- Fluidity and Bifurcation: Critical Biblical Scholarship and Orthodox Judaism in Israel and North America
Contemporary Orthodox rabbis and educators have evinced an increasing degree of acceptance of critical approaches to the Hebrew Bible, including the possibility of multiple authorship. Considerable documentation for this phenomenon was collected by Marc Shapiro in an article that appeared in 2017.1 A rigorous chronicler of the theological spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, he asserted that this was striking, since “For centuries now, traditional Jewish thinkers ... have regarded as heresy any assertion that portions of the Torah were written at different times by different people.”2 This abandonment of axiomatic theological positions raises broader analytical questions: what distinguishes the recent phenomenon from prior examples, especially since the 1960s, of openness by Orthodox-affiliated religious figures to academic approaches to the Bible? Do the contemporary individuals who profess these views share other common characteristics? If so, does this offer insight regarding core characteristics of twenty-first century Orthodox Judaism?
In the following, I will address these queries, highlighting the fact that the majority of the most noteworthy engagements of Orthodox rabbis and educators with criticism emanate from the moderate sector of the Israeli Religious-Zionist camp and less so from its contemporary American Modern Orthodox peers. The primary focus on rabbis and educators rather than academics, stems from the fact that there is a far greater expectation that the publications of the former will reflect the outlooks of their religious communities.
The distinction between Israeli and North American Orthodox approaches to biblical criticism can be attributed to a number of influences. The key factor to be expanded upon here is the fluid boundaries [End Page 233] between academic and parochial religious thought and education that have developed within a stratum of Israeli Religious-Zionism, as opposed to the more bifurcated North American Modern Orthodoxy.3 Having emphasized the suppleness of the Israeli environment, I will focus on one of the driving forces in changing the overall Orthodox approach, Israel’s Yeshivat Har Etzion (known as Gush, henceforth YHE). The innovative curricular emphasis on Bible study began with its founding head Rabbi Yehuda Amital (d. 2010) and the early instructors that he recruited.4 I will assert, however, the indirect but crucial part played by Amital’s partner in leading the yeshiva for over forty years, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (d. 2015).5 Despite his profound and unequivocal personal opposition to higher biblical criticism, his integration of intellectual, spiritual, and ethical perspectives from a wide range of non-Jewish sources into his worldview exposed his Religious-Zionist followers to a novel model of fluidity.
In the conclusion, I will locate the analysis within the field of transnational studies. This will sharpen appreciation for the process by which Lichtenstein’s personal religious and intellectual model—which was nurtured in American communities and institutions where he gained his deep exposure to academic learning—was assimilated by the Israeli environment.
Before presenting specific examples of endorsement by contemporary Religious-Zionist rabbis and educators of ideas emanating from higher biblical criticism, I will begin with historical and sociological backdrops that will serve as both points of departure and comparison for the subsequent discussion.
from deviation to mainstream
On April 28th, 1966, a wide-ranging interview of Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was published in The Commentator, the undergraduate weekly of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University (henceforth YU). Greenberg, who had earned rabbinical ordination from a Brooklyn-based traditionalist yeshiva, as well as a Harvard Ph.D, was an exceptionally popular professor of history at YU and a much sought-after mentor by the student body, as well as acting as the religious leader of a nearby budding suburban Orthodox synagogue center.6 In the interview, Greenberg focused on a range of social, intellectual and theological issues that Modern Orthodoxy had not addressed seriously, to the grave detriment of its constituency. His comments, coming as they were from such a well-regarded rabbi, were perceived by many within YU to be exceedingly challenging and [End Page 234] radical, gravitating dangerously close to the views of rival liberal denominations. Negative responses arose not only from within the...