Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant Garde, with a Note about Academic Bible Scholarship

So apparently men wearing skirts is getting more and more popular (hold onto your hats, because this essay is going to end up talking about academic Bible scholarship). Just a few years ago, however, it was considered avant garde, meaning that the men doing it were breaking cultural norms, but they were doing so with confidence. That confidence is the key factor in whether breaking cultural norms makes you a weirdo, a loser, or makes you avant garde. If you can pull it off, this confidence often wins the respect of the culture whose norms you are breaking; often, however, the avant garde remain something of a marginalized group.

Any person who defines herself as both modern and religious invariably finds herself in this position. The cultural norms of contemporary western cultures are, to a great degree, secular, and so being religious means breaking those cultural norms. Being religious can therefore require being “weird,” or having the confidence to be avant garde.

Writing in the religious Zionist community in Israel at the turn of the millennium, Rav Shagar strived to create Jews who saw themselves as avant garde. Concluding an essay on love and marriage in the postmodern era, he writes:

I would love to see marriage as the true avant garde of today’s society, marriage as a covenant, in the rite of Moshe and Israel. The true rebellion is the Orthodox rebellion to be a “loser” (freier) in a world where not a single person is willing to be a loser, to commit in a place where everybody runs from commitment. This is intimately bound-up with self-sacrifice, but self-sacrifice in this sense is the very essence of the covenantal relationship. (“Love, Romance, and Covenant,” Nehalekh Beragesh, p. 286)

Finding postmodern sensibilities about romance to be decidedly more “frum” than modern ones, Shagar argued that religious Zionists should take up this postmodern yet very traditional view of marriage, even if it means breaking with the non-committal values of mainstream Israeli society. Notably, Shagar invokes the idea of being a freier, a “loser,” something Israelis are constantly attempting to avoid, and asserts that religious Zionists should embrace that role, being willing to sacrifice for the betterment of others, which is the foundation of a covenantal relationship.

At the very end of an essay on the interplay of education and ideology, Shagar looks to the future of religious Zionist education in Israel and argues that we have to be educating for avant garde-hood.

For what, then, shall we educate? How will we want to see the next generation of religious Zionism? I would prefer to strive to make it an avant garde generation. What do I mean by this? – the stubbornness to hold on to ethics in a world without ethics; to faith in a nihilistic world; to be the “loser” of the world out of a sense that “This is how I am and this is how I want to be.” This is a holy rebellion: the rebellion against the rebellion, a postmodern rebellion against the modern rebellion. Education needs to create complex people, with many aspects and no need to construct ideological unity that will resolve them, by creating a deep and rooted Jewish identity that can connect with and absorb the different direction and oppositions. (“Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, pp. 206-207)

Shagar is pushing for a broad embrace of values in the face of a culture that rejects them. Mainstream Israeli culture, he says, is unethical and nihilistic; we must therefore break with it in being ethical and full of faith. Religious values necessarily set us apart from the broader culture, and we must embrace that gap.

It is critical to note that Rav Shagar is not arguing for the approach taken by Haredi society, which in that same essay about education he calls a “heterotopia” (a term he adopts from Michel Foucault), a society that is so disconnected from all other societies that its boundaries are determined not by where it butts up against other societies but by its own nature. It’s so separate that it doesn’t really even know other societies exist. Shagar admits that this depiction is idealized, not necessarily fitting the reality of contemporary Haredi society, and he therefore calls it “rectified” or “authentic” Haredism (for the latter, see the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age,” also published in English in the book “Faith Shattered and Restored”). However, real Haredi society is still very separate from mainstream Israeli society, particularly when contrasted with the religious Zionists who, as Shagar says, “live in multiple worlds” (Education and Ideology,” pp. 183-185). This means that Haredim cannot be avant garde; in a sense, you have to be part of the culture in order to be a counter-culture, while Haredim are simply a different culture altogether. Religious Zionists, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews in the US and anyone who finds herself in a similar situation, are fully a part of mainstream, modern, society. This is what makes it significant when we break away from it. Breaking with the norms of our own culture, or perhaps more accurately the norms of the larger culture, marks us as weird and often draws scorn. The trick, however, is to embrace that difference and wear it confidently, thus shifting from “weird” to “avant garde.” We must realize that we’re different, and not expect to fit in perfectly, which means accepting that we will not be embraced by our larger culture one hundred percent of the way.


