Text and Context:
Many observers see religion as a system of beliefs
espoused by people who would describe themselves as believers. These beliefs
and believers are perceived to stand at one pole, opposite an alternative called
heresy, which is accepted by individuals often called heretics, usually by self-designated
believers who disagree with them. Much of the religious world divides the range
of religious ideas and their adherents into these opposing categories, reminiscent
of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, eschatological enemies depicted
in a military text discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
It is relatively easy to call people heretics. It is much harder, for some
reason, for believers to acknowledge that others, particularly those outside
their own religious community, are also believers. The believers and the heretics
often disagree with each other quite forcefully. Whatever names the combatants
actually bear, many of the internal debates among Jews—which pit the Orthodox
against the non-Orthodox, or the Modern Orthodox against the haredim—focus
on what is a proper belief or a heretical one, or who is a believer and who
is a heretic.
For many people the distinction ends there, but even in the popular mindset—which
is what I am attempting to describe here—this duality does not adequately
describe the full extent of religion-related discourse. In fact, we can identify
not two poles, but three foci. To the first two classifications, one can add
the critics, who on any particular issue may agree with the believers or the
heretics. One should speak, then, not about believers and heretics, but about
believers, heretics, and critics. It is even possible for an individual to carry
two or all three of these designations. I frequently do, depending as
much on where I am as on what I say.
Significant differences exist among these three groups, yet believers regard
the heretics and the critics as essentially one group. Similarly, the heretics
sometimes see the believers and the critics as too closely aligned and distance
themselves from both. Finally, the critics may see the believers and the heretics
as sharing an excessive devotion to doctrine, albeit of very different sorts,
and may regard only themselves as clear-thinking.
This tri-partite array of believers and heretics and critics can be pictured
as the three corners of a triangle. If on this triangle one draws a line separating
the believers from the others, the heretics from the others and the critics
from the others, one creates a six-pointed star. This does not explain, of course,
the historical origins of the Magen David, but it can serve to symbolize the
ways in which one can group and interrelate many ideas essential to the study
Debates about substantive matters reveal the difficulty in defining a position
espoused by only one of the three groups. And attempts to determine who actually
deserves to be categorized as believer, heretic, or critic often depend on issues
of reputation. For example, most Orthodox Jews today, if given the opportunity
to examine anonymous selections from writings by rabbis whom they would unhesitatingly
acknowledge as believers, would quickly label those writings as heresy or criticism.
A highly learned reader may be more successful, but even relative sophisticates—day
school graduates and others who have lived in the Orthodox community for decades
and whose lives reflect its teachings and values—would be surprised by
the critical or heretical-sounding statements of recognized authorities. Despite
their vividness and seeming relevance, therefore, one should be very wary of
employing these three terms in any systematic way. And even though I believe
this to be a helpful way to introduce the subject, I prefer to break down these
Questions regarding historical-critical method ostensibly partake of criticism,
but may be included in the other categories as well. Orthodox Jews face specific
problems with this method that can differentiate them from other religious Jews.
Some are classic issues of Jewish learning that have engaged traditionalists
for several millennia; others are not. Here the methodological questions surrounding
learning begin to pose a serious challenge. Among the assumptions underlying
historical-critical method is the need to approach a text with a degree of subjectivity.
From an Orthodox point of view, however, it is all very nice for someone to
study the Bible or the Talmud in order to determine what a particular text is
going to mean to him or her, but the real meaning is dictated—or at least
suggested—by traditional sources. To approach a problem or text critically,
one must be willing to think outside the traditional framework, as it is regularly
presented today. In order to do that, one must be openly subjective and apply
strategies that may lead to conclusions differing significantly from those normally
taught. The key is thinking critically and subjectively about the material,
rather than simply accepting what one reads.
