Originally published in Seymour Siegel (ed.), Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1977), pp. 111-22.
Three distinct attitudes are possible with regard to the challenge of Bible criticism and its implications for Jewish observance, and each of these has found protagonists among Jews in this century. There is the school which accepts the critical position more or less in toto to the detriment not alone of the doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ but also of the practical observances of Judaism. Another school feels obliged to reject entirely, and to combat positively in the name of Orthodoxy, any untraditional views. And there is the third view according to which a synthesis between the traditional and critical theories is possible and that, in any event, the attitude of respect, reverence and obedience vis-a-vis Jewish observance is not radically affected by an ‘untraditional’ outlook on questions of Biblical authorship and composition.
Most thinkers of the Reform school nowadays adopt, more or less, the full critical position and draw from it what appears to them to be the logical conclusion that the ritual precepts of the Pentateuch are no longer binding upon Jews, not having been given by God to Moses. The lofty ethical standards of the Bible and the principles of justice, righteousness and holiness are binding because of their basic truth and their appeal to man’s higher nature.
Opponents of the Critical School
The second view is that of such Orthodox scholars as David Hoffmann (1843-1921), the author of the brilliant Die wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese. Hoffmann attacks the critics with great acumen and tremendous erudition on their own ground and with their own methods. But it is not without significance that Hoffman himself was the originator of what has been called ‘The Higher Criticism of the Mishnah’, in which the great Code of Jewish law is subjected to exactly the same kind of literary analysis-various ‘strata’, redactors and all-which the critics use in their investigations into the Biblical literature. As Hoffman in fact declares, his opposition to the Higher Criticism is on grounds of faith. As an Orthodox Jew he feels compelled to reject the critical position as erroneous and he then uses his considerable skill in demolishing the edifice the critics have so laboriously erected.
Dr. J. H. Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, was one of the most determined opponents of the critical theory, calling the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis a perversion of history and a desecration of religion. Dr. Hertz devotes a large portion of his famous commentary to the Pentateuch to attacking the Higher Criticism. Typical of his remarks in this connection is the following: ‘The procedure of the critics in connection with the Creation and Deluge chapters is typical of their method throughout. It justifies the protest of the late Lord Chancellor of England, the Earl of Halsbury-an excellent judge of evidence-who in 1915 found himself impelled to declare: “For my own part I consider the assignment of different fragments of Genesis to a number of wholly imaginary authors, great rubbish. I do not understand the attitude of those men who base a whole theory of this kind on hypotheses for which there is no evidence whatsoever.” A generation before the Earl of Halsbury, the historian Lecky gave expression to a similar judgment, in the following words: “I may be pardoned for expressing my belief that this kind of investigation is often pursued with an exaggerated confidence. Plausible conjecture is too easily mistaken for positive proof. Undue significance is attached to what may be mere casual coincidence, and a minuteness of accuracy is professed in discriminating between different elements in a narrative which cannot be attained by mere internal evidence.”‘ (1)
Many modern scholars without any theological bias reject the hypothesis on purely scientific grounds. The Uppsala School, Umberto Cassutto, Ezekiel Kaufmann and others have all suggested alternative theories, though none of these is in complete accord with the traditional view. Professor Cassutto, (2) for example, takes each of the five pillars on which the Documentary Hypothesis stands-the different divine names, the differences in style and language, contradictions between two passages, repetitions in two passages, and the combination of two accounts-and demonstrates that they have been set up by scholars incapable of appreciating the niceties of ancient Hebrew style and linguistic distinctions.
To give but one example, the expressions ‘going out of Egypt’ and ‘going up out of Egypt’ are not at all due to different sources, each with its own idiom, but they represent the expressions of the same ‘source’ for two different things-the one refers to the Exodus alone, the other to the whole journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. But Cassutto recognises-and here we arrive at the third point of view-that unfounded though the Documentary Hypothesis is, the question is a literary one, not a religious question. ‘We must approach this task’, writes Cassutto, ‘with complete objectivity, without any sort of preconception in favour of one school or another. We must be ready from the beginning of our investigation to accept its results wherever they may lead. And there is no need for us to be alarmed for the honour of our Torah and its holiness. The honour of our Torah and its holiness are above the realm of literary criticism, they depend on the inner content of the books of the Torah and are in no way dependent on the solution of literary problems which have to do merely with the external form, with the ‘language of men’ in which, as the Rabbis say, the Torah speaks. . .’ (3)
This, in fact, is the fundamental question-not whether this or that theory is correct, but whether the appeal to tradition is valid in matters to which the normal canons of historical and literary method apply, and whether the authority of Jewish Law is weakened as a result of scientific investigation. The third view holds that we can afford to be objective in examining the literary problems of the Bible and that it does not at all follow that because, as a result of more highly developed methods of investigation, including the use of archaeological evidence, we are compelled to adopt different views from the ancients, we must automatically give up the rich and spiritually satisfying tradition that has been built up with devotion and self-sacrifice by the wisest and best of Jews.