By way of conclusion, and to keep my parenthetical promise from the beginning of this post, I want to apply this model to recent discussions about academic Bible scholarship. This most recent debate was inspired by R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s essay “The Corruption of Biblical Studies” on mosaicmagazine.com, which argued that “conservative” scholars and scholarship are consistently marginalized in the world of academic Bible scholarship. This inspired 4 responses on the site from other scholars, followed by Berman’s rejoinder, as well as other pieces around the internet such as a piece by Prof. Marc Brettler on thetorah.com and one on thelerhaus.com by Dr. Michah Gottlieb. This last piece concludes, based on R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that “an Orthodox Jew engaged in biblical criticism is knotted in impossible self-contradiction.” This piece, as well as Berman’s first piece, fall prey to some of the problems I mentioned above. R. Hirsch, as portrayed by Gottlieb, seems to fit into the heterotopic-Haredi model, seemingly pushing for Orthodox or conservative scholars to withdraw from biblical scholarship entirely, not recognizing that there are models of Orthodoxy that can embrace some form of historicism (for some of Shagar’s approach to historicism, see “Religious Life in the Modern Age”). Berman, on the other hand, seems to not be accepting that Orthodox and “conservative” scholars are in some ways breaking from the mainstream culture of academic Bible scholarship (I make this point somewhat more tentatively than the previous one). Such scholars will therefore almost unavoidably be marginal figures, and that uncomfortable status ought to be proudly embraced. This doesn’t mean that it is a good thing or that it shouldn’t be pointed out, but it does mean that it’s probably here to stay.

Rabbinic Readings – Yael Ziegler’s Ruth

Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” is the fourth of Maggid Books’ new Tanakh series, Maggid Studies in Tanakh. Written by Dr. Yael Ziegler, Ruth explores the biblical book of Rut, also known as Megillat Rut, from what the author terms a “literary-theological” perspective. The book focuses primarily on three things: (1) the ways in which Megillat Rut responds to and attempts to rectify Sefer Shoftim; (2) the purpose of Megillat Rut, particularly as it relates to interpersonal ethics, kindness, and the establishment of the monarchy; (3) the way rabbinic literature expand on and respond to the biblical text of Megillat Rut. Throughout these explorations, Ruth is both unabashedly traditional and fervently academic, probably the most academic of Maggid’s Tanakh series thus far.

ziegler-ruth_final_2d_1_1Megillat Rut opens with the time-frame within which the book occurs. “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1)[1]. Ziegler discusses the exact meaning of this extensively. She brings in a variety of midrashic opinions that attempt to narrow down exactly when in the several hundred years encompassed by the book of Shoftim the narrative of Megillat Rut is supposed to have occurred, analyzing these rabbinic texts to determine not just what textual cues they are based on but also what thematic elements they are drawing out of the biblical text. This thematic analysis combines with an extensive discussion of the book of Shoftim itself, in an attempt to determine what message about society Sefer Shoftim is trying to convey overall. Concluding that Shoftim depicts a society that is rife with alienation and anarchy,   where people are regarded as objects rather than subjects, Ziegler argues that Rut depicts the solution to, or reparation of, this society by depicting a narrative that moves from alienation to recognition, culminating in the creation of the Davidic line and, implicitly, the monarchy.

The entire purpose of Megillat Rut is to explain the lineage of the monarchy, to the provide the family tree of king David, at least according to one midrash Ziegler quotes. Another suggests that the purpose of the book is to teach about proper behavior, not in the realm of halakhah of but in the realm of interpersonal ethics. Rut, according to this midrash, should be read with an eye to acts of Ḥesed, lovingkindness, and the rewards received for those actions. Ziegler accepts both of these midrashim, arguing that Megillat Rut depicts a form of self-abnegating kindness that, while it might be too extreme for the average person in their daily lives, is absolutely necessary for a proper monarch. It is through acts of such extreme giving and openness to the Other, Ziegler argues, that Rut takes the characters, and the reader, from the leaderless period of the judges to the rising of the monarchy.

