Can One Refute the Bible Critics?

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In preparation for the Shabbat Fundamentals class, it would be a great idea to do some background reading on modern responses to Biblical criticism, from a Torah perspective. In yesterday's blog post, I noted the work of the team of scholars at Yeshivat Har Etzion, whose work is influenced heavily by the approach of Rav Mordechai Breuer. To understand Rav Breuer's perspective - and how we can maintain a complete faith in the Divine origin of Torah while not ignoring the issues raised by Bible critics, take some time to read the article below by Rabbi Chaim Navon of Yeshivat Har Etzion....RM

Biblical Criticism - by Rav Chaim Navon

Biblical criticism is a critical-scientific approach to the study of the Bible that clashes with some of the fundamental tenets of traditional believing Jews. Its foundations were laid in the nineteenth century by German Protestant biblical scholars. It is based on the assumption that Scripture is not a homogenous work, but rather a collection of diverse documents that were compiled into a single book by a later editor. As for the works of the Prophets and the Hagiographa, the clash between biblical criticism and our approach is relatively mild: even the claim that the book of Yeshaya was composed by not one, but two prophets does not critically undermine the foundations of our faith. The sharpest clash involves the five books of the Torah.

According to the proponents of biblical criticism, the five books of the Torah are a compilation of four documents – J, E, P, and D. The diverse documents can most easily be distinguished on the basis of the various Divine names found in Scripture; proponents of this approach attribute each different name to a different document. They also speak of repetitions and redundancies, stylistic changes, and contradictions between different sources. The classic example put forward by the biblical scholars is the redundancy found in chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Bereishit. In these chapters, Scripture refers to God by different names: "E-lokim" and "Hashem E-lokim." Moreover, the creation of the world is described twice with significant discrepancies between the two descriptions. We shall list the most prominent differences between the two accounts of creation:

1. In chap. 1, the creation is planned and executed in an orderly and structured manner, from the simple to the complex. In chap. 2, such order is missing, and at each step along the way there is renewed "deliberation" regarding what seems necessary at that particular point.

2. In chap. 1, man is created last. In chap. 2, he is created first.

3. In chap. 1, man and woman are created together. In chap. 2, woman is created only after both man and God feel her absence.

3. In chap. 1, man is blessed that he should "be fruitful and multiply." In chap. 2, he is charged with a moral mission ("to till it and to keep it") and bound by a prohibition (not to eat from the tree of knowledge).[1]

4. In chap. 1, man is created in the image of God; in chap. 2, emphasis is placed on the two contradictory elements of which he is composed – spirit and matter.

As was stated above, the proponents of biblical criticism viewed all these differences as proof for their heretical approach that Scripture is composed of diverse sources that were joined together by a later redactor.

How are we to deal with biblical criticism? Should we ignore it or wrestle with its proofs? Can we perhaps reinterpret some of its arguments so that they can fit into our spiritual world?

In our discussion of this topic we shall extensively cite from contemporary authorities who have debated these questions.


Some Jewish authorities have argued that there is no need whatsoever to wrestle with the Documentary Hypothesis. Biblical criticism is nonsense, as well as heresy, and the only fitting way to deal with it is to ignore it. This is the way the vast majority of the charedi world has dealt with the issue. Let us open with the words of Rabbi Zvi Tau, who finely summarizes this approach:

One who does not believe in the Divine origin and sublimity of the words, that they all flow from Divine truth that is infinite, absolute and eternal – one who lacks this faith will not understand the holy Scriptures whatsoever. All of his analyses, all of his investigations, all of his theories, and all of his "discoveries" fall into the category of nonsense…

When all these ideas are missing, when humility and self-effacement are lacking, when these elements are absent, come the scholars – Jews or gentiles, it makes no difference - and search through the holy Scriptures. They raise objections, they erase, they distort, and they emend; they suggest theories, they demonstrate creativity, they present novel ideas – what is all this to us? How are we connected to them? We occupy ourselves in the truth of the Torah, we engage ourselves in the holiness of the Torah. One who lacks both the beginning and the end – there is no point in talking to him at all! (Rabbi Zvi Tau, Tzadik Be-emunato Yichye, pp. 10, 19)

