthright; intermarriage rates provoked the Keruv Initiative; but skepticism toward the Bible has no such program to call its own. By my count, biblical criticism has been mentioned once in all the Diyun posts to date. In this case, though, first impressions are misleading. The source of the Bible is a big deal for modern Jews and their commitments. In this post, I discuss why it’s so important, why it’s so often avoided, and what we can do about it.
Since at least the time of the Mishnah, some Jews have rejected the assumption (one never stated in the Bible itself) that God literally spoke every word of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. The first serious challenge to the traditional view came from Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Sephardic philosopher and early forerunner of the Enlightenment. Spinoza, along with later Christian and secular scholars, made three basic observations, each of which eventually gained wide acceptance.
First, the text of the Bible itself- its contradictions, repetitions, and language- suggests a work written by different hands at different times. Second, the historical and archaeological record shows scant evidence for the Bible’s central events. Finally, God’s direct verbal communication is foreign to life as we know it. The world of our everyday experience seems to be one which men, and not gods, write books; it’s a world where the laws of physics continue to operate, no matter who brandishes a staff or waves their hands. For all these reasons, modern thinkers concluded that the Israelites themselves wrote the Bible over a period of centuries. This belief is now nearly axiomatic outside of Orthodoxy. Any modern religion must take it into account, or else become an anachronism. Jews concerned with the future of our religion like to blame our long decline on secular culture and high intermarriage rates, and there’s obviously a lot of truth in that. Surely, though, teaching a belief which most modern Jews just can’t take seriously only makes a difficult situation worse.
Why then, is the question of the Bible’s authorship conspicuously absent from Conservative education? To learn more, I reached out to several leaders of the Movement and its institutions. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, offers a pragmatic explanation: biblical criticism simply isn’t interesting enough. “The reality is [...] that we tend to default into more “Traditional” modes of explanation- particularly midrash- both because it is so plentiful, and because it captures the imagination,” Skolnik writes. “Our approach just doesn’t do that quite so well, which certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not true, just that it’s harder to explain and make rich and beautiful.”
His point is a good one; opening the floodgates of biblical criticism sometimes drowns students beneath an alphabet soup of J’s, E’s, P’s and D’s. Even if this problem were completely impossible to solve, though, it would still be an issue of method rather than substance. Middle schools teach Euclidean geometry not because it’s interesting, but because it accurately describes the way the world works. But the problem is not impossible to solve. Presented in the right way, the creation of the Bible is one of the most dramatic stories of all time- besieged by brutal empires, torn by internal strife, the Israelites still painstakingly built a testament to belief which endured for four thousand years. Let’s focus more on that and less on the alphabet soup.
A second objection comes from Rabbi Joel Roth, Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Roth agrees to include biblical criticism in Conservative education, so long as the traditional view of direct verbal revelation is still accepted as a possibility. Such admirable pluralism, however, demands a heavy price: the total lack of ideological clarity. How should a Hebrew school student respond when his teacher says in the same breath that God wrote the Torah and that He didn’t? The student might become hopelessly confused- or he might just stop paying attention, as so many of his peers already have. The origin of the Bible is too fundamental an issue to gloss over in the name of pluralism. We’ve got to make a choice.
Neither of these objections, though, fully grasps the real heart of the matter: fear of change. “[People] are concerned that if taught too young it could undermine a young person’s belief and commitment all together,” observes Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, director of the Jewish Journey Project. Even if they sometimes leave it unsaid, modern Jews worry that only the fundamentalist view of the Bible can sustain their religion. Put simply, as I’ve heard the question asked over and over again: “If God didn’t write the Torah, why bother with any of this?” Let’s flesh out what this question implies; namely, biblical criticism is so subversive that Jews should scurry back to hide in the comforting bosom of the tradition. This kind of logic is utterly patronizing. Think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” And it’s intellectually dishonest. Medieval scientists took similar comfort in knowing that the Sun revolved around the earth. But they, too, were wrong. Truth is what can be verified, not what makes us feel better.
All of this aside, the original question of “Why bother?” still seems troubling- until we realize that Conservative thinkers have been answering it for the last hundred years. Heschel reads the Bible as a human expression of God’s will: “When it comes to revelation, the Bible itself is but a midrash,” he writes. Rosenzweig sees in the Bible an Israelite response to their intensely personal religious encounter. Kaplan locates biblical revelation within humanity itself, as the Israelites discover their own potential for salvation. Milton Steinberg, Will Herberg, Louis Jacobs, Daniel Gordis- the list continues. For all of them, the Bible is the Israelites’ faltering attempt to put into words an insight about the nature of their universe- its unity, its morality, its purpose. These thinkers welcomed disagreement; what they hoped for was an open and honest conversation about biblical criticism and where it led. On that score, they’ve been disappointed.
When I asked Neil Gillman, author of Sacred Fragments and distinguished leader of the Movement, about biblical criticism in Conservative education, he launched into an impassioned outburst worthy of a man half his age. “This is educational malpractice!” he exclaimed at one point. Harsh words, for sure; but how else to describe the Movement’s de facto decision to maintain a dogma that even its teachers can’t accept? These institutions need to offer their students a religious outlook that can hold its own in the modern world. Everyone on the blog already mentioned dozens of programs around college campuses to promote critical thinking about Israel; now, it’s past time for a program of critical thinking about Judaism. We owe ourselves the adventure of creating a belief system that’s as true as it is meaningful. We owe ourselves a Judaism we deserve.
Allen Lipson is a double major in economics and Talmud at the Columbia/JTS Joint Program. He’s currently a co-chair of the Columbia/Barnard Koach, and a third-year counselor at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. He loves reading, running, and schmoozing; feel free to shoot him an email at email@example.com.