In Defense of the “Shocking” and “Anti-Traditional”: A Response to Elliot Resnick
In the last issue of Kol Hamevaser,[i] Elliot Resnick claimed that the pedagogical approach of Yeshiva College’s Bible department is seriously harmful to students. He accuses the department of destroying students’ core beliefs and leaving them confused. On this basis, he argues that the department be shut down, or else radically reformed.
Mr. Resnick’s conclusion rests on a series of mistaken presumptions and assumptions about the appropriate goals of Bible study. I have sought to ground my argument in the values, axioms, and priorities of the beit midrash, as I understand them and as I have been taught by my rebbeim. Others may choose to direct their criticism from an academic perspective, discuss Torah u-Madda, or debate the appropriateness of academic methodology in Bible study. I have opted not to do so, given that these are not the issues that Mr. Resnick invokes to justify shutting down the Bible department. I trust that he has given an honest and self-contained articulation of his concerns, and I have sought to tailor my response appropriately.
Mr. Resnick accuses the Bible Department of “injecting doubt into the heads of impressionable students,” and systematically dismantling “axioms of my faith.” What exactly were these axioms and how were they deconstructed? The core problem with Mr. Resnick’s argument is that it establishes the body of knowledge one brings when he arrives at Yeshiva College as the absolute standard for measuring everything one is taught. Granted, in many cases, this is entirely appropriate. A student is absolutely correct in asserting the authority of previously-learned ikkarei emunah (tenets of faith) against a Bible professor who categorically denies Torah mi-Sinai, or who claims that Tanakh is full of genuine Christological references.
However, those sorts of conflicts are not the ones that Mr. Resnick faults the Bible department for creating. Instead, he directs his criticism at “Bible academics” teaching “anti-traditional ideas.” I found this puzzling. The Bible curriculum I was confronted with in Yeshiva College was not based on Wellhausen or Richard Dawkins. Nor do I recall reading a single article published in an academic journal. Instead, the curriculum was comprised entirely of traditional Torah sources. Indeed, I remember spending Sunday afternoons preparing for “Intro to Bible” in the beit midrash, where I conveniently found all of the source texts assigned by my professor. On rare occasions, certain sources not found in the beit midrash were easily obtainable on the Bar Ilan database. At no point did I feel that I was engaging in “Bible academics,” with all of the cold and sterile connotations that the term conjures up. At no point did I feel like I was out of place, or that that I should surreptitiously hide the material under the table like some sort of contraband.
Indeed, why would I have felt that way? The Bible curriculum I encountered at Yeshiva College drew deeply from the wells of the mesorah, as embodied in the Gemara, the Talmud Yerushalmi, and the Sifrei. We closely studied rishonim like Rashi and Ramban, and delved into teshuvot of Rashba. Comments of R. Akiva Eiger and the Sha’agat Aryeh were also given a prominent role. Are those sources insufficiently “traditional?” Is such an assertion plausible or even worth debating? How can one invoke the authority of “tradition” to condemn the Bible Department for teaching R. Akiva Eiger? Perhaps Mr. Resnick had other sources in mind when he accused the Bible department of teaching “anti-traditional” ideas. I can only speculate, given that his article is full of vague assertions, as opposed to specific references to objectionable sources.
Regardless, Mr. Resnick’s criticism seems to rest on a flawed understanding of just what makes something “traditional” or “untraditional.” In the realm of halakhic practice, minhag is accorded a prominent, often decisive role. Great posekim (halakhic decisors), although this is true of some more than others, often struggle mightily to defend customary practices from objections raised on the basis of textual sources. R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch articulate explained the importance of minhag when he wrote,
Whatever had once been stamped as a religious duty could not be other than something which their ancestors had recognized as being consonant with the spirit of Judaism, and conducive to the fulfillment of the great Jewish task, and which they had, therefore, willingly incorporated in Jewish practice and transmitted to their descendants as a holy heritage to be preserved with the same constancy and self-sacrificing devotion as their fathers had shown.[ii]
Mr. Resnick apparently seeks to invoke the same dynamic of in the realm of belief. He implies that whatever “the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews grow up believing” is a categorically valid standard against which the Bible department may be assessed. Granted, the rishonim and aharonim discuss whether aharei rabbim (the mitzvah of following the majority opinion in halakhic matters)[iii] can be used to authoritatively resolve disputes in matters of hashkafah and belief. That is a complex issue, and this article cannot do it justice.[iv] But, regardless, the relevance of the issue seems attenuated at best. First, one often finds communal adherence to particular positions about hashkafic issues that do not accord with the majority of rishonim. For instance, it is popularly assumed that hashgahah peratit is universal and all encompassing, categorically applying to all individuals and all events, despite the fact that this is certainly a minority view in the rishonim.[v] It would be inconsistent to appeal to aharei rabbim in this context simply because the issues involved make some people feel troubled or uncomfortable.
But the best reason to avoid discussion of aharei rabbim is that Mr. Resnick never invokes it. His objection to the Bible department is pedagogical, unconcerned with the substantive content being taught. Indeed, he criticizes the Bible department for teaching “anti-traditional ideas” inconsistent with what “the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews grow up believing,” even as he readily admits that many of those beliefs may be “naïve” or “based on ignorance.” But this simply leads us to ask, Why is what the majority of us grew up believing a valid baseline? Despite the best efforts of our educational system and often a year or more of intensive post-high school study, most students who enter Yeshiva College have simply never examined the topics covered in Bible classes. The rare exceptions can certainly benefit from exposure to additional mekorot, and all students can gain from the perspective, insight, and experience of God-fearing individuals who have made it their life’s work to teach in the Bible department.