The Third View
This third view is finding an increasing number of adherents. This historical school argues that literary problems can only be solved by the use of those methods which have been applied so successfully in the examination of other documents of antiquity-the Greek and Latin classics, for example. Its members will keep an open mind on many of the problems, realizing that after so many centuries many of the difficulties never will be solved. But this approach in no way invalidates the observance of Jewish practices. These derive their authority from the undeniable fact that they have provided Jews with ‘ladders to heaven’ and still have the power of sanctifying Jewish life in accordance with the Jewish ideal; because of this we recognise that it was God who gave them and it is His will that we obey when we submit to the Torah discipline. As Franz Rosenzweig has so finely put it: ‘Where we differ from orthodoxy is in our reluctance to draw from our belief in the holiness or uniqueness of the Torah, and in its character of revelation, any conclusions as to its literary genesis and the philological value of the text as it has come down to us. If all of Wellhausen’s theories were correct and the Samaritans really had the better text, our faith would not be shaken in the least.’ (4)
A Fascinating Responsum
One of the most original thinkers among the Rabbis of the older school, Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson, wrote some years ago a fascinating Responsum on the Jewish attitude to Bible criticism. Hirschenson, who was asked if Bible criticism may be taught at the Hebrew University, endeavoured to apply Halakhic method to the problem. The Halakhah knows of three categories with regard to liability-these are, chayav, ‘obligation’, i.e. the incurment of a penalty; patur ‘exemption’ but assur ‘forbidden’, i.e. though there is no penalty for the offence there is prohibition; and patur and muttar, ‘exempt and permitted’, i.e. not only is there no penalty but there is no prohibition. With regard to Sabbath law, for instance, work prohibited in the Bible involves the full penalty of Sabbath desecration; work forbidden by rabbinic law is prohibited but there is no penalty attached to the prohibition; and there are certain forms of work involving no prohibition whatsoever. Hirschenson suggests (5) that the main objection in the Talmudic sources to the rejection of the doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ is that such a rejection impugns the honesty of Moses by suggesting that he wrote something he had not received from God. The chayav offence in this field, for which the penalty of exclusion from the World to Come is incurred, is the denigration of Moses’ character in maintaining that he wilfully forged the Biblical documents. On the other hand, the study of textual criticism is both patur and muttar, for, as we have seen, such criticism was at times resorted to in the Talmudic age. Modern Bible Criticism does not suggest that Moses forged the documents but they are not the work of Moses at all. This, because it is in opposition to the established traditions of our people, is assur ‘forbidden,’ but not chayav. Hence, Hirschenson concludes it would not be necessary for the Orthodox Jew to boycott the Hebrew University because some of its professors espouse the cause of Higher Criticism.
Hirschenson’s view as it stands is hardly historical. It is, to say the least, unlikely that the chief purpose of those who so zealously fought on behalf of the doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ was to safeguard the reputation of Moses. But accepting his adoption of Halakhic categories we can say much for the view that present-day criticism would not fall under the complete chayav ban of the Rabbis. The chief concern of the Rabbis was not with questions of authorship but of inspiration. Is the Torah the word of God? This was the concern of the ancient teachers. In Talmudic times, no one, not even the heretic, doubted that the Torah was written by Moses. Hence, in those days the fundamental question was did Moses write it of his own accord or under divine inspiration? Even if the most radical theories of the critics are accepted this means no more than that the base of the problem has been shifted, but the question of the divine origin of the Torah is not radically affected.
