Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Jewish vs Torah Studies

Can one study Jewish literature - specifically the Torah, Bible, Talmud and other directly related works - from a secular perspective?
The answer would seem to be yes. Certainly over the last 150 years there have been numerous schools of biblical criticsm, with input from historians and archeologists who have looked at our holy texts from a dispassionate, academic perspective.
Given their backgrounds and stated goals, it's no wonder that they have "discovered" all sorts of things about the Torah and the rest of the Bible. From a non-religious perspective, they are odd books written in an inconsistent and often confusing fashion, full of redundant, repetitive and contradicting statements. Thus the conclusions of the academics have been based on denying the divinity of the Torah, the historical accuracy of the Bible and the connection between the Written and Oral components of the halacha.
Of course, there is one major problem with the entire idea of critical Bible studies - sacred Jewish literature was never meant to be studied in that fashion. Indeed, the only way to properly and truly understand the Torah and the rest of the Bible is to accept that it is a Divine document dictated to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, by the omniscient Ribono shel Olam with the intent of teaching the B'nai Yisrael important moral lessions and hinting at the underlying Oral Law which binds it all together. When one accepts these truths, what seem to be "proofs" of human origins of the Bible, such as the two stories of how Man was created or different versions of the stories of the meraglim, all cease to be problematic.
Indeed, many of the Torah giants of the last two centuries have contributed in this regard to helping us understand how the Torah is meant to be read as an moral text or as crib notes to the Oral Law. The commentaries of the Netziv, Ha'ameq Davar and the Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, are especially important in this regard. Under their literary microscope, every supposed inconsistency, superfluous or misspelled word or repetitive piece of narrative yields important correlations with what we know of the Oral Law. One cannot honestly read their works and come away still thinking that the Talmud was something invented by "the rabbis" in order to enslave the Jews to a meaningless, ritualized religion.
Of course there are still those who don't accept the underlying principles necessary to realize these things. These folks generally don't get involved in Torah studies so much as "Jewish" studies. Fortunately, there is some good news on that front:
The festive atmosphere at the 15th World Congress on Jewish Studies held last week at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was accompanied by an air of sadness. This was due to the sense that Israel perhaps is not the focal point of Diaspora Jewry, despite being home to the largest database in the world on Judaism and Jews.
Discussions were dedicated to the crisis plaguing Jewish studies departments – namely, that every year the number of students choosing to study Bible, Jewish history, or Hebrew language gets smaller and smaller. It is possible that this phenomenon is linked to the shrinking endowments of humanities departments in general, to the materialism of the younger generation that prefers to study fields that will bear speedy economic returns on investment.
In addition, throughout the world, universities are losing their status as knowledge and information providers as the Internet becomes an increasingly dominant player, even in researching the past.
Take, for instance, the thousands of rare and first editions of books that have been scanned and made available on the Internet. In years to come, the Internet will also contain scanned versions of periodicals. The virtual library will beat out the bricks-and-mortar library, the very symbol of the old university. In a similar manner, the importance of group learning, in classrooms, in front of flesh-and-blood lecturers is decreasing.
Yet, these are only external changes and provide only a partial explanation on the brain drain from theoretical learning. The devaluation of humanities in the West stems from a failure of our value system, which has its source in the thinning of content and turning our backs on the search for truth that was once at the very aim of learning to begin with.
Alan Blum, a Jewish American philosopher, claimed in his book The Closing of the American Mind that truth was replaced on campuses by political correctness, whose tyranny threatens democratic society.
Israel, a nationalist element is added to the failure of the value system, seeing as the first universities were established in the spirit of Zionism. Already in the first Zionist congresses, the Hebrew University and the Technion were planned and slated to be built with the help of Zionist benefactors. These institutions were expected to build an educated and enlightened society and to create a cultural renaissance, including a renewal of the Hebrew language and a shaking off of religious oppressiveness characteristic of traditional learning in the yeshivot and houses of study of Europe.
The Israeli university reflected Zionist ideals. It maintained the continuity between the traditions of the past and the country taking form in the present without foregoing the secular-pioneer mission of building a sovereign independent state without waiting for divine intervention.
Plagued by self-hatred However, as enlightened freedom of thought is replaced by a politically correct agenda, over-emphasis of secular anti-religion remains and paves the way for self-hating revisionism.

