Dr Ari Engelberg
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Rabbi Louis Jacobs famously attempted in his We Have Reason to Believe to show that not all academic biblical research need be labelled heretical by Orthodox religious authorities, but his stand on this issue led eventually to his being ousted from Orthodox institutions. The goal of my present research is to decipher the role played by academic research on the Bible in the identity formation liberal edge of, or have left, Orthodoxy. It was presumed that these populations would be more likely than others to have been influenced one way or the other by this literature.
Qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with people who responded to advertisements posted on the Hebrew University campuses, as well as with a few others solicited directly by the author. The interviews focused on the religious beliefs and practices of the interviewees, as well as on their attitudes towards academic biblical research, in order to contextualize opinions regarding the issue, and to place them within the religious life-worlds of the interviewees.
A detailed discussion of the challenges posed by academic biblical research for Orthodox theology is not possible here,(1) although it is worth recalling that the mainstream traditional view, elevated to the status of a principle of faith, is that the Torah (the Pentateuch) was dictated by God to Moses (except for the last few verses which, according to one opinion in the Talmud, were inscribed by Joshua) and is therefore eternally valid. Academic research, however, identifies multiple authors and non-Israelite cultural influence, and dates the composition of the Pentateuch to a later period, an idea deemed heretical by current Orthodox rabbis. Attempts by some religious academics and rabbis to resolve the conflicts between traditional views and biblical research continue today, especially in the USA.(2) But to judge by online responses, Orthodox readers remain deeply troubled by this issue.
In Israeli as well as non-Israeli ultra-Orthodox or Haredi society, academic biblical research is ignored or vilified, as are other branches of historical research that challenge sacred beliefs. In the other central branch of Orthodoxy in Israel, Religious Zionism, from which most of the interviewees come, the last decade has seen numerous debates regarding the correct way to study Bible and the extent to which academic findings can be integrated into Yeshivah study. But a survey of online rabbinical response conducted for this research suggests that the public rabbinical consensus is still that higher biblical criticism is taboo. Most interviewees were socialized in Religious Zionist families and educational institutions, some remaining Religious and others not. A thematic analysis of the interview materials yielded various themes that cut across this socially salient divide. I claim that these themes reflect late-modern cultural currents. I will next discuss the themes that emerged from the research materials.
Robert Wuthnow, the sociologist of religion, claims that one process currently affecting American Christians is a move from spiritual dwelling to spiritual seeking.3 Cohen and Eisen found this to be the case also with the non-Orthodox affiliated American Jews they interviewed,4 so it is unsurprising to find it among my interviewees. Most went through some religious transformation after high school, but for many this was only the first of many changes as they continued to seek meaning.
A recurring theme among interviewees was that Judaism is a truth among other religions, an untraditional stand shared both by those who are no longer religious and those who are located on the liberal edge, rather than the strictly Orthodox. The examples they provided for alternative, non-Jewish, ‘truths’ were usually drawn from Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, which have fewer negative connotations for Israelis than Christianity and Islam. Ayelet grew up secular, became deeply religious, but after around a decade became socially hilonit (-secular), while describing herself as religiozit – which may be translated here as ‘spiritual’. Using kabbalistic terminology she said she believed ‘that there is a truth which is singular, but in this world, which is a world of divisions [alma dpeiruda], we view various reflections of this truth. There is the Muslim reflection, the Buddhist reflection, etc.’
Egalitarianism was a central value for many interviewees. Rami became irreligious only in his late thirties but, unlike Ayelet, does not describe himself as ‘spiritual’. One of his main reasons for abandoning religious practice and faith was Judaism’s lack of egalitarianism. His family is of Near Eastern origin and he was raised in a community located on the geographic and social periphery of Israel. Through his own efforts he worked his way up into the Israeli middle class, which may help explain his sensitivity to this issue. As he told me in the interview: ‘If I was God and I was to invent a religion, I would look for a religion that is universal. That is one of the things that really bothered me, Judaism is pretty racist. It really bothered me. Why would God come and choose one specific nation? I have a hard time with the divide between Jews and gentiles, and within Judaism the different classes – Priests and Levites […] I feel that people should have equal opportunities.’
A Relational God
Sarah, a therapist in her thirties, was one of the more stringently Orthodox interviewees. Like many other Religious Zionists – as well as traditional and secular Israelis – she is attracted to certain aspects of Breslov Hassidism. She practises hitbodedut – retreating to a secluded area where she speaks openly with God. Wuthnow describes the growing popularity in American revivalist churches of the analogous ‘God as a buddy’ paradigm, as opposed to God as judge or king.5 Less pious interviewees also reported engaging in discussions with God. Daniella is on the liberal fringes of religious society and cohabitated with male roommates, which is highly unusual in Orthodox society. She said of God: ‘I mainly don’t know if he exists or not; I mainly talk to him a lot [laughs]. It’s this feeling that there is something large taking care of me. It’s good for me to believe in that – is what I tell myself a lot of the time. Even when I don’t feel that it exists I tell myself that it is good for me.’ Among the interviewees there was a clear gender distinction here, more women than men describing having a relationship with God. This confirms research that has shown that women prefer relational aspects of religion.(6)
Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the founders of postmodern social theory, claimed that there is currently a disappointment with the modern ‘grand narrative’ of progressivism that championed science as a vehicle for human improvement.(7) Lyotard’s critics countered that the processes he described originated in modern times, so do not indicate that a new historical period has begun.(8) But all seem to agree that scepticism regarding the ability of science to improve human lives is more common today than it was in the mid-twentieth century, the heyday of positivism.