Ruth constantly quotes and references midrashim from across the entire span of rabbinic literature. Ziegler analyzes midrashim with an eye to two things, midrashic sensitivity to the biblical text and themes that the midrash is either drawing out of or introducing into the biblical text. The themes highlighted by a midrash can be used to illuminate a character or scene left somewhat sparse by the biblical text. Rabbinic texts also often identify anonymous or mysterious characters with more well-known figures, and analyzing their reasons for doing so can provide deep insights into the nuances of the biblical text. However, the plentitude of midrashim quoted in the book can also create a sense of separation from the biblical text. The reader of Ruth may occasionally feel that, while they know the relevant rabbinic literature quite well, they are somewhat unclear on, and disconnected from, the biblical text. This weakness could itself be a strength, however. The midrashic survey that constitutes much of Ziegler’s book could be an excellent introduction to midrashim more generally, guiding the reader through learning how to read and analyze midrashim.

Ruth is also in dialogue with contemporary academic commentaries on Rut. References to agreements and disagreements with scholarship show up throughout the text and footnotes of Ruth. Despite this, Ruth is not an academic text. In the introduction, subtitled “Methodology of Tanakh Study,” Ziegler explicitly steps out of academic discourse, stating a preference for reading Rut with an eye to contemporary theological relevance[2]. The introduction also gives the reader a broader historical context for Ruth, and for the “literary-theological” method employed therein, exploring the rise of literary criticism, its development within the Bible scholarship, and its adoption within traditional Jewish study of Tanakh. For this introduction alone, Ruth is a must for the Modern Orthodox reader of Tanakh, giving precious background for the tools and teachers that enrich our studying of the biblical text.

The academic engagement of the book goes beyond references and background, fundamentally shaping Ziegler’s methodology and discussion of the biblical text. Attention is paid to the literary effects of word choices and syntax. Parallels from across the entirety of Tanakh are brought to bear in interpreting the meaning of various passages. There are several excursuses on a variety of larger topics in the study of Tanakh, including type-scenes, oaths, and more. All of this is melded with a more traditional rabbinic approach, often showing how midrashim and rabbinic commentators were doing the same, or similar, things to what modern academic scholars to today.

Yael Ziegler’s Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy is an excellent study of the text of Megillat Rut, plumbing its linguistic depths, its purposes and goals, and its extensive rabbinic interpretation, all of which is conveyed in contemporary language, with clear intention that the moral and theological lessons gleaned should be applied by the reader in their own lives. It is also a great introduction to the basics of an academic, literary-critical, method of studying Tanakh. And most of all, Ruth demonstrates how the tradition and the modern, the rabbinic and the academic, can work so wonderfully together.


[1] Translation copied from the text used by Ziegler in “Ruth.”

[2] The irony of a methodological introduction that professes the larger book, and thus itself, not to be academic is hard to miss.

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.


It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.

Parashat Bereishit – Dualities of Creation, Dualities of Man

בְּצֶלֶם אֱ׳לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Sefer Bereishit starts out by depicting ‘א’s creation of existence, a depiction that has come under attack from a number of perspectives. Perhaps the most well known attack is the way it does not at all match the current scientific models for the origin of the universe. The religious responses to this have been threefold, either reinterpreting the text to fit with modern science, asserting that the Torah is essentially a religious document and does not intend a scientific description of Creation, or just ignoring the issue entirely. Slightly less well known, though far from unheard of, is the attack from the school of Biblical Criticism referred to as the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis is based off of the idea that the Torah is composed of texts derived from different, and often contradictory or redundant, source texts. A prime example of where critics see multiple sources is the first two chapters of Sefer Bereishit, which are split into Bereishit 1:1-2:3 and Bereishit 2:4-3:24. They point out a number of contradictions found in these two pericopes, such as where the creation of Man falls out in the order of creation, and how long the whole process takes. In the first chapter of Bereishit, Man is created on the sixth day, after all of the plants and animals and the rest of the natural world (1:26-30). In the second chapter, Man comes first and is in fact a precondition for the existence of plant and animals; they only exist due to Man (2:5, 18-20). In contrast to the measured, seven day process of the first chapter, the second chapter depicts creation as occurring in a day. “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven” (Bereishit 2:4). Based on these, and other, contradictions they see the two passages as having originated as two separate creation stories. This approach is applied quite liberally throughout the rest of Tanakh[1]. Starting with R’ Mordechai Breuer[2], religious scholars[3] have actually embraced this method of finding different voices in the text of the Torah, without giving up on the idea that the Torah was revealed to Moshe by ‘א. Being a prophetic text, the Torah is understood to deal with divine truths too complex to necessarily be written down without being somewhat contradictory. Similarly, the Torah also depicts the nature of Man as being complex, and thus subject to self-contradiction. Walt Whitman depicted human nature as similarly complex[4].

