Biblical Criticism Vs. Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox rabbi Gil Student writes:

Dr. James Kugel responds to Dr. Moshe Bernstein’s opinion piece about his speech at YU (link to Dr. Bernstein’s, link to Dr. Kugel’s). In my opinion, Dr. Kugel’s letter is disingenuous because:

  1. He implies that his views are traditional without directly responding to Dr. Bernstein’s assertions that he denies Torah from Sinai and is not consistent with even a minority view within the Jewish tradition.
  2. He suggests that Dr. Bernstein believes in hiding from modern scholarship when Dr. Bernstein explicitly advocates studying it, including Dr. Kugel’s contributions, but in the appropriate venues and in ways that do not glamorize non-traditional views.

However, I think that Dr. Kugel is correct (and I am sure that Dr. Bernstein agrees) that today, modern scholarship of the Bible is so pervasive in our culture that we cannot hide from it. The question is how to confront it in a format appropriate for laypeople. Even if you were to accept Dr. Kugel’s idiosyncratic views — and do not think that he is within the consensus of academic scholars because he is not — his book was evidently so vague that many (most?) readers are misunderstanding it.

Yair posts: "Dr. Kugel is too traditional to be within the scholarly consensus on Tanach. To fall within the consensus of academic scholars he would need to remove his personal theology from the picture and present something more ‘secular’ on the documentary nature of Tanach and the theories surrounding its historicity and origins."

Tzvee posts: I don’t know how the discussion got so far without recognizing what most young college aged students take for granted once they study substantive course materials. That is, a great deal of what has been produced in modern studies of the Bible has much positive value to offer to anybody – even to the most fundamentalist and reactionary Orthodox Jew with no dangerous down side to accompany it.

Just one quick substantive example of what I mean. In teaching my course at the U of M, The Bible: Wisdom, Poetry and Apocalyptic,…and- apocalyptic — I included the scholarly works of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, and of James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, along with other readings from the academic study of Tanakh. There’s never been a doubt in my mind that this was a vibrant and successful way to construct the course syllabus – and at no time did I feel that I was teaching anything that contradicted the tenets of my faith.

Bottom line, to puzzled readers of this blog post about this controversy. It’s moot. The preponderance of modern studies of Tanakh by all kinds of authors has much to commend it and little to render it taboo.

MEIR POSTS: Unfortunately Kugel’s letter was far more interesting and better written and argued than Bernstein’s. I was very disappointed with Bernstein’s article. Teiku?! On the most fundemental issue of Judaism?! Is that the best Bernstein can do? For Judaism’s sake, I hope not.

I still would like to see a well-written, intelligent "Guide for the Perplexed" on this issue. I, and I assume others, truly need such a book.

SS (Solomon Schimmel?) writes: His take is that traditional Judaism is incompatible with the findings of modern scholarship, but takeh takeh the findings are emes, so nebach we’ll just have to deal with it. That’s not reconciling, it’s more like reconciling yourself to defeat.

The meanings of "Orthodox" that Kugel tries to make peace with Bible scholarship are the label and observance; no other definition could possibly mesh with his thesis of irreconcilability. And–to bring this back to the origial point–in this way Kugel is entirely in agreement with the consensus of academic scholarship, in that they both believe that certain fundamental tenets of Orthodox Judaism are not true. What differentiates Kugel is not his approach to reconciling modern scholarship with Orthodoxy (which he doesn’t, final chapter notwithstanding) but that he a) is nonetheless observant and b) has some theology of divine origin of the Torah.

ANON POSTS: You’ve already lost this argument as decisively as the Chareidim have lost the ‘World is 6,000 years old’ argument. The global consensus (apart from a few fundamentalist die hards) is that based on multiple lines of evidence the Bible was written by multiple people over hundreds of years. There has been no move from this position in 50 years, except in the details of who wrote which piece and when. The consensus currently is that you can’t divide it so neatly into JEPD and that at this point the text is a mish mash. You can argue they’re all wrong, just as the Chareidim argue that Carbon Dating is flawed and all scientists are biased. It’s very silly though. Either ignore the problem or give in. ‘Facing up to it’ within the ‘bounds of the mesorah’, ‘sticking to safe areas’, only learning BC from someone with ‘yirat shamayim’ and all the other apologetics made by fundamentalist types are just plain silly at this point. I know plenty of frum hard core Bible Academics, with way more in depth knowledge of the text than you, who all say its poshut that Bib Crit is true. What’s so noble about fighting against the obvious truth? Give it up already! Chag Sameach.

