Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Academic Bible Critics Don't Have the Goods

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was considered one of the greatest Talmudic minds of his generation and the de facto leader of Orthodox Jewry in North America.  He was renowned for his compassionate and giving nature as much as his razor-sharp intellect and and such was consulted by Jews the world over for his rulings on the most complex and challenging issues.  Among other moral conundrums he researched (within the context of Jewish Law) and rendered opinions on were: artificial insemination, brain-death, separation of Siamese Twins, factory raised veal and many others.

Word of his skill in this arena spread beyond the confines of his Lower East Side Yeshiva and eventually reached the ears of NY Governor Hugh Carey - who reached out to him via snail mail in 1981.  The Governor (a Catholic and a lawyer) was embroiled in a public debate as to whether or not New York State should impose the death penalty and sought the Rabbi's council on this delicate and hotly debated question.  Rabbi Feinstein responded with a friendly, respectful and thorough overview of the Jewish take on the topic which can be read in its entirety in the excellent book Uncommon Sense by Rabbi D.B. Ganz - one that posits that ancient Jewish wisdom (The Talmud) contains solutions to many of today's political and social challenges.

While it seems remarkable to me that the non-Jewish leader of one of the largest states in the union would be consulting an old immigrant Rabbi in Lower Manhattan, what struck me as more noteworthy was that he didn't think to consult with a professor of Bible Studies at one of New York's many academic institutions.  Was there no scholar at NYU or Columbia who, based on their critical reading of classical Jewish scripture, could advise the good Governor on all that he was interested in and more?  Color me skeptical.

Biblical scholars, by and large, do not "get" what the Torah is or how it works or if they do, don't particularly care what thousands of years of Rabbinic scholarship has to say on the topic.  From old school Wellhausen and Graf type criticism to the newer (and in some ways stranger) critiques of  Friedman and Kugel the common denominator is a rejection of what the Classical Jewish legal tradition and our received wisdom has to say on behalf of itself in favor of a clinical "scientific" reading of the text.  This is essentially like gutting a live cat to admire its fur - leaving the (now confused) reader with a neutered, superficial and infantilized "reading" of the (now strange and mostly useless) text.  It also renders the text and tradition incapable of being mined for its wisdom - a wisdom that could be quite valuable for contemporary times.

I invite all interested parties to learn both thoroughly and judge for yourselves.

"Ain't nothing like the real thing..."

Marvin Gaye


  1. If you study for example Milgrom, Levine, Tagay, and Jewish Publication Society publications you will see they incorporate classical jewish commentary and ancient comparative culture. The Torah was not created ex-nihilo but was an evolution out of the ancient near east.

  2. "Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism."

    Yehezkel Kaufmann