Shut Down the Bible Department
Shut down the Bible Department? What can be wrong with teaching Bible in Yeshiva College? Unfortunately, a great deal.
For better or for worse, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews grow up believing that Moshe wrote every word of the Torah as dictated by God. They also believe Moshe received the entire Oral Law at Har Sinai. Finally, they believe biblical Hebrew is holy and contains hidden wisdom of one sort or another.
I, too, believed all this. Indeed, they were axioms of my faith – until I took Intro to Bible. In that course, my professor challenged all three beliefs. No longer was it clear that Moshe wrote the entire Torah. Indeed, it was not even clear if the Torah we possess today really mirrors the original Torah received on Sinai. Letters, words – even whole sentences – may have been added or deleted. Moreover, Hebrew, I learned, is just another ancient Semitic language. It possesses no intrinsic holiness. All those Ba’al ha-Turim insights based on gematria and the exactitude of the Torah text? All nonsense, apparently; very clever, but essentially based on error. Of what significance is gematria, after all, if Hebrew is a man-made language? Of what value are all the Ba’al ha-Turim’s brilliant computations if our Torah is not the exact same one that God gave to Moshe?
And what about Torah she-be-al Peh? I will never forget the day my Intro to Bible professor said, although not in so many words, that the thirty-nine forbidden melakhot are post-Sinaitic additions. In other words, the myriad Shabbat laws are just what the cynics say they are: rabbinic inventions. They do not come from God.
What is the point of teaching all of this to impressionable nineteen-year-olds? What exactly do some of the Bible professors who teach these anti-traditional ideas hope to accomplish by shocking their students?
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. But this is not what my Bible professor did. He destroyed my core beliefs without replacing it with anything. He tore down my foundation and left me staring at the rubble. I recently met a fellow student who took the very same Intro to Bible course with me years ago. He, too, left that class dazed, he said. He did not know what to believe anymore.
How can a professor do that to a frum teenager? If he wants to destroy what he perceives to be naïve beliefs, he should at least replace them with more sophisticated ones. Suggest new ideas. Rebuild Judaism on a new basis. But don’t leave students hanging without guidance. It is quite ironic, but I can think of no other class in YU that is as potentially damaging to one’s faith as Intro to Bible (by gray). When I speak to right-wing acquaintances of mine, my main hesitation in recommending YU for their siblings or children is not the Philosophy Department or any science department; it’s the Bible Department.
I therefore propose that YU either radically reform this department or eliminate it entirely. Of course not every Bible course is problematic, but too many of them are, and the damage these courses inflict is too dangerous to ignore. If reform or elimination is not possible, then YU should at least strip Intro to Bible of its requirement status. Yeshiva College has a limited number of requirements; Intro to Bible need not be one of them. If the college wishes to preserve the number of required Jewish courses, let it restore the old YC requirement of Jewish Philosophy, which, in any event, is probably more important for the average student.
Like Seridei Esh (R. Yehiel Ya’akov Weinberg, 1884-1966), I believe that Judaism has nothing to fear in knowledge.[i] If it did, it would not be worth much. But injecting doubt into the heads of impressionable students is no mitsvah. If Bible academics are right about the nature of Judaism – they may or may not be – fine, let them teach their views. But then give students ideas for how to reorient their Judaism accordingly. Until that point, shut down the Bible Department.
Elliot Resnick, YC ’06, BRGS ’10, is currently studying for his PhD in the Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies.
[i] See Marc Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 (London: Littman Library, 1999), 179-180.