Monday, March 26, 2007

Rabbi Breuer and the Documentary Hypothesis

Rabbi Gil Student quotes a eulogy of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, a respected Orthodox Rabbi who specializes in the chumash (the Pentateuch):
Rabbi Mordechai Breuer fashioned the tools that enabled Orthodox students to confront the literary problems raised by modern biblical criticism. He entered a situation where the Orthodox approach was an apologetic one, in which the Torah was to be defended against heretical assault.

By the time he died last month, Rabbi Breuer had transformed the encounter with kefira* into a positive act of Torah study. Where his influence is felt, the literary questions posed by the Bible critics are treated no different from other interesting questions endemic to Torah study: questions are a spur to chiddush** and deeper understanding rather than a cause for discomfort or panic...

As I commented on R' Student's blog, at first I was excited to see an Orthodox rabbi honestly taking on the Documentary Hypothesis. It reflects the kind of courage I wrote about yesterday. However, upon reading the entire eulogy, it became obvious that R' Breuer was simply a more sophisticated apologist than the Orthodox rabbis who came before him:
In the academic world this aspect of Rabbi Breuer’s work was received with a thundering silence. Naturally those scholars committed to the Documentary Hypothesis for religious or intellectual reasons would not be eager to discard the consensus, especially as Rabbi Breuer offered not an all out refutation, but rather an alternative method, compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai*** on other grounds. [emphasis added --JA]
This sounds very much like the kind of apologetics offered by those who attempt to reconcile the Genesis creation story with modern science, if more sophisticated. Apparently impressed by the questions that led scholars to come up with the Documentary Hypothesis, R' Breuer chose not to dismiss it out of hand as the overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis have done, but to engage with it, to perform a scholarly judo move of sorts, embracing it while defanging it at the same time.

Here's the thing about the Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism. If Orthodox Judaism is true, then the Torah was given in its entirety (minus perhaps the last eight verses) to Moses. This, from a plain reading of the text, is an obvious falsehood:
  1. Nowhere in the chumash (the five books) itself does it say that Moses received the Five Books, only that he received laws and the Ten Commandments.
  2. Many verses of the chumash were obviously written much after Moses's time, using anachronistic names for places as well as referring to events in Moses's time as a long time ago.
  3. The text of the chumash reveals clues of multiple authors from different times and places.
Any intellectually honest scholar must conclude that if the Documentary Hypothesis is not itself precisely true, the truth must lie closer to it than to Orthodox Judaism's perspective. Yet even the most progressive Orthodox Rabbis are unable to accept this. Rabbi Breuer came up with an "alternative" to the DH that could work for those who wanted to believe but even that was too much for most Orthodox rabbis, who remained afraid of teaching his ideas. Even today, according to students of Rabbi Carmy who commented at Rabbi Student's blog, if R' Carmy or other Orthodox scholars allude to ideas raised by R' Breuer, they refrain from quoting him by name.


* heresy.
** insight.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just have one question for proponents of the documentary hypothesis. There are numerous casers I can site of Human authors writing different works using different styles, language etc. "The Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings" Where both written by the same person J.R.R. Tolkein, yet they are very different in style tone, etc. FOr example in "The Hobbit" the evil creatures are called goblins. In "LotR" they are called orcs. In "LotR" the evil wizard is identified by name, Sauron. In "The Hobbit" he is mentioned only as the necromancer. There's more, but we know that both books where written by J.R.R.Tolkein. Asimov's robot books are different than his Foundation series. It seems that it is very possible for trhe same author to write using differnt styles, languagre etc. As far as your other points, Orthodox Jews don't believe in a literal reading of the Torah. Everything is interpereted according to the mesorah. Many of the points raised by proponents of the DH are already delt by commentators such as Rashi.

ari said...

Great post,
I would be surprised anything written in the apologetic vein should ever be quite reasonable and compelling. Because the whole approach of religion historically wasn't based on pursuit of scientific or empirical truth but obeidence to authority and unquestioning faith. The approach was never: let's see if it's true or not, and if it's not then we'll drop it. It was always: how can we find "proofs" to shut up the heretics. The problem is with their methodology of obtaining knowledge, that is by faith; but faith is not a valid mode of knowledge. So there's the problem. If anything of religion actually corresponds to reality it is by pure coincidence because theists never approached the world with idea of discovering what it really is but with with the idea that truth is whatever is the view of religious authority.

Jewish Atheist said...

Anonymous:

Your analogy isn't sufficient. Imagine instead if we had just discovered the book The Hobbit, which was claimed to have been written a while ago by Tolkien. Imagine further that it referenced events that only happened last year, referred to places by names that were only given five years ago, AND had the textual distinctions you mentioned plus many more.