An excellent illustration of this is the Talmudic debates on whether the book of Ecclesiastes is to be admitted into the Canon of Holy Writ. Those who would admit it argue that Solomon wrote it under the influence of the divine spirit. Those who oppose its admission argue that it is the product of ‘Solomon’s wisdom’, i.e. the fruit of his own uninspired thinking. (6) In other words the Solomonic authorship of the book was accepted by everyone; the only question to be considered was, is the book so inspired as to merit inclusion in the Canon? Now that all scholars are unanimous in rejecting the Solomonic authorship of the book, there is still no reason for rejecting the opinion that it is worthy of inclusion in the Canon on account of its inspiration.
There is much, too, in the suggestion that the Rabbis had a sound polemical motive in emphasizing that the whole of the Torah was given ‘at once’ to Moses. They were chiefly concerned with a rebuttal of the Christian view that the Torah was a temporary institution, that there had been a ‘progressive revelation’ and that, therefore, the ‘New Testament’ could be looked upon as a culmination of the ‘Old’. (7) Students of the Talmudic and Midrashic literature will recall many such examples of religious polemic, consciously erring on the side of anachronism, in order to make its point clear. A good example of this is the oft-repeated Rabbinic teaching that Abraham kept the whole of the Torah before it was given-in contradistinction to the Christian view that it was not necessary to keep the Torah in order to lead the good life. (8)
Dr. J. Abelson has thus stated the third view of which we have spoken. ‘The correct perspective of the matter seems to be as follows: the modern criticism of the Bible on the one hand, and faith in Judaism on the other hand, can be regarded as two distinct compartments. For criticism, even at its best, is speculative and tentative, something always liable to be modified or proved wrong and having to be replaced by something else. It is an intellectual exercise, subject to all the doubts and guesses which are inseparable from such exercises. But our accredited truths of Judaism have their foundations more deeply and strongly laid than all this. And our faith in them not only need be uninjured by our faith in criticism, but need not be affected by the latter at all. The two are quite consistent and can be held simultaneously. I can quite understand any one talking as follows: I like the Higher Criticism, I study it, I appreciate much of its teaching and its general sentiment, I fancy that much in Judaism can be brought into line with it, I think that it may be in accordance with truth and it may not be in accordance with truth, and therefore I sit on the hedge; as to my notions of the basic truths of Judaism, my reading in criticism has not changed them one bit. The one is airy, floating intellectualism, the other is consolidated religion. They lie in different spheres and have no necessary bearing one on the other.’ (9)
Another Version of the Third View
A somewhat different, but similarly helpful, view is expounded by Will Herberg, (10) claiming to follow Rosenzweig, Buber, Niebuhr and Brunner. In this view, both modernism and fundamentalism are wrong in insisting that our concept of revelation must be either one or the other. The third way is not ‘between’ modernism and fundamentalism but beyond and distinct from both, so that those who tread this way may take Scripture with the utmost seriousness as the record of revelation while avoiding the pitfalls of fundamentalism. As Herberg puts it: ‘In this view, a shift in the very meaning of the term “revelation” is involved. Revelation is not the communication of infallible information, as the fundamentalists claim, nor is it the outpouring of “inspired” sages and poets, as the modernists conceive it. Revelation is the self-disclosure of God in his dealings with the world. Scripture is thus not itself revelation but a humanly mediated record of revelation. It is a story composed of many strands and fragments, each arising in its own time, place and circumstances, yet it is essentially one, for it is throughout the story of the encounter of God and man in the history of Israel. Scripture as revelation is not a compendium of recondite information or metaphysical propositions; it is quite literally Heilsgeschichte, redemptive history.’
It goes without saying that these or similar views which see no incompatibility between the idea of Scripture as the Word of God and the use of critical methods in its investigation, can only be entertained if the doctrine of ‘verbal’ inspiration is rejected. It is true that in the vast range of Jewish teaching on revelation there are numerous passages in which ‘verbal’ inspiration is accepted or, at least, hinted at. But this is not the whole story. It can he demonstrated that long before the rise of modern criticism some of the Jewish teachers had a conception of revelation which leaves room for the idea of human cooperation with the divine. It will be helpful if a few of the passages containing these ideas are quoted.
