Time to rethink the Tanach?

How much of the Tanach is literally true?

This was the focus of a talk at the London School of Jewish Studies last week. The panel - Menachem Leibtag, Shmuel Klitsner and Jonathan Bailey, all leading American-Israeli modern Orthodox scholars - was in agreement. The Torah is God-given, but not all the stories necessarily happened exactly as written. Rather, they are often pedagogical tools, styled to convey the lessons God wants humanity to learn. Some, said Rabbi Leibtag, are to be taken "seriously, not literally".

Among Orthodox Anglo-Jewry, this is highly controversial stuff, which is perhaps why there were no Brits on the panel. The evening was billed as a "cutting-edge, non-apologetic debate". Leaving the packed hall, one person commented that such a debate would never be allowed in their United Synagogue shul. Not only would the answer be judged heretical, so would the question.

This is not the case elsewhere. The evening's most instructive moment came when Rabbi Klitsner admitted that he struggled to understand why LSJS was so keen on the topic. No one he knew, he said, really worried about the historicity of the Tanach. In Israeli and American modern Orthodox circles, the implication was that the Bible stories' occasional slip into allegory, metaphor or literary device was either taken for granted or debated openly - as it was among classical commentators.

The shadow of the Louis Jacobs Affair still looms large

So why is it such a dangerous spot for us? Rabbi Klitsner suggested that it is human nature to find fluidity difficult, which I understood to mean that the inability to pinpoint exactly which Tanach elements are literally true can be threatening.

But there are other, more local reasons. The shadow of the Louis Jacobs Affair looms large. His banishment from Orthodoxy, following the publication of We Have Reason to Believe, effectively shut down the possibility of open discussion about anything to do with biblical theology. Since then, literal belief in all Tanach stories has become a litmus test for Charedi Judaism.

Meanwhile, our US rabbis must self-censor to keep their jobs. Unlike their American and Israeli counterparts, who answer only to their members or boards, they answer to a conservative body, the US, and its Charedi beth din. The perception, if not reality, is that they act as thought police. As the relationship between Orthodox and Progressives in this country is so fraught, a particular obsession is avoiding anything that sounds even vaguely "Reform", even if it is a perfectly legitimate Orthodox point of view.

Anglo-Jewry has also never nurtured its intellectuals or theologians. America has Yeshiva University, Israel has Bar-Ilan and many good yeshivot. Both countries have produced scores of serious Jewish scholars and thinkers. We have Lord Sacks.

Yet questions around the authenticity of our texts will not disappear. The only way to avoid them is to isolate ourselves from the modern world, which is not a realistic or desirable option for most Jews.

As the standing-room-only LSJS event showed, there is a thirst amongst some Orthodox Jews for sophisticated discussion of theological issues. It is only natural: educated to a high standard in other areas, why should they make do with simplistic answers - or no answers - in the Jewish realm? When we are taught critical thinking at good universities, why should any Jewish theological question be considered taboo?

Some may find this approach frightening. But, equally, our inability to discuss these issues maturely has turned many good people off religion altogether. We are no less intelligent than our American and Israeli peers. Why, then, can we not have the same standards of theological discussion?

    Last updated: 11:36am, March 8 2012