Another important aspect of historical-critical analysis is the effort to
contextualize all texts and ideas, on the premise that any text or idea can
be understand best if placed in its original context. This assumption does not
preclude applying other approaches to the same text, but it does mean that contextual
influences play a major role in the critical thinker’s perception of how
the text came to be, what it says, what it originally meant, and arguably what
it could or should mean today.
For example, the attitudes towards government and its polity in various Jewish
cultures were developed in response to the treatment of Jews by particular
governments. In one context, the attitude toward the state may be positive,
in another it may be negative. Any understanding of rabbinic thinking, halakhic
rulings, and general public attitudes about this question must be understood
A third form of historical-critical analysis deals with what is often called
lower criticism: the determination of the correct text. Simply put, before we
actually get to the point of making decisions based on specific texts, we must
determine with precision what the correct text is. One of the great challenges
in dealing with Rashi’s Torah commentary is the great uncertainty about
exactly what he wrote. Rashi exists in Ashkenazic and Sephardic editions, or
at least in editions that one could associate with medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic
readers. Recent research demonstrates that, at least once every chapter on average,
his commentary has been changed by the Tosafists or in response to their criticisms.
Before doing anything else, one must know what the text is.
Similarly, the ancient Greek version of Jeremiah differs significantly from
the Hebrew one and is based on (or textually related to) a variant Hebrew version
of the book discovered in part among the Dead Sea Scrolls. While we assume
the canonical form of the book is correct for ritual considerations, i.e. no
one would advocate reading a haftarah from the Dead Sea Scroll version,
for historical purposes we need to know more about the text of Jeremiah than
the canonical Hebrew version alone can tell us.
I recently published a book entitled Fixing God’s Torah.1 The
title surprises many people who wonder how I can write about “fixing”
the Torah. Indeed, how can I even use the two words together? But “fixing”
and Torah really do go together. Scribes who write Torah scrolls use books called
tiqqunim (related to the Hebrew word meaning “fix”),
and people who prepare to read the Torah on Shabbat do likewise. In fact, my
book discusses the extent to which the great medieval and post-medieval rabbis
were engaged in determining the proper text of the Torah, a subject that may
strike some readers as purely critical and others as downright heretical. Actually
it is neither.
Dealing with what the text is must precede saying anything else
about it—its importance, its impact, and its potential uses.
Until we figure out what the text of Rashi actually contains, we should probably
stop making it the cornerstone of our educational programs. Instead, we should
allow its place to be shared with other rabbinic commentaries that are equally
useful. I make this comment not to disparage Rashi, but in recognition of Rashbam’s
report in his commentary on Gen. 37:2 of his grandfather’s wish to have
had the time to write additional commentary on the basis of novel understandings
of peshat, and because much of what has been written about Rashi and
the details of his commentaries may need to be re-done with a proper text available.
Finally, we come to the question of history. When I first started studying
at Yeshiva University, history had a bad name. Even then, some people, especially
some rabbis, did not appreciate history. In the last twenty-five or thirty years,
the religious world reacted against historical thinking. History assumes the
importance of context, even as it organizes and explains events systematically,
categorically, and through universal causes and effects. It prioritizes types
of evidence and develops positions not necessarily identical to those assumed
in conceptual or thematic decision-making. A historical-critical analysis of
halakhah, for example, assumes different perspectives, and therefore
differs from a conceptual analysis in how it sees influences and process.
For this reason, historical-critical method really does present Modern Orthodox
Jews with a serious dilemma. They are not only eager to develop their intellectual
quests in new and interesting ways. They are also compelled by issues in the
broader intellectual world to pursue this quest in historical-critical ways,
even when such attempts seem to run counter to other rabbinic thinking. Post-modernism
may help change that, because it favors approaches to thinking that are more
subjective and less dependent on historical and text-critical assumptions. But
even post-modernism admits the theoretical value of many historical-critical
Orthodox Jews are confronted by serious challenges in how they understand,
in how they teach, and in how they explain the paths Judaism took on its complex
journey from antiquity to today. Indeed, Orthodox Judaism needs to ask the self-reflective
question about why it has the character is does, and why its adherents think
as they do. We should look at this question historically and critically and
explore the origins of many of the seemingly pious assumptions that underlie
much of what we do, but may not have been equally significant to previous generations
of rabbinic leaders and their followers. Why, for example, has ritual rather
than ethics come to be the overarching concern of the Orthodox world? Why
are dietary restrictions based on previously unheard of halakhic minutiae of
greater moment than those related to general well-being, e.g. how can a food
be given kosher certification when we know its contents to be unhealthful?
