Talmud Torah and Biblical Scholarship

The question of Orthodox responses to modern Biblical scholarship is not new. As early as 1960, Tradition published an article surveying the Orthodox attitudes thus far. 1 The question remains relevant for a number of reasons. First, new Biblical scholarship is constantly produced through archeological finds and theoretical interpretations. Second, the modern Orthodox student is more exposed than ever to secular society through the increased accessibility of information and greater involvement on college campuses. Despite this, Modern Orthodox education to a large extent still does not incorporate academic scholarship. In this essay, I intend to analyze the challenges that Biblical scholarship poses to Tanakh education as well as the potential benefits, looking towards a possible derekh ha-limmud for Modern Orthodox Tanakh education.

It is first necessary to clarify a few concepts. By “Biblical scholarship,” I am referring to a contextual approach to the study of Tanakh, similar to what some religious scholars have termed the “literary-theological” approach. 2 The literary-theological method uses modern literary tools and historical understanding to interpret the religious meaning of the text, uncovering motifs and patterns existing in the peshat. These tools include intertextuality, parallelism, word-plays, and chiastic structures, among others, that many modern Orthodox students are familiar with today. The additional emphasis of this contextual approach is in utilizing Ancient Near Eastern scholarship in understanding the Biblical text, either through direct archeological support or comparison. While the topic of Higher Biblical Criticism, the notion that the Biblical text is a non-divine redacted document composed by different authors in various time periods, is of import and has ramifications for Orthodox faith, I do not wish to focus on it. There are many religious thinkers who have written extensively on that issue, 3 but that is beyond our scope here. I am primarily interested in discussing methodological tools with which to study Tanakh. Furthermore, I am limiting the discussion to Biblical scholarship, but there is much to be said about Talmudic scholarship as well. 4

In their study of the Bible, both the yeshiva student and the academic wish to search for truth. However, the former sees such a pursuit as serving a higher purpose of love and service of God, while the latter is interested in truth for its own intellectual sake. In Orthodox educational settings, we intend for the insights that we draw from our studies to impact us in very practical ways, which is not the case with academic study. In the words of Rabbi Shalom Carmy, “‘Talmud Torah’ is, first and foremost, the fulfillment of a divine commandment, an act of religious devotion, the forging of a relationship with God.” In contrast, he writes, modern scholarship prides itself on “rejecting, ignoring, or adopting methodological agnosticism about the truths taught by revelation.” 5 Because the very premise of academic scholarship rejects Orthodox beliefs, the two disciplines differ drastically in their aims and conclusions. Talmud Torah intends to cultivate students’ love of Torah, God, and tradition; secular Biblical scholarship serves to undermine those very beliefs. Talmud Torah without yir’at shamayim can hardly be called talmud Torah.

The question then becomes, is it possible to incorporate the findings of Biblical scholarship into talmud Torah without adopting the underlying assumptions of this scholarship or endorsing its conclusions? A handful of Orthodox scholars surely have done so, but it is of interest not only to discuss if it is possible, but if it is worthwhile to implement such a derekh ha-limmud on a large scale in Modern Orthodox educational settings.

Challenges of Biblical Scholarship

One of the biggest challenges facing an inclusive derekh ha-limmud is the possibility of encountering Biblical scholarship that contradicts basic theological tenets of Judaism, including the divinity and veracity of the Torah. This is not a simple problem to overcome. While religious scholars have illustrated the various ways in which scholarship may support the Torah’s teachings, 6it is difficult to accept historical, literary, and archeological evidence while ignoring the conclusions of those academics—namely claims regarding authorship and dating. The Torah does not need to be subject to the claims of academic scholarship, and once the boundaries between the two spheres are broken, it is difficult to prevent turning the traditional study of Torah into a game of defense against Biblical Criticism.

