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How do I approach a class on "Bible Criticism"?

by Rabbi Shlomo Chein

  

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I will write a two-part answer to your question. First I will offer my own criticism to “bible criticism,” and then I will share with you an experience that will help put things in perspective with regard to the “sanctity” of ideas taught by college professors.

1) The Bible text being criticized in your “Bible criticism” class is a book which I criticize too! Firstly, it is probably an inaccurate translation. Secondly, and more importantly, the ones who teach these classes most certainly have an inaccurate understanding of the Bible in the first place. They view the bible as a “history book,” and therefore have (often preconceived) notions that at best it was written by a human with divine inspirations, and at worst, it was written by many men without any inspiration at all. Based on these notions, they go about “proving” that this “history” book has serious errors and therefore couldn’t be of Divine origin – or even factual! They analyze the book from the “human” standpoint, and since this book has serious human errors, they conclude that it can’t be Divine! This is ironic, if not foolish, as we will soon demonstrate.

While history books look to give a clear and accurate recording of a particular era in history, the Torah, when dealing with historical events, looks to convey the eternal message to be gleaned from this story
If they would only take a more honest and deeper look they will realize that they are finding these “errors” because the book is not what they think it is! For starters, it is not a “history” book. True, it includes historical facts, but the purpose of the book is not to record history. The purpose of the book, as illustrated by its name, “Torah”, is to instruct and guide. The difference is immense: while history books look to give a clear and accurate recording of a particular era in history, the Torah, when dealing with historical events, looks to convey the eternal message to be gleaned from this story. This doesn’t mean the Torah changes the historical event. It means it records in a fashion that is best suited for guidance (rather than in a fashion that is best suited for the study of history).

Therefore, the reason this book doesn’t seem to give clear accounts of history (or history in its clearest account), and the reason why the books seems (to the human reader and writer) to have “errors” is precisely because it is NOT a “history” book, and it was NOT created by humans!

Anyone who views this book as a history text created by humans SHOULD indeed have a lot of criticism on this book. This type of study would be an anomaly similar to trying to prove or disprove a medical book by using legal terminology and arguments.

[Incidentally, since this book is for instruction and guidance, a basic Talmudic principle is that not all its stories are written in chronological order. Rather the Torah presents stories in the manner which will best convey the timeless message it wishes to impart. This is also why it only records certain stories, and certain aspects of certain stories, while other stories, or other parts of the stories which it does record, are omitted.]

It also must be noted that any question which your professor broaches in this class is either a) based on a misunderstanding of the original context. Or, if it is a valid question, b) it has already been asked, and an answer has been provided, at least once in the thousands and thousands of pages of Jewish literature. Challenge your professor to be fair and balanced by providing the questions as well as the traditional answers!


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Biblical Criticism

Posted by: Anonymous on Jul 14, 2006

When you say the Torah is not a history book rather a means of teaching higher ideas do you mean to say that the exact years and events described in the Torah didn't take place in the exact sequence recorded rather the Torah embelishes certain facts to bring out specific themes? How else to reconcile the historical aspect of the Torah based on what you were saying? If you do not have an answer to my question please say so and don't try to work your way around the question please. It is far more important, in my opinion, to have a good question than a bad answer.

Editor's Comment

Every event described in the Torah is 100% literal and accurate. However, the Torah chooses which events to relate—as well as which details of these events to emphasize and which to mention fleetingly (or not at all) in accordance with the timeless message it wishes to impart.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Chabad
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.