I. The Talmud (11) tells of an oven, the ritual purity of which is debated by R. Eliezer (2nd century C.E.) and the Sages. R. Eliezer said to the Sages: ‘If the ruling is as I hold let this carob-tree prove it.’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn out of its place but the Sages retorted: ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.’ R. Eliezer then said: ‘If the ruling accords with me, let the stream of water prove it.’ Whereupon the stream flowed backwards but the Sages said: ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water.’ Again R. Eliezer urged: Let the walls of the House of Learning prove it. Whereupon the walls of the House of Learning began to totter but the Sages remained unconvinced. Finally, R. Eliezer said: ‘If I am right let it be proved from Heaven,’ and a Heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the law is in accord with his ruling?’ But R. Joshua said: ‘It is not in Heaven (12)-the Torah states, “After the majority must one incline (13) and this means that the law must be decided by a majority of human judges and no appeal to a heavenly voice is valid.” The story concludes that when R. Nathan met Elijah, the Prophet, he asked him: What did the Holy One blessed be He do in that hour? And the answer was that He laughed with joy, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me!’
II. They were disputing in the Heavenly Academy: if the bright spot preceded the white hair, (14) he is unclean; if the reverse he is clean. If in doubt-the Holy One, blessed be He, ruled, clean; the entire Heavenly Academy ruled, He is unclean. They asked: Who shall decide it? Rabbah bar Nahmani, for he is a great authority on these matters. Rabbah died and as he died he exclaimed, ‘Clean, clean!’ (15)
III. R. Isaac said: The same watchword (communication) is revealed to many prophets, yet no two prophets prophesy in the identical phraseology, if they are true prophets. (16) An anticipation of the recognition by modern scholars that the prophetic inspiration is mediated through the personality of the prophet; Amos speaking in the language of a herdsman, Isaiah in the language of a prince.
IV. Isaiah and Ezekiel both saw the King, say the Rabbis, (17) but Isaiah as a city-dweller, familiar with the sight of the king and his court, hence his description is brief, Ezekiel as a rustic who is filled with wonder at the unfamiliar sight, hence his description is lengthy.
V. Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: when Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in fixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses asked after the meaning of these crowns and God told him that there will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses, ‘permit me to see him’. God replied: ‘Turn thee round.’ Moses went and sat behind eight rows of Akiva’s disciples. Not being able to follow their discussions he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master: ‘Whence do you know it?’ and the latter replied: ‘It is a law given to Moses on Sinai,’ he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said: ‘Lord of the Universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!’ (18) He replied, ‘Be silent, for so it has come to My mind’. In other words the Torah that Akiva was teaching was so different from the Torah given to Moses-because the social, economic, political and religious conditions were so different in Akiva’s day-that, at first, Moses could not recognize his Torah in the Torah taught by Akiva. But he was reassured when he realized that Akiva’s Torah was implicit in his Torah and was, indeed, an attempt to make his Torah relevant to the spiritual needs of Jews in the age of Akiva.
VI. R. Ishmael b. Elisha (1st-2nd cent. C.E.) disagreed with those of his contemporaries who derived rules and teachings from a pleonastic word or syllable, e.g. the use of the infinite absolute form of the verb. For instance, the verse concerning idolators in which it is said that they ‘will surely be cut off’-hikkaret tikkaret (19) is interpreted by Akiva to convey the thought that they will be cut off in both this world and the next. To this Ishmael replied that no teachings can be derived from such expressions for this is how Hebrew was spoken and ‘the Torah speaks in the language of men. (20) Maimonides used this principle to explain the Biblical anthropomorphisms. (21)
VII. When a Rabbinic precept is carried out, e.g. the kindling of the Hannukah lights, the blessing to be recited runs: ‘Who hast sanctified us with His commandments and hast commanded us to . . . (22) In other words, not only did the Rabbis recognise a human element in the Bible, they also perceived the divine in post-Biblical developments of Judaism.
VIII. Azariah Figo (1579-1647) gives this interpretation to the Rabbinic distinction between Moses and other prophets: that he saw God through a polished glass while they saw Him through a dim glass. Moses saw God Himself, as if through a window pane; the other prophets saw only His image as reflected in a mirror, i.e. through their own personalities, (23) as we would say. Figo’s view goes further than the Rabbinic views mentioned above (3 and 4). The Rabbis speak of the prophets seeing God and expressing what they had seen through their personalities; Figo speaks of the prophets seeing God through their own personalities!
