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.