ROBERT WRITES: I am a frum jew NOT because I believe that BC is a sham, but rather DESPITE all the academic scholarship that exists. It would be intelectually dishonest of me ( or anyone) to dismiss BC because it is inconsistent with our mesorah.

In my macro view of life, my faith in mesorah trumps the accepted academic scholarship.

In the micro view of life, academic scholarship can (and probably does) trump the view of traditional orthodox judaism.

It is the dialectic of being a thinking orthodox jew.

Same with bircas hachamah: I do not say the bracha because I believe in all the calculations as stated in the Talmud ("micro" consideration), but rather I say the bracha to praise HKB’H for being the Boray olam AND for continuing to be the Manhig ha’olam ("macro" consideration).

SS WRITES: "For the Nth time, the challenges from modern scholarship have noting to do with divine inspiration, and everything to do with composition and dating. There is no reason why the scholarship couldn’t have concluded that the Torah is the work of one person from the time period of Moshe. But instead of that, the opposite consensus emerged. No conclusion has or ever will be raised about the divine or not divine origin of the Torah. The only question is which human or humans wrote it and when; Orthodox say Moshe, modern scholarship says many people later than him."

RABBI GIL STUDENT WRITES: "People lose their faith because they are dazzled by the scholarship. Scholarship that uses traditional assumptions needs to be promoted that takes away a lot of that dazzle. There are many, many Christian scholars who have retained their faith after studying the Bible academically. That is because they have developed respectable scholarship that can stand up to non-Christian scholarship, even if it is nowhere near the academic mainstream. Jews need to do the same."

SS WRITES: "Wellhausen himself wrote about how his scholarship was affecting his own (obviously Christian) students’s faith negatively! And the uproars and controversies of the 1800s about Bible scholarship made the mainstream newspapers. Take a look at the NYTimes archives for proof. Look at the history of battles between the Vatican and the Catholic priests spearheading the modernism movement (who were excommunicated). The Christian faithful are simply oblivious to what Bible scholarship has learned about the Bible, New Testament included. If they weren’t, they’d be a lot less faithful. Just ask Bart Ehrman or Bishop Spong.

"The respectable scholarship is of no more help to believing Christians than it is to Orthodox Jews. Evangelical and post-modern apologetics are neither respectable nor scholarship (your "nowhere near the academic mainstream" is a euphemism for "crank"). And anyway, the masses don’t use them, because they aren’t aware of the need. It wouldn’t work if they tried, and their leaders know it.

"Christians have not "tamed" Bible scholarship, they’ve just sequestered it in ivory halls. Popular Christian pastors are not quoting "respectable scholarship that can stand up to non-Christian scholarship" from the pulpits, fully confident that it will defeat modern scholarship in the minds of their parishioners. This fantasy world you’re dreaming of where Christians have beat down modern Bible scholarship in ways that we can copy is wholly illusory."

ANON POSTS: People lose their faith because they look at the modern scholarship, then they look at 2,000 years of ‘meforshim’, and they see whose answers actually fit with linguistics, history etc (and of course the actual text itself) and whose answers seem entirely made up to try and fit everything into a specific religious belief. It’s not about dazzle, it’s about plain sechel. YOu don’t need to be a rocket scientist, or even a biblical scholar, or even know anything much about the DH to spot all the doublets, inconsistencies and different language. Breishis reads very differently than the rest of the Torah, both in style and content. Yes of course you can make up bookloads of beautiful peshatim on all that (and there’s nothing wrong with that endeavor, le’hefech in fact) but it’s pretty obvious once you take off the blinders. The plain and simple reason why you don’t want to accept this is NOT at all because you think that the text reads better with single authorship but rather is entirely because multiple authorship would deal a severe blow to your preconceived religious beliefs.

