Eliot Resnik has taken to the pages of Kol Hamevasor, a YU publication, to accuse the YU bible department of undermining core Jewish beliefs. His article calls for the department to be shuttered.
In what follows I explain why his premise is wrong and his argument fails.
Shut Down the Bible Department
By Elliot Resnick | Published: March 21, 2013
Shut down the Bible Department? What can be wrong with teaching Bible in Yeshiva College? Unfortunately, a great deal.
Introductory note: For the sake of this fisking, I am going to assume that YU doesn't teach kfira, and I am going to use the most lenient interpretation of kefira I can. Introducing the facts of history as currently understood by archaeologists and historians will not be considered kfira, for example, on the grounds that truth isn't heretical.
For better or for worse, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews grow up believing that Moshe wrote every word of the Torah as dictated by God. They also believe Moshe received the entire Oral Law at Har Sinai. Finally, they believe biblical Hebrew is holy and contains hidden wisdom of one sort or another.
For better or for worse, the overwhelming majority of Americans grow up believing in Santa Claus. They also grow up believing that the Civil War was fought to "free the slaves" and that cold weather makes you sick. Then something amazing happens: They grow up
I, too, believed all this. Indeed, they were axioms of my faith – until I took Intro to Bible. In that course, my professor challenged all three beliefs.
In a nutshell, that's a college professor's job. He's supposed to challenge your beliefs, not because the beliefs were wrong, but because they were simplistic, or incomplete. Children overgeneralize. They think in black and whites terms. They are narrow minded. As we grow older, we develop more advanced thinking styles. A good professor is supposed to take advantage of our new powers by providing us with new information and new perspectives. If it means your old ideas are undermined, well, that's part of growing up.
No longer was it clear that Moshe wrote the entire Torah. Indeed, it was not even clear if the Torah we possess today really mirrors the original Torah received on Sinai. Letters, words – even whole sentences – may have been added or deleted.
It's too bad you made it to college before encountering famous teachings recorded on the pages of the Babylonian Talmud. I am not saying this facetiously. It really is too bad that your elementary school teachers taught you that "Moshe wrote the whole Torah" without letting on that they weren't teaching you what Tannaim and later Rabbis actually believed. It's too bad that they taught you Hebrew was the very first language, when they could have taught you that Ramban considered it "loshon Canani" It's too bad they taught you that Chazal were passive receivers when they were really active creators. Had they told you the truth, instead of a simple and watered-down version of it, you'd have been spared the pain described in this article.
Moreover, Hebrew, I learned, is just another ancient Semitic language. It possesses no intrinsic holiness.
Nothing possesses "intrinsic holiness." Holiness is subjective, a function of how you think about something and how you treat it. We assign holiness, as individuals and as a community. By those lights, Hebrew is still holy.
All those Ba’al ha-Turim insights based on gematria and the exactitude of the Torah text? All nonsense, apparently; very clever, but essentially based on error.
Why dismiss it as nonsense? Its certainly clever stuff; moreover you can still find religious significance in the fact that it works (to whatever extent it actually "works." More on that some other time). Let's draw an analogy between the development of Hebrew and the development of the human species. Both are the result of evolution, but its still possible to say that the evolution was directed, and that though the process was natural, the result was not an accident.
Of what significance is gematria, after all, if Hebrew is a man-made language? Of what value are all the Ba’al ha-Turim’s brilliant computations if our Torah is not the exact same one that God gave to Moshe?
Significance and value are subjective. The value and significance of the "Ba’al ha-Turim’s brilliant computation" are the same as the significance and value of any work of art, or any work of science or philosophy that were based on what were ultimately shown to be false premises: They tell us what people thought, and how they thought. They let us see what they saw. Smart people think that kind of stuff is cool. It's fun to rummage around in someone else's consciousnesses.
And what about Torah she-be-al Peh? I will never forget the day my Intro to Bible professor said, although not in so many words, that the thirty-nine forbidden melakhot are post-Sinaitic additions. In other words, the myriad Shabbat laws are just what the cynics say they are: rabbinic inventions. They do not come from God.
