Decades ago, while teaching at Yeshiva University, I was approached by a student who came to my office and bluntly declared: “I no longer believe that the Bible is Divine and therefore cannot live by its commandments.” Taken aback by his certainty, I also was somewhat gratified by his desire to discuss it with me personally. I tried persuading him, probably unsuccessfully, that the Torah comprised the treasured inheritance of the Jewish people, which had preserved us for millennia. Sadly, I never saw him again.
By refreshing contrast, about a year ago while traveling, I visited a Modern Orthodox congregation. The rabbi, also a former student, greeted me warmly and recalled for me that some 30 years ago I had responded to a student’s question about Purim by noting, “I do not accept the Book of Esther historically, but I do accept it theologically.” The former student expressed his appreciation for my sensitivity to the claims of both tradition and modern scholarship and indicated he had taken that observation to heart many times in the years since.
With the onset of the holiday of Shavuot (May 24-25), commemorating the revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, these memories become especially poignant. Virtually all Jews prior to Spinoza in the 17th century accepted the Torah as Divinely revealed, historically accurate, and authored by Moses over three millennia ago. Modern scholarship, to the contrary, disputes these teachings, pointing to historical inaccuracies, anachronisms in the text, narratives that are morally troubling, and evidence of authors that long post-date the historical Moses.
To be sure, many simply choose to ignore the findings of contemporary scholarship. Others dismiss biblical criticism as anti-Semitic by design, intending to deprive the Bible of its moral worth. Still others engage in apologetics, claiming that while the truths of Torah are eternal, the findings of scholarship change regularly. Some apply the insights of contemporary literary scholarship to understanding biblical text and characters, yet these generally ignore questions of historicity. Others, like my aforementioned student, are so persuaded by the findings of biblical scholarship as to abandon tradition entirely.
Between these poles lies a middle group — thoughtful and intelligent Jews, who query why a respected discipline found in virtually every university department of Judaic studies should be considered irrelevant to understanding Jewish text and tradition. But they also value that tradition deeply and wish to enhance their understanding of it by utilizing the tools of historical scholarship. Happily, that middle group has found a new voice and resource: Two years ago Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) established TheTorah.com, a website dedicated to stimulating discussion about historical understanding of Scripture and to weighing the implications of scholarship for tradition and faith. Each week new essays are posted on the weekly Torah reading, asking, “how may we understand biblical texts in light of modern scholarship?” The range of contributors is diverse, representing a broad range of voices within all of the major religious movements — exemplifying the principle of pluralism that Torah benefits when approached from multiple perspectives.
What is gained by understanding Torah within an historical context? For one thing, narratives that may be troubling to the contemporary ear may be contextualized within the morality of the ancient world. For example, understanding the significance of marriage for women in the ancient world may mitigate the apparent severity of the treatment accorded the woman captured in war, who must marry her captor, and who in turn may never divorce her. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac may be situated within a culture that legitimated child sacrifice and against which Judaism protested unequivocally. The imperative to destroy the nation of Amalek may be compared with Homer’s “Iliad,” in which King Agamemnon commands his troops to exterminate Trojan villages, illustrating the then-regnant ethics of warfare.
Most importantly, the attitude toward Scripture expressed in TheTorah.com is reverential. Analysis of text emanates from love for it and the desire to appropriate it as one’s own. The website straddles both contemporary scholarship and traditional commentary seeking to apply their insights to understanding Scriptural meaning.
To be sure, engagement with modern scholarship risks alienation from tradition entirely, as evidenced by my former student’s experience. But for today’s People of the Book, biblical literacy is quite rare, even within committed Jewish circles. How many day school graduates, for example, are aware that Ibn Ezra acknowledged limited emendations to Torah centuries after Moses, or that Chronicles I implies that Joseph’s son Ephraim was never in Egypt, or that the genealogies in Genesis suggest that Methuselah survived Noah’s flood? Resources such as TheTorah.com enable the reader to explore such questions. Moreover, as we commemorate every year at Shavuot, the Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people. It is open to multiple interpretations. And its theological salience need not depend upon its absolute historical accuracy.
But is this still Revelation? In the traditional sense of fundamentalist revelation, clearly not. But the concept of revelation may extend much more broadly — the Torah spoke in a language that people could hear in historical time. Exactly who wrote it, and when, does not diminish its theological salience. The Shavuot holiday signifies the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah as Divinely revealed. Through acceptance of the Torah, through internalizing its theology as our own, we sanctify it as revealed truth.
Steven Bayme serves as national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.