Many of the individual components that make up Orthodox doctrine are of relatively
recent vintage. The mix of contemporary attitudes—perhaps most significantly
the intellectual isolationism evident in much of the Orthodox world today—is
actually one of the most radical rabbinic innovations of all time.
To confront the impact of contemporary rabbinic thinking through the historical-critical
challenge, one must scour the classical rabbinic literature, find models of
the strategies that we believe are appropriate, and exploit them in our own
contexts and in our own particular ways. In the Guide for the Perplexed (III:
29, 37), Maimonides observed that, if we knew more about ancient times,
we would better understand the rationales behind the Torah’s laws. This
argument attempts to contextualize divine law, and it suggests the value of
historical reasoning in religious thinking. Maimonides also wrote about his
reading of contemporary pagan books to learn about the ancient pagan world,
so he could understand the culture and the practices to which the Torah seemed
to be responding. This is very much a modern sounding argument, but it is not.
It is an old strategy that has become a cornerstone of historical-critical thinking,
and it is decidedly unpopular in certain circles. Yet it allows, perhaps even
demands, that historical contextualizing be explored and developed.
Similarly, text-critical work is a natural and important part of many classical
rabbinic books; in fact, anyone who studies Mishnah, Talmud, midrash,
and the like, finds rabbinic discussions of textual variants virtually everywhere.
The editors of the Mishnah printed the variants right on the page; the printers
of Babylonian Talmud did likewise. The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein
(author of the Torah Temimah), and many other respected writers concerned
themselves with textual details and inconsistencies.
These are classic attempts to fix the texts, to correct them, to establish
them, and to deal with inconsistencies in a text-critical way. Early commentators
on the Talmud were more sensitive to issues surrounding the accuracy of texts
than are most moderns, because they studied from manuscripts that often differed
from one another in relatively significant and insignificant ways. Studying
any text was predicated on first determining what it was.
Rabbinic culture today is generally far removed from such endeavors, and those
who challenge the textual integrity of any holy book are often branded as heretics.
The medieval rabbis studied from manuscripts, and they knew that manuscripts
differ from one another. To see this applied to the Bible text, read any page
of Norzi’s Minhat Shai. To see it applied to rabbinic texts, particularly
the Babylonian Talmud, examine the notes and commentaries of the Vilna Gaon,
and Rabbis Hayyim Bachrach and Samuel Strashun, and Diqduqei Soferim,
writen by Raphael Rabbinovicz and supported by letters of approbation by seven
rabbis, including Solomon Kluger, Joseph Saul Nathanson, Jacob Ettlinger, and
When the learning public shifted from studying manuscripts to studying printed
books (mainly in the sixteenth century), much of this interest in fixing the
text died out, partly because the job was done by printers (however inadequately)
and partly because people for the most part now had identical texts and were
not confronted daily with questions of textual inconsistency. While some people
continued to improve on these texts, such matters came to be ignored, and the
dynamics of learning moved to other considerations. As a result, the attitude
towards the importance and sanctity of this work declined, and the popular response
now is largely to avoid the subject, lest it somehow undermine the faithful.
The simple question about historical-critical thinking that confronts us is
this: To what extent can we exploit these critical lines of argumentation in
formulating an independent, responsible, authentically Orthodox approach to
We must see this as a legitimate educational problem, an issue in the training
of teachers and rabbis and in the expectations we have of our religious leaders.