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) [Song of Myself, 51]

These contradictions are particularly manifest in the two versions of the Creation of Man found at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit, and a careful analysis of them points toward the Biblical view of Man’s nature.

The first chapter of Sefer Bereishit is characterized primarily by being incredibly ordered. Everything goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, and He sees that it is good. Each of the creations of the first three days sets up for the creation that occurs three days after it, the light (Day 1) setting up for the cosmos (Day 4), the water and skies (Day 2) setting up for the fish and the birds (Day 5), and the land and the plants (Day 3) setting up for the animals and for Man (Day 6). Everything is set up so that it will run naturally forever. The celestial bodies will govern the seasons forever, and all the plants and animals can continue their species. One of these orderly creations is Man. However, Man is something of an anomaly in this ordered process, as the only creature that is created in the image of ‘א, the Creator. Thus man is both Creature and Creator. Specifically, the Image of God is manifest as Man being a dominating force[5] in the world, as explicated by the blessing Man receives from ‘א, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Bereishit 1:28). Man is given the ability to be in charge of every living thing, and to consume all plant-life (1:29).

In contrast, the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as existing to serve a purpose, rather than other things existing to serve Man’s purposes. Man’s creation fills a specific need, “and there was no a man to work the ground” (2:5), and then Man is given a corresponding assignment, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (2:15). Man exists to serve a purpose. This stands in direct contradiction to the first chapter, but it would be a mistake to assume the two chapters only contradict. In many ways the second chapter builds on the first. The first chapter depicts Man as part of the orderly process of Creation, and the second chapter goes out of its way to hammer home the fact that Man is essentially just like every other living thing. When Man is created from the earth the Torah says, “And Adam became a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה)” (Bereishit 2:7). Then when ‘א creates the animals they are each referred to as a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) (Bereishit 2:19). Moreover, the possibility is entertained that the proper helper for Man might be one of the animals (2:18-20). Where in chapter 1 Man and the animals are differentiated by Man’s being created in the Image of ‘א, in the second chapter they seem to be part of essentially the same category. However, as the second chapter progresses Man is differentiated from the animals in a manner separate from their shared nature as creatures. In contrast to the animals, it is stated regarding Man, “And the Lord God commanded the man” (2:16). Man’s uniqueness is not a function of his innate nature, but of his being commanded. This builds on the way the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as created  for a specific purpose.

The two creation stories depict two different understandings of the nature of Man. The first chapter sees Man as somehow dominant and superior to the other creations. He can use all of them to serve his purposes. The second chapter sees Man as inherently equal to the other creatures, and intended to serve a purpose, to care for those creations, and to follow ‘א’s command. These understandings are very different, and they certainly contradict, but they do not have to be at odds with one another. The two approaches play off each other and integrate very interestingly. Perhaps it is the unique ability of Man, as per Chapter 1, that makes incumbent upon him unique responsibility, as per chapter 2. Chapter 1 sees Man as having a unique power over nature; Chapter 2 ask what Man is going to do with that power to serve ‘א and the world. And even if in their essence the two understandings of Man are at odds, they can be applied practically in very similar ways. As a creature, Man should feel solidarity with all life, and therefore should be careful not to abuse it. As a creator, Man has a responsibility to be benevolent and care for those less fortunate. We are complex beings, and to paint us with a simple brush is to ignore what makes us great and obscures all that we have to give.