There are, however, many who criticize this approach. My friend, Rabbi Amnon Bazak, has raised two weighty arguments against this mode of thinking. Firstly, even people who lack all fear of God, and even gentiles, may have the capacity to propose meaningful interpretations of the Torah. God Himself testifies in the Torah: "For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nations is a wise and understanding people" (Devarim 4:6). Rambam, in his introduction to chapter "Chelek," objects to a certain position, arguing that it contradicts reason, and will therefore not bring the gentiles to recognize the greatness of the Torah, but rather to scorn it. Hence, that position cannot possibly be correct. If gentiles have no understanding whatsoever when it comes to the Torah, why should we consider their opinions? We see then that we cannot simply reject what the gentiles have to say, without hearing them out and giving their words serious consideration. And furthermore, even if we categorically assume that gentiles are totally void of wisdom and understanding when it comes to understanding Scripture, how are we to relate to the problems that they raise? How are we to answer the questions that they ask? Rabbi Bazak argues that it is wrong to assume that a non-believer cannot suggest persuasive interpretations of the Torah; hence, he cannot be disregarded. He further argues that in any event, over and beyond the metaphysical questions, we must deal with the difficulties raised by the proponents of biblical criticism in and of themselves.[2]

Many others raise educational considerations: the refusal to recognize the arguments of biblical criticism is liable to be interpreted by certain students as evasion and cowardice. Students who will become exposed to biblical criticism at some later point in their lives may feel that their teachers had been afraid to deal with it because they lacked convincing answers.


Some have attempted to confront biblical criticism by rejecting its specific arguments one by one. Prominent representatives of this approach include the German Rabbis, like Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann, who went through the Torah, section by section, trying to prove the mistakes of biblical criticism. Professor Umberto Cassuto adopted this approach as well. We shall cite a characteristic selection from his work, in which he attacks the foundations of biblical criticism:

Permit me to illustrate my argument with a story. Let us imagine that a certain author writes a biography of his father, who was a notable savant, an academician. We shall assume that in this book the writer gives us a multi-faceted picture of his father, describing his private life at home, his relations with his students at college and his scientific work…. Doubtless when the author proceeds to write his work, in the passages describing his father's life within the family circle, he refers to him as "Father"… In the sections that portray him in the circle of his students at the university, he uses the designation by which he was generally known in that circle, "the professor."… Let us now picture to ourselves that centuries or millennia later a scholar will declare: Since I observe that the hero of the work is called in some places "Father" and in others "the professor," it follows that we have here fragments culled from different writers, and the dissimilarity between the narrative and scientific sections corroborates this. (U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis, pp.57-58)

Cassuto argues that the differences between different sections of the Torah, with respect to the divine names, style, and content, stem from the fact that they describe different aspects of the relationship between God and man and the world. Obviously, a general assertion like this does not suffice, and Cassuto wrestles in each section with biblical criticism's arguments regarding redundancies and contradictions. Traditional Jews may not find all of Cassuto's ideas acceptable, but he has done a great service in demonstrating how flimsy are the foundations upon which biblical criticism sometimes rests.


Rabbi Mordechai Breuer has approached the problem in an entirely different spirit. Rabbi Breuer has argued that we can accept the exegetical conclusions of biblical criticism, without accepting their theological corollaries. His approach, the approach of "multiple perspectives," has had a profound effect on Torah study in our generation:

That simple exegesis, which sees the Torah as one consecutive structure, without contradictions and uniform in style, has been irretrievably contradicted and rejected. The Torah's division into "sources" to which "were added" "interpretive comments" and "editorial supplements," is an irrefutable truth, which jumps out at the student, against his will, according to all linguistic standards and "the plain interpretations of Scripture that present themselves anew each day." All the forced harmonistic resolutions cannot stand up to the inner truth of the ingenious work of Wellhausen[3] and his colleagues. As midgets before a giant, as collectors of crumbs beneath the table of a wealthy man, so stand Cassuto and his colleagues, when they disagree with the school of biblical criticism…

Come and see the glorious wreath of the Torah, go and ponder the glory and splendor of its pages: they go and slowly spread out, page by page, each in its unique channel – and you find before you living expressions of that Divine quality that crosses generations: the trait of the Tetragrammaton, the trait of the name ofE-lokim, and the trait of the name of E-l Shad-dai – hidden traits that embrace all the worlds and bestow their bounty on high and below… So too the contradictions in the Torah are but imaginary contradictions regarding the ways of God's providence!

Now, then, is it any wonder that the pages of the Torah clash, and the human intellect finds it difficult to reconcile the contradictions? Does not God's providence in the world – the visible expression of God's traits and holy names – does it not, as it were, clash with and contradict itself, God forbid, in the eyes of man and according to his human understanding? If the Holy One, blessed be He, embraces both justice and mercy, both lovingkindness and might, if He appears to Israel as an old man in a yeshiva and also as a young man at war, as merciful and gracious, and also as zealous and vindictive – how then can it be imagined that His Torah – all the letters of which constitute His holy names – will go forward in peace and calm, as a single continuum that settles in the heart of all?…

Were all the sages of the east and the west to assemble and seek a solution to the contradictions between the first two chapters of the book of Bereishit, they would not come up with even a broken shard. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Emuna u-Mada Befarshanut ha-Mikra," De'ot 11)

Rabbi Breuer argues that the Torah's accounts of certain events and mitzvot are indeed repetitious or even contradictory. But we are dealing here not with different "sources," but with different "perspectives." God intentionally wrote the Torah in such a manner that every event and mitzva is described from multiple perspectives. This is because the world is complex and complicated; in order to correctly describe it, different aspects must be emphasized. Rabbi Breuer accepts many of the interpretive analyses of modern biblical scholarship, but he rejects its historical assumptions, arguing that this type of exegesis is fully reconcilable with the belief in the revelation of the Torah to Moshe at Sinai.