Can we—dare we—-accept teachers and rabbis who do not share a commitment
to this historical-critical outlook, not to the exclusion of all other forms
of learning but in addition to them? If they cannot appreciate the significant
role such modes of thought played in classical rabbinic literature, and its
potential value to the contemporary world, how can they satisfy modern Orthodox
Let me illustrate with a story about a congregation in Montreal. Some years
ago, a synagogue not far from where I live was between rabbis and it called
on me before Passover to address the congregation some five or six times before
and during the holiday. The members of this congregation knew me, because I
had spoken there, but they asked come to an interview. When I arrived, they
bluntly asked me whether I would say anything heretical from the bimah.
I assured them I would not, but then added that I might say something controversial.
They asked me what I meant. I said, “Suppose on Pesah I
said that when the Hebrews were in Egypt they did not build the pyramids?”
They were shocked and wanted to know why I would say such a thing. I replied
that the pyramids were over a thousand years old when Abraham went to Egypt,
and therefore they could not have been built Jewish slaves. In fact, no one
who knows anything about ancient history believes the Hebrews built the pyramids.
The Torah does not say they did; it says they built “store cities.”
Yet this error has somehow captured the popular consciousness. At Camp David,
Begin lectured Sadat about how his Jewish ancestors had built the pyramids,
and Sadat stood there shaking his head in affirmation. Neither man seems to
have known the historical truth.
The notion that our ancestors built the pyramids is complete fiction with
no religious concern underlying it, and yet here was a well meaning Orthodox
synagogue whose leaders worried that my saying this in public on Pesah of
all times would be a scandal and somehow weaken people’s faith. In the
end, with the rabbi’s encouragement they accepted that I might be correct
and they hired me, but they also insisted I not discuss the matter from the
bimah. Fantasy, it seems, can be more important than fact, and even mistakes
that do not matter religiously are hard to correct. This was not a rightist
synagogue. It was populated by sincere people who were committed to Judaism
and wanted to avoid having anyone rock the boat.
To counter this type of response and gain the ability to correct both trivial
and serious mistakes of this type, Orthodoxy must insure that historical-critical
thinking develops grass-roots acceptance. It needs to weed out the errors and
fallacies in popular thinking, the mistaken assumptions and their results. Orthodoxy
must eschew those approaches it finds unsuccessful, yet it must value the historical-critical
method and integrate it with the classical rabbinical learning to which it is
so indebted. It must do this not merely because it is the most appropriate way
for thinking members of the present generation to respond to the intellectual
challenges that confront them. It also needs to do so because such thinking
represents a significant part of the classical rabbinic approach that deserves
to be followed. If we cannot do this, some Modern Orthodox Jews will never be
comfortable feeling that the Torah in which we are engaged actually does approach
The texts, and the strategic models needed to study them fully and properly,
are in place. But while some of its members may do so, as a community Modern
Orthodoxy lacks the critical mass of people and the commitment of its convictions
to take advantage of them. This is less of a problem in Israel, because there
one finds an Orthodox intelligentsia populous enough and stubborn enough to
do what it thinks is appropriate. In North America we lack that critical mass
of people. The few of us who work as Bible scholars are so rare that the religious
community does not know what to do with us. No more than a half-dozen Orthodox
Bible scholars roam the campuses of North America, and some of those who rightfully
hold that title spend most of their time researching other things.
The fact is that the Talmud speaks about Joshua’s writing the end of
the Torah, and a list of medieval writers including Yehuda he-Hasid and Abraham
Ibn Ezra were quite content to suggest not only post-Mosaic additions to the
Torah but a human component to it. Some midrashim attribute the
existence of unusually large or small letters to Moses’ attempts to convey
some message, as if it were his decision how these things should be done.
