When we push too far, or, a nice reminder

In the traditional Torah reading cycle, we’re coming up on Parshat Vayeishev, which begins the story of Joseph. Over at Torah Musings, Gil Student has a post addressing the documentary hypothesis (the idea that the Torah has multiple, identifiable sources from which a redactor drew in assembling the final text; rundown here in Wikipedia) and one of the areas where there has been substantial scholarly debate over its application: the text of Genesis 37, which relates the story of Joseph’s dreams about his brothers and their decision to…well, it’s complicated.

Student, drawing on several scholarly sources, notes that the “traditional” scholarly view is that the contents of Genesis 37 come from two sources–J (the Yahwist–J makes a “Y” sound in German) and E (the Elohist). Each of these sources is generally considered to use certain ways of naming God (hence the J vs. E distinction), use certain characteristic vocabulary, hold specific subject matter concerns, etc., that help modern critics identify the provenance of particular passages in the Torah. Often, this approach makes sense: it makes sense of two creation narratives, replications and discrepancies in various narratives (the binding of Isaac, for example, and the substantial parallels in the stories of Abraham and Isaac), etc. Identifying source texts in this way often produces smoother narratives.

As Student points out, that’s not really the case in Genesis 37, and modern scholars have noticed this, with some critics arguing that the narrative as a whole reads much better than in its component pieces as assigned under the traditional version of the documentary hypothesis. Student argues, following Gordon Wenham, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and R.N. Whybray, that we ought to cast something of a jaundiced eye at the documentary hypothesis generally because of its breakdowns in areas like this.

There are parts of the story that might be well served by documentary hypothesis analysis; what the heck is going on, exactly, when Joseph is taken out of the well and sold in Gen. 37:25-29? He’s…taken by Midianites, who sell him to Ishmaelites? But the brothers see the Ishmaelites first and want to sell him. And where is Reuben in all this? Reuben only a few verses before discourages his brothers from killing Joseph, which is how Joseph ends up in the pit from which the Midianites take him, but then Reuben is apparently out of the picture.

That said, Student is right to remind us that such hypotheses, pushed too