Further, many contend that even if Biblical scholarship does support the historical accuracy of the Torah, there is no need to turn to extra-Biblical sources for enhancing our faith. 7 Many yeshiva students can, and in fact do, go through their educational careers with a devout belief in Torah, without ever coming across the Hittite or Eshnuna codes. Why open a Pandora’s box, the argument goes, when not only is it not essential, but may cause spiritual harm? Coupled with this sentiment is the “fear of wandering into the quicksand of heterodoxy,” 8 as Lawrence Schiffman put it, leading to the reluctance of Orthodox learners to engage with non-Orthodox scholarship. Thus, Biblical scholarship may lead students off the appropriate path of Orthodox belief and practice. Learning from sources outside of the traditional canon also gives credibility to non-Orthodox authors, especially when they are learned side by side with, or even instead of, classical exegesis. This too causes worry amongst the Orthodox community; a significant part of talmud Torah in Orthodox settings is the use of traditional mefarshim and instilling in students a reverence and admiration for Hazal and medieval commentators. Why turn to secular scholars of the last few decades when we have in front of us a rich canon of works from the greatest sages that ever lived? It is confusing for younger students and troubling for older students to learn sacred texts as interpreted by non-observant, agnostic, or even atheist scholars.

The last major challenge is critical, but often unrealized. The Orthodox student can have the sophistication to learn from non-Orthodox academic sources without veering into heretical terrain or losing reverence for traditional rabbinic exegesis. He or she can even maintain a belief in the truth and divinity of the Bible amidst the claims posited by Biblical scholarship and the Documentary Hypothesis. However, without the proper time and attention, that student may come to doubt the uniqueness of the Torah; the very nature of contextualizing the Torah into a historical and literary reality can diminish the divine aura of the text. Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot explains that this problem stems from the assumption that “as a divine text, Tanakh is removed from the category of the canons of literary and historical categories of other texts.” 9 When students learn the many ways in which the Torah reflects other literary traditions and customs of surrounding cultures, the distinctiveness of Torah seems to fade and the student’s yir’at shamayim may decline before adequate time is given to understand what the historical context brings to light. 10 This is especially the case for younger or impatient students—or their untrained teachers—who cannot devote the proper sensitivity and diligence in unearthing the subtle but often revolutionary uniqueness of the Torah against its ancient Near Eastern backdrop.

However, it is important to note that this is always the case when introducing new and complex material to students. “Is this any different,” Barry Eichler asks, “from introducing a difficult midrash in class whose literal sense seems incomprehensible to the student and which, if not properly presented, may leave the student with a lessened appreciation of Torah and rabbinic thought?” 11

Opportunities and Benefits of Biblical Scholarship

While Biblical scholarship poses challenges to talmud Torah and yir’at shamayim, avoiding these issues may create bigger problems. Utilizing archeological and literary scholarship not only enhances our understanding of Torah, but has become quite essential to it. As Rabbi Carmy wrote regarding knowledge of the ancient Near East, “Knowledge is a good thing.” 12 The more we know about the Torah’s historical and literary context, the more we can understand the Torah itself. It is impossible to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the Torah reflects the context in which it was given. “These imprints are evident not only in its history and historiography,” Barry Eichler explains, “but also in its temple architecture, its cultic practices, its sacred psalms and liturgy, its modes of divine communication, and even in its divinely given law.” 13

For instance, well-known similarities exist between the Flood narrative in Genesis and the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. The overwhelming evidence compels the reader to believe that the connection between the two texts was not merely an accident, but in fact was intentional on the part of the Torah. Thus understanding the relationship between the two narratives becomes part of studying Torah itself. 14 In the opinion of Rav Amnon Bazak, “Willful avoidance [of contextual evidence] shirks integrity in learning and education.” 15 Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, known as a champion of incorporating Biblical scholarship into the study of Tanakh, maintained that grappling with historical-critical issues is indeed an important part of talmud Torah; it is necessary for the sake of God, and thoughtful integration of the two disciplines can deepen our understanding of Torah and Jewish thought. As head of Mikhlelet Herzog and a prominent editor of the Megadim journal, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun was responsible for the advancement of what Rabbi Carmy later called the “literary-theological” approach to studying Tanakh, which has since become deeply influential in Modern Orthodox educational settings in both Israel and abroad. 16