Critical sounding sources are plentiful. The problem is that we as a community
do not talk about them. Our teachers are not trained to discuss them with students,
and our rabbis are uninterested or actively discouraged from making these issues
public. If the teachers and preachers are not sharing a highly significant segment
of authentic rabbinic knowledge, it will be left to a few seemingly eccentric
professors who are trying to change the world from their tenured positions in
secular universities. We need you to help in the campaign.
It is important to do two things with regard to higher biblical criticism.
On the one hand, it is crucial that people study the documentary hypothesis.
I do not mean simply hearing a lecture or reading an article about it. And surely
I do not suggest they bow low at the waist and say, “I believe in the
documentary hypothesis.” One must study it and the related challenges
and problems. One must look at the text the way the critics look at it. One
should see how the tradition responded to those same concerns, because those
concerns were there all along. Believe it or not, the midrashim saw
The question really is: How does one understand the history of grappling with
certain kinds of textual inconsistencies, and what should this mean to us today?
I assure you that Wellhausen, who made much of changes in the use of God’s
names from one passage in the Torah to another, did not discover the problem.
It has a very long and distinguished history of discussion.
We must see where this theory came from, how it developed, what other possible
solutions exist within the tradition, and whether a better suggestion can be
put forth. Such historical study is not a simple thing, but it must be done.
Similarly, one must understand that there is a documented history of several
millennia of Jewish answers to most critical and exegetical questions. The history
of criticism is not quite as long, and the task of mastering it is actually
less intimidating than mastering the relevant rabbinic literature. The Orthodox
community cannot bridge these gaps in one generation, but every generation must
be engaged in a study of these literatures and their underlying issues—both
their relevance today and their evolution—and only then it can begin to
grapple with the question.
When we talk about Judaism, we talk about the way we teach it, the way we
live it, and the way we try to understand it. In general American culture, young
children learn about the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, George Washington’s
chopping down the cherry tree, and the like. As they mature, they learn that
these characters and the deeds attributed to them fit into a category of knowledge
that is not necessarily the cornerstone of personal or political identity or
One of the problems Orthodoxy faces is that its educational system—-which
extends from the time the child learns to talk until late in life—-has
not developed the terminology to differentiate between history and folklore,
between serious things and peripheral ones, between those issues on which it
is willing to take a stand and those considered to be non-essential, between
those that should be understood historically and those best taken some other
way. Our greatest challenge today is not Reform, or Reconstructionism, or Conservativism,
or Liberal Orthodoxy, or Centrist Orthodoxy, or Hasidism, or “Harediism.”
Our greatest collective problem—though it affects different groups in
different ways—is Mindless Orthodoxy. This is the uncritical following
of a fixed religious life whose most minute details are controlled or invented
for us, that avoids rational debate in favor of faithful adherence to rituals,
and that imagines salvation to be the guaranteed outcome of being both frum and
Many of the greatest medieval rabbis were sensitive to some of these issues
and, in their presentations and analyses, they reacted to them in ways that
might cost many a contemporary rabbi his congregation’s trust, if not
his job. The problem is that such language is foreign to contemporary Orthodox
religious ethos and, as a result, thinking people are constantly drawn back
to this same problem.
To use scientific terminology, with which many of you may be comfortable, “Torah
u-madda`,” the long-standing slogan of Yeshiva University, is not
the simple presence of two elements, Torah and madda`, in
proximity. Torah u-madda` is a new compound that differs in many
of its properties from torah plus madda`, just as the two
independent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, differ from water. The torah u-madda`
that I take as the basis of Modern Orthodox philosophy is the water. It is neither
solely the hydrogen nor solely the oxygen of which it is composed, nor is it
the mixture of the two, both of which are essential gases, but not much more.
Torah u-madda is a compound product, to be valued over “elemental
Torah,” because the latter lacks the human component that enriches
Torah once it has been placed by Heaven squarely in our hands.
Dr. B. Barry Levy, a member of the editorial board
of The Edah Journal, is Professor of Biblical and Jewish Studies and Dean of
the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University.