Orthodoxy can withstand an unflinching, academic look at the Bible, says scholar
In new book ‘Ani Maamin,’ Bar-Ilan University prof/Orthodox rabbi Joshua Berman faces crises of faith head on, using academic research to uphold the integrity of the biblical text
Bible Prof. Joshua Berman says he has been “inundated with emails” in recent years from people in the middle of an existential crisis: They are seeking to square their religious faith with the results of academic scholarship calling into question the divinity and unity of the Masoretic text.
The problem, he wrote in “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith,” released in late February, is that the theological issues raised by such research are perceived as threatening in some corners. As a result, “many rabbis and educators would not dare broach this topic for themselves, and certainly not with their students and congregants.”
And, Berman wrote, when members of the Orthodox community do inevitably run across scholarship in fields such as source criticism — which attempts to identify the putative original textual source texts that comprise the Torah — they often conclude that if their “teachers never acknowledged any of this, it must be because the tradition has nothing to say in its defense.”
“Until about 10 or 15 years ago people could easily live in their own bubble and not deal with biblical criticism,” Berman, a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, told The Times of Israel. But over the last decade or so, “even with the highest walls around you, it seeps in via the internet.”
When confronted with such challenges, “people with deep emotional commitments to tradition veer off to simplistic beliefs, and people who are more intellectually inclined give up on finding how tradition speaks to them,” Berman said.
In response, Berman wrote “Ani Maamin” to present a third option to believers unwilling to either retreat into fundamentalism or give up on the basis of their faith. Based on years of scholarship, he insists that his book is not a work of rabbinic apologia but rather a popularization of academic findings vetted by colleagues and published in peer reviewed journals.
His previous book, “Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism,” was published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.
The reigning paradigm in biblical studies is that inconsistencies in the biblical text hint at several previous textual iterations that were combined by an unknown redactor into the text we currently posses. By careful study the outlines of these previous documents can be identified.
But Berman takes issue with the assumptions underpinning such an effort.
“I’d call it a kind of pseudoscience,” he said, explaining that in no other field of study of ancient literature can one find an example of scholars attempting to reproduce source documents from a finished text without any outside documentary proof of their theories.
Many of those studying the Bible also make the mistake of applying modern sensibilities to the text, making assumptions that repetition — especially when variant versions of a story exist in a text — are a sign of disparate texts being merged, he said.
However, Berman argued, there is another way to understand narrative inconsistencies, especially those in the Book of Deuteronomy, which are frequently at odds with retellings in previous books of the Bible.
Noting that it is almost impossible to find a consistent agenda behind these retellings, he argued that the only thing they have in common is that in them, God tends to judge the Israelites more harshly than in previous accounts.
When a reader begins to look at the Bible as modeled on ancient vassal treaties — compacts between lesser and greater kings in the ancient Near East — this begins to make sense, Berman said, noting that the standard format of such documents usually contained a narrative portion explaining the historical background of the compact.
“There are many scholars that see Deuteronomy as a renewal of the treaty from Mount Sinai,” he said.
There are many scholars that see Deuteronomy as a renewal of the treaty from Mount Sinai
Such stories were traditionally told “differently each time they renewed the treaty, and it was very clear to everyone there would be differences because these stories were diplomatic signalizing,” he said.
The new versions, Berman said, were intended to “shape the perception of what was happening now between the king and the vassals” and were meant to be understood within the context of previously written narratives.
This leads to another of Berman’s arguments, which is that by applying contemporary concepts of history and fact, readers are making critical mistakes about how the Bible would have been received and understood by the ancient Hebrews.
Prior to the 19th century, much of what we now look back on as history was composed for hortatory purposes. It used history, sometimes embellished, to make a moral or political point, and the “essential nature of these compositions as exhortation leaves us today trapped unaware by our modern binary categories of fiction and non-fiction,” he wrote.
“Many of these pesky questions arise from our modern eyes and sensitivities and [because] we’ve lost touch with ancient Mideast ways of writing and thinking,” he said.
As an example of this kind of embellishment, Berman cites the use of census numbers in the Torah, arguing that they were more likely symbolic than accurate demographic data and that their meaning would have been understood by early readers without taking away from their belief in the basic historical accuracy of the Exodus account.
Berman defends this narrative in his book in several ways, including by pointing out that many of the major non-biblical events known through ancient writings “are archaeologically invisible.” Implying that there is a double-standard at work, he argues that the basic stories, if not many of the surrounding details, of such writings are usually accepted as having some historical grounding — even as many scholars cast doubt on the veracity of events recounted in the Torah.
He also notes that there are multiple allusions throughout the Exodus narrative that “strikingly appear to reflect the realities of late second-millennium [BCE] Egypt” which “a scribe living centuries later and inventing the story of afresh would have been unlikely to know.”
