XGH, DovBear, and Ezzie all link approvingly to this answer from James Kugel about what the implications are to Orthodox Judaism if the Torah is not divine. The comments at XGH's are well worth reading, as well.
The question is in response to Kugel's recent book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Kugel is a Biblical Scholar and a professor at Harvard, who believes in the Documentary Hypothesis but nevertheless considers himself an Orthodox Jew.
Anyway, here's the gist of the question:
I suppose I am writing to you to get your thoughts on how a religious person can maintain his/her faith and fealty in and to a rabbinic system that is so directly based on the belief of a Divine text and the “Four Assumptions”? I fully realize that I am asking this question to a Bible professor who happens to be observant rather than to a Rabbi - I am more interested in the former's response than the latter's.
And the answer in full:
Before getting to the specifics of your e-mail, I should say something exculpatory (I hope) about this book in general. It really is not addressed specifically to Orthodox Jews, or even to Jews as a whole. I think there’s been some confusion about this. I’m a Bible professor, and the purpose of this book is to teach something about the nature of modern biblical scholarship – something that the general public, and even quite a few modern scholars themselves, are largely unaware of (i.e., the great gap separating ancient and modern scholarship, and the crucial role of ancient interpreters in shaping the Bible’s message). It’s true that, in the last chapter, I also tried to offer some thoughts about how different groups, including what I called "traditional Judaism," might try to reckon with the insights of modern scholars, but if that were all I was out to do, the book could have been considerably shorter.
A second point is also worth mentioning – and this is a bit closer to the subject of your e-mail. Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole “prepared table” of Judaism – not just the idea of avodat H’, but all the detailed plan that goes with it. In fact, the general idea alone would not get us very far (this was the oft-repeated theme of my book “On Being a Jew”). And so, it is part of the whole posture of seeking to do God’s bidding that we absorb ourselves in the details of the traditional way of life, "davening three times a day" as you say, and kashrut and learning and Shabbat. We don’t take easily to going beyond this, looking up from those daily tasks to contemplate our Employer, that is to say, to think about the really basic issues of theology. In fact, to talk about such things even seems to us un-Jewish; it is neither a necessary nor a particularly comfortable activity for someone who has undertaken to live as an Orthodox Jew. If it ever does come to such basic questions, I think our preferred path is, as in the details of halakhah, to look to our classic texts to tell us what to think. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
The problem posed by modern biblical scholarship is that it calls into question some of the most basic teachings of Judaism, and, since it really is modern, its specific arguments are not addressed by our classical sources. So what should a Jew think about modern scholarship? As I said, I wrote this book for a broad audience from different religions, but as far as Jews are concerned, my purpose was certainly not to get them to incorporate into Judaism modern scholarship’s version of what the Torah is or where it came from. In fact, I think I recommended pretty clearly at the beginning of the book that people of traditional beliefs think twice about reading it, and at the end I said outright that modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and
practice. In other words, I think that if you want to be an Orthodox Jew, the Documentary Hypothesis and the other insights of modern scholars can have no place in the way you study Torah. (This, by the way, puts me at odds not only with the stance of Conservative Judaism, but also with a fair number of biblical scholars who describe themselves as Orthodox.) I really don’t even buy the idea that you can go halfway down the modern path, adopting the linguistic or philological insights of modern scholars but not the rest. Ultimately, all roads lead to Wellhausen.
But the question I tried to address in that last chapter was: bedi’avad, what is someone who has heard or learned something of modern scholarship (and this includes an increasingly large number of Orthodox Jews) to think?
I know that the answer of some people, perhaps a great many people, is what your e-mail calls “burying their heads in the sand,” though perhaps we should rather call it: “trying to stick with Judaism’s traditional teachings by ignoring or dismissing what modern scholars say.” I really have nothing to say against such a stance. I know perfectly well how much is at stake for most people in adopting any other position. For the same reason, I feel pretty sure that most Orthodox Jews will continue to declare modern scholarship off-limits.
But I also know that this is not an adequate response for some people – not for you, according to your e-mail, and truthfully, not for me either. It just feels wrong to say about anything that really matters to you, “Well, I know that scholars have turned up a lot of disturbing facts, but I don’t want to know about them.” My impulse, anyway, is to face the truth as best it can be known and then try to make sense of what it is telling us.
In your e-mail you say that if modern scholars have proved that the Torah is not a "divine document," then our whole system of halakhah collapses. I don't think I'd ever accept that premise in the first place: modern scholars may have proven a lot of things, but I don't think they've ever tried to determine what is or is not divinely inspired, simply because there is no litmus test by which you can decide such a thing. Words are words, whether written by prophets or interpolators or editors, whether written in this particular set of circumstances or another; the words never carry little flags identifying some of them as divinely inspired and others and ordinarily human.