Rabbi Breuer appreciates the special value of the Torah having been written from multiple perspectives:

Had He given us a homogenous book that could also have been written by a single person, such a book would have been appropriate for children who on any given issue are capable of seeing only a single truth. This, however, was not the intention of the Lawgiver. He wanted to give us a book appropriate for adults, who understand that every issue has multiple perspectives, and also contradictory truths, each one constituting truth, though only partial and one-sided truth. It is only the combination of such truths that gives expression to the absolute truth. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Bikoret ha-Mikra veha-Emuna Betorah min ha-Shamayim," Daf Kesher #864)

Rabbi Breuer summarizes his approach as follows:

There is only one way to confront the heresy of biblical criticism. Neither ignoring it nor fighting against it will work. Rather, we must follow the path outlined by the author of Or ha-Chayyim: We must "set our eyes" on the kernel of truth that is mixed into the falsehoods of the biblical critics… We must remove the slander from their mouths and restore the truth to its borders. For all their words are absolute truth, according to their assumptions. And therefore, with a change of form, they could become true even according to our assumptions. (Rabbi M. Breuer, "Torat ha-Te'udot shel Ba'al Sha'agat Arye," Megadim II, pp. 21-22)

To illustrate the approach, let us examine the manner in which Rabbi Breuer explains the differences between the two stories of creation, chapters one and two of the book ofBereishit:

The world that was created with the name E-lokim was given over to the rule of the laws of nature… For that reason the plant world preceded the creation of the animal kingdom, and the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man. For this would have had to be the order of the fashioning of these creatures had they developed on their own according to the laws of nature. Similarly, it is understandable that man and woman were created as one, for nature concerns itself exclusively with the preservation of species, and the preservation of the human species depends upon the partnership of man and woman.

In contrast, the world that was created with the Tetragrammaton is the world in which God reveals Himself, and which God Himself conducts in accordance with His will. This is a world that has meaning; it was created so that God would rejoice in it and in His creations. For this reason it was never absolutely handed over to the laws of blind nature. Accordingly, the creation of man preceded the creation of the plants and animals; for God has no desire in any of His other creations, but in man alone. Similarly, it is understandable that man was created before woman. For woman did not come to this world solely to ensure the preservation of the human species; woman was created so that man would rejoice in her, love her as he does himself, and find in her a help-mate in life. This could only be achieved, if he first suffered from solitude. (Rabbi M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit, p. 13)

Rabbi Breuer argues that the two accounts of creation give expression to the two aspects of God's providence in the world: the aspect of E-lokim and the aspect of the Tetragrammaton. The one emphasizes nature, while the second stresses God's direct revelation. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposed a similar explanation of the differences between the first and second chapters of Bereishit:

We all know that the Bible offers two accounts of the creation of man. We are also aware of the theory suggested by Bible critics attributing these two accounts to two different traditions and sources. Of course, since we do unreservedly accept the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character, we reject this hypothesis which is based, like many other Biblico-critical theories, on literary categories invented by modern man, ignoring completely the eidetic-noetic content of the biblical story. It is, of course, true, that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams, two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity, and it is no wonder that they are not identical. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition VII [1964], no. 1, p. 10)[4]

Rabbi Soloveitchik does not present his position as a systematic refutation of biblical criticism. On the previous page, he declares that he had never been troubled by the theories of biblical criticism. He presents his explanation as an interpretation of Scripture that will increase understanding, and not as part of a systematic confrontation of biblical criticism. In any event, his approach is very similar to that of Rabbi Breuer on this specific point. This is how Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the two descriptions of creation:

Chapter 1 describes the world of nature, led by E-lokim ("the master of cosmic forces"), the pinnacle of which is man. Here man is a creature with a developed natural awareness, one who was created "in the image of God" (which Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies with conquest, dominion and creativity). However, he lives an external and superficial life (and presumably does not see himself as separate from nature that surrounds him).

