Sunday, March 24, 2013

Shut Down The Bible Department?

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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

This problem is already addressed: the students who would find an Intro to Bible course as described above generally go to the sections taught by 'frummer' teachers (I use that term loosely as I do not believe it's actually true; merely that the contents of their course are not as 'shocking' to the average yeshiva bochur as some of the other teachers'). The students who specifically want to study the touchier issues tend to flock to other teachers. These things aren't secret--all the teachers have a certain reputation which is passed around, and most students know that "this class is good for your neshoma" and that "this class will make you into a kofer", for better or for worse.

Longtime reader said...

The traditions in Judaism, even if all proved false, would yet be beautiful.

Not the ones that marginalize homosexuals. Perhaps it's worth seeking truth, even uncomfortable truth, if you learn to be more tolerant of others.

Armoth said...

I have sympathy for the arguments here. It is definitely true that some people are smarter, more cerebral, and some are more emotional. And thus, it might be tempting to remove "truth-seeking" as a requirement that should apply to everyone equally.

However, I'm not sure that rationalism is something that correlates directly with intelligence. I think that even not-smart people, can be morally expected to do their best to think and act rationally. I think incredibly intelligent and cerebral people can be morally expected to do their best to feel the emotions that light up with the rationalist infrastructure they have built for themselves.

For example: If pursued, according to the tools available, someone who has less cerebral ability might be able to find his own answers to the questions posed in such a bible course - perhaps not on his own, but by asking others whom he trusts.

A second issue: While I think you presented your arguments very romantically, and again, I have sympathy for the approach - what is your evidence to say that emunah pshuta (as you have defined it) is valuable? Why is relying on tradition morally valuable? Aren't there other peoples, other religions, and other traditions that if one relied on them, it would be morally deplorable? Wouldn't a rational search be the only way to break the chain of an immoral tradition?

ruvie said...

"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."

nothing wrong with ignorance. just take the university out of YU. I guess the rambam, ramban, ibn ezra are anti "traditional".. we live in an arts scroll world.

Nachum said...

Longtime reader, has it ever occurred to you that marginalizing homosexuals (as such) can be a beautiful thing?

Anonymous said...

I'm on the fence on the truth vs. happiness/love/altruism issue. However, I think Rabbi Sacks made the case for the benefits of religion -- whether or not religion is "true" -- in his excellent New York Times op-ed.

"If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race."

see last comment said...

Here's a link to the article.

Chana said...

Anon 1:16am,

Depends on where someone is coming from. If someone is a student from a public high school who didn't go to a yeshiva in Israel, they might not be so fortunate as to know people who could direct them. And also, scheduling is impacted by time as well. What happens if the only Intro to Bible course that fits your schedule is one that will leave your beliefs completely shaken?

Longtime reader,
I think this would apply in a time with a Sanhedrin and a Beit Hamikdash where people who would act on their homosexuality could receive the death penalty. But nowadays, many Orthodox Jews are very tolerant of people who identify as homosexuals without saying that this lifestyle is an ideal one. They're not gay allies, but they are tolerant.

I disagree with the premise. I think rationalism is linked to intelligence, and moreover, to a certain kind of intelligence (for example, on the Myer-Briggs scale, an ISTJ is far more likely to be a rational thinker than an ENFP). Same goes for Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences, or Sternberg's 'analytical' intelligence vs. the creative or practical models.

I think tradition-based approaches are valuable because I value the ideas of respect and reverence for elders, and keeping a tradition *because* it is tradition, not only because it can be rationally explained. I think there are few religious traditions that are truly immoral; the ones that are are usually a corruption of the original tradition, and show a form of fanaticism and obscurantism, to quote the Rav, that change it from the original.

There is a huge discussion about what Torah u'Madda at YU means, with some opting for synthesis and some opting for a complementary curriculum. The Rav saw it as a complementary curriculum, where his students were great Talmud students and great science students, but didn't try to force the science on the Talmud. I'm taking that approach.

Marginalizing people is not a beautiful thing. See my much longer post about cultural fusion and the idea of Torah Through Tears.

Anon 12:16,
I'm with R' Sacks.

PG said...

You are in way over your head. I don't want to hurt your feelings - but you are really just a pseudo-intellectual. And a condescending one at that. You can move a little bit to show how liberal you are - but then you turn your mind off and become an orthodox apologist.

"Rabbi Shnayer Z. Leiman at Revel, it was one of the most illuminating and challenging courses" - really? what are the details?