The truth-seeking student of Torah is unable to shield him or herself from the advances of modern scholarship, nor is it necessary to do so. Archeological finds and historical discoveries of the last few decades have shed an important light on the Torah’s exquisite uniqueness and role in creating a moral, monotheist revolution in civilization. 17 It is important to recognize, as many religious scholars point out, that while the contributions made by modern scholars are new, the historical-literary methodology is not, and is well within the canon of traditional exegesis. 18 Many Rishonim utilized knowledge of Semitic linguistics, cultures, and archeology in their understanding of peshat. Rabbi Saadya Gaon, Rambam, Ramban, Abraham ibn Ezra and Radaq are a few examples of Rishonim who frequently used the study of philology, ancient cultures, and geography to guide their interpretations. 19 Scholarly research also influenced many prominent nineteenth century rabbinic scholars, including Shadal, Malbim, Elijah Benamozegh, and David Zvi Hoffman. 20 In studying extra-Biblical scholarship, we are in good company, and are even continuing our exegetical mesorah.

The Talmudic dictum of R. Yishmael, “dibberah Torah ki-leshon benei Adam,” the Torah spoke in human language, is also relevant here, especially as it has been interpreted by the medieval sages. Rambam extended this phrase to account for anthropomorphic descriptions of God in Tanakh. R. Joseph ibn Kaspi further applied this principle to apply to all sorts of things expressed in Tanakh that did not exist in reality, but were commonly held beliefs. 21 To return to the example of the Flood narrative, the Tanakh’s expression of the story in terms reminiscent of the Epic of Gilgamesh would be an application of the dibberah Torah principle. 22 Thus, this Talmudic homily was already used in medieval times as a means to incorporate a contextual approach in classical exegesis. 23

Similarly, the controversy today of accepting wisdom from non-Orthodox scholars is alive, but certainly not new. Medieval exegetes, including Abraham ibn Ezra, Rambam, and Abarbanel, learned from authors that were well beyond the realm of Jewish beliefs. Jewish tradition has always valued truth and scholarship, which is highlighted by Rambam’s maxim in his introduction to Pirkei Avot that one must be willing to hear truth from whoever says it. Many contemporary religious scholars have benefitted from non-Orthodox scholarship as supplemental to traditional commentaries, and these individuals can serve as models for the larger Modern Orthodox educational community. Nechama Leibowitz approached non-Orthodox texts with caution, and never allotted them the same significance as traditional commentaries, but her learning methodology was still inclusive of non-Orthodox sources as a genuine way to uncover new layers of meaning in the Biblical text. 24 A number of authors in R. Yoel Bin-Nun’s Megadim journal addressed non-Orthodox sources, which drew opposition from critics but was defended by the editorial board. 25 The Da’at Miqra commentary on Tanakh, now popular in most Modern Orthodox circles, grew out of a need to incorporate traditional commentary with modern research. 26

Learning from non-Orthodox sources need not be reserved only for the highest rabbinic scholars. Using the appropriate pedagogical tools, teachers can reinforce the distinctions between different commentaries and the significance we ascribe to them; however, this does not mean that educators need to introduce nontraditional scholarship with apologetics. Non-Orthodox or extra-Biblical sources can often be a great asset in the classroom for both younger and older students if presented in the proper manner.

Orthodox students typically learn Torah through the lens of midrash and classical mefarshim. By the end of high school, students can often quote Rashi more easily than they can quote the text of Tanakh. There is great value in studying traditional exegesis, and it should continue in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. But we have lost the ability to independently study peshat—to do what the exegetes did. Supplementing the curriculum with literary, geographical, and archeological insights is not only useful for appealing to the more intellectually-bent student, but it can benefit the large majority of students. 20th century Israeli scholars such as Umberto Cassuto, Yehudah Elitzur, Yehoshua Meir Grintz, and Yehezkel Kaufmann have contributed significantly in transforming the way we read Tanakh and in understanding the revolution of morality and justice that the Bible introduced to human civilization. 27 Incorporating the work of these scholars in a digestible manner for students is not only part of the search for truth—a value which we should impart to our students in educational settings—but should engender a great deal of pride in students. 28

Students should see that Tanakh can work harmoniously with the findings of archeology and ancient history. Exploring Tanakh with a historical-critical lens in a religious, God-fearing, and safe environment is necessary for the students’ spiritual and intellectual development, and is especially important before students are exposed to ideas of Biblical Criticism in less sympathetic settings, in university and beyond. There is a value in learning to know how to respond to the heretic, “da ma shetashiv,” but it is not only for defense that such study is important. As a community that values knowledge, truth, and inspirational education, it is our responsibility to equip students with the ability to learn Torah in a way that is faithful to the text, and is also religiously and academically fulfilling.