[1] For a discussion of some of the problematic aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis, from a literary perspective, see here.

[2] He based this approach, among other things, on the midrash that says that the two names of ‘א, Elohim and YVHV, correspond to Divine Justice and Divine Compassion. The first chapter of Bereishit uses exclusively the name Elohim, while the second uses YHVH.

[3] While I don’t agree with everything he says, here or elsewhere, an excellent depiction of this method by R’ Menachem Leibtag can be found here.

[4] These internal tensions of Man are also discussed by, among others, the Hermeneutic Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, by R’ Joseph Soloveitchik in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and by myself in my devar torah for Parashat Re’eh 5774.

[5] This also fits with the Ancient Near Eastern context of the phrase, “Image of God.” Outside of the Torah, this phrase is only applied to kings. The Torah applies it to all men, declaring them all equal. For more on this, see R’ Shai Held’s devar torah on Bereishit 5775.

Parashat Ki Tetse – Amalek and the Oppression of the Disadvantaged

וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים

Parashat Ki Tetse represents the bulk of the laws and commandments of Sefer Devarim, containing 74 out of the 613 commandments in the Torah. These laws are capped by a review of the attack on Bnei Yisrael by Amalek and the commandment to wipe them out from Shemot 17:8-16 (Devarim 25:17-19).

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you came forth from Egypt; (18) how they met you by the way, and cut down the weak that were straggling behind, when you were tired and weary, and you did not fear God. (19) And it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens; you shall not forget.

While this formulation of “They attacked you, you must fight them” is fairly straightforward, at its center is a line that is not entirely clear. The phrase “and did not fear God,” “וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ׳לֹהִים,” could be referring to either Amalek or Bnei Yisrael. Most commentators have understood it to be referring to Amalek, as an additional explanation of why they are evil, or perhaps as an explanation as to why they attacked Bnei Yisrael. However, The Hizkuni brings a midrash from the Mekhilta suggesting that instead the phrase is part of the description of Bnei Yisrael, attached to “when you were tired and weary.” This seems somewhat strange, but taking a closer look both at our passage from Devarim 25 and the parallel passage from Shemot 17 will show that it actually is very fitting, and that this may change not only the way we understand its connection to the laws that precede it, and their implications for our lives today.

The passage from Sefer Devarim can be broken down into two rather even halves[1]. Verses 17-18, containing 23 words, describe the attack by Amalek. Verse 19, with 24 words, describes the commandment to Bnei Yisrael to eradicate Amalek in the future. These two halves mirror each other in their structure. The first half starts with “Remember,” and the second half ends with “you shall not forget.” The first half emphasizes that Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael when they were “on the way,” while the second half states that Bnei Yisrael shall eradicate the memory of Amalek only once they are in the land that ‘א has given them for an inheritance. The first half states that Bnei Yisrael were attacked when they were “tired and weary,” and they are commanded to go to war with Amalek once “the Lord your God has given you rest.” Finally, the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens,” to the last child, responds to the way Amalek “cut down the weak that were straggling behind.” This type of mirror structure is very common is passages in the Torah, and understanding “and did not fear God” as referring to Bnei Yisrael makes it fit much better.[2] It also identifies their lack of fear of God as part of what made Bnei Yisrael vulnerable to Amalek in the desert, which helps explain an odd occurrence in the passage from Shemot.

The passage in Shemot goes into much greater detail when discussing the original battle between Amalek and Bnei Yisrael. It summarizes the initial attack simply as “And Amalek came, and made war with Yisrael in Rephidim” (Shemot 17:8), and then jumps into a description of Bnei Yisrael’s response that is totally lacking in the passage from Devarim.