"And yet, even if that were to be so, they are, for the most part, beautiful." Really? can you show us the calculus?

Imagine if the Sanhedrin were empowered today - in addition to executing the "abominable" homosexuals, they'd be executing adulterers, blasphemers, idol worshippers, sabbath violators - all in the name of - nothing! Millions of sacrifices would be brought - in the name of - nothing! Jews have been persecuted forever and six millions Jews died in the name of -nothing!

What you should do is become a liberal Christian. They're the ones who have adopted the "Love Thy Neighbor" maxim and dropped any ritual service. Are you brave enough to do this? I don't think so. Instead you're spending your time and money preparing for Passover. Kind of immoral isn't it - when you imagine how that time and money could be used in service of your fellow man?

Never mind, keep the blinders on.


Shades of Gray said...

"A major assumption that many people make is that one path is 'greater' and one is 'lesser.'"

Classically, the merits of emunah peshutah vs. chakirah have been debated, which also seem reflected in this post. However, all agree, I believe, that if philosophical inquiry will harm one's faith, it should be avoided. Also, the question is at what age. Another interesting difference is in the nature of questions: it was philosophy in the Middle Ages, versus other issues today.

YU should not shut down its Bible department, but if "there are some teachers who, knowingly or not, shatter the faith of others" this is a problem; perhaps not all students belong there(this latter point about students being qualified was an argument, I think the Jewish Observer had on the application of R. Lamm's TUM; see also R. Parnes' article in the first TUM Journal).

I can see an argument to keep YU Bible Department open from my personal experiences at lectures. About seven years ago, I was at two different Science and Torah lectures, waiting to ask a question to the speaker. At both, I overheard someone ask something like, "this is good for science and Torah, but what about other academic issues?"

At both, the answer to the questioner was similar, "speak to Prof. X, over there, who is from YU's Bible Department."

So it is good, I think, that there are contemporary Orthodox academics who are familar with and can speak about these topics, but it is not for everyone to study, as mentioned in this post.

Rand said...


This is a really fantastic article, and it deals with a question that has been on my mind for years now, and it elucidates it very well.

That said, I think we have to be aware that there are three different subjects, if you will, in this article.

The first subject is the individual. Should I, as an individual, be dedicated to truth and intellectual honesty? That really a question of what I value, and it’s hard to tell people what they should value. And if I do value what you refer to as “western values” than the answer is clear: I, as somebody who has internalized truth as a primary value should pursue knowledge, and pursue truth. Should I be concerned that I might be happier ignorant? No, happiness doesn’t have to trump truth, and I can pursue truth knowing it might make me less happy.

So much for somebody who has adopted the mantra that “reason is the highest principle.” What about your “Torah Jew” who is concerned about Jewish values, not secular ones? Well, and this goes for any moral absolutist, truth is still deeply important. If you could ask an Orthodox family if they wanted to know that R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, or whoever they consider an important past or present posek, had said that a certain minhag, that they value greatly, actually falls under the category of hukas ha-akum, they would want to know. It’s not merely that given the knowledge that they were violating hukas ha-akum they would want to stop, they believe in an objective reality called hukas ha-akum and they very much do not want to violate it.

Does that mean that every religious person must be dedicated to the truth? With one caveat I think it does: A religious person believes in that there is a genuine will of God worth carrying out, and in order to carry out that will properly, he must know that will. Does that mean that everyone must study academic Bible or the Moreh Nevukhim? No, and for that we can turn to Rambam himself.

Rambam famously says in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2:2,3 that one is forbidden to read “any work that may cause one to reject a tenet of the Torah.” Why? Reading these books will lead him “to destroy the world according to the limits of his knowledge... at times [he will examine] the Torah, [thinking to himself] maybe it is from Heaven and maybe not.” In other words, it’s not that intellectual inquiry is bad: it’s that we are limited as individuals.

Of course, the question at hand isn’t whether we, as individuals, should study academic bible, which I believe depends upon our individual values and possibly our confidence in our own intellects. It’s whether Yeshiva University should teach academic Bible, and moreover whether it should require it. And it’s hard to talk about Yeshiva University’s values, because Yeshiva isn’t exactly a coherent whole, with a single governing philosophy. But we can loosely say that Yeshiva values Torah and secular education and in the absence of theological issues, would wholeheartedly embrace Bible study.