I’m also amazed why you would say any frum people would be ‘dazzled’ by scholarship thats only a hundred or so years old, whereas we have had the greatest talmidei chachomim in the history of the world toiling away with mesiras nefesh night and day for almost 3,000 years on the very same topic – yet you say ‘they have developed respectable scholarship that can stand up to non-Christian scholarship, even if it is nowhere near the academic mainstream. Jews need to do the same.’ Jews need to develop ‘new scholarship’ ??!! What have they been doing for the past 3,000 years? Why doesn’t that help?

YEHUDA POSTS: My general reaction to this controversy is a feeling of disappointment with Moshe Bernstein’s comments; not only did I expect something far more nuanced, but I was also stunned by utter lack of perspective from someone I consider my "rebbe" in Tanakh and for whom I have an enourmous amount of respect, intellectual and otherwise; years ago I studied intensely with MJ for a period of at least five years.

For the legitimacy of a lecture by Kugel at YU to be challenged is ridiculous.

As far as Kugel goes, I agree with the overall approach but feel that one thing has been ignored (as I was surprised that MJ ignored it too). I certainly agree that Kugel’s presentation of the history of biblical interpretation is both excellent and representative modern scholarship. His religious conclusions based on this are also well stated and although I don’t think they are the only approach, they are certainly a basic way a dealing with things that one would expect to surface quickly in a discussion of these issues. An all-or-nothing approach somewhat analogous to Isaiah Leibowitz’s perspective on Zionism…

However, there is also something that has been entirely ignored in Kugel’s presentation; ignoring it is morally wrong in my opinion. And that is his disrespectful dismissal of a relatively new field in biblical research that has made great strides in the past generation, namely that of poetics and the literary reading of the Bible. Kugel not only dismisses any implications this field might (or might not) have for traditional source-criticism (which is OK because maybe it doesn’t), but even ridicules the very legitimacy of the field. At one point he compares "discovered" poetic techniques to the "discoveries" of the Bible Codes!

I wonder what Kugel’s motivations are for ridiculing a productive, fascinating field and minimizing its achievements. What does he gain by comparing the likes of Adele Berlin, Robert Alter, Meir Sternberg, etc. to the bible codes? If I recall correctly, he himself even wrote a book of this type once…

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: Yehudah, much of the poetic research and similar fields (chiasms and so on) point to more of a unity of text(s). An uncharitable view might say that Kugel’s life work is "threatened" by such things; a more charitable view is that Kugel has seen so much bunk in this area that he’s naturally skeptical of newer things, however solid.

In reality, the two may be viewed independently, as two ways of approaching the text. I will admit that I was very much put off by Kugel’s tone in his internet appendices to his book, an image that was greatly contradicted when I met him in person (say what you want, he’s a great mentch).

SIMCHA S. POSTS: The key to Kugel’s letter and to Gil’s post is recognition of the obvious realities of biblical scholarship and the daunting challenges they pose to traditional orthodox belief. Professor Bernstein’s objections to Kugel are correct from a religious and perhaps even halachic standpoint. But they do little if anything to address the substance of Kugel specifically and biblical scholarship as a whole.

The corpus of this scholarship and the evidence upon which it is based is simply too expansive too be dismissed with religious epithets. Calling something apikorsus (while perhaps halachically accurate) will do nothing to assuage the honest ben torah who is genuinely disturbed by the challenges of bible scholarship and higher criticism.

At some point, the torah world will have to address these issues. Name calling and hiding will only go so far. The information is out there and accessible. In fact, its appearance on Gil’s blog alone is indicative of how widespread it is becoming. If the torah communities do not come up with an intelligent, substantive and sustainable response to Professor Kugel and his ilk, we will hear of generations at risk instead of kids at risk.

RABBI GIL STUDENT WRITES: "I actually once tried to get together a symposium of scholars to post on this blog about Orthodox responses to biblical criticism. The overwhelming response was that blogs are full of mockers who will reduce the discussion to unthoughtful platitudes and name-calling."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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