When Orthodox scholarship is neither

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin


When first referred to Prof. Martin Lockshin’s book review (“A book for the thoughtful, ‘skeptical’ Orthodox,” Jan. 10), I was curious. Works by Orthodox authors that tackle difficult theological issues, ask tough questions, and reconcile differences between Orthodoxy and modern scholarship are always of interest to Jews who straddle both worlds. Such works are often a kiddush HaShem, because they demonstrate how Orthodoxy and scholarship are compatible. Orthodox scholars such as Rabbi David Berger, Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman, Prof. Menachem Kellner, and yes, Rabbi Martin Lockshin, admirably synthesize devout personal religiosity with academic rigour. With a title touting a book that would be helpful to such a “skeptical” Orthodox Jew, I read on.

But about halfway through the article, something was seriously wrong. The book, Torah from Heaven, by former Orthodox rabbi Norman Solomon, was ostensibly about how to reconcile traditional Judaism’s claim that the Torah scroll we read in synagogue contains the same text given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, in light of scholarship of the last two centuries that argues the text has been altered over time.

But the article began to stray off topic. Rabbi Lockshin quoted a passage from the book citing a 20th-century Israeli chief rabbi who had interpreted a talmudic passage literally and as a result rejected modern medicine. But wait: the Talmud is a rabbinic commentary to the Torah, written centuries after it was canonized. What in the world did a modern rabbi’s fundamentalist interpretation of the Talmud have to do with Bible criticism?

I quickly realized that Rabbi Solomon’s work was much broader than the subject of Bible criticism. And 150 pages into the book (the reader is left guessing for some time what it’s actually about), I discovered that the author actually has three problems with Orthodox theology: (a) the integrity of the written Torah text; (b) the claim that the rabbinic oral tradition is an accurate explanation of the written biblical text (hence the passage about the Talmud); and (c) the Bible contains certain values and teachings that run counter to modern morality, such as the command to wage war with idolatrous nations and the ban on homosexuality. This flawed morality, argues the author, proves that the Bible is not the real word of God.

Rabbi Solomon is a product of both traditional Orthodox yeshivot and the university. After spending years as an Orthodox pulpit rabbi, he retired and went into academia. (I know all this because the author first presents his autobiographical “orientation.” He wants the reader to sympathize with his conflicts, and, I suspect, he wants to impress Orthodox skeptics that he’s one of the guys.)

Rabbi Solomon then spends the bulk of the book regurgitating what he’s learned of Bible criticism from the university, as well as what he remembers of traditional Torah commentary from the yeshiva. Along the way, he takes swipes at much of traditional Torah literature, from rejecting the entire corpus of Kabbalah as being fanciful and outlandish to attacking one of the greatest rabbinic minds of the 20th-century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, for overemphasizing the halachic nature of the Torah. Clearly, a man with “issues.”

Reading page after page of this disputation with tradition, I was hoping that at some point he would find a way to neatly reconcile his Orthodox faith with all the presented challenges. He had, after all, raised many valid questions that deserved careful and methodical analysis.

But alas, this was not to be. In the last section of the book, where the great “reconciliation” is offered, an entire chapter is titled, “What is Truth?” Rabbi Solomon therein suggests that despite the utter falsehood of the Bible’s historical and moral claims, despite his contention that it isn’t really the word of God dictated to Moses, the Bible could still be “true” in some other sense. Now, this may pass as profundity in some circles, but for me it brought back memories of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s attempt to define what “is” is. The Bible’s claim to be the word of God, presented to real Jews at a real Mount Sinai three millennia ago, is either true or false. Make up your mind.

But Rabbi Solomon feels that there’s a way to parse the gap between truth and falsehood by suggesting that the Bible, when read as a “myth,” (i.e., “tangible formulations of abstract ideas”) is true, even though its “historical claims” are false. To arrive at the end of a book claiming serious biblical scholarship and have it end with poetic esotericism and philosophical waxing was not only anti-climatic, it was downright frustrating. Scholarship this isn’t.

I am left confused by Rabbi Lockshin’s review. To his credit, nowhere does Rabbi Solomon claim to reconcile his Orthodoxy with his newfound belief in the Torah as myth. Indeed, after examining the stated creed of the movement for Reform Judaism, one concludes that Rabbi Solomon has become a Reform Jew. And that’s fine; people change all the time, and he wouldn’t be the first Orthodox Jew to leave the fold and become “enlightened” (although he is about two centuries late). But why Rabbi Lockshin feels this book is appropriate for Orthodox Jews with questions is utterly perplexing. This is not a book that will reconcile your Orthodoxy with modern scholarship. It rather tells you to reject everything you learned in yeshiva or seminary as utter drivel, and to reject those Orthodox rabbis whose lack of wisdom prevents them from seeing the truth.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of real scholarship, written by Orthodox scholars, that proves Rabbi Solomon wrong. It is quite possible and laudable to reconcile one’s Orthodoxy with one’s intellectual skepticism, and it is a project to which I and other rabbis and scholars have dedicated our lives. As my colleague in this endeavour, I hope that Rabbi Lockshin will reconsider his unqualified endorsement of Rabbi Solomon’s book.

Rabbi Korobkin is senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation.