Many friends of mine have shared the article "Shut Down the Bible Department" by Elliot Resnick across their Facebook feeds. I think the article raises a good point, though unfortunately it does so in a very black-and-white way.
The rule is that in order to graduate from Yeshiva College, it is mandatory that one take a certain number of Bible credits, including Intro to Bible. In contrast, Stern College has no such rule. Intro to Bible is not even offered at Stern College. Several years ago, I wrote an article lamenting this, and asked for it to be brought over to our campus. When I took Intro to Bible with Rabbi Shnayer Z. Leiman at Revel, it was one of the most illuminating and challenging courses that I was ever lucky enough to work through. My husband was also able to audit the class, and felt the same way about it.
However, it's not for everyone.
I don't say this lightly. I am someone who advocates for living an examined life, thinking about one's Judaism, one's connection to God and one's choices. However, I am also someone who was raised by people who modeled devotion to God in their everyday lives, were reverent, and never felt threatened by questions. Moreover, I am someone who is very curious, and who would certainly be encountering people during the course of my life who would ask me questions about how I made sense of being a believing Jew when biblical criticism raises questions about the texts. For all these reasons, I had the ability to encounter challenges without having them shatter my faith, and also the need to learn this information, both for myself and because I would need to provide answers to others.
At the same time, I have a sibling who is also a devoted Jew, a lover of God and humanity, who could not be more different from me in terms of connection to God. This sibling, raised by my same parents, connects to God on an emotional level. S/he does good works, is always happy to cheer up a sick person, provide hospitality, help a friend in need or inspire children, but would not have found Intro to Bible to be a meaningful course. In fact, this person would have encountered questions and challenges which would have troubled them without offering helpful resolution.
My husband's family in Boro Park also fit this model. They are comprised of kind, giving people, who take faith and tradition very seriously. They accept Torah because their parents accepted it, and hand it down as mesorah to their children. It is treated as something precious, and everything about this lifestyle is given the greatest honor. Many people in this community would not be strengthened in their faith, or brought closer to God, through learning Intro to Bible.
The difficulty here is that we experience a clash between Western society and its values and the sometimes compatible, sometimes opposing values in Judaism. Western society values examination, dissection, skepticism and even atheism. Breaking away from it all is a value. Throwing away what isn't true is a value. Daring to search out the truth, even if it scares you, is valued. You are considered weak otherwise. In The Matrix, if Neo had opted for the blue pill, we would have thought him a coward.
And what we have done is taken these values and imposed them onto Judaism. We have decided that in Judaism, too, we must give credence and think carefully about every aspect of our belief system and tradition, dissect it and discard those pieces that don't make sense to us. We must be rationalists. We must break away from anything that cannot be proven. And in doing this, we pat ourselves on the back, call ourselves brave, call ourselves truth-seekers.
We are also concerned by what others think of us. We don't want brilliant professors, renowned scholars or friends in school to think we are stupid, that we believe in an outdated, antiquated religion. We want to make sure that our attitude to our religion is the most cutting-edge, sophisticated attitude possible. That we have taken into account modern day values and sensibilities.
Here lies the problem. For some people, it is brave to explore their vistas to the very end. And for other people, it is brave to recognize their limits. To say, here is where I stop; I can go no further. Because some people have the ability and the tools to look into challenges and be strengthened by them, while others look into them and lose themselves.
There is a famous story in the Talmud that four men walk into the Pardes. Pardes is an acronym for Peshat, Remez, Derash, Sod. Three of the men are harmed by this encounter. Only one remains strong and is not altered by the encounter. One may ask: but why were the other three harmed? They walked into an orchard, a garden for the mind, filled with God's Torah! Yes, but they were not sufficiently prepared. This was not the right path for them, the right challenge to take. There were other paths for them to walk.
I think that Intro to Bible can be a very valuable course for some people. It was for me. It strengthened my faith to be taught by a man who was an illui in Torah and also in biblical scholarship and criticism. To see such a man take the questions and concerns that I had seriously, think about them, and present both answers and more questions was helpful to me; it also signaled to me that I need not fear the questions. But: not every person is themselves this kind of teacher, and not every person learns this way. There are some teachers who, knowingly or not, shatter the faith of others, and some students who need to walk a different path, perhaps a path that features more good works, more love, more humanity, and less rational dissection.
A major assumption that many people make is that one path is 'greater' and one is 'lesser.' We assume that Neo is a hero because he takes the red pill instead of the blue pill. I'm not so sure that's true. What if he knew the limitations of his mind and abilities? What if he realized being exposed to what lay beneath the veneer would make him go mad? Would it not be more heroic for him to protect himself than to walk a path just because another person thinks it is noble?
We also assume that people who do not examine their lives in the same way we do are cowards or are copping-out, but is that really true? They live lives solely by faith, lives that reflect emunah peshuta. If called upon by God, they are instantly ready to answer. They need no proof, no signs, no miracles, nor textual analyses. They have their tradition, and that is sufficient unto them. They have their lore, and that is all. In cultures other than our Western society, this would be greatly prized. I just finished reading a book about an unwanted child in China. She wrote about the respect that was given to older women and older figures, the grandmother-sage with her wisdom to impart. America is a youth-centered, youth-focused culture, but that is not the way our world used to be. There are many societies that have created beautiful things that rely on naught but tradition. Who is to say our way is better than theirs?
Moreover, is truth the ultimate goal in life? Perhaps we ought to consider what value there is in religion even if it were not true, in the sense that God never made it, and thus we need not keep it. Suppose that religious Jews are in fact living a lie. So they live their whole life, and their religious beliefs and religious ideas are all lies. And yet, even if that were to be so, they are, for the most part, beautiful. The traditions in Judaism, even if all proved false, would yet be beautiful. Traditions that bring families together, that unite us as a shared brotherhood, that tell us to extend our hand in charity to the stranger- even if all predicated upon a lie- are still beautiful. This is not to say there are no problematic aspects to practiced Judaism; of course there are. But most often, the good outweighs the bad.
Would it be so terrible for people to live unexamined lives if they were happy in those lives, and the tenets of their faith led them to do good things? I think not.
So I think we must consider: what is our motivation in saying everyone must examine their religion and religious beliefs? Is it because we believe it will strengthen everyone in their faith? Clearly, it will not. Is it because we are afraid of what others will think of us? Impression management is hardly a reason to impose this obligation upon others. Is it because of our Western values? Quite possibly yes, and is that sufficient reason? Perhaps not. There are alternate methods of acquiring wisdom, as we can see if we look at traditions in countries like China. Is it because it matters because it is true? Who is to say that truth is the only thing that matters? Perhaps happiness matters more. Perhaps love. Perhaps the practical outcome of people doing good acts, even if the beliefs underlying them were to be proved false.
I do not think Yeshiva College should shut down their Bible department. But I think that it is fair to contend that either Intro to Bible should not be mandatory, or different forms of Intro to Bible should be taught. Some of them can be very academic and focus on textual analysis. Others can be more midrashic and involve simply learning an overview of the text with commentaries. People can choose the one that they feel is most suitable for them; after all, we must raise each individual according to his way.