It isn't just what "cynics" say. Its also what the tradition itself says. For example Tana debei Eliyahu Zuta teaches that God gave man "a kab of wheat (from which to produce flour) and a bundle of flax (from which to produce cloth)." R. Yannai (P. Sanhedrin 22a) who said that the oral law "was not given as a clear cut decision;" instead "He offered 49 arguments by which a thing could be proven unclean, and 49 arguments by which a thing could be proven clean." And in various places you can find the Tannaim confessing (or the Amoraim deducing) that various teachings were inventions. (I think such a confession/deduction was made regarding the shabbos laws, in fact. But I can't put my finger on it. Perhaps one of the more learned members of the reading audience can help?)
What is the point of teaching all of this to impressionable nineteen-year-olds? What exactly do some of the Bible professors who teach these anti-traditional ideas hope to accomplish by shocking their students?
Question begging. They aren't trying to shock you. They are trying to educate you. Teaching you what the tradition says is a legitimate goal for a yeshiva, and expanding your understanding of a subject is a legitimate goal for a college.
I am not opposed to truth. If my beliefs are naïve or based on ignorance, I am fully in favor of reconstructing my Judaism on a more solid basis. But this is not what my Bible professor did. He destroyed my core beliefs without replacing it with anything. He tore down my foundation and left me staring at the rubble. I recently met a fellow student who took the very same Intro to Bible course with me years ago. He, too, left that class dazed, he said. He did not know what to believe anymore.
If finding out what the tradition actually says produces such a crises perhaps you weren't ready for higher education. If so, the fault isn't with the Bible Department, but with the Admission department for accepting you as a student.
How can a professor do that to a frum teenager?
Do what? Teach you things? Are you actually arguing a frum student must be protected from ideas?
If he wants to destroy what he perceives to be naïve beliefs, he should at least replace them with more sophisticated ones.
Of course he wants to destroy naive beliefs. That's one of the goals of education - no matter what the subject. Look, we're all sorry your elementary school teachers failed you, but I don't understand why you've continuing to cling to an elementary school view of the tradition and to act as though some criminal disservice was performed by the educator who tried to tell you the rest of the story.
Suggest new ideas.
You professor DID suggest new ideas. The new ideas are what you're complaining about. Your old idea was Moshe wrote the whole Torah we have today. The new idea was that he didn't. And the new idea is supported by lots of evidence, and by various rabbinical authorities, so what's the problem?
Rebuild Judaism on a new basis.
Rebuild Judaism on a new basis? Why must anything be rebuilt, when the problem comes down to your own ability to accept and process ideas that are contained within the tradition itself (or supported by facts as the experts understand them.)
But don’t leave students hanging without guidance.
They are teachers. Not psychologists. You're not entitled to guidance from them. All they are contracted to deliver is information. If you can't process the information then be an adult and find a way to work it out that satisfies you. Don't blame the messenger or obligate the messenger to be more than a messenger..
It is quite ironic, but I can think of no other class in YU that is as potentially damaging to one’s faith as Intro to Bible.
When you say they damaged your faith, what you mean is that they damaged your faith in immature, unsophisticated elementary school ideas. Every college class is supposed to do this. The difference is you're emotionally attached to childhood ideas about bible, but not to childhood ideas about biology.
When I speak to right-wing acquaintances of mine, my main hesitation in recommending YU for their siblings or children is not the Philosophy Department or any science department; it’s the Bible Department.
I therefore propose that YU either radically reform this department or eliminate it entirely.
I therefore propose that YU either radically reform this department or eliminate it entirely.
Whereas I propose that YU disregard the emotional whining of people who wish to protect a limited, though cherished, understanding of Judaism. Look, I get that the old ideas were a nice warm bath. That's fine. But its time to let the water run out, and move on. Don't expect an institute of higher education to shape its curriculum to satisfy your longings for the security and innocence of childhood.
Of course not every Bible course is problematic, but too many of them are, and the damage these courses inflict is too dangerous to ignore
Damage to.. what? I have to point out that you never quite got around to describing the damage. Anyway, the better solution is for the admissions department to simply weed out applicants with weak constitutions and poor powers of cognition. If finding things out makes you this unhappy, you don't belong in college.