Monday, November 30, 2015

Torah, Academia and Historicism

Forty years ago, I spent a riveting afternoon with one of the greatest Jewish historians of the second half of the twentieth century. I was then in the midst of a personal crisis; grappling with the question whether a key element of my chosen life's path, training as an academic historian, was worthwhile or religiously valid. This person graciously gave me an entire afternoon of his time to field my questions, listen to my concerns and share his hard won insights.It was an extremely memorable few hours, that was both formative and enriching.

In the course of our conversation, we touched upon the question of Biblical History and the academic approach thereto. Then, as now, this topic troubled me deeply. I offered that, then as now, I maintain that acceptance of many of the basic assumptions and conclusions of academic Bible scholarship (e.g. multiple authors, late composition, non-historicity of key events etc) is incompatible with any credible form of Orthodox Judaism. My interlocutor smiled, understandingly, and told me that as a graduate student he had been obliged to delve into this field and write a paper that was compatible with current research on the subject. He added that he prefaced his work with a disclaimer that he viewed the project as nothing more than a theoretical exercise. Afterwards, he tossed the paper in the nearest circular file.

'How could you do that?' I asked. 'It's a game,' he replied. You play the game according to the rules. When you're finished, you stop playing.' 

At the time, I thought that his answer was a bit flippant. Unfortunately, I didn't press the point and I never had the opportunity to clarify his words. I suppose I was satisfied by the fact that a person of impeccable scholarly integrity could dismiss the obliging force of academic Biblical historiography with such aplomb. Still, I've often thought about that exchange. Hazal famously observed that it takes one forty years before he understands the full implications of a teacher's words (Avodah Zarah 5b). Along those lines, forty years later, I think I finally understand what my interlocutor was saying.

A few days ago, someone sent me an article by Michael Cantrell, entitled 'Must a Scholar of Religion Be Methodologically Atheistic or Agnostic?' Cantrell's stated purpose is to question Peter Berger's assertion that 'every inquiry into religious matters that limits itself to the empirically available, must necessarily be based on methodological atheism' (P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York 1969, 110). In other words, by definition, the student of religion may not consider the Divine or the Sacred realms as factors in the development of religions, since there is no way of objectively proving their existence. Of course, some scholars are people of faith (as they are fashionably described today). However, since others are not believers, the more principled position is to deny (or suspend judgement) on the existence of the Sacred and to ignore it as a factor in one's researches. This, Berger (together with most social scientists) asserts is the most scientific and objective way to undertake one's researches. Berger calls his approach, 'Methodological Atheism.'

Cantrell engages Berger's position from a number of different angles (and I urge people to read his piece). What caught my attention was his contention that Methodological Atheism is not an assertion of scholarly objectivity. It is, de facto, an affirmation of secularism and a denial of the Sacred. It is not methodological atheism. It is atheism. [It reminds me of the argument that children should not be raised with religion, but allowed to choose when they reach adulthood. In fact, those parents effectively decide that their children should not have religion.] In academic terms, affirming methodological atheism is usually the equivalent of an affirmation of Secular Materialism, a position that is absolutely incompatible with a faith commitment (unless one has a weakness for Ibn Rushd).

For the person of faith, then, the academic study of religion without God is a game, because a major element of the scholarly calculus is missing. That is, I think, what my discussant was saying so long ago. In addition, Academic Biblical Scholarship is vulnerable for other reasons. To begin with, the archaeological and literary record is still very thin, subject to endless interpretations and highly speculative. But more to this, as with every scientific undertaking, academic findings are conditional. They only reflect the state of a field at a given time (and based upon whatever theoretical approach is then in fashion). They should, by definition, never claim to be definitive, because at any given time someone at the other end of the world may be upending the scholarly consensus with an unheard of finding. The most a scholar can say, or should say, is that 'such and such' is the most reasonable answer based on all we know at this time. Unfortunately, this is most decidedly not the case in the groves of academe; where dogmatic acceptance of the scholarly status quo is expected of both students and practitioners, and those who differ are suffered to absorb the slings and arrows of scholarly outrage.

As a practitioner of the academic method, I have no argument with my colleagues in Biblical Studies. They follow the rules and try their best to reach the truth, as best they can and as best they understand it. Furthermore, I am not arguing for a theistic approach to scholarship. In my own work, I do not write that 'such and such' occurred  because God willed it. I might not even think it, since it would raise serious issues of Predestination and Theodicy. I, too, try to explore the causes that lie behind intellectual and historical developments. As a medievalist, writing in a time of Deus Absconditus (הסתר פנים), such an approach is more comfortable. [I do maintain the importance of and the formative role played by the perception of the Sacred and the individual's experience of God in the understanding of Judaism and Jewish History. ]  

However, within the internal discourse of a faith community, there is no room for methodological atheism. Here, one must not play be the rules of 'the game.' God is the central portion of our calculus. Secular materialism, which drives Him from the universe and beyond, is an anathema to the person of faith. 