Additionally, in the last 70 years since the reestablishment of the State of Israel, learning the geography of the land as it relates to Tanakh has become essential in our understanding of the Biblical text, along with being a crucial part of Zionist education. It is important—and engaging— for students to see the ancient text come to life in the same places in which modern Israel exists today. While that is easier to accomplish with Israeli students, with educational technology there is no reason that students across the world cannot see images and videos of the geographic locations in discussion. The same applies for the introduction of archeological material and comparative Semitic texts—students can see Tanakh coming to life with their own eyes. Archeological and geographical discussions of Tanakh would also benefit students in their comprehension of contemporary political issues in Israel. While more complex topics can be reserved for older students, even younger students would be more engaged in the classroom with the incorporation of such materials. For example, this is especially easy for the period of the monarchy—students can directly see the pots, coins, houses and everyday objects of ancient realia that bridge the gap between the words of the Biblical text and our modern lives.

Working towards an inclusive derekh ha-limmud at the Modern Orthodox day school level is not easy, and it requires sensitivity and creativity on the part of educators. Classical exegetical approaches can and should still be a major focal point of the Orthodox classroom, but if we do not supplement that with the new insights gained from modern scholarship, we are not fulfilling the responsibility we have to our students. Integrating a historical-literary approach with traditional talmud Torah is effortful, but, in the words of Lawrence Schiffman, “Given the value of archaeology to learning Tanakh, the excitement it can spark for students of the Bible, and the pride in tradition it can instill and fortify, the effort ought to be made.” 29

Conclusion

As Orthodox education currently stands, there is a need for a more inclusive derekh ha-limmud on the day school level that integrates modern Biblical scholarship with traditional exegesis. Effort, sensitivity, and creativity are necessary to ensure that material is educationally age-appropriate, and incorporated successfully to further the ultimate goals of Talmud Torah: yir’at shamayim, love and service of God, reverence for the Jewish tradition and genuine observance of mitzvot. The issue is, in fact, an application of the classic Torah U’Madda principle. Instead of shying away from complex or difficult issues, we must create a model for our students, and approach these topics with integrity, intellectual honesty, and faith in the divine Torah. If not, we risk losing a deep understanding of Tanakh, our students, and the very search for truth that characterizes the entire endeavor of talmud Torah.

The Jerusalem Talmud, in Hagiga 2:1, teaches that the path of Torah is surrounded by fire to the right and ice to the left. We must extend our sincerest efforts to ensure that in the study of Torah, our students do not fall prey to secular beliefs devoid of spiritual identity and divine motivation, but we must also be wary of blind rejection of academic scholarship on the basis of religious zeal and arrogant piety. Working towards a derekh ha-limmud that instills love of Torah and Judaism in students by integrating traditional commentary with modern scholarship is one of the most important tasks facing Modern Orthodoxy today. In doing so, we may be zokheh to stay on the harmonious, balanced, and meaningful path of Torah.

