Things change; truth remains
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Things change; truth remains

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman talks about reconciling Orthodoxy and biblical criticism

Ramesses II single-handedly defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E. The Hittites seek refuge from his arrows by jumping into the Orontes river, but to no avail, and their corpses float away. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman argues that Ramesses offers lessons in understanding the Torah.
Ramesses II single-handedly defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E. The Hittites seek refuge from his arrows by jumping into the Orontes river, but to no avail, and their corpses float away. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman argues that Ramesses offers lessons in understanding the Torah.

Things change.

But God does not — or so Maimonides claimed.

So where does that leave the Torah, which is understood to be divine but is also a tangible, readable thing?

That, in effect, is the philosophical question at the heart of Bar Ilan University professor Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman’s new book, “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith,” published by the Orthodox Maggid press in February. (Rabbi Berman will talk about the book in a Zoom session organized by Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck; see box for details.)

Rabbi Berman is American-born. He grew up in Riverdale, went to SAR and Ramaz, and graduated from Princeton. Then he made aliyah and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion for eight years; he was ordained there.

As a rabbinic student, Rabbi Berman was drawn to the study of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. “I like pondering the human condition rather than abstract concepts. Tanakh is all about the human conditions,” he said. “The Tanakh is about individuals, collectives — it’s a mass laboratory of social sciences. The subtle ways it conveys its messages were very challenging and appealing to me.”

So after his years in yeshiva, Rabbi Berman went on to earn a doctorate in Tanakh at Bar Ilan — “after a lot of handwringing as to whether it would be kosher.” The kashrut of the Bible department has been questioned because the academic study of the Bible leads to all sorts of unorthodox and arguably heretical questions. That’s because it examines the Tanakh with the same investigative techniques used by scholars of secular works, without the a priori assumption of traditional scholars that the Torah was divine writ.

Navigating this academic approach while remaining a believer can be a challenge — but it’s one that Rabbi Berman says the Orthodox community must confront.

“Once upon a time, it was not on our radar,” he said. “When I was in the yeshiva in the 1980s and I heard there were some guys studying this stuff called biblical criticism, how would I even get ahold of it? I would have to take a bus to a library in Jerusalem.”

But things change. “Now, even if you don’t want to know anything about biblical criticism, it comes flooding out of your computer screen,” he said. “I get so many letters and emails from the charedi world, from people who are struggling with this. The internet means you are going to run into it. Because people want to be intellectually honest, they come to a point of struggle.”

As both a rabbi and an academic Bible scholar, Rabbi Berman feels that he has to help the Orthodox community deal with that struggle. Hence, his new book.

Briefly put, the thrust of his defense of the Bible’s authenticity is that things change.

“The world we live in today functions on a whole range of assumptions and concepts that didn’t exist back then,” back in the time of the Tanakh, he said. “We’re out of touch with those earlier frames of reference and concepts.”

He offers for example eight words: “fact, fiction, history, author, religion, politics, law, belief.”

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman

“Those words do not exist in biblical Hebrew and do not exist in rabbinic Hebrew,” he said. “But to us, they’re just the ABC of how we think.”

While we might think that the Tanakh is about those things — religion and politics, law and belief — and should be placed in the genre of either fact or fiction — “I would say that the Tanakh is not about any of those things,” Rabbi Berman said. “They are all modern concepts and bring a lot of baggage.”

The Tanakh has to be understood “in its ancient Near Eastern contexts,” he continued. “You have to understand the way people then thought, the way they wrote. I’m not doing anything particularly new. Maimonides makes this a real cornerstone of how he reads the Torah.”

He offers, as a modern example of how a word that “we think is so simple that we think it obviously has always been in the lexicon,” the term “survivor” for someone who experienced the Holocaust.

“In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, nobody called them survivors,” Rabbi Berman said. “They were called refugees, immigrants, displaced people. Nobody called them survivors until the ’70s.

“Something happened. There was this miniseries, ‘Roots,’ that put ethnic identity on the scoreboard in America, and then we wanted to have our ethnic identity. Suddenly we wanted to relate in a different way to people who had gone through the Shoah. To be a survivor implies perseverance, strength of soul.

“It shows how over time words that represent concepts change in such a radical way that you can’t even believe it,” Rabbi Berman said.

Which gets to his recasting of the question at the heart of biblical criticism, which suggests that the Torah is a hodgepodge of sources that contradict one another rather than a coherent whole.

Does the fact the Torah says something mean that we are supposed to believe “things really happened this way?”

To what degree “do we need to affirm that everything in the Tanakh is factual in the way you and I think about the word?”

But remember: “The concepts of fact and fiction, that are so central to us, don’t exist in the ancient world,” Rabbi Berman said. “When ancient writers would speak about that past, it was different from what we do today. You have to find out what where they doing and why were they doing that.”

