Encounters Between Torah Min HaShamayim and Biblical Criticism

Ilana Goldstein Saks

One of the most difficult challenges confronting the religious Jew today is the contradiction between the belief in Torah min haShamayim and the claims of modern Bible criticism. Although this conflict is usually felt most acutely by those who choose to study Bible in an academic setting, even those who do not are not necessarily immune to questions and doubts. As both a student of Tanakh, who deals with these issues on an ongoing basis, and a teacher of Tanakh, who has to responsibly answer students’ questions, I felt a need to search out the different ways which religiously concerned scholars and educators have dealt with these issues in the past. It was important to me to hear the thoughts and ideas specifically of those people who I felt were knowledgeable in the area of biblical criticism as well as sensitive, and personally attached, to the religious issues at stake. In short, they had to understand the questions being asked as well as the type of answers I was seeking.

In order to properly and responsibly utilize the ideas contained in these approaches properly and responsibly, whether for one’s self or in a conversation with a student, it is necessary to be thoroughly familiar with them. A superficial understanding of a theory is bound to blur some of the intricacies that lend it sophistication, and at the same time it may allow for difficulties in the theory to be glossed over. Only a theory that is properly understood can be useful in the long run.

The four approaches presented in this paper, are the suggestions of four individuals: Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni and Dr. Tamar Ross. Each approach is a reflection both of how these individuals see the reality of the Torah as well as their way of incorporating that reality into a Jewish-religious outlook. In addition to reading the writings of each of these people, I also met with some of them in order to clarify certain points in their theory or to ask them questions which are related to their writings but not included in them.

Although their approaches do not represent every possible way of dealing with the religious questions that arise from biblical criticism they do deal with the issues from a variety of points of view. In addition, the areas of study involved in their approaches differ. R. Hoffmann contests the theories of biblical criticism – specifically that of Wellhausen - by pointing out their flaws and weaknesses; his arguments are drawn completely from the world of Bible study. R. Breuer, unlike R. Hoffmann, embraces Wellhausen’s findings, but not the conclusions that Wellhausen draws from those findings. In an unusual manner he accepts both the secular interpretation of the Bible as well as the traditional claim of its divine nature, and explains theologically why the former poses no challenge to the latter. R. Halivni too accepts the claim of the critics that the Torah seems to be a composite text. His innovation is in that he believes that the current Torah is a maculated version of what was an actual product of revelation – i.e. the Torah revealed to Moshe; his discussion draws heavily on talmudic literature and his understanding of Torah Shebeal Pe. Finally, Dr. Ross deals with the issues of biblical criticism from the perspective of the philosopher, offering an alternative definition of revelation, which allows for the critical view of the Bible.

After briefly presenting each approach, I consider a single question: Where does this approach lie on the spectrum between the claims of Bible criticism and the traditional understanding of Torah min haShamayim? In the search for religious answers to the questions posed by academic study of the Bible, it is necessary to understand the assumptions upon which these theories are based and the religious implication of those assumptions. Only then can one decide if and how to incorporate such an idea into ones religious world-view, or to introduce it to a student. Analyzing the theories with this key question in mind allowed me to clarify the religious implication of each theory.

Download Article (MSWord 109K) Back to Journals 98-99 Bio

Copyright 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.