The textual variance isn't as compelling to me as the other things I mentioned. That an author *could* use different voices to write within the same document, contradicting himself at times, is plausible. The answers that Rashi et al give for anachronisms, though, are much less convincing than the more obvious answer that the verses in question were written much later than Moses's time.

ari said...

The variance of style is a legitimate of mode of literary analysis and is routinely used by scholars to identify if a certain newly discovered work really belongs to the author it is attributed to. For instance newly discovered poems Shakespear were put to computerized linguistics analysis to determine if they were really written by him. This method is not fool-proof but counts as evidence as opposed to emuna pshuta which is not evidence.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Your analogy isn't sufficient. Imagine instead if we had just discovered the book The Hobbit, which was claimed to have been written a while ago by Tolkien. Imagine further that it referenced events that only happened last year, referred to places by names that were only given five years ago, AND had the textual distinctions you mentioned plus many more.

You conflating two things; post Mosaic with multiple sources. If we found the Hobbit we'd probably not presume it was edited from disparate documents, despite a strange (to us) style. What would we assume if we came upon The Sound and the Fury? That certainly is written in a strange way.

As for the Mosaic vs post-Mosaic--that's a good question

Mis-nagid said...

"compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai on other grounds."

Contrast that with the reverse: the compelling nature of the DH, compelling even to those who don't want to believe it--including Rabbi Breuer himself! From Haaretz:

"At first, his son relates, "as is the way of Orthodox rabbis, Dad totally ignored Bible criticism, and was also convinced that all the questions it raised had been dismissed by earlier commentators. One day he decided nevertheless to read the texts on Bible criticism, and decided that before going to sleep, he would read one of the books. A short time after he started reading, he concluded that the criticism was accurate regarding different styles within the text. However, his belief in a God-given Torah did not allow him to accept that there were different 'authors' involved.""

His entire exegetical method exists only because he reluctantly and against severe personal bias, found the arguments for the DH compelling. Compare that with the strengh of the apologetics he created because he wouldn't accept what his sechel told him was true: "compelling only to those already inclined to embrace Torah miSinai on other grounds."

P.S. Notice how his son says Rabbi Breuer thought that "the criticism was accurate regarding different styles within the text." A strong (and perhaps unanswerable) criticism of Rabbi Breuer's method was that it only dealt with style issue, almost completely ignoring the other lines of evidence for the DH.

Mis-nagid said...

P.P.S That's why Carmy et al don't bring up the DH except bchadrei chadarim: they know their answers don't work unless the listener is unwilling to actually accept the DH, a risk they can't bear to take. So their preffered tactic is that you never hear of the DH in the first place, and only offer their docheck terutzim "too late" for many rather than risk introducing you to the DH. They essentially live in fear of the DH, the explosive theory that hovers over their heads. They can't beat it, so they beat a retreat from it; going so far as to structure within their society so complete an isolation from it that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews have never even heard of it, the widely accepted theory regarding their central books. Check out the fear in Shneyer Leiman's article titled "Response to Rabbi Breuer":

"Orthodoxy owes a genuine debt of gratitude to Rabbi Breuer for agreeing to address a very sensitive issue, namely the documentary hypothesis. He walks bravely where angels fear to tread...undoubtedly, risks abound with regard to the critical study of the Bible...Distinctions need to be made, perhaps, between private study and public discourse...between adults with no background in Jewish study and the mature rabbinic scholar who has `filled his belly' with Shas and Poskim."

P.P.S. About the criticism of Breuer's methos I mention about, see note 13 here regarding Leiman's article:
"Leiman, while applauding Breuer’s pioneering efforts, does not feel that he has "solved" a religious Jew’s difficulties posed by biblical scholarship. Both point out that Breuer primarily deals with the literary problems posed by biblical scholarship and not the historical ones.

beepbeepitsme said...

The fact that people are still discussing the claims asserted in most religions, suggest to me that the claims are dodgy.

Ditto with the Iraq War.

If any of these claims were a "shoe-in" - we wouldn't continue to discuss them.

meir said...

It seems to me that some Jewish scholars are of the opinion that the basis of faith in Orthodox Judaism does not relate to the historical claims. How is this possible? I'm not sure yet. It might have to do with some of the ethical evidence and morality issues being discussed over at XGH.

Anonymous said...

> It seems to me that some Jewish scholars are of the opinion that the basis of faith in Orthodox Judaism does not relate to the historical claims. How is this possible?

LOL. How is this possible? Easy: they're too knowledgeable to believe that the historical claims are true, so--voila!--they're no longer the basis.

Anonymous said...

Beepbeep, be careful not to confuse debate with controversy. Evolution is still debated loudly and endlessly, but it's not in controversy. The mere presence of discussion doesn't make the claims dodgy.

beepbeepitsme said...

That is true. (I actually agreed with someone today.)

beepbeepitsme said...

Can debate be anything BUT controversial?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it can be phony.