He quoted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as saying that when the Tanakh tells a story, it is designed to leave an imprint on the soul of the reader.

So if stories in the Tanakh don’t exactly match the facts as found in the archaeological record, that’s because “when the Torah feels that a presentation of just the facts themselves will not give a proper impact on the reader, it will have no qualms on embellishing the story.”

It’s not that the Torah is doing history wrong; it’s that it has no notion of what we mean by history.

“The way we think is not obviously the way people have always thought. All of our conceptions are very much rooted in time and place,” Rabbi Berman said. He offered a couple of modern examples of how “times change and the way people think changes.

“Just think about how much of our mindset on sexual orientation has changed. How we think about it, how we speak about it, how we relate to such individuals — there has been an incredible change in such a short time.

“Similarly, when sexual predators were in our schools in the ’70s” — admitted child molester Stanley S. Rosenfeld worked at both SAR and Ramaz in that decade — “all those great rabbis who didn’t do squat about it, it was not because they were terrible people. We would not have done anything different if we were there.

“If we can’t understand ourselves 30 years ago, there’s a need for modesty when we look at things in the ancient past,” he said.

For centuries now, readers of the Bible have noticed that “there are many stories in the Torah that contract, that have several versions, usually two, and they contradict,” he said. “Scholars say that since the facts don’t match up and to be honest the names of God don’t match up and the styles don’t match up too, no one would have written a story this way. So there must be two authors, two sources.

“But then you get into archeology and ancient writings and ancient inscriptions and discover that Ramesses, the greatest Pharaoh of all time, put up two and sometimes three accounts of the battle of Kadesh, his greatest achievement, all over Egypt. The accounts contradict each other: You cannot tie together the narratives and make a coherent account out of the three. You realize he did that because in each account he was looking to emphasize a different message, and whether or not all the details squared with one another wasn’t important.

“Everyone understood that what he was doing was teaching a lesson. Once you know what Ramesses was doing with his Egyptians, maybe the Torah can do that too. Who is to say that the Torah was written with modern notions of how to write and not ancient notions of how to write?”

Rabbi Berman believes “there’s a lot more room to examine academically valid approaches to things that are in sync with tradition. As someone in the field of biblical studies, I know there’s a lot more divergence of opinion than people think. Everything in this book has been published in the academic realm, whether at Oxford University Press or in top journals. It doesn’t mean everything in the book is agreed to by all scholars everywhere. It does mean that all the claims in this book have been vetted by respectable academic authorities who are not Orthodox, not rabbis, not even Jews.”

Rabbi Berman said that understanding how ideas and words have changed over the millennia doesn’t detract from the Torah’s centrality and sacredness.

“The eternal validity and importance of the Torah does not stem from its meaning being fixed,” he said. “That’s why we have an oral Torah. That’s why we have an ongoing tradition of interpretation. Protestants believe in sola scriptura, that there’s just the text and the plain meaning of the texts. Judaism has never been that way. There’s always been sussing new meanings and interpretations out of texts.

“The way Maimonides looks at it, you have to view the Torah as written in the primary way for the first generation. There were probably things understood only by the first generation of the Torah’s readers. There are so many different layers of depth in the Torah that subsequent authors take it in different directions. We have never been ones to say that the literal understanding of a given verse is the most important one or the only one. That has never been a Jewish way of looking at scripture.

“Even in the world of halacha, Judaism takes the simple meaning of what the Torah says and turns it upside down. Because times change,” he said.

He offered the example of levirate marriage. The Torah says that the brother of a man who dies childless should marry the widow — with the ritual of chalitza available as an escape hatch. The Talmud turned it around, and prefers the ritual rather than the marriage.

“At the time of the Gemara, there’s an ideal called monogamy,” Rabbi Berman said. “One husband, one wife. That ideal didn’t really exist in the time of the Torah. When monogamy became an ideal, they totally changed the halacha — and had no qualms about doing so.”

Here’s one last example from Rabbi Berman’s experience of how things change, and fast. In 2001, he published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, “Hadassah Bat Abihail: The Evolution from Object to Subject in the Character of Esther,” which traced the character of Esther in light of clinical theories of coming out.

“It was just amazing to see how the clinical theory of how a person goes through that with regard to sexual identity can be applied to understand Esther and all the things she goes through,” Rabbi Berman said. “It’s very revealing.

“When I came up with the idea 20 years ago, I thought I’d never be able to share it with an Orthodox audience. And today, everyone loves it. We’re a changed world.”


Save the Date

What: A conversation with Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, author of “Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith”

When: Sunday, November 1, 10 a.m.

With: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Teaneck

How much: Free

How to register: Go to rinat.org/form/bookdiscussionregistration. Space is limited.

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