(9) And Moshe said to Yehoshua: ‘Choose men for us, and go out and make war on Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) in my hand.’ (10) So Yehoshua did as Moshe had said to him, and fought with Amalek; and Moshe, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. (11) And it was that when Moshe held up his hand Israel prevailed; and when he rested his hand, Amalek prevailed. (12) But Moshe’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat upon it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. (13) And Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Shemot 17:8-14)

This passage lacks the emphasis on the weakness of Bnei Yisrael found in the passage from Devarim. The sole reminder of it is the odd dependence of the Israelite warriors on Moshe’s raising his hand. This becomes a little clearer upon realizing that it is not Moshe’s hand that is important, for two verses earlier the Torah goes out of its way to say that Moshe’s hand, about to be raised and rested, will be holding the staff of God. Moshe would raise this staff and the people would be able to see it and it would remind them of ‘א who had taken them out of Egypt and split the sea before them and they would be emboldened[3]. Integrating this with the passage from Devarim, this would indicate that Bnei Yisrael’s weakness, which was a function of their being tired and weary and not fearing God (אֱ׳לֹהִים), was alleviated when they were emboldened by seeing the staff of God (אֱ׳לֹהִים) and all it represented.

The idea that Bnei Yisrael “did not fear God” is not mentioned at the end of Shemot 17, but it fits quite well in context. Shemot 17 is the end of the whole sequence stretching from just after the Israelites left Egypt until Yitro’s appearance at Har Sinai. The first half of the sequence is the miraculous lead up to the splitting of the sea, and the second half consists mainly of Bnei Yisrael complaining about not having food or water. The transition from the first half to the second is somewhat startling, as the narrative of the splitting of the sea ends with the statement that “the people feared the Lord” (Shemot 14:31), a significant step up from the way that “the people feared” Paroah (14:10) at the beginning of the narrative. Then all of a sudden they’re complaining, and can’t follow the rules ‘א gives them regarding the manna that falls from heaven, until finally they exclaim, “Is ‘א in our midst or not?” (Shemot 17:7) It’s not incredibly clear from the text where this comes from, but all of this comes right before they are attacked by Amalek where, according to our reading, Bnei Yisrael already “did not fear God.” Thus the reason for all of the complaining was that the people “did not fear God”. This leads to the question of just why it is that the fear of ‘א explicitly mentioned in Shemot 14:31 disappeared, but that is beyond the scope of this composition[4] (I discuss it at some length here). Thus, having struggled with a lack of food, water, and fear of God, the people were “tired and weary and did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18), when Amalek attacked (Shemot 17:8; Devarim 25:17).

Returning to the passage in Sefer Devarim, it’s important to take a minute to note its context. It caps the main law code of Sefer Devarim, coming at the end of a section of largely interpersonal laws beginning in 21:10. Examination of these laws shows that the majority of them share a common theme, not only with each other, but also with the passage dealing with Amalek. Most of these laws deal with not just simple interpersonal laws, but with the laws governing how Bnei Yisrael should interact with those in a position of weakness. This includes captives (21:10-14), children (21:15-17, 18-21), disliked wives (21:15-17, 22:13-21), the dead (21:22-23), foreigners (23:4-9), escaped slaves (23:16-17), widows (24:17-18), and others. With this in mind, it’s obvious that perhaps the main difference between the Amalek passage in Shemot and the one in Devarim is that in the Devarim passage Bnei Yisrael are specifically depicted as being in a position of weakness. The Torah specifically says that Bnei Yisrael “weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Shemot 17:14), while when Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael they “cut down the weak that were straggling behind” (Devarim 25:18). In this way the Torah likens anyone who oppresses those they have power over to Amalek attacking the Israelites, just out of slavery and floundering in the wilderness (minimally in regard to the preceding laws, more probably as a general statement).

At this point, it’s worth taking an aside to discuss the meaning of the phrase “Fear of God.” It’s a phrase with a long history both in and beyond the biblical texts. In modern contexts it is often understood as “reverence,” or “awe,” or even as an existential fear of being obliterated by the presence of an Infinite God[5]. In the biblical text, the concept comes up in a variety of contexts. Its original appearances are in Sefer Bereishit, in the narratives surrounding Avraham, and then it shows up throughout various sections of the Torah, including the laws of Vayikra and Devarim. However, it would be hard from all of this to pin down exactly what it means. The closest we can get to a specific definition is found in Shemot 20:17, where Moshe tells the people that ‘א appeared so intimidatingly on Har Sinai “in order that the fear of him may ever be with you, so that you do not go astray.” Essentially, “Fear of God” is way of relating to, or thinking about, ‘א that will cause a person to keep far from sin. It’s not clear what this way is, however. So all we know about a group that is described as “not fearing God” is that some aspect of the way they think about or relate to ‘א is leading them to transgress the Law, or be more inclined to, which fits very well with the complaints and rebellions leading up to Amalek’s attack in Shemot 17.

