Recall the uproar a few years ago when a certain Conservative rabbi proclaimed in a pre-Passover sermon that, “as biblical historians agree, the Torah’s account of the Exodus is a just-so story that never happened.”
Who, you may ask, are these “biblical historians?” Dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites attacking the foundations of Judaism? Oddly enough, one of the best of the current generation is an Orthodox Jew, the well-known historian of biblical interpretation from Harvard and Bar Ilan, Prof. James Kugel. His most recent book, How to Read the Bible, explains for curious readers the most challenging conclusions of what academic scholars call “higher biblical criticism.”
If you want the low-down on the ups and downs of the notorious “Documentary Hypothesis,” here it is — from J to D, with a side-trip to H.
Puzzled how the God who walks in the cool of the evening or wrestles with Jacob mano a mano in Genesis is also the abstract, cosmic, formless deity of Leviticus who, somehow, still lives in a tent? Consult Kugel’s chapter on “Two Models of God.”
To quote the opinion of a good friend with impeccable Orthodox credentials: “This may be apikorsis (heresy), but it’s great apikorsis!”
So how can this Kugel be frum in his halachic observance while fully accepting the procedures and much of the results of modern studies in the Bible?
Kugel gets there, but not until page 662 or so. In the first 661 pages, he systematically compares the “critical tradition’s” interpretations of key biblical texts to those of received tradition. In every instance he finds the latter flawed, grounded as it is in “Four Assumptions” that, according to Kugel, modern folks cannot in intellectual honesty accept.
They are, if I may condense a bit (pp. 14-16):
1) The Bible is written to conceal as much as it reveals (that is, it is a parable awaiting interpretation, rather than “information”);
2) The Bible is addressed to the readers’ day rather than the writers’ (that is, its message is addressed to all readers in their own situation for all time);
3) The Bible does not contradict itself (that is, it has a uniform, consistent, message);
4) The Bible is not of human origin (that is, God vouches for its delivery).
Modern scholarship, by contrast, is built upon the explicit rejection of each of these assumptions. That is:
1) The meaning of the Bible is found in its own words (as determined by comparative study of ancient languages, not by Rashi or the “medrish”);
2) These words are best interpreted in terms of historical context (as established by literary or archeological evidence outside the Bible);
3) Contradictions among biblical texts reflect the beliefs of multiple authors and editors (who manipulated sources in view of their own theological agendas, and occasionally missed, and often created, a contradiction or two);
4) Those authors are all human beings promoting the authority of their own religious convictions (that is, the “revelation” of the Torah is PR, not an historical event).
Kugel’s presentation of modern methods and their achievements is flawless. Time after time he shows how and why “traditional” and “critical” interpreters reach incompatible conclusions about the text’s real meaning. It all boils down to different assumptions.
But what I find most exciting here is what Kugel achieves after page 661. Having demonstrated the ability of the critical tradition to enrich our appreciation of the meaning of biblical texts “before there was a Bible,” he then pulls the rug out from under his reader. For, he now points out, the historical meaning discovered by modern scholars is not the meaning that explains why or how the Bible came to be read as Scripture in the first place.
What made the Bible the Bible, rather than yet another collection of obscure texts from a provincial temple scriptorium, is the work of the Bible’s anonymous scribal interpreters of the early Second Temple period. The Four Assumptions they brought to the texts — rather than the literal meaning of the texts themselves — are the guide to the true meaning of the Bible as it has been transmitted in Judaism. For only in light of these scribal assumptions (divrei soferim, as the Talmud knows them) is it possible to read the Bible Jewishly as Torah — a model for standing before the Holy One of Israel in a posture of devotion and service.
The irony is obvious: The Bible is the indispensable foundation of Judaism. Yet the meanings that its authors intended are of only passing interest for the conduct of Jewish life.
Sounds radical? Well, put it the Talmud’s way and it’s frum: Moses himself scarcely grasped the halachic implications that the rabbis found in his Torah (Menahot 29b). But let Kugel put it his way (p. 685):
In Judaism, Scripture is ultimately valued not as history, nor as theology, nor even as the great, self-sufficient corpus of divine utterances.... What Scripture is, and always has been, in Judaism is the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God, a manual whose trajectory has always led from the prophet to the interpreter, and from the divine to the merely human.... Since in Judaism it is not the words of Scripture themselves that are ultimately supreme, but the service of God...that they enjoin, then to suggest that everything hangs on Scripture might well be described as a form of fetishism or idolatry, that is, a mistaking of the message for its Sender and the turning of its words into idols of wood or stone.... For Judaism, the crucial element in Scripture has always been the imperative that Scripture’s very existence embodies...the basic divine commandment reflected in Deuteronomy’s exhortation “to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul” (Dt. 10:12).