The Orthodox rabbi with an answer to biblical criticism

Academic study of the Bible has often undermined traditional beliefs in its origins but a new book responds to the challenge


It is hard to overstate the significance Judaism attaches to the provenance of the Torah. Venerated as the unmediated and uncorrupted word of God delivered to the Israelites at Sinai, every letter, flourish and apparent anomaly is laden with multi-layered meanings that are the basis for normative Jewish belief and practice.

The authenticity of the Sinaitic revelation (Torah from Heaven) and the eternal binding imperative of Jewish law – defining features of Orthodox Judaism – rely heavily on the integrity of the Torah. For Maimonides , fundamental beliefs include “the entire Torah found in our hands today is the Torah given to Moses,” a view widely understood to refer to a letter-perfect transmission.

Yet traditional beliefs about the origin and immutability of the Torah have been questioned for centuries, first by Spinoza and intensifying among 19th-century Protestant scholars, many of whom had a clear anti-Jewish agenda. They sought to explain the numerous contradictions, linguistic inconsistencies and other incongruities in the text of the Torah.

For example, scholars were perplexed by switching between the divine names YHWA and Elohim, often within the same passage. They also noticed stylistic, legalistic and narrative discrepancies between the first four books and Deuteronomy. These undermined the view that the Torah coheres as a unified whole, an unflawed, unaltered divine communication, although it is noteworthy that ancient and medieval Jewish commentaries address many of these difficulties, always from the sacrosanct position of divine authorship.

These challenges produced the Documentary Hypothesis, mostly ascribed to Julius Wellhausen, which asserts that the Torah is a collection of ancient documents, each reflecting a phase in the development of the Israelites and with its own author(s), perspective, context, agenda and version of laws and narratives. These were later interwoven by a redactor to create a single, composite text.

Minor anomalies and textual variants are explained by “lower criticism”, which assumes that the text has been deliberately or unintentionally edited over the course of time. Although scholars have continued to disagree about the dating, order, number and even existence of the original documents, the core hypothesis has been central to academic Torah study for over 100 years.

These issues fuelled Chief Rabbi Hertz’s commentary to the Pentateuch, as well as the so-called “Jacobs Affair”, and have produced a wealth of creative output from great Torah scholars and academics. To illustrate, Rabbi Louis Jacobs believed that it is possible to retain the “ancient vigour and power” of the traditional origins of the Torah, while accepting that the Bible is a human production containing”‘error as well as truth”.

In contrast, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, staying firmly within the tradition, embraces some aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis, which he claims God encoded in the Torah to reflect its rich and multifaceted agenda.

Enter Rabbi Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, today’s finest scholar in the field. His latest work Ani Ma’amin is a masterpiece of honesty, creativity and cross-disciplinary expertise, which he combines with a knack for making complex ideas accessible.

Berman reminds the reader that the Torah is a divine literary creation of the ancient world, one in which people understood history quite differently from our own. He rightly insists that “history itself has a history” and that what we today call “historical truth” is a modern construct diverging from ancient conceptualisations of recorded data and their purpose.

As such, the only lens through which the Torah can be examined is one informed by the context and mores of the ancient world into which it appeared.

One impressive aspect of Ani Maamin is the author’s ability to muster academic reasoning against some contemporary views of the Bible’s composition and history. Another is the persuasive argument that the format and objectives of Deuteronomy can only be understood with reference to the literary structures of the vassal treaties of its time.

In a single stroke, this approach neutralises most of the questions levelled against the dating and authorship of Deuteronomy and is especially appealing as it is based on medieval Jewish commentaries. Still another is his demolition of some aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis, ably illustrated by his masterful rereading and elimination of apparent inconsistencies in the deluge narrative.

Inevitably, some sections are less compelling. His attempt to address systemic conflicts between genealogies and censuses by allegorising numbers and reinterpreting certain key words leaves many unresolved difficulties, something he freely acknowledges. Yet even here, his insistence that one must let “the text speak to us on its terms rather than ours” is refreshing and unconventional.

In this ground-breaking work, Rabbi Berman convincingly demonstrates that a believer in the traditional concept of “Torah from Heaven” can engage with Bible criticism and “need not be afraid”, calmly embracing “the Torah as we have it today, confident that it is this text and no other that the Almighty wishes us to revere.”

Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, Joshua Berman is published by Koren at £21.95

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue

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