This understanding needs to be shaded back into our reading of the Amalek passage in Sefer Devarim. Part of the weakness of Bnei Yisrael at that time was that they “did not fear God” (Devarim 25:18). The exact way in which this is a weakness is not completely clear, but it could certainly be understood as meaning that the Israelites had thought ‘א was not with them (Shemot 17:7), or that being “א’s Nation” while lacking fear of ‘א, was causing confusion and crisis within them (16:2-3; 17:2-3). Certainly such things are true in our own time. Most people struggle, or have struggled, with faith and doubt and performance of the Law at some point in their lives. In a religious community, people with religious struggles are automatically in a position of weakness. They are by their very thoughts made outsiders. Where Bnei Yisrael had Moshe’s staff as a reminder of ‘א’s connection with them, and the miracles they had seen with their own eyes, today we have nothing of the sort. Faith and doubt are a much more meaningful struggle today than they were in the times of the Torah, and that’s a good thing, but they are also harder. Rather than reinforcing this difficulty and pushing away people who struggle with these concepts, we need to draw them close and make them feel loved. Instead of seeing their struggles as a cause for castigation and estrangement, we should see them as an opportunity to embrace and raise up those in a position of weakness in our communities.


[1] I am indebted for this analysis to this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] Attaching it to Bnei Yisrael rather than Amalek also solve some linguistic issues as well. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet, Op cit.

[3] See Rashbam’s commentary ad loc.

[4] One could argue that the suffering and the complaining of the desert journey caused them to lose their fear of God, but I’m not sure it’s that important of a difference.

[5] Rav Soloveitchik, “And From There You Shall Seek”.

Parashat Re’eh – On being a Redeemed Slave and a Redeeming Master

עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ


Parashat Re’eh begins Sefer Devarim’s legal code in earnest. It begins with the requirements regarding emptying the Land of Israel of Idolatry, and ensuring that it stays emptied in chapters 12 and 13. Chapter 14 discusses what foods may or may not be eaten by Bnei Yisrael, and chapter 15 contains the laws regarding providing for the poor of the Israelite society. These laws, perhaps the most emphatic legislation of social justice in the entire Torah, contain one of the many apparent legal contradictions between Sefer Devarim and other books of the Torah. The laws governing the freeing of a slave, found in Devarim 15:12-18, are also found in Shemot 21:2-11. However, a closer look at the differences between the two passages demonstrates that they really need not be thought of as contradicting[1], and, in fact, their differences are a manifestation on the way the two pericopes focus on different aspects of what it means to be human.

The laws regarding Freeing a Slave in Sefer Shemot are found at the beginning of the Covenant Code, “ספר הברית,” that Moshe presents to the people after his first stay on Har Sinai (Code – Shemot 21-23; Presentation – 24:1-11).

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six years and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in [to slavery] by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be the master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him to the judge, and shall bring him to the door, or to the door-post; and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever. And if a man sold his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she is not pleasing to her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no power to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he takes another wife, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, he shall not diminish. And if he does not provide these three for her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money.

These laws are largely similar to those found in Devarim 15 that are part of the legal framework of the Israelite society that will be created in the Land of Israel.

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years; and in the seventh year you shall send him free from you. And when you send him free from you, you shall not send him empty; you shall furnish him liberally from your flock, and from your threshing-floor, and from your winepress; From that with which the Lord your God has blessed you shall you give to him. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. And it shall be, if he says to you: ‘I will not go out from you’; because he loves you and your house, because he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear and into the door, and he shall be your slave for ever. And also to your slave-woman you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you, when you send him free from you; for double the work of a worker has he served you six years; and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

There are many similarities between these two passages, but there are also several key differences. The verses in Devarim fail to mention that the slave who enters single leaves single, and one who enters married leaves married, but it adds the mitzvah to provide your former slave with produce and livestock in order to help him get back on his feet. The passage in Devarim treats male and female slaves the same, while the passage in Shemot explicitly differentiates between them[2]. The slave in Shemot wants to stay with his master because he loves his master, his wife, and his children, whereas in Devarim the slave loves his master and his master’s house.

