A Review of A Journey Through Torah

February 27, 2013

by Zvi GrumetDocumentaryHypothesis-fullCover_1.5

Ever since the scientific revolution there have been waves of concern about what science would do to religion. Two contemporary examples are Cosmogony (as in, where did the world come from) and the origins of life as we know it (or, the theory of evolution). In simplified terms, one could group the responses into three categories. In the first category there are the rejectionists. Using any one of a number of approaches they try to dismiss, discredit, or disprove the scientific theory, based on a fundamentalist notion that what their traditional belief system held must be true, hence any competing notion must, by definition be false. They will often bolster their arguments by demonstrating how much debate there is with the scientific world about the details of the theory. Indeed, both the Big Bang theory and the theory of Evolution have undergone significant revision (and continue to do so) based on new evidence or inconsistencies with the data. Despite the revisions and the evidence which seems to not fit in, one would be hard pressed to find a respected cosmologist who does not subscribe to the Big Bang theory or a biologist who does not accept the theory of evolution. In the second category are what might be called accomodationists or apologists. These try to reconcile the Torah with the contemporary approach, sometimes even claiming that it took science so many years to reveal what the Torah already knew. The third category may be called the bifurcationists, who see Torah and science as two complementary, but eminently distinct disciplines. Since both science and the Torah are the pursuit of Truth, they must both be correct; but while science focuses on scientific questions, the Torah is interested in religious ones. Hence the two cannot possibly conflict.

When it comes to certain areas, such as the scientific/academic study of the Bible, things get more complicated. While the rejectionists can continue to dismiss the findings of the university as external or foreign to Torah, which operates on its own internal set of assumptions and beliefs (precisely because the academic findings contravene fundamental Jewish beliefs), accomodationists have a harder time accepting a set of findings which seems to undermine principles of faith. Bifurcationsists will also struggle because the academic study of Torah yields results inherently challenging core Orthodox beliefs.

That the struggle is more difficult does not mean that it is not doable. There is emerging a literature of Orthodox Jewish scholars and thinkers who refuse to summarily dismiss the findings of the academy. These include a wide range of people, including Marc Shapiro, Menachem Kellner, James Kugel, and Mordechai Breuer, to name but a few (although their approaches are dramatically different from each other). We should also point that, like the Big Bang theory or the theory of evolution, emerging evidence has forced multiple revisions of the Documentary Hypothesis, yet its core assumptions remain the basic assumption of most academic Biblical scholarship.

To this list of well-known names we can now add Ben Zion Katz. A pediatrician by profession, he has produced an impressive slim volume packed with sources and arguments. The book divides roughly into three sections. In the first he goes head-to-head with Richard Elliot Friedman, one of the more outspoken and prolific contemporary proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis. In a lengthy and polemical chapter, Katz methodically points out flaws in Friedman’s proofs for the Documentary Hypothesis. In the next seven very brief chapters, Katz brings a rich array of sources and analyses which reveal indications of different types of Biblical criticism in the Talmud, midrash, and classical (pre-modern) commentaries. In the final chapter Katz pulls all those sources together to present a creative and original alternative to the standard model of the Documentary Hypothesis (something he call the ‘fragmentary hypothesis’), demonstrating how it is consonant with at least some strands of traditional Jewish thought.

Katz refuses to summarily reject or dismiss the evidence provided by academic scholarship, but he is unconvinced by their conclusions. He has done a great service by bringing this book forth; his boldness, originality, scholarship, and intellectual integrity deserve respect. Katz’s suggestion is certainly interesting, and will likely resonate in a narrow sector of the academic Orthodox world. On the one hand, his approach will cause traditionalists (i.e., rejectionists) to bristle; on the other hand, it is hard to imagine many academic Biblical scholars dropping one of the standard versions of the Documentary Hypothesis to adopt his alternative.

Some quotes from the book will help to demonstrate how bold and honest is Katz’s grappling with the topic, all of which he is prepared to defend as having precedent in traditional sources.

The citations in this chapter prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there is precedent from with traditional Jewish sources for the assumption that the text of the Torah, as carefully preserved as it was, was not immune to scribal error (or scribal correction). (p. 63)

Perhaps one can argue that in the same way that Moses retells events in Deuteronomy differently from the way they are told in Exodus and Numbers, that he (with Divine approval) retold contemporaneous events in a particular way for instructional purposes, and not solely to document historical truth. (p. 125)

While I do not find the arguments of the Documentary Hypothesis persuasive, real evidence could tip the balance of evidence in its favor. This, as mentioned earlier, highlights where fundamentalists and I part company. There is no amount of evidence that would convince a fundamentalist of the late authorship of any (significant) part of the Bible, while I have spelled out the type of evidence which would sway me. (p. 128)

Thus, Katz’s book is not for those afraid to grapple with issues and challenge their core assumptions about Torah. The value of this book for educators teaching students who are already exposed to academic Bible study should be self-evident. Regardless of whether one accepts Katz’s fragmentary hypothesis, the sources he marshals are a wonderful resource for exploration.

I have one minor quibble with the book and two observations. For the quibble, the subtitle reads, “œA critique of the Documentary Hypothesis.” This book is much more than critique, it is a treasure trove of resources and presents an innovative approach to a thorny puzzle. And is not so much a critique of the Documentary Hypothesis in general rather a critique of the arguments of one prominent advocate of that hypothesis. The difference is important, for just as challenges to details in the Big Bang theory don’t cause cosmologists to propose a radical alternative, there is no reason to assume that challenges to Friedman’s proofs will impel scholars to propose or adopt an entirely new approach.

As for the observations, there are two things a reader should be aware of. First, in this book there is a significant economy of words; the writing is terse, dense, and often highly technical. It does not provide easy reading and its intended audience appears to be scholars familiar with the arguments and sources or at least prepared to examine them while reading. The uninitiated should be prepared for slow reading. Second, given the wealth of sources and resources in this book, I would have appreciated an index for reference.

This review first appeared in Bookjed Digest