I believe what I just said is absolutely true, but I wouldn't want to use it as a cop-out to avoid addressing what seems to me to be the real issue. Modern scholars have said a lot of things that are indeed upsetting to traditional belief: they've cast doubt on the Torah's reliability as a historical account of things that actually happened, they've highlighted contradictions within the text, and so on and so forth. Doesn't this indeed undercut the Torah's standing as the basis of our whole way of life?
Forgive me if I restate some of the overall argument I made at the end of the book. (I know you didn't find it particularly convincing the first time around, but I'm hoping this time I may say it better.)
When you actually consider Judaism as it is, the role of the Torah in it is really not what you say it is. Ultimately, Jews are not Torah-fundamentalists. On the contrary, our whole tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says (despite Deut. 4:2), sometimes reading its words in a way out of keeping with their apparent meaning, and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely. (My book “The Bible As It Was” contains seven hundred pages of examples of how this all began.) What’s more, as everyone knows, much of what makes up the daily fabric of Jewish life has only a tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with what is actually written in the Torah. I mentioned such things as saying the Amidah three times a day, the berakhot that we recite before eating and on other occasions, netilat yadayim, many aspects of kashrut [e.g. basar vehalav], many of the particulars in the way we keep Shabbat and holidays, studying the Babylonian Talmud, and so on and so forth. Isn’t this an awful lot of what it means to lead a halakhic life? On the other hand, one might also mention such practices as mekhirat hametz, which on the face of it seem in fact to contradict what is written in the Torah, in this case, the prohibitions of bal yera’eh ubal yimmatze. And all these are really only the tip of the iceberg; you yourself could go into much greater detail on this theme.
So someone looking at this situation from afar would probably be reluctant to accept your assertion that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah and their divine inspiration. (Of course I am aware that our Rabbis sought to find within the Torah itself the source of their own authority to add to or depart from the Torah’s own words, but I think our outside observer would rightly point out a certain circularity here: It is only the rabbis’ own, authoritative interpretation of a certain verse in the Torah that grants them the right of authoritative interpretation. In any case, this is a formalist argument, one that doesn't really speak to the larger issue.)
No, this observer would say, it is simply not true that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah. Those words were the starting-point, but what has truly proven determinative in them (indeed, what was recognized as such from the start) was the general direction that those words point in and embody, and whose trajectory was then carried forward through the Mishnah and Gemara and all later writings. That "general direction" is the basic idea that Israel's connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H'. This is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation, and whether it took place at Sinai or somewhere else, biblical scholarship itself has highlighted the utter disconnectedness of this idea from all that preceded it. Before that moment, there was (for centuries) the God of Old, who appeared and disappeared; and there was the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Then, suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.
As I said before, Jews generally don't like to think about such things, and talking about a "general direction" or overall character of the Sinai revelation is particularly disturbing for people who are otherwise so devoted to studying specific words and actual texts. But I think if you want to be absolutely accurate, you have to admit that, time and again, it's not a matter of the specific words, at least not if you try to see the big picture. What really underlies everything -- and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation -- was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.
In the light of all this, I hinted at the very end of the book at what is called in German a “thought experiment.” What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: “You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul.” Then He said to Moshe: “Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details.” Well, this is a somewhat jarring question, but please go along with it for a minute. In the end, I do not believe that this would, or could, invalidate our system of halakhah. Of course I do believe in nevu’ah, in divine revelation, and I don’t think that Israel got only that one commandment from God. Theoretically, however, I think it would be enough if that were all, since that would provide the firm basis for everything that followed -- Moshe's, or Rabbi Akiva's, elaboration of how this primal divine commandment is to be carried out. Because ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah. And frankly, we don't really seem to all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls. This is our “prepared table,” the work of many hands. If someone wants a different table, let him go ahead – but this is the Jewish table, the way Jews serve God.
As one of our sages said: to what may the matter be compared? To a man who wished to see the King. So he went to the royal palace and stood outside and waited for the King to appear. After some hours, the King did come outside, and the man was thrilled. But soon the King went back inside the palace. The man returned the next day, and the next, and sometimes he did catch a glimpse of the King, but always only for a few seconds, and then his view would be blocked by someone, or the King would step behind a pillar or get into his carriage and ride off. What had at first been thrilling now became only frustrating.
Eventually, the king’s close advisor became aware of the presence of the man standing day after day outside the palace, and he approached him and said: “I know what you want, but you are going about it the wrong way. Go up to the palace door and ask to work inside – it doesn’t matter what: janitor, guard, woodcutter or water-drawer! Then you will enter the palace by right and see the King as a matter of course; indeed, He will recognize you and perhaps even call you by name.” And so the man did, and it was just as the King’s advisor had said: he saw the King up close every day, and the King called to him by name.
This is the whole idea of Judaism. If you want to come close to God, the only way is to become His employee. Understanding that avodat H' is the true foundation of our halakhah may not de-fang modern biblical scholarship; a lot of what it says will always be disturbing to Jews. But I think that modern scholarship does not, because it cannot, undermine the essence of Judaism or what Jews actually do in their lives; it cannot, as you suggest, cause the system to collapse.