These differences are all manifestations of a larger dichotomy, which becomes clearer when looking at a linguistic difference between the two pericopes. The verses from Shemot consistently refer to the slave leaving with the master as the slave “going out,” while the passage from Devarim refers to it as the master “sending the slave free.” The passage in Devarim seems to be focusing on the actions of the master, where the verses in Shemot are speaking about the actions of the slave. This dichotomy is compounded by the way in which the master is spoken about in each passage. Whereas in Shemot the master is referred to as “the master,” in Devarim the master is addressed directly as “you.” This all seems to indicate that the passage in Devarim is discussing the laws in terms of the master, whereas the one is Shemot is speaking of the perspective of the slave. With this in mind, the differences between the two sets of laws make perfect sense. The slave’s marital status and the special marriage/servitude of the slave-woman are only spoken of in Shemot, which deals with the slave’s perspective, while Sefer Devarim focuses on the need to release the slave at the end of six years and to grant the slave property, obligations that are incumbent upon the master. The split between the two books of the Torah also makes sense, in that the Covenant Code was addressed to people who had only recently been slaves in Egypt, whereas Moshe’s speeches in Sefer Devarim were said to their children who not only had never been slaves, but were about to go into the land as new owners of houses, fields, and presumably servants as well. The laws of regarding the freeing of slaves are spoken to both former slaves and future masters, and both of these are alluded to in the reason that the Torah gives for the laws. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today” (Devarim 15:15). These laws must be kept because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and so they remember what it is like to be a slave, but also because ‘א is the Redeemer and the Israelites, in imitation of ‘א must also be redeemers.

The tension between the mindsets of a slave and a master is ingrained in the Israelite consciousness. The freedom granted to slaves in the Yovel year is ultimately a function of servitude, as ‘א declares, “For Bnei Yisrael are to me as servants; they are my servants that I took out of the Land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:5). Yet being a master, owning slaves, throughout the Torah, brings upon a person many laws obligating them in the way they must provide for and take care of the slave. A person who acquires a slave has acquired for themselves a master[3]. This tension is part of a greater set of tensions that make up what it means to be human. Perhaps the primary tension, underlying all of the rest, is found in the first chapter of the Torah. Man is an anomaly the orderly process of Creation, the only created thing that resembles the Creator (Bereishit 1:27). The tension between the created and the creator in Man underlies much of the stories throughout Tanakh[4], but also in the laws of the Torah. The commandment to rest on Shabbat is given two different reasons in the Torah. Bnei Yisrael must rest on Shabbat because they are like ‘א (Shemot 20:7-10), who rested on Shabbat, but also because they are like the rest of the created (Devarim 5:11-14), all of whom must rest equally.

We are complex beings, neither masters of our own domain nor slaves, without a hand in the course of history. Not quite created or creator, we are unique. However, this uniqueness is not a reason for us to sit back and rest on our heels. No part of the complex mosaic that is man provides an exemption from responsibility.  Having been slaves does not entitle the Israelites to mistreat others, and being endowed with Creator-hood, far from granting us privileges, enjoins us to rest from the act of creating. Whether we are created to conquer and to dominate (Bereishit 1:28) or to serve and to protect (Bereishit 2:15), it is clear that we are created to be responsible, both to our Creator and to our fellow creatures.


[1] I am indebted for much of the textual analysis in this composition to an essay by Rav Yonatan Grossman.

[2] Rashi actually explicitly deals with these contradictions in his commentary on Devarim 15:12, “Has the Torah not already stated ‘and when you buy a Hebrew servant’ Rather, the repetition here adds two new details. Firstly, that the female servant also goes forth after six years, and secondly, that the parting servant is to be provided with gifts.”

[3] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Kiddushin, 20a.

[4] The story of the first transgression of Man in Bereishit 3 is a great example, as it is explicitly mentioned in Bereishit 3:5&22.

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at dafaleph.com. Onward to Part Five.)


[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.