Originally published in Jewish Qarterly 53:3 (2006).
From an Orthodox perspective, the most controversial aspect of the theology of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs is his denial of the traditional view of the divine authorship of the whole of the Pentateuch. In We Have Reason to Believe, first published in 1957 and recently reissued in a fifth edition (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), Jacobs argues that the traditional doctrine is no longer tenable in the light of modern biblical criticism which charts a course through Spinoza, Jean Astruc, Welhausen and others to its current dominant position in the academy. In particular, the documentary hypothesis – which posits that the Torah is a composite, edited work of several distinct human authors and assumed its present form long after the lifetime of Moses – sounds the death-knell for traditional belief.
For Jacobs, however, although the notion of a divinely ‘dictated’ or directly communicated Torah must now be abandoned, the traditional doctrine of Torah min HaShamayim, that the Torah is from Heaven, should be preserved – though in a modified sense. Jacobs urges that we can and should now believe that God co-operated with human beings in producing the Torah. Thus, the I Torah is divinely inspired, but contains a human as well as a divine element. Jacobs concedes that this view – which he terms ‘liberal supernaturalism’ in one of his later works, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (London: Littman, 1999) – is not original but has antecedents that can be traced back to the early nineteenth century.
Although Marc Shapiro, in The Limits of Orthodox Theology (Oxford: Littman, 2004), has shown that the Orthodox conception of Torah min HaShamayim is not quite as monolithic as often claimed, the essential gulf between Orthodox doctrine and Rabbi Jacobs’s position remains. Those who stay loyal to the traditional teaching of a fully divine Torah Jacobs calls ‘fundamentalists’. This is regrettable, for despite his protestations that the term is not intended pejoratively, its negative connotations are inescapable, and its use unfairly begs the very question at issue. Nevertheless, it is clear that the challenge of biblical criticism (especially the documentary hypothesis) is one that modern Orthodoxy has no option but to confront. Since modern Orthodoxy rejects ex hypothesi the haredi-style shutting out of large swathes of the modern world and its prevalent intellectual trends, battle must be joined.
Does modern Orthodoxy possess any strategies with which to combat biblical criticism beyond – to quote Jacobs’s charge – contriving to “blithely ignore or meet in a totally inadequate manner the challenge presented by this branch of secular learning” (Beyond Reasonable Doubt)?
Reasoned and scholarly Orthodox response to the documentary hypothesis dates back to the nineteenth century and the work of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman. In terms of contemporary Orthodox treatment of the hypothesis, the best-known figure is probably Mordechai Breuer. Breuer’s ideas were perhaps little known when We Have Reason to Believe was first published, but it is very surprising that Jacobs overlooks them entirely in Beyond Reasonable Doubt. (The 2004 edition of We Have Reason to Believe contains a new Introduction which finally discusses Breuer, but only in very cursory fashion.) Breuer attempts to reconcile the conclusions of the documentary hypothesis with Orthodox belief in the divine authorship of the Torah. He concedes that the findings of the documentary hypothesis are broadly correct. However, he contends that the pentateuchal text bears the signs of having been written by several different authors not because it was, but because its Divine Author wished to reveal that the world can be viewed from multiple perspectives, each of them of religious significance.
Several cogent criticisms have been directed at Breuer’s position, and many find it unconvincing. Yet it serves as an example of the kind of intellectually open and sustained treatment of biblical criticism that Jacobs rarely gives credit for. Volumes such as the Orthodox Forum’s Modern Scholarship in the Study Torah, edited by Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1996), continue the tradition of academically informed and nuanced response.
Moreover, some recent trends in biblical scholarship appear far from discouraging from an Orthodox perspective. The literary approach to the Bible, one of the dominant motifs in academic Bible study of recent years, attempts to examine biblical books in ways similar to those applied to other works of literature. This approach generally adopts as its starting-point the biblical text as it stands, rather than any hypotheses about the fragmentation of the text into different sources. In Crisis and Covenant (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), Jonathan Sacks has summed up the significance of the literary approach as follows:
These developments fall far short of a reinstatement of traditional views. But collectively they testify to a revolutionary turn away from historical criticism and to a renewed desire to ‘hear’ the Bible in its unity and uniqueness. The discrepancies which once led to dismemberment or emendation of the text are now taken to be integral to its texture. There has been a shift of emphasis from historicist concern with die writing of the Bible to hermeneutic interest in how it is to be read.
On occasion, literary analysts point out that their insights undermine source-critical views. Literary scholarship which reveals persistent themes and intricate patterns across large sections of biblical text does appear to weaken the documentary hypothesis. For example, David Berger has recently argued in a striking passage in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah that:
It is becoming clearer from year to year that Genesis is replete with linguistic and thematic patterns of subtlety and power which run through the warp and woof of the entire work. Despite the overwhelming force generated by a critical theory that has held sway for generations, scholars will not be able to hide forever behind the assertion that they are studying the art of a redactor as the word is usually understood.
These briefly sketched lines or argument suggest that, from a modern Orthodox perspective, it is Jacobs himself who, though courageous in raising the issue, fails adequately to respond to the challenge of biblical criticism. Instead, he merely accepts its conclusions and attempts to refashion traditional Judaism in its image. No doubt modern Orthodoxy has more work to do in dealing with the difficulties posed by biblical criticism for traditional faith. But Jacobs’s strategy of capitulation is by no means the only available to the thinking of contemporary Jew.
Dr Michael J. Harris is rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue, Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies and a Visiting Faculty member at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, Israel. He is the author of Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).