Most interviewees were not concerned about the historical reality of events described in the Pentateuch. The following statement by Dotan, a moderately religious academic in his late twenties, is typical:
Dotan: The question is not whether Sinai happened or not but rather what Sinai is for me, what Sinai do I have in my life? Avia Hachohen says that even if the Torah was not received from the sky, generations of Jews studied it and were killed because of it. This is an important text. I would say that the Koran and even Jelal a Din Rumi are important texts, but this is my important text, my native land.
Interviewer: And you don’t ask yourself why I should be doing these things if they were not commanded by God? If the Torah is a human product?
Dotan: This seems to me the sort of question that high-school kids are troubled by. I have a world that is my homeland, I have a language and a territory, so now if somebody tells you that my house is yellow and not blue you’ll demolish it? A home is a place to be.
Several of the themes discussed above come together in Dotan’s answer: there is a recognition of the existence of multiple narratives along with an emphasis on the importance of belonging and identity. These together render questions regarding the historical reality of events described in the Bible superfluous. Of course such a position may be easier to accept if you do not have direct and ongoing contact with biblical scholarship. Yosef, a yeshivah sort of question that Dotan presumed only high-school students ask – why observe Halakhah if it is not God-given? Interestingly, he too, like some other interviewees (but not Dotan) believes in a personal relational God with whom he has frequent discussions. In the end, despite his questions, he does observe Halakhah and remains deeply religious. None of his religious university classmates became irreligious as a result of their encounter with academic biblical scholarship, although one student who had already left religion was led by his study to distance himself further from observance.
Paul Heelas identifies two wide-ranging cultural currents that gained prominence in Western culture during the latter half of the twentieth century: (1) the ongoing process of individualization that leads to personal expressivism; and (2) the liberal ethic, that others have called ‘the human-rights discourse’, that encourages egalitarianism, pluralism and relativism.9 Taylor views these elements as interconnected. Respect for others leads to the moral position that their beliefs ought not to be challenged, making relativism an offshoot of individualism.(10) The themes that emerge from the interview materials express all these elements. Expressivist tendencies are evident in the interviewees’ ongoing search for spirituality and meaning and in adopting neo-Hassidic practices and anthropomorphic God images (the effects of psychotherapeutic relationship discourse is evident here as well).(11)
The sensitivity of most interviewees to issues of equal rights, and their view of Judaism as only another truth narrative, are prominent features. Regarding the question of personal religious identity and beliefs, the elements listed above have a greater effect on interviewees’ religious identity than the question of whether Moses could indeed have received the Torah at Sinai, based on scientific research of the Bible. This does not mean that the question lacks importance for those who are exposed to it. It is clearly important for the more strictly Orthodox who maintain an objectivist truth discourse, but for the most part this population avoids exposure to such scientific materials. Most interviewees belonged to the liberal fringes, or had left Religious Zionist society, leading to greater exposure to what might be described as the current cultural Zeitgeist. This is why biblical research or any kind of scientific challenge to Orthodox Judaism did not play a role in their narratives. Yosef, the academic who chose to be in constant contact with Bible study materials, is the exception that proves the rule. In the end he too prioritized identity, meaning and emotional experience when forming his religious identity.
The question of the extent to which this is an Israeli phenomenon, related to the way Judaism is a public and national way of life, remains open for now. What can be said is that most interviewees are joining other secular and traditional Israeli Jews in forming a new centre-ground, located between religious and secular societies.(12) The meaning of Jewish identity in this middle space is something that this project has begun to touch on.
- But see, for example, Baruch J. Schwartz, ‘The Pentateuch as Scripture and the Challenge of Biblical Critisicm: Responses Among Modern Jewish Thinkers and Scholars’, in B. D. Summer (ed.) Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
- See for example the website: www.thetorah.com .
- Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community (New York: Free Press, 1994).
- Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen, The Jew Within (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2000).
- Wuthnow (see n. 1).
- Elizabeth W. Ozorak, ‘The Power But not the Glory: How Women Empower Themselves through Religion’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35:1 (1996) 17–29.
- Jean-Fran.ois Lyotard, The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press, 1979).
- Paul Heelas, ‘De-traditionalisation of Religion and Self: The New Age and Postmodernity’, in Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp (eds) Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1999) 65–82.
- Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992).
- For more on psychotherapy and culture see Eva Illouz, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy Emotions and the Culture of Self Help (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
- For more on this new religious middle-ground see Yair Sheleg, The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society: The Emergence of a New Jew (Jerusalem: The Israeli Democracy Institute [Hebrew], 2010).