How Long Will You Limp Between Opinions?: On the Difference Between the Academy and the Yeshivah
In his recent Kol Hamevaser op-ed, “Shut Down the Bible Department,”[ii] Elliot Resnick argued that Yeshiva University should close its Bible department because the professors there “destroyed my core beliefs without replacing it with anything.” Mr. Resnick lists amongst his dispelled beliefs Mosaic authorship of every word of the Bible, the Sinaitic origins of the Oral Torah, and the idea that (biblical) Hebrew is a divinely created language which, accordingly, contains “hidden wisdom.” Mr. Resnick’s objection is not so much against the academic conclusions, but against destroying the faith of impressionable “frum teenagers” without then providing them with “ideas for how to reorient their Judaism accordingly.”
Mr. Resnick conveniently leaves out the fact that the “Intro to Bible” classes offered in YC devote a significant amount of time to accommodating exactly what he seeks, by providing traditional sources that can be used to give an imprimatur to scholarly conclusions. But my own interest is not to justify scholarship with traditional sources, something which I believe, contrary to Mr. Resnick, has no place in an academic university-level course. My key issue is with how Mr. Resnick, a PhD student in Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, seems to (mis)understand the academic endeavor.
Mr. Resnick claims that “I am not opposed to truth. If my beliefs are naïve or based on ignorance, I am fully in favor of reconstructing my Judaism on a more solid basis.” Let us leave aside, for the moment, the irony of someone not opposed to truth calling to discontinue teaching that truth, and instead try to understand Mr. Resnick’s proposal. Mr. Resnick never defines precisely what he means by “reconstructing” Judaism “on a more solid basis,” but from his remarks it seems he seeks new justifications for the same lifestyle he had before learning the “truth.” In other words, Mr. Resnick is in full support of the truth, provided that it allows him to keep doing exactly what he did before learning it.
This betrays a total misunderstanding of the methods and purpose of academia. Academia begins not with conclusions, but with a certain methodology. Like the scientific method, this methodology should be clearly stated and understood, and its conclusions should follow from its proper application. This is necessary because it allows the readership to evaluate the results of the scholarship. They are able to apply the method themselves in order to replicate the results, thus testing whether the conclusions actually follow from the method. The methodology is not chosen at random – it comes from previous work that argues, hopefully persuasively, that this methodology is the one best employed to arrive at some sort of objective end. Of course, we should not be naïve in thinking that scholars are always able to divorce themselves from their own agendas and from historical context, but that is the beauty of a set methodology: It enables one to identify those places where the methodology is not followed for some reason or other. The benefit of a methodology, then, is that it ensures, to the best of our abilities, that scholarly results are not simply subjective and are consequently accessible to the larger scholarly community and beyond.
The dividends such a method yields are stated most clearly by the historian William H. McNeill, in his wonderful piece “Why Study History”:[iii]
…studying alien religious beliefs, strange customs, diverse family patterns and vanished social structures shows how differently various human groups have tried to cope with the world around them. Broadening our humanity and extending our sensibilities by recognizing sameness and difference throughout the recorded past is therefore an important reason for studying history… For we can only know ourselves by knowing how we resemble and how we differ from others.
In other words, scholarship is the opposite of confirmation. It is precisely meant to highlight both the differences and similarities between ourselves and our forebears and by doing so we can learn about ourselves and humanity as a whole.
Thus, academia begins with a method and through it attempts to arrive at results. By contrast, faith communities begin with results – such as the belief system that Mr. Resnick embraced before taking his Intro to Bible course – and then attempt to work backwards to justify them. Their goal is not to seek objective conclusions, but rather to psychologically reinforce for the believer the community’s pre-existing system of beliefs. Membership in faith communities is, therefore, not based on sustainable “proofs,” but on other factors, including familiarity, community, comfort, or fear. Faith communities do not need to prove their underlying assumptions because, unlike academia, they typically do not attempt to reach a broader audience outside of their community. Their goal is self-perpetuation, which is best achieved internally through a cyclical process of confirmation. People are, of course, free to join such communities; however, without employing a clear methodology and scientific method, their underlying system of beliefs can never be called objective “truth.”
With this, I would offer a different proposal than Mr. Resnick’s, one that is truly unopposed to the truth but allows the Modern Orthodox faith community to attempt to preserve its own working assumptions. The Bible courses should remain exactly the same, as their aim is to teach the academic study of the Bible, and as such, begin with a methodology, not assumptions. But the yeshivah portion of the day could offer a course for those students, like Mr. Resnick, seeking to reconcile their faith with what they learnt in the academy. This course could even be taught by a professor. The benefit of this solution would be to place the two different approaches (method first vs. results first) in their proper environments (academy vs. yeshivah). More importantly, this would allow individual students to decide for themselves what they think is right, and what they choose to believe. After all, no one fully conforms to any given community. We should be empowering students to come to their own conclusions, laying out the options and letting them decide for themselves.
The Bible department should be praised, not criticized, for teaching academically rigorous courses. I, for one, greatly benefited from the YC Intro to Bible and other courses I took as an undergraduate majoring in Jewish Studies. However, what is troubling is how a PhD student in Revel could so thoroughly misunderstand the difference between the academy and the yeshivah. Therefore, I would recommend that Revel create a new required course; “Critical Theories and Methods of Scholarship. That way, students will come to understand the very nature of the academic endeavor they have chosen to pursue, and, hopefully, will make a true (pun intended) contribution to the scholarly and broader communities.
Simcha Gross (YC’ 10, BRGS’ 11) is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, concentrating in Ancient Judaism, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and a former staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.