Years ago the Conservative synagogue I used to go to hired a new rabbi who, for his inaugral speech, chose to discuss how choice is so important in Conservatism. According to him, it was okay to keep kosher or not to, as long as what you were doing was what you thought God wanted. Same with keeping Shabbos. His triumphant climactic line was: "It's okay if you come to synagogue but it's also okay if you don't."
Shortly after, attendance at this synagogue dropped precipitously and they were in danger of cancelling their daily minyan (despite counting men and women). After all, the rabbi had said they don't have to go to synagogue to be good Jews so why waste time there?
It seems that Jewish studies at the university level have reached the same stage. Having removed God from the Torah, these academics are left with a messy piece of literature. Without acceptance of a supreme, external moral authority, they have to wonder why they're learning about genocidal commands (Amalek). Without the context of the Oral Law to explain limintations and parameters, they are disgusted by rules about marrying off one's young daughter into slavery. Is it any wonder they have become self-haters who are using the incorrectly understood words of our Holy Writ to wage a campaign against the God they don't believe in?
There is only one true type of Jewish studies - the kind that accept God's centrality and the validity of the Oral Law. Seen through those parameters in a properly educated fashion, there is little problem with the texts and truths they contain.


Anonymous said...

Of course that is the reason why people question the Torah! I'm am glad you brought that up, because the biggest problem for most people is just being able to see religious texts from a believer's perspective, as if the book was written by God. Because they cannot, or will not, place themselves in those shoes, most people will claim that this or that is not moral, not politically correct, or contradictory. I too have trouble with those things sometimes, but I know that if I study the right texts I will find a reasonable way to reconcile any perceived contradictions.

But, unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it is not realistic to expect everyone to conduct Jewish studies from a believer's perspective. The things that secular Jewish scholars come up with are often interesting though and not at all worthless. They are just not how we were meant to approach Jewish studies (assuming our books are Divine).

SJ said...

The "oral law" is bull shit.

Anonymous said...

Side note: Rabbi Hirsch is a personal favorite of mine! Just wrote a post on him:

SJ said...

Moses was either a false prophet, a composite character, or the whole thing is totally full of crap.

SJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

RM, thanks for the comments and I'll check your post out.

SJ, I know it's asking a lot but please try to come up with something original.

Shalmo said...

There are so many things that are wrong with this post. Circular reasoning being one; you start with the assumption it all comes from God.

Do you apply the same standards to the Bhagavad Gita, New Testament, the Vedas, the Avenastan Venidad (where most of the levitcal code was taken from) or any of the other scriptures of the world?

Biblical criticism contrary to what novices may advocate, actually always began with the pressupposition that all this comes from God. Most biblical archaeologists started the field because they wanted to prove the bible true. Instead the opposite happened. The vast majority of Israeli archaeology completely contradicts the history of the torah. for instance, it has shown that in fact Jews never even had access to all of biblical Canaan, or the case of Joshua's invasion which also has been debunked.

An orthodox jew will never accept that there was no city of Dan even till Moses existed, so Abram entering there is just another historical inaccuracy in the Bible.

The bible is filled to the pitfull with similar anachronisms. If any of you are interested then please google the Jewish Encyclopedia for them. Orthdox Judaism demands we simply ignore all this data.

Would you show the same standards for the Quran, the Vedas, the New Testament, and all the other scriptures of the world? Of course. Be consistent with your skepticism and apply the same standards to your bible, that you do to other scriptures.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Once again, Shalmo, same thing I told SJ

Shalmo said...

Garnel I thought you were not going ever speak to me again?

How about you actually respond to the criticism for once.

I am asking you to apply the same skepticism you do to the books of other religions that you do to your own. If other religious books show these anachronisms like say the New Testament you accept them, so why the 'special pleadings' with Jewish literature?

And if God honestly "inspired" any of this, then where do these historical errors in your books come from?

Since you are the one who wants us to stick with Orthodox Judaism, the burden of proof is on you to explain these problematic areas. Or in typical JP fashion will you simply just ignore the dilemna?

Shalmo said...

"There is only one true type of Jewish studies - the kind that accept God's centrality and the validity of the Oral Law."

And what if the painful truth that this so-called oral torah is just pharisee plagarism of zorastrian theology becomes obvious to the scholar? Is he then supposed to continue fooling himself into believing it still comes from Hashem?

"Seen through those parameters in a properly educated fashion, there is little problem with the texts and truths they contain."

Kool! So now using those presuppositions, that all this comes from God, please explain to us where the anachronisms in the bible come from.

Anonymous said...

Shalmo, can you provide a link for the Avenastan Venidad? I googled it and absolutely nothing came up. I was interested in researching it to try to find out what parts of the levitical code came from it.

I understand your concern about intellectual honesty. If we can negate one religion using archaeological/historical evidence, why can't the same evidence be used to make us skeptical of Judaism? I cannot speak for the people like that because they are usually narrow minded. For me though, archaeological and historical evidence can be used to further research, but cannot be used as ultimate proof on anything because religious subjects have such a large history that it is very probably that much of the evidence is not found or has been tampered with.

SJ said...

Religious people shouldn't be talking about evidence. For the Torah there is none.

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

This is all quite boring for me. SJ says the same thing over and over.
Shalmo keeps claiming that I've never answered his concerns although several posts ago, just before he went off to summer school, I reponded to him point by point, which is just ignored.
However, I have already established elsewhere that he is a liar who purposefully misinterprets Torah when it suits him and gives aid and comfort to the enemies of the Jewish people.