Using such an approach to understand the Torah “sounds very new but it goes back to deep roots in our tradition,” Berman said, describing how the 12th century philosopher Maimonides “wrote about seeking out all the literature he could find about the ancient Near East and lamented in the ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ that he couldn’t be certain that the more he learned, the more he’d understand the reasons for the Mitzvot.”
Citing Maimonides’s dictum that many of the Torah’s laws and practices were commanded as part of an effort to combat pagan ways of thinking prevalent in the region at the time, he argued that many details in the Torah can be best understood in such a light, writing that one can discern the “dynamics of appropriation” in the Torah.
From the form of the tabernacle in the wilderness, which he argues is based on the portable throne tent of Ramses II, to the use of terminology like God taking the Israelites out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” which has precedents in ancient Egyptian literature, Berman believes that the Torah is full of cultural allusions which would have been deeply meaningful for contemporary Jews’ forebears but which can now only be understood through the lens of academic research.
“If you are born in the 21st century there’s a ton you’re not gonna get about the Torah,” he said.
Berman believes that it is his unique background that allowed him to grapple with ideas that others have shunned.
“My parents were not from Orthodox backgrounds, but in the euphoria after the Six-Day War they wanted me to have a Jewish and Zionist education,” which led him to decide that he wanted to adopt religious observance, Berman recalled.
“This is important for understanding this book because my whole life has been spent examining the tradition from within and without, and I had to find a way of dealing with challenging issues because my acceptance of observance was a choice,” he said.
I had to find a way of dealing with challenging issues because my acceptance of observance was a choice
Berman would eventually go on to spend eight years at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank, where he received his rabbinic ordination, with a break in the middle to study religion at Princeton University. After several years of teaching, he decided to “expand his toolbox of resources” and at the age of 32, started studying for a doctorate in biblical studies at Bar-Ilan.
It was only a decade ago in his mid-40s that Berman began investigating the subjects that now constitute the core of his academic research as a result of seeing many of his contemporaries grappling with issues that had previously been largely limited to the academic elite.
Joining a discussion group of Orthodox thinkers, Berman was shocked to discover that rabbinic figures he respected had simply accepted the basic approach of biblical criticism and believed that they had “to figure out how to get the handmaiden of the tradition to bow down to the master of the academy.”
“Being myself already in the academy with tenured positions and reading journals and attending conferences, I realized this isn’t the way to go,” he recalled. “There are good questions from academia but the answers are by no means unidimensional or ironclad and we needed a much more nuanced approach.”
Out of the biblical box
While Berman is well respected, his approach is certainly out of the mainstream in his field.
“He’s a serious scholar well informed in the Bible and ancient Near East, but I’m personally not convinced by his arguments against source criticism,” said Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“I do believe that there are significant differences between parallel stories, for example in the beginning of the Torah where we have two very different narratives about creation,” he said.
“Rather to try and make them into one I would prefer to see them as the two different divine voices.”
Berman is a “trailblazer,” argued Jeffrey Woolf, a historian and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University.
“He is incredibly brave because, contrary to what some people might assert, in academia in every academic field there is a certain consensus about the truth of the field in which you operate and you work within the framework,” Woolf said.
“It’s considered to be incredibly threatening and almost heresy to question a paradigm,” he said.
It’s considered to be incredibly threatening and almost heresy to question a paradigm
While it is unlikely that Berman will change the direction of the field of biblical studies, he is starting to have an impact on elements within the Orthodox community.
“His scholarship stands on its own. Everything he writes in the present book he has published in first-rate, A+ academic bible journals, so this is not a case of Orthodox apologetics or trying to fudge the truth or adapt things,” Woolf said. “He looks at the evidence straight on.”
There certainly has been interest and not just among the Modern Orthodox.
“I had a Zoom meeting last week with five Satmar guys,” Berman recalled, describing a teleconference in which members of the insular Hasidic sect posed hard-hitting questions about the Bible, showing that the influence of academia has even penetrated into some of the more closed-off Orthodox communities.
Time for a more confident Orthodoxy
But beyond taking aim at source criticism and arguing that knowledge of the cultural context of the ancient Near East can help believers better understand their own scriptures, Berman said that he had another reason for writing his book.
“I wrote ‘Ani Maamin’ to advance a vision of Orthodoxy,” he told The Times of Israel. “This is about the Orthodoxy of confidence and courage, not the Orthodoxy of fear and escape.”
When we hide from challenging questions we lose ourselves
“When we hide from challenging questions we lose ourselves,” he said. “Your conscience knows you are hiding. And when you cower in fear — in any realm — you forestall the capacity to realize your full potential and greatness.”
By taking a public stand on such a contentious issue, Berman said that he hoped to not only answer people’s questions but to help inject a new vitality and confidence into the religion.
“This is about returning honesty to its central place in our Orthodoxy as we stand before the Almighty in all realms,” Berman said. “This is about an Orthodoxy that embraces the world in which the Almighty has placed us, here and now, rather than wishing we lived in an idealized and imagined past.”
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