That does not mean that the findings of historians should be dismissed. Questions are valid. Doubt is a legitimate religious category. However, as with so many other matters, a person of faith must be sustained by his convictions that the historical record will ultimately confirm that which the Bible states; that the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch (and inspiration of the Prophets and Hagiographa) will be confirmed; and that the Tradition of the Written and Oral Law also transcend the exigencies of the contexts within which they first emerged

This is certainly the case when one considers that while scientists (and social scientists) may dogmatically affirm 'This is it,' at most all they can really say, is 'maybe this is how it is.' After all, the basis of the Scientific Method lies in the conditional nature of scientific conclusions (as Popper and Kuhn have taught us.). Hence, when the person of faith confronts academic findings, our Rabbis observation that ברי ושמא, ברי עדיף should obtain. It is both dishonest and wrong to make Judaism totally subservient to Secular Materialist Scholarship. Put differently, internal discussions of how Torah should be studied, interpreted and applied must posit that it has integrity as the veritable Word of God. Restricting Torah to the passing fashions of academic consensus, or to historicist reductionism, is totally unacceptable.   

The reader has every right to object, at this point: 'See to your own wounds, for you are a practitioner. Are you not?' Obviously, I am. After the above conversation, I went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard, followed by a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in Religion at Yale, and followed by twenty-three years as an historian of Halakhah and Jewish Intellectual History. In my research, I follow all of the canons of accepted academic procedure, with no pangs of conscience. In addition, I do believe that the study of Jewish History is a legitimate arm (if an ancillary one) of Torah. So, who am I to criticize?

I hope to address these issues in future posts.


Unknown said...

I find the attitude of your interlocutor very cynical and extremely troubling. L'havdil, it strikes me as the moral equivalent of the 19th century European Jew undergoing baptism, "playing the game" so as to get ahead. The academic world has its intolerances, just as High European society did (and still does), but we have been taught to look down upon those who took the easy road at the cost of losing their souls. Somehow, in our age of multiculturalism, there should be room for an agreement to disagree about the truth claims of any particular religious heritage. If the Bible is just the rantings of some ancient primitives, why talk about it at all - so if you are going to talk about it, a modicum of respect is called for, no?

Anonymous said...

1. your mentor could equally have said that he was writing a paper based on certain assumptions. he could have said in his opening disclaimer that while he did not believe in the underlying assumptions, the following paper lays out certain results if the assumptions were true [or perhaps this is what he meant?]
in fact, this was richard feynman's reaction to a talmudic query posed to him by herman wouk.

2. actually, not recognizing the sacred in studying history [particularly pre-modern history] is bad scholarship. even if the scholar chooses to not believe, the people and culture he is studying did. so if we are to understand their inner workings we must accept, prima facia, that we are dealing with a religious, believing people. whether we find any empirical reason to believe in god is irrelevant. so really, it shouldnt matter whether or not the student of the period is religious or not.
similarly the religiosity of the scholar shouldnt matter a great deal if he were studying an avowedly atheistic society. one must enter into the world view of the subject at hand to the best of ones ability in order to do the best job.

3. biblical scholarship is different. i agree that much of what they say is speculative, and that a scholar is bound by the resources available to him. and he should be humbled by the limitations of his resources and the full awareness of what may lie in the offing. but given that, the scholar must make a call, and commit to a position. you wouldnt be satisfied with a doctor who tells you,' this is where medical research stands, and i really cant know more than that, and things may change sometime in the future, so i cant really do anything conclusive.'

4. certain core issues aside, there are many, many, questions of substantial halacha which can be questioned, overturned, worked-around, and rendered moot in light of future scholarship or other social or cultural developments. this puts halachic scholarship in the same position as academic scholarship. are you fully prepared for the consequences of this?

5. as a relevant footnote, chazal tell us bari ve-shema -- LAV bari adif in the case of ha-motzi me-chavero, where the muchzak is a shema.
in the question of the [secular] academy vs. tradition, who is the muchzak, who is the bari, and who is the shema?

Jeffrey R. Woolf said...

I made a point of distinguishing between the rules by which academics work 'in house' and the foisting of their results (which are often very speculative) upon internal, religious discourse. Scholars are welcome to reach their own conclusions. They are not entitled to wrap themselves up in a supercilious, paternalist stance and declare themselves the possessors of 'Truth.'
Academics who are religiously observant often pay a suspect deference to God's work in history (as in, 'Of course one might say that the Torah is written this way because God so spoke). But, in true Pythonesque form, what they are really saying 'A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat and we 'know' that those benighted believers are just that and that Scholarship is the only way.' In this, as a I note elsewhere, constitutes a total and abject surrender to materialist atheism (whether it is given a religious cast or not).