RM, remember that true science allows very limited conclusions from any information. If I find a pillar somewhere in the Iraqi desert that says "I King Bob killed 10 000 Nubians on this very spot and sold their kidneys at a fine price to the tribes of Scythia" all I can honesty conclude is that there is a pillar in the Iraqi desert that has a claim by some guy named King Bob. To enter such an event into history books as an actual occurence is dishonest.
Thus it is with most archeological evidence. You cannot draw any firm conclusions from what does and does not exist in the record. What, lying was invented in the 20th century? All you can do is offer suggestions without a firm basis for any conclusions. This, along with immediately disqualifying the Bible as historical evidence of any kind, is what most skeptics miss.

Anyway, RM, enjoy Shalmo. Better you than me.

Shalmo said...

Um no I disagreed with your responses. You said that the Torah's only purpose is to provide us halachah. I showed that the changes and variances in all the scrolls make that impossible. I also said that you keep changing your definition of torah MiSinai.

You are outta of your mind if you honestly believe any orthodox rabbi will sumbit to your version; that Torah is only here to provide halacha. clearly they believe torah is a lot more than just that; to them its a history book.

And again how do we know Jesus or Bar Kokhba or whoever was not the messiah when the messianic prophecies are so corrupted.

Each time I brought these issues which make any preservation of Judaism all the from sinai impossible, you didn't deal with them. You just played semantics with me

And what's even more pathetic is that now you are changing the topic of discussion of your own thread, because you have no answer for the anachronims in the torah. Instead you have turned the discussion about me.

And as for me supporting the enemies of the Jewish people, you know how full of crock that is. I work my ass off in grassroots trying to resolve the middle-east conflict, while you type bigotry on a blog that only makes people hate Jews all the more.

Shalmo said...

RM can you make a post on your own blog about archaeological and the sciences vs Torah, so we can have the discussion there?

Over here I am afraid Garnel as usual is gonna delete posts he cannot rebuttal.

Shalmo said...

RM here is example of why archaeology matters:

think of the Peloponnesian War

Unlike Torah there's actual archaeological evidence for it, wheras the Masorite translation of the Torah claims that the number of people who left Egypt in the Exodus is greater that the entire Bronze Age population of the entire Near East.

Jewish "tradition" contradicts known facts of history - so why should any secular reader take the existence of Moses or the Torah and the revelation on Mt. Chorev seriously?

Our history seems to be bunk

Any of these things can be verified both online and in archaeological textbooks. They're not secrets, they're facts taught in every secular college in the world. They have just as much validity, if not moreso, than the story of Moses.

Multiple cross disciplinary evidences prove the P. War, Bronze Age Near Eastern settlements and population, etc., etc.

Anthropolitical studies regarding climate change in the last few years, for example, has tracked the movements of various populations, including during the Bronze Age:

Archaeological evidence for the war includes both the construction of various battlements and defensive structures and corroborating cessation of non-military projects matching the written historical accounts:

Other disciplines include metalurgy, animal husbandry, hydrology, as well as the usual antropoligical and archarological studies. These things yield evidence above and beyond the written accounts of other nations, such as census data from Egyptian sources and so forth.

But there are NOT multiple cross-disciplinary sources for the story of Moses.

WHY should any secular person believe the story of Moses when it contradicts what their college textbooks say, on grounds that have nothing to do with religious faith?

For what happens in Exodus such a population simply did not exist and could not have given the ecological constraints (even with Manna). The biological "byproducts" alone of such a population would be evident in the soil strata, for another cross-disciplinary evidence.

The point is, scholars in plenty of other disciplines, not just history, agree that such-and-such were the conditions, events, populations, locations, ecology, whatever, take your pick, which back up secular historical claims for events of the Moses-era.

All we have is the Torah, which as currently taught doesn't stand up to secular scrutiny.

As for why you should believe college textbooks - for the same reason you want them to believe Torah. If not, then your argument is circular.

The question was why should THEY believe that what they are being taught is inaccurate, when there are so many complimentary sources, and what you say is the proper interpretation of Torah is the correct one, when there is nothing else to back it up?

They have MULTIPLE sources of inquiry, you have one. Theirs contradicts yours. Just saying "ALL their sources from ALL their scientific disciplines are wrong and my ONE source is right" is NOT going to convince anyone. UFO and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts have the same amount of objective credibility as Garnel's argument has.

Garnel Ironheart said...


Proud MO said...

Re: studying the Torah as a secular subject, it's brought down (although I don't recall exactly where) that when the Chanukah story happened, that what was the Greeks tried to do. They tried to trick the Jews by encouraging them to learn Torah as a secular subject. That ended up leading to the Jews assimilating.