IX. Isaac of Vorka (a famous Hasidic Rabbi) said: ‘It is told in the Midrash: The ministering angels once said to God: “You have permitted Moses to write whatever he wants to, so there is nothing to prevent him from saying to Israel: I have given you the Torah.” God replied: “This he would not do, but if he did he would still be keeping faith with me.” The Rabbi interpreted this with a parable. A merchant wanted to go on a journey. He took an assistant and let him work in his shop. He himself spent most of his time in the adjoining room from where he could hear what was going on next door. During the first few weeks he sometimes heard his assistant tell a customer ‘The master cannot let this go for so low a price.’ The merchant did not go on his journey. During the next few weeks he occasionally heard the voice next door say: ‘We cannot let it go for so low a price.’ He still postponed his journey. But in the next few weeks he heard the assistant say: ‘I cannot let it go for so low a price.’ It was then that he started on his journey. (24)
X. The rival schools of Hillel and Shammai debated, we are told, for a number of years, whose ruling should be accepted. Eventually a Heavenly voice proclaimed: ‘The words of both are the words of the living God, but the rule is in accordance with the school of Hillel’ (25)- another example of Rabbinic recognition of the divine in post-Biblical developments.
Allowing for the legendary nature of some of the above passages, it must be obvious that many Jewish teachers conceived of revelation in more dynamic terms than the doctrine of ‘verbal’ inspiration would imply. For them, revelation is an encounter between the divine and the human, so that there is a human as well as a divine factor in revelation, God revealing His Will not alone to men but through men. No doubt our new attitude to the Biblical record, in which, as the result of historical, literary and archaeological investigations, the Bible is seen against the background of the times in which its various books were written, ascribes more to the human element than the ancients would have done, but this is a difference in degree, not in kind. The new knowledge need not in any way affect our reverence for the Bible and our loyalty to its teachings. God’s Power is not lessened because He preferred to co-operate with His creatures in producing the Book of Books. Applying his words to our problem, we can fittingly quote the penetrating observation of the ancient Talmudic sage, that in every passage in the Bible where the greatness of God is mentioned, there you find also His humility. (26)
This chapter might suitably be concluded with the splendid illustration of the point of view we have been trying to sketch, given by Emil Brunner. Brunner asks us to think of a gramophone record. The voice we hear on the record is the voice we want to hear, it is the actual voice of the artist who delights us, but we hear it through the inevitable distortions of the record. We hear the authentic voice of God speaking to us through the pages of the Bible-we know that it is the voice of God because of the uniqueness of its message and the response it awakens in our higher nature – and its truth is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings who, hearing it for the first time, endeavoured to record it for us.
- By far the best and most effective critique of the Documentary Hypothesis in English is that of Solomon Goldman in his In the Beginning, to which the reader is referred. N.Y., 1941, p. 77f. Cf. the same author’s The Book of Books, An Introduction, Phil., 1948.
- The Documentary Hypothesis (Hebrew), Sec. Ed., Jer. 1953.
- Ibid., pp. 16-17.
- Franz Rosenzweig-His Life and Thought, N.Y., 1953, p. 158.
- Malki Ba-Kodesh, Vols. I and II, St. Louis, 1919-1921.
- Tos. Yad. 11:14; Meg. 7a.
- See Bernard J. Bamberger: ‘Revelations of the Torah After Sinai,’ in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. XVI, 1941, p. 97f.
- See Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, Vol. V,p. 259, n. 275.
- ‘Bible Problems and Modern Knowledge’, in The Jewish Review, March, 1913, p. 483. The whole article is well worth careful study.
- Judaism and Modern Man, p. 243f.
- B.M. 59b.
- Deut. xxx. 12.
- Ex. xxiii. 2.
- See Lev. xiii. 1-3.
- B.M. 86a.
- Sanh. 89a.
- Hag. 13b.
- Men. 29b.
- Num. xv. 31.
- Sifre Num. 15. 31; Yer. Yeb. viii, 8d; Yer. Ned. i. 36c; B.M. 31b and freq. see J.E. Vol. VI, p. 649.
- Guide, Part I, Chapter xxvi. Cf. Bahya: ‘Duties of the Heart,’ Sha’ar HaYihud, Chapter 10.
- See Sabb. 23a.
- Binah Le’itim, P. II, Ser. 44, quoted by Israel Bettan, Studies in Jewish Preaching, Cincinatti, 1939, pl 255-256.
- Buber: Tales of the Hasidim, The Later Masters, N.Y., 1948, p. 295-296.
- Erub. 13b.
- Meg. 31a.