Yet Mr. Resnick’s criticism, while well-meaning, argues for depriving students of this learning opportunity. It effectively enshrines an incomplete, immature, and often ignorant understanding of basic issues of Jewish belief as the standard by which to measure the Bible department. The fact that such misunderstandings are so widespread does not seem to be an argument for perpetuating them. On the contrary, it justifies keeping the Bible department open, not closing it, as Mr. Resnick would have us do. Indeed, Mr. Resnick effectively argues for a regrettable sort of inertia, by which students who arrive at Yeshiva University ignorant or misguided will simply continue to remain ignorant or misguided. He argues that he is open minded, and only criticizes the department for not suggesting new ideas or helping students to “rebuild” their Judaism. Is that not exactly what they already strive to do, by leading students to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of certain hashkafic issues and ikkarei emunah?
Granted, a simple and incorrect understanding may be more comforting, or more amenable to polemics. But our yeshivah pursues the imperative of ameilut ba-Torah (toiling in Torah) and bakashat ha-emet (truth seeking) during the first part of the day, when the focus of study is, for most talmidim, the Gemara. Why does that imperative end once the Gemara is closed and a Tanakh is opened?
I am particularly pained by Mr. Resnick’s polemical suggestion that the Bible department be shut down because my experience with the department was so utterly different. I considered myself relatively knowledgeable before taking any classes with the department, and I was fairly confident of my grasp of the basic ikkarei emunah, as well as my ability to define their scope with sufficient nuance, understanding, and sophistication. After a few weeks in Intro to Bible, I quickly realized that I was burdened down by indefensible pre-conceived notions, easily refuted or counter-indicated by the most basic of sources found on the shelves of any beit midrash.
Unlike Mr. Resnick, I did not feel that by Bible professors “tore down my foundation and left me staring at the rubble.” On the contrary, I felt that they generously demolished the rickety, tumbledown structure I had erected, and helped me start a new foundation upon which to build a sturdier edifice. I formed lasting and meaningful relationships with several of the professors whose courses I took, and I am indebted to them for leading me not only to a more profound understanding of Tanakh, but to a richer and better comprehended yiddishkeit in general. I never felt that my professors were “Bible academics” expressing radical views about “the nature of Judaism,” as Mr. Resnick insinuates.
On the contrary, I was inspired by their yir’at Shamayim, their intellectual honesty, and their passion for the portion of talmud Torah they had dedicated themselves to teaching. I never felt any inconsistency between the values that animated them and the values I strove to implement in the beit medrash. After all, the Rashba on Gittin which occupied all of my morning seder was the same Rashba whose teshuvah regarding transmission of the Masoretic text we analyzed in Intro to Bible. The Rambam that my rebbe quoted in Gemara shiur was the same Rambam who discussed the nature of lashon ha-kodesh in his Moreh Nevukhim. The Ramban in Milhamot ha-Shem, at the back of the Gemara, was the same Ramban who authored a commentary on the Torah, who enlightened me on Shabbos afternoons as we worked together on analyzing when God conveyed each part of the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu.
To me, Mr. Resnick’s criticism bespeaks a need to re-articulate that there is and should only be confluence between the curriculum of the Bible department and the values of the beit medrash. Perhaps there is a need for more guidance from the rashei yeshiva to drive this point home. Perhaps the educators who call the Bible department home could be more sensitive in disabusing students of their incomplete or immature beliefs, given that they are so strongly held. But the idea of shutting down the Bible department seems utterly counterproductive.
In conclusion, one may be tempted to suspect that Mr. Resnick and I are talking about different Bible departments at different universities. Yet ultimately, it seems that our differences, like so much else, are a matter of perspective. From Mr. Resnick’s perspective about the goals of Bible study, the standards of measuring what one is taught, and what makes a belief hashkafically acceptable, he is correct. I humbly submit that his perspective is seriously in error.
Nathan Hyman, YC ’12, is currently a first year student in the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
[i] Elliot Resnick, “Shut Down the Bible Department,” Kol Hamevaser, 6,5 (2013): 4, available at: www.kolhamevaser.com. All subsequent Resnick quotes come from the same source.
[ii] Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the Writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Vol. 1, ed. by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld (Brooklyn, NY: Soncino Press, 1967), 109.
[iii] See Shemot 23:2 and Mekhilta ad loc.
[iv] See, for instance, Rambam’s commentary to the Mishnah (Sotah 3:5, Sanhedrin 10:3, Shavu’ot 1:4); Hovot ha-Levavot, Introduction; responsa of Hatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 2:356; R. Abraham Isaac Kook, Igrot ha-Re’iyyah, 1:103, 1:302, and 3:793, and Ma’amarei ha-Re’iyyah, pg. 105.
[v] For a discussion of this topic, see Nathan Denicoff, “Divine Providence: Godly Manifestations, and Human Uses and Misuses,” Kol Hamevaser 6,1, available at: www.kolhamevaser.com.