The Religious Value of Critical Study
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a description of the ceremony for bringing the first fruits to the Temple. As part of this ritual, the following is to be recited by the pilgrim bringing the produce:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he descended to Egypt. There he became a great and mighty nation. The Egyptians did us harm and caused us suffering; they placed upon us the burden of hard labor. We called out to the Lord the God of our ancestors; God heard our voices, and He saw our suffering, our hard labor and our oppression. The Lord brought us forth from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and with wonders. And he brought us to this place, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first fruits of the land that You have given to me. (Deut. 26:5–10)
The farmer is instructed to recite these words as a means of engaging in hakarat ha-tov, acknowledging the goodness that he has received from God. His possession of land and its yield of produce are not to be taken for granted. As the Haggadah puts it, the farmer is expected to remember that if not for God’s redemption of his ancestors in Egypt, “behold we and our children and our children’s children would have been enslaved by Pharaoh.” This declaration frames the act of bringing the first fruits as not merely thanksgiving, but as an acknowledgement that, ultimately, the farmer’s harvest belongs not to him but to God, who made possible the cultivation of the land and its consequent bounty. The bringing of the first fruits is a token act of returning the fruits of the harvest to their true Owner.
When we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt on the night of the seder, it is these verses that we recite and interpret, rather than the narrative in Exodus. Surely this is striking; as the Talmudic Sages would put it, “This says, ‘Interpret me.'” I would argue that the most compelling reason for choosing these verses over those in Exodus is that they serve as a paradigm of what the retelling of the Exodus at the seder should be. Recalling the Exodus is not intended to be simply, or even mainly, a history lesson. Rather, as in the case of the declaration prescribed in Deuteronomy 26, it is an attempt to understand how our own lives are rooted in that experience. This is true both in the sense that we should be motivated to give thanks for the benefits that we enjoy as a consequence of that redemption long ago, and in that we should shape our relations with those around us in accord with the message of the Exodus. When we bend others to our will through manipulation or coercion, we are taking on the role of Pharaoh. When we work to release others from oppression, we are doing God’s redemptive work.
I mention this not only because of its inherent importance, but also as a way of reflecting on the religious role of the study of history. Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Jewish texts and the history of Jews and Judaism that was initiated in the first half of the nineteenth century by a small circle of German Jews, including the scholar Leopold Zunz, was motivated in part by a desire to legitimize the study of Judaism as a respectable academic enterprise. An inevitable result of this endeavor was, to use Max Weber’s term, the disenchantment of Jewish history and Judaism’s religious texts. The introduction of social and political factors into the study of Jews and Judaism meant that the teachings and actions of religious leaders were no longer understood in purely spiritual terms. Rather, they were seen as often being motivated by political agendas of which the actors themselves were unaware, or which they chose to ignore and even, at times, conceal.
A corollary of this desacralization was contextualization. The teachings of Judaism were understood as responding to the social, political, and historical forces of a particular time and place. This implied that interpretations of Judaism that were appropriate for one era were not necessarily meaningful, at least not to the same degree, for another.
This approach was, and is, diametrically opposed to a central component of traditional Jewish textual interpretation, namely Midrash. The midrashic enterprise is based on a metahistorical approach to Judaism’s sacred texts that views them as containing eternal truths. Any and all of the teachings of Tanakh and, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree, those that emerge from the midrashic process, are seen as eternally binding and relevant. Any disharmony between tradition and modern sensibilities, it is believed, can be eliminated by reading traditional texts creatively. These creative midrashic readings legitimize practices and ideologies that differ from those described and prescribed in the Tanakh, while they simultaneously retain the authority of the sacred texts by identifying them as the source of these new teachings.
Returning to the commemoration of the Exodus, the choice of Deuteronomy 26 over the book of Exodus is, to use Yosef Yerushalmi’s formulation, the choice of memory over historiography. While no modern historian would consider Exodus a historically reliable document—indeed it is a kind of midrash in its own right—the impulse to read it is the desire to recall what “actually happened.” The choice of Deuteronomy, on the other hand, implies that the exact details of the Exodus story are less important than the meaning of the Exodus saga for each subsequent generation.
The Jewish Theological Seminary is the spiritual descendant of Zacharias Frankel, the first rector of Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar founded in Breslau in 1854. Frankel sought to foster positive-historical Judaism, an approach that viewed and studied Judaism as a historically rooted phenomenon while maintaining a positive and committed attitude toward traditional Jewish thought and practice. Critical study of Jewish texts and Jewish history remains a cornerstone of our mission. In light of the “disenchanting” effect of critical study, it is worth asking whether such an approach to the study of Judaism is irrelevant or even inimical to religious engagement and observance.
I have discerned three answers to this question among my colleagues. The first is that, indeed, critical study renders moot all the claims that Judaism makes upon us theologically and halakhically. We may choose to live an observant Jewish life and to chant prayers expressing traditional theological views, but this is a personal choice having no larger significance.
The second answer is to create a firewall between critical study and traditional observance. Critical study is limited to the library and the classroom; in the synagogue only the voice of tradition is heard. This is, in effect, a variation on the notion espoused by Maimonides and others of an exoteric or popular tradition and an esoteric one. The exoteric tradition is what is taught to “the Jews in the pews.” The intellectual elite, on the other hand, pursue a more nuanced—and potentially destabilizing—view of Judaism. This approach has become untenable, I would argue, because of its inherent self-contradictory aspect and because the value placed on transparency and the presumed democratizing tendency in contemporary society in the dissemination of knowledge and information militate against it. As a consequence, liberal Jews—especially those in the Conservative Movement—are told that they must “struggle” with the tension between critical scholarship and tradition, but the nature of the struggle and the means for prevailing are rarely specified.
I am an adherent of a third approach, which in fact assigns religious value to critical study. One of the dangers of a traditional religious outlook is that, intentionally or otherwise, it often sweeps under the rug the flawed and problematic elements of tradition. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to interrogate tradition and to suggest new understandings of Torah and new ways of living it. The critical study of history and texts provides a potent reminder that even our greatest leaders were, in the end, flesh and blood; limited by the circumstances in which they were situated and by the temptations and prejudices that sometimes led to decisions and perspectives that were myopic or even self-serving.
I often tell my students that an aspect of rabbinic literature that I find particularly attractive is its inclusion of numerous narratives in which the Sages acknowledge their own character flaws and the limitations of their intellectual abilities. As I often say to the students, if anyone seeks your fealty on the basis of his or her infallibility, run away. Rather, seek someone who can say, “Yes, I am flawed, and I do not claim to understand everything or to be free of prejudice. However, it is that very self-knowledge that helps make it possible for me to be a wise and empathetic leader.” This, I believe, is the message the Sages wished to convey by revealing their own shortcomings.
I therefore regard engagement in critical study as taking up the invitation of our ancestors to regard their words and actions through the humanizing and relativizing lens of critical-historical study. When we do so, we fill the important role—to paraphrase Solomon Schechter’s formulation—of being members of the loyal opposition.
One final caveat is in order. It is all too easy to see how the words of our ancestors are historically and humanly conditioned. It takes far more humility and self-insight to acknowledge that we ourselves are products of our own time and place. We ought to apply the same healthy skepticism to our own convictions that we apply to the views of those we study. I hope that I, my colleagues, and thoughtful and committed Jews everywhere are using and will continue to use critical inquiry lovingly, to seek to build rather than to destroy. And, above all, let us use that critical temper first and foremost in understanding and evaluating ourselves.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.