Sunday, December 14, 2008

Biblical Criticism and Yirat Shamayim

Rav Moshe Liechtenstein argues that we should study Tanach not as a source of faith but rather because of faith:

At its root, the issue is not unique to Biblical Criticism; rather, it is part of the broader subject of faith and science that has engaged religious philosophy over the past millennium, since the essence of the issue pits the analytical findings of the human intellect against the plain meaning of the Scriptural text. This leaves us with three options: (1) accepting the findings of science and rejecting the plain meaning of the revealed text, either by denial of the text’s authority or by reinterpretation of its meaning, (2) holding on to the literal meaning of the text and rejecting scientific knowledge as the product of fallible human reason, or (3) attempting to find middle ground, in which part of the scientific finding is recognized and integrated into the textual meaning while other portions are denied. In theory, yirat shamayim can accommodate all three of these alternatives, although the first only by a radical redefining of many basic tenets and texts. Therefore, the traditional approach has been to choose the second or third options in varying degrees. Thus, even though the classic sources relate mainly to natural science and not to Biblical Criticism, which is a more recent phenomenon, the basic methodology is applicable in the case of Biblical Criticism and biblical archaeology as well. However, since Biblical Criticism is not a natural science, the prevailing tendency has certainly been the third approach that declines any acceptance of critical theories.

A radical break with this tradition was initiated by R. Mordechai Breuer who established a method of interpretation that is based upon adoption of the first alternative regarding Biblical Criticism. The method is predicated upon the assumption that the textual conclusions of Biblical Criticism are accurate and their findings indisputable, so that intellectual honesty requires us to validate them. The religious challenge, therefore, is not to deny the textual claims but to provide them with a metaphysical framework that is compatible with an Orthodox viewpoint. R. Breuer’s approach figured prominently in a previous Orthodox Forum, whose papers have subsequently been published, there is not much point, therefore, in entering into a lengthy discussion of it here, despite its relevance for our topic. However, the discussions of that forum focused upon the theological implications of the method and did not relate to the educational aspects of it. These, though, are a crucial element for any evaluation of his Shitat Habechinot and its relationship to yirat shamayim.

The inherent dangers of contact with Biblical Criticism and the attempt to integrate it into an Orthodox framework from an experiential point of view are of a dual nature. The first is a function of its content. Aside from the dilemma of adopting (or adapting) interpretations that were arrived at by a method whose implicit metaphysical axioms are foreign to any God-fearing outlook and the concern that these principles may unknowingly be the motivating force that underlies the suggested interpretation – which was the subject of the previous forum – there is the additional problem of the slippery slope. Exposure to a body of work that is academically impressive but whose theological premises are in contradiction to yirat shamayim may cause a student to go beyond R. Breuer’s policy of accepting the details and rejecting the framework and induce him to accept the metaphysical structure as well. Essentially, such a person accepts the premise of R. Breuer’s critics that the interpretations and metaphysics are inseparable, only like R. Breuer and unlike his critics, he is so convinced of the interpretations that he does not have the option of rejecting them. Therefore, he has no choice but to redefine his beliefs. Even if this is sincerely done out of deep religious motivation, the result will be a system of belief totally incompatible with traditional Orthodoxy. R. Breuer himself brought attention to this phenomenon in a very poignant piece that he wrote in Megadim a few years ago.

The additional risk of this method is the emotional aspect. The constant contact with texts and/or people that treat Tanakh as an ancient piquant text lacking divine authority can have a corrosive influence. If the intellectual framework of reference is an academic milieu that treats Torah as fodder for deconstruction, then there is an existential price that is often exacted. The sense of awe, dignity, and reverence that we feel towards Torah as d’var HaShem is readily compromised in the soul if critical concepts become routine and cease to jar the ears. References to “the Biblical narrator” or other similar phrases that convey a detached academic aloofness and the loss of intimacy and varmkeit that must accompany the study of Tanakh are not worth any intellectual gains that may have been gotten by exposure to such materials. To employ a metaphor, if a person has to choose between knowing more about his father or mother, but at the price that the additional understanding will come at the expense of the warmness and intimacy, isn’t it self evident that it’s better to know less and feel more rather than vice versa?

This brings us to the heart of the issue of Tanakh and yirat shamayim. To paraphrase John Henry Newman’s remark about God and Nature, we do not believe in God because of the Tanakh, rather we accept the Tanakh because of our belief in Him.

Thanks to Hirhurim for the heads up. Article here.

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