A Debate Between Me and Myself on Orthodoxy and Academic Jewish Studies: First Round

[Previous Posts: Intro]

[I’m considering turning the “framework suggestions” into an article. I’d be curious to know if anyone out there thinks it’s worth the trouble.

For my non-Orthodox readers out there, pardes is a metaphor for the study of metaphysics and theology (some include mysticism). It was considered a religiously very dangerous pursuit by the Talmudic authorities – of the four great Rabbis who “entered” this field in the story, only one came out with his wits and Judaism intact (one died, one went insane and a third left Judaism) – Avi/AIWAC]

Dear Avi,

I have been following your posts closely. You are quite correct in saying that “Torah and Chochmah”, or the relationship between Orthodoxy and the humanities is THE last major intellectual stumbling block for integration in to the modern world. Your efforts in the past few months regarding coping with Bible Criticism, for instance, are admirable.

However, I feel you are fighting a losing battle, one in which you are hopelessly outmatched. For every Yehuda Elitzur, there are at least five (if not more) James Kugels. Indeed, it is more than likely that the latter is simply saying publicly what many Orthodox maskilim feel in private. The difficulties involved in this field make the pardes of yore seem downright inviting.

Even if we would set aside the issue of literary and historical Bible Criticism, the sheer volume of problems created by modern scholarship for Jewish history and thought make the ideal of “Torah and Chochmah” a fool’s errand. It is pointless to compare modern scholarship to the scholarship of Chazal and the Rishonim. The two are different both in the degree of criticism and scope.

Look at S., of On the Main Line, someone who has a vast knowledge of the relevant sources and periods. He has said repeatedly in various comments that scholarship post-Enlightenment is anathema to Orthodoxy. Who are you to disagree?

Give it up and save yourself the trouble. This is one field we can’t deal with.

Yours, AIWAC


Thank you for your letter. I certainly hear your concerns (I myself often feel deep despair on the issue) and am aware that this is the attitude of many in the OJ-world, not just extreme RW know-nothings. Indeed, many of the self-same maskilim no doubt feel the same way. Nevertheless, I must demur from your diagnosis as well as the proposed cure (i.e. isolation).

First, let’s get something out of the way right now. The fact that the numerical odds are against me and those like me does not in any way deter me. I will not be bullied into a position simply because, say 80% (or even 90%) of Orthodox scholars say otherwise. Nor will I concede to the argument that because S. is very knowledgeable, I must bow to his authority and accept his verdict. I have several years of formal academic training and informal academic study in ancient and modern history under my belt. I have more than earned the right to an informed opinion, even if it runs counter to others.

Now, let’s get to your main argument – that the scope and tone of modern scholarship precludes Orthodoxy absorbing or even confronting it. It is true that how we do so will require careful and controlled consideration. It will take time and will probably be a lot slower than the pace of scholarship. Nevertheless, I believe it can be done.

The first thing we’d need to do – before we so much as look at a manuscript, pottery shard or book – would be to establish “coping rules”, a framework that would help us navigate the myriad problems and issues and remain with our sanity and religiosity intact. I don’t know what such a framework would look like, but I think I can make some initial suggestions:

1) Define rules of acceptance of evidence and interpretation

Not everything that has an academic stamp and copious footnotes merits attention. Furthermore, the very nature of even the hard sciences is that they can be falsified. Al ahat kama ve-kama, the humanities and social sciences. We should have a discussion where we lay down ground rules as to what we accept as absolutely compelling evidence and what is simply “likely” or probable or sophisticated speculation. Prof. Elitzur’s article is especially valuable in this respect.

2) Sharply differentiate between facts/interpretations and value judgments

Facts and interpretations are matters for scholarly debate and method. Value judgments are not. Just because something happened historically does not make it legitimate from our POV. Our forefathers were idol worshippers in the First Temple period. This is a matter of historical and archaeological record. This does not mean that it is OK now. We need to draw a strict line between what happened in the past and what’s “kosher” now. This does not of course mean that we should immediately de-legitimize whatever our forebears did, just as we should not immediately endorse such. I’m simply saying that the historical facts must go through a “screening process” where we decide whether we accept various acts and attitudes as OK.

3) History of Halacha and Halacha –

What’s true for values goes double for halacha. Textual and historical criticism of the Talmud and later commentators is par for the course. So are the discovery and analysis of manuscripts that are often different from the texts we possess today. The question we must answer is when, and how, we should incorporate such findings into halacha?

For instance, does it matter halachically if a statement in the gemara was made by a 1st generation Amora or a stamai? Does the discovery of differing manuscripts compel changes in psak or even limmud? What gave these sources their status – their authors or the act of canonization? Once we have answers to these questions, we’ll be much better equipped to deal with scholarship on the issue.

Coping with modern scholarship is indeed a difficult task, one that will require much thought and work. I do not, however, believe the endeavor to be impossible.

Yours, Avi


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to A Debate Between Me and Myself on Orthodoxy and Academic Jewish Studies: First Round

  1. Pingback: A Debate Between Me and Myself on Orthodoxy and Academic Jewish Studies: Second Round | QED

  2. Pingback: So What Would You Respond, Dear Reader? | QED

  3. Pingback: A Debate Between Me and Myself on Academic Jewish Studies: Final Response | QED

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