That was not my whole purpose in writing this book, but it was one thing I wished to say, because I thought it might be of help to people like yourself. Of course I knew – I knew this even before I began writing – that some people would be upset by the book, and I knew that their natural reaction would be to attack me. I must tell you I really don’t mind. I know that for such people, even contemplating modern scholarship is off limits for an Orthodox Jew, so anyone who does so must be condemned. But after all is said and done and Kugel is long gone, the problems raised for Orthodox Jews by modern biblical scholarship will remain. My hope is that the response I’ve outlined here, which is really what I said in somewhat different terms in my book, will also be around for a while, and that it may help people like yourself to look squarely at those problems and at what seems to me to be their only truthful resolution.
In other words, it doesn't matter if the Torah came directly from God as told to Moses at Sinai, because the Torah itself isn't that central to Orthodox Judaism!
Now I agree with him that Orthodox halakha (law) is so far removed from the words of the Torah that the Torah itself is almost irrelevant. E.g., the Torah says not to cook a calf in its mother's milk and today's Orthodox Jews wait 1-6 hours after eating meat to eat milk, have separate dishes and silverware for milk and meat, and even sometimes separate dishwashers and ovens. The Torah says "an eye for an eye" and the Rabbis made it "compensation for an eye." The Torah says to bring sacrifices and the Rabbis turned it into saying prayers.
But as Kugel admits, "modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and practice," so it strikes me as a strange leap to go from, "Oh, we've built so much on top of the Torah that it doesn't even matter if it turns out not to be from Sinai," as if the Torah were just a mold for the halakha that could be discarded once the halakha itself was built.
But yet he persists as an Orthodox Jew.
Many other Orthodox Jews no doubt would take issue with his self-identification with them, but I wonder how many others secretly agree, or have similar thought processes.
So far, we've seen in this What Do Orthodox Jews Really Believe series, that Jews who call themselves Orthodox might believe that the world is billions of years old, that Adam and Eve were mythological, that the Flood was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, that the Exodus was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, and now that the Torah itself very well might have been written by several different people and wasn't given at Sinai at all.
This doesn't give us any indication of how many Orthodox Jews believe these things, but it does give us an idea of the range of beliefs one can hold while still considering himself or herself Orthodox. There are X number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the earth is less than 6,000 years old and that Bilaam really had a talking donkey and then there are Y number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the Torah was written by men, albeit divinely inspired, and contains mythology, historical errors, and presumably other non-divine things, like maybe the whole idea about gay sex being an abomination. And, of course, there are Z number of Orthodox Jews who believe some combination of the above beliefs or any number of other ones and, perhaps the largest group of all, W number of people who are either incurious and simply take everything for granted or specifically avoid thinking about certain topics and dismiss out of hand any contrary arguments.
If Y is a large number, though, I think what we have is an enormous sham. Kugel is open about his beliefs, and so is XGH, at least pseudonymously, but I have to guess that they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of thousands of modern, intelligent, educated, and curious Orthodox Jews in America who must be asking themselves these questions and arriving at some pretty similar answers. Kugel put it perfectly: once you start asking, "all roads lead to Wellhausen."
Is there a vast well of Orthodox Jews who believe these things in private but are afraid to speak up?
Do they have a responsibility to speak up?
A whole generation of intelligent, curious teenagers are feeling ashamed and scared for having doubts and questions about Orthodoxy's legitimacy. A whole generation of adults is stressing out every day about following to the letter an increasingly stringent and incomprehensible set of laws. Families are divided when some of us go "off the derech" or, God-forbid, marry a non-Jew. A generation of Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, especially the girls, are being shortchanged in their secular educations and career prospects. A whole generation of Orthodox gay children are being raised with the belief that God considers gay sex an abomination and worthy of death, even if we no longer execute people for it.
How many Orthodox people lied to me, overtly or by omission, when I was a teenager wondering how people could really believe this stuff? How many betrayed the gay kids I went to school with by keeping silent when they were taught at every turn that their desires and feelings were wrong? Why are the fundamentalists the only ones talking honestly about their beliefs?
I think the other denominations of Judaism have a lot to do with people's reticence to speak up. If the modern Orthodox suddenly started talking openly about these beliefs, they would instantly create a new denomination, de facto if not de jure. They don't like what they see in Conservative, in Reform, in Reconstructionist, or in Humanistic. They desperately want the ultra-Orthodox to consider them Orthodox. They want to maintain Orthodoxy's retention rates. They want to keep Orthodoxy's strong communities. They think that they'll lose what they love about Orthodoxy if they admit what they really believe, and they're probably right.
These are just my guesses. I have no way of knowing how many people believe these things, because people aren't talking. Maybe the blogs will change all that. Maybe if people have a safe avenue to explore forbidden thoughts, something new and better will come out of it. Or maybe it will just be the end of Modern Orthodoxy. Or maybe nothing will change, because that's just how the world works.