Notes:

  1. See Max Kapustin, “Biblical Criticism: A Traditionalist View,” in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 3,1 (1960): 25-33.
  2. Shalom Carmy, “A Room with a View, but a Room of Our Own,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, ed. by Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson,1996),1-38; Hayyim Angel, “The Contributions of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Religious Tanakh Study,” in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 40,3 (2007):5-18; Nathaniel Helfgot,“Curricula, Methodologies and Values in Orthodox Tanakh Study: Where They Can Help Us,” in Meorot 8, 2 (2008):13.
  3. Projects TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) compiled a thorough overview of different religious approaches to the question of Biblical Criticism as it relates to Orthodox theology, including thinkers such as Mordechai Breuer, James Kugel, and Menachem Kellner, among others. Available at: www.thetorah.com.
  4. For more on Talmudic scholarship, see Jeremy Wieder, “Academic Talmud in the Beit Midrash,” Conversations, no. 23. See also Carmy (ed.), Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah. The last three essays of this work address the topic as well.
  5. Carmy, Preface in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, xii-xvi.
  6. See for example, Barry L. Eichler ,“Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, 81-100.
  7. Lawrence Schiffman,“Making the Bible Come to Life: Biblical Archaeology and the Teaching of Tanakh in Jewish Schools,” in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 37,4 (2003): 39.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Helfgot, “Curricula, Methodologies and Values in Orthodox Tanakh Study,” 23.
  10. Eichler, “Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East,” 99.
  11. Ibid.,100.
  12. Eichler, “Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East,” 98.
  13. For more on the comparison, see Joel B. Wolowelsky, “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 42,3 (2009): 41-48.
  14. Angel, “The Contributions of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Religious Tanakh Study,” 10.
  15. Ibid.,5.
  16. See Eichler, “Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East” for examples of how the understanding of Torah has been impacted by knowledge of the ancient Near East.
  17. Nearly all of the authors cited in this essay made this point.
  18. The Rambam famously attributes many of the reasons for the mitzvot in Part III of The Guide for the Perplexed to the goal of ridding the ancient world of idolatrous ways. He quotes an idolatrous tribe known as the Sabeans, against whom he compares the Bible, and writes that if more of the Sabean chronicles were around, most of the commandments in the Torah would be clearly understood (3:49). The Ramban too makes a notable point on the topic. On the topic of the location of Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:16), he writes that upon coming to Jerusalem, he learned that Rachel’s grave is not in Ramah as had previously thought based on Jeremiah 31:15 (“A voice is heard in Ramah…Rachel weeping for her children”), and this led him to reinterpret the verse “a voice is heard in Ramah” metaphorically. See Eichler, “Study of the Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East,” 82-84.
  19. Hayyim Angel, “The Yeshiva and the Academy: How We Can Learn from One Another in Biblical Scholarship,” in Revealed Texts and Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2009), 20.
  20. See Wolowelsky, “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” 41-42; Helfgot, “Curricula, Methodologies and Values in Orthodox Tanakh Study.
  21. Wolowelsky, “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” 45-46.
  22. “The purpose of understanding the concrete reality of the biblical stories is not to transform the Patriarchs into simple merchants or to see the divine laws as parallel to human legislation, but to serve as comparative soil upon which to uncover the foundation of God’s word and His Torah and understand the divine revelation in its profundity.” From Yuval Cherlow, “Introduction to Yoel Bin Nun,” in Pirkei Ha-Avot (Alon Shvut, 2003),17-18. As quoted in Helgot,” Curricula, Methodologies, and Values in Orthodox Tanakh Study, 22.
  23. Yael Unterman, “The Limits of Orthodox Education,” in Conversations, no. 4 (2009):86-93.
  24. Angel, “The Contributions of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Religious Tanakh Study,” 7.
  25. Angel, “The Yeshiva and the Academy, 20.
  26. For examples, see Schiffman, “Making the Bible Come to Life” and Eichler, “Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East”.
  27. Shalom Carmy noted in an interview, “Furthermore, even where the exegesis is thick on the ground, each generation has its own questions. Sometimes we benefit from new data about the historical and linguistic background of Tanakh. What truth-seeking person would close his, or her, eyes to a newly discovered inscription clarifying the geography or vocabulary of a pasuk that baffled the Rishonim? The Ramban’s delight when, upon his arrival in Eretz Israel, he was able to revise some of his perushim in the light of the realia, should put to shame the kind of piety that disdains such knowledge. Interesting realia should never overshadow the study of devar Hashem; yet I would rather model myself on the Ramban than on the professors of Ramban.” Interview with Shalom Carmy for Hamevaser 38,1.
  28. Schiffman, “Making the Bible Come to Life, 46.