Chapter two describes a spiritual-moral world: here man is created first, because from a spiritual perspective the entire world was created for him. He is conscious of his existence and his uniqueness: he is lonely, without a wife, aware of the possibility of death ("for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die"), though he is not necessarily going to die (before the sin). He is given missions and commands. This man is self-aware and utterly lonely. God tries to provide him with a helpmate from the animal world. But man does not find a mate from among the animals, and so God creates woman from a rib taken from man. This is the creation story of chapter two. The account is organized thematically, and not according to scientific-natural classification; hence, it is also structurally less ordered. It is upon these differences that Rabbi Soloveitchik builds a grand philosophical structure, which we cannot present here in greater detail.

Many have criticized Rabbi Breuer and his approach. I shall cite here the words of my dear friend, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, who has noted the weak points in Rabbi Breuer's approach, without resorting to name calling or demagoguery.[5] First, Rabbi M. Lichtenstein raises doubts about Rabbi Breuer's argument that biblical criticism's conclusions are irrefutable scientific facts. Scientific findings should not be accepted blindly, for science often changes its basic conceptions. Moreover, a distinction must be made between the natural sciences and the humanities. In the natural sciences, we sometimes find absolute proofs; if a rocket ship is sent to the moon, and it reaches its objective, it is reasonable to assume that the technological principles on which the development of the rocket ship was based are in fact correct. But how can one prove a theory in the humanities? We must be careful not to adopt theories that in another hundred years will be proven to be false.

Rabbi M. Lichtenstein argues further that we are not concerned here merely with scientific imprecision, but with fundamental presumptions that have lead biblical scholars to erroneous conclusions. Every theory is based on a certain world outlook. For example, biblical critics rely on the assumption that if a prophet describes an event that took place not during his lifetime, but in the future, we must be dealing with a later source. It for this reason, for example, that the biblical critics attribute the book of Yeshaya to two different authors. If, on the other hand, we believe that the spirit of God rested upon the prophets, we should not be surprised that it was in their power to see into the future.

In addition to the doubts that may be raised regarding the validity of biblical criticism, we must analyze the exegetical and spiritual implications of the theory of perspectives. Rabbi M. Lichtenstein points out that the world presented according to Rabbi Breuer's approach is a world of sharp contrasts and contradictions, requiring the discovery of some factor that can reconcile the differences. It is not by chance that in his introduction to "Pirkei Mo'adot," Rabbi Breuer resorts to concepts borrowed from the world of Kabbala in order to find a basis and support for an outlook built on such sharp tensions and such dramatic balance between them. It should be noted that many of Rabbi Breuer's followers argue that there is no need to make use of a kabbalistic model.[6] An additional criticism is that Rabbi Breuer's approach entirely abandons the traditional commentaries to the Torah, inventing a totally new exegetical approach. Besides this, the very assumption that God would present Scripture in such a manner that conceals such a basic principle is problematic. Did God want to fool us? Why was Scripture composed in such a confusing and misleading manner?

As Rabbi M. Lichtenstein has noted, the theory of perspectives may be accepted in certain cases, where it is clear that a particular story is being told twice, as in the creation accounts, regarding which even Rabbi Soloveitchik took a similar approach. Rabbi Breuer, however, argues that his approach should be applied in all cases. He even attributes different parts of the same verse to different perspectives, in a manner that is not at all self-evident to the simple reader.

In conclusion, many have noted the educational dangers posed by the very confrontation with biblical criticism. Most of Rabbi Breuer's critics have emphasized this point. It should, however, be pointed out here that an educational danger may also be found at the other extreme – the total ignoring of and refusal to confront biblical criticism. It may, perhaps, be unnecessary to adopt one systematic approach. There are places where we should ignore certain arguments posed by the biblical critics; elsewhere, we should confront them on the local level; and in other places, we should adopt the theory of perspectives proposed by Rabbi Breuer. We are not required to obligate ourselves from the outset to any one particular approach.


[1] The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge is not at all similar to the restriction imposed upon man to partake only of the vegetable world, appearing in chapter 1. That instruction is not formulated as a prohibition ("You shall not eat meat"), but as a positive directive ("I have given you every herb bearing seed"). It stands to reason that man of chapter 1 did not relate to this command as an externally imposed prohibition, in the way that we relate to cannibalism. We seem to be dealing here with an ordering of the ecological system, and nothing more.

[2] Rabbi A. Bazak, "Yesharim Darkhei Hashem," Daf Kesher Letalmidei Yeshivat Har Etzion, #845, archived at:


[3] One of the most important biblical critics.

[4] See also Rabbi Soloveitchik's book "Family Redeemed," chapter 1.

[5] Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, "Achat Diber E-lokim," Daf Kesher #851, http://www.etzion.org.il/dk/1to899/851mamar.htm. Rabbi Breuer's response can be found at:


[6] See, for example, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, "Achat Diber E-lokim," Daf Kesher #863,


(Translated by David Strauss)


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