What if we take the theological issues into account? Well then, we fall back upon Rambam I quoted above. It’s important to recognize that Rambam’s statement reflects a very paternalistic attitude, that certain people simply can’t handle the truth. (And there’s a similar line of thought that they need it spoon-fed to them, as per the article you reference.) But one of the things that distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy (to the extent that we can treat it as a coherent whole) from its Ultra-Orthodox cousin is its tendency to reject such arguments. The attitude that “Rambam could say/study X but we can’t” is largely rejected by Modern Orthodoxy, which tends to believe more in the ability of the individual and less in larger-than-life gedolim. And hence the rather thin line that YU walks, accepting the paternalistic argument in extreme cases (i.e. the Documentary Hypothesis for undergraduates) and rejecting it in others.


Rand said...

(part 2)

So much for the psychoanalysis of Yeshiva University. I know we’re both concerned with a larger point, the third person in my argument. Should we, as individuals, teach people things that might damage their faith? And again, it all comes back to what we value. If we value the intellectual search for truth over all else, we will never hesitate to teach, unless teaching will drive people away from learning the truth. If we are religious people we will tend to teach: We will certainly teach people who we believe to have the wrong views. And as for those people who already hold our faith, we will still teach as long as we have faith in the student’s ability to properly process our message.

And what if we are Humanists? Then we might be well inclined to accept your arguments. For all that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were very prominent and public secular humanists, I think many humanists would reject their evangelical approach to spreading Atheism. I think if you truly believe in human happiness as the greatest value, you don’t strip people of their beliefs and leave them miserable, unless you are convinced that their beliefs are truly destructive. And what if we are relativists? Then I don’t think there are clear rules governing our actions, but I think we would be inclined to live and let live, simply based on our innate empathy with people who seem happy with their way of life.

And that’s why ultimately I agree with you in practice, Chana. Letting people live with the harmless untruths that make them happy can be a great value. But not, I think, for a Yeshiva, or a University, or a Yeshiva University. Because a Yeshiva must pursue its mission le-hagdil Torah, taking into account the risks to Torah, and a University must pursue its mission le-hagdil Madda. And so, maybe people would be happier not learning, but "Torah hi, u-le-lamed ani tzarikh".

Anonymous said...

you don’t strip people of their beliefs and leave them miserable, unless you are convinced that their beliefs are truly destructive.

Religion is full of destructive beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:16 here. I'm no longer on the fence. I'm with Rand. Very well expressed.

Nachum said...

"Marginalizing people is not a beautiful thing."

If they are living an immoral, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and are openly pushing (by being public about said lifestyle) to have it declared moral and unsinful, then, yes, marginalizing is the thing to do.

Charlie Hall said...

"Western society values examination, dissection, skepticism and even atheism."

I've been taught that the first three of those are Jewish values! We certainly see them reflected in the works of our sages.

Anonymous said...

The problems are these:

Orthodox Jews try to scare secular Jews into becoming observant. If this fails, they try to inspire them. If this fails, they hold out the better after-life if they do mitzvoth; if this fails they hold out the worse afterlife if they commit averas.

Orthodox Jews cut their own people off from education. They keep them poor. They abuse their power that way. Orthodox Jews raise huge families on the backs of the working tax payer. Orthodox Jews plan to handle life this way.

Orthodox Jews certainly can express odious beliefs. They can tell others to serve in the army to protect them. They can tell others to work to support them.

Orthodox Jews mainly ask others to accept their own unreasonable ideas as true – and to see them as reasonable. They tell others their reasonable ideas are false – and that they will see them as unreasonable.

Having rigid ideas of truth leads to poor thinking and decision making on the communal level.

I hear you when you say that people should be left alone to practice their faith and not face truth – but they have much to say about the kofer, the secular, the gentile – and not all of it is so happy and respectful.

So we on the secular side MUST try to balance the indoctrination with education; the manipulated minds with informed minds; the show trials of day school (where the orthodox idea is always the winner) with the real trial of different views presented by different sides.

Remember Chana: strong belief can get you anywhere. To being a hare Krishna, an orthodox Jew, a Nazi, a member of the KKK.

Where strong belief starts, thinking stops.

And thinking has brought us the ultimate values: self-evident truths about the equal value of all human life; the Bill of Rights; Inalienable rights; human rights; equality under the law.

The best thing that ever happened to the Jews was the Enlightenment: it spelled the end of “belief” as “truth” and therefore the end of pogroms, inquisitions, and crusades by people whose “truth” told them to destroy the Jews.

In the secular world – you can learn anything you want. Why?