What Is The Scientific Study Of Judaism?

Academic study of Judaism aka critical study aka scientific study all mean something simple — following the facts wherever they lead.

The major Ashkenazi denominations of Judaism (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) developed in Germany in the 19th Century.

A founder of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dr. Samson Raphael Hirsch, was not a great Talmudist. He opposed the scientific study of Judaism.

By contrast, fellow 19th Century German Rabbi Dr. Asriel Hildesheimer was a Talmudist and a supporter of the academic study of Judaism.

In the 19th Century, everything was being studied critically. What are some examples? Letting archeology and other semitic languages shed light on the Bible, charting the historical development of midrash… Should Judaism be any different? The non-Orthodox embraced the critical study of Judaism, including of the Pentateuch.

Hirsch regarded critical study of sacred text as blasphemy. Followers of Hirsch got their PhDs in fields outside of Judaism. The Rav (Joseph Ber Soloveitchik) and his son-in-law Aharon Lichtenstein (as a Hirschian, he did his PhD in English Literature) opposed the scientific study of Judaism. Though they did not call it heresy, they said it was the wrong way to study Torah.

The Rav’s grandchild and student, Mayer Lichtenstein, left Yeshiva University because he did critical studies and did not want to clash with the Rav in his home turf.

The Rav’s son, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, also embraced critical studies.

The Rav was famous for saying that were it not for the Brisker Method, the Talmud would not be studied today. That today’s students with their sophisticated secular knowledge need an equally sophisticated method of studying Talmud.

The Artscroll translations of the Talmud ignore critical studies. The Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud includes some critical notes, identifying the historical positions of the speakers, providing drawings of items discussed in the text. You would never know in traditional Talmud study. You could study a whole sugya on certain items of clothing without having an idea of the clothing discussed.

Dr. Marc B. Shapiro discusses these matters in his two lectures on Esriel Hildesheimer for Torah in Motion.

In Esriel Hildesheimer’s Berlin seminary, the only part of Judaism off-limits to higher critical study was the Torah aka Pentateuch. No examination of authorship is allowed, nothing in the footsteps of Julius Wellhausen.

The rest of the Bible was fair game. Asriel Hildesheimer’s son in law, Yaakov Barth, taught the theory of two Isaiahs.

Question: Why would Hirsch think that people exposed to secular studies would not want critical studies?

Marc Shapiro: It’s no different than today. Plenty of Orthodox Jews will go to university, but they will only study certain things (that don’t challenge their religion). They will study Psychology or Literature, but they won’t study Jewish topics. The Hirschians all had doctorates, but not in Jewish studies. You use critical methodology to study history. If you study the Koran, you use critical methodology. But by definition, the Torah and the Tanakh are divine, and the critical methodologies are not applicable. Hirsch sees Jewish law as developing outside of time. It’s a fundamentalist position.

Hirsch’s Frankfurt community was thought of as obscurantist (not wanting enlightenment) by most of the rest of Germany Jewry.

Asriel Hildesheimer attacked the second Isaiah theory (and the Zechariah Frankel Conservative seminary in Breslau) until his son-in-law started espousing it. After that, Hildesheimer was silent because Yaakov Bart was a great tzaddik and talmud chacham.

The only thing off the table at Bar Ilan and Yeshiva University is higher criticism of the Pentateuch. You can talk about different sections of the book of Zechariah.

Lower criticism deals with words. There are words in the Torah that are not clear. Is there a mistake here? Rashi and the Talmudic rabbis refer to different versions of Torah text than what we have.

When people such as Asriel Hildesheimer recommend critical approaches to text, is this to replace or to supplement traditional study? In places such as Zechariah Frankel‘s Breslau yeshiva and the Jewish Theological Seminary, critical studies have largely supplanted traditional methods.

There have been many traditional Talmud scholars who were exposed to critical methods and could never go back to traditional study. Holocaust survivor Meyer Simcha Feldbloom of YU is a famous example. He came to the United States as a great Talmud chacham. He became a great student of Rav Soloveitchik. He became a rosh yeshiva at YU. Then he decided to take a few courses at the Bernard Revel graduate seminary where he falls under the sway of Avraham Weiss, who at that time may have been the greatest critical Talmudic scholar in the world.

Saul Lieberman at JTS was not a higher critical scholar. He did only lower criticism. He was a traditional Talmud scholar but with wider breadth, taking into account Greek and history.

Avraham Weiss would take apart Talmudic texts, locating the origins of different strands and pointing out how often the Amoraim (Talmudic rabbis after the close of the Mishna in 200 CE) often lacked the information that the Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishna) had and how they would’ve reacted differently if they had known more.

Using critical methods, you do an end-run around the traditional questions that the Gemara asks by going right to the source.

The Rav was always upset that he lost Feldbloom to critical methods. He would say, "Professor Weiss stole my Meyer."

Rav Herschel Schachter, representing the right-wing, became a major enemy of Meyer Simcha Feldbloom. He wouldn’t even answer amen to Feldbloom’s kaddish. Schachter said that what Feldbloom was doing was heresy. This created a huge split at Yeshiva University during the 1960s and 1970s.

Feldbloom’s wife was killed at Yeshiva University during a drag racing accident. A hothead at YU declared publicly that her death was God’s punishment for Professor Feldbloom’s method of Talmud study.

Feldbloom says you don’t change halacha based on critical methods.

The yeshiva world tends to ignore critical methods.

Some critical scholars (including the former chief rabbi of Amsterdam) say there are pages in the Gemara put in by the heretics to mock the sages and they’ve been included by printer errors, such as the case of the man who’d come into a town each night and seek a wife for the night, or the case of a man falling off a roof who accidentally has sex with a woman on the way down. The Rambam and Rashi studied these texts and took them seriously. They had the wool pulled over their eyes?

The Srida Aish (Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg) says that higher criticism of Talmud is not heresy and he engages in it.

Higher criticism of Talmud undermines 2,000 years of how the Talmud was understood. You are saying that the Amoraim did not have all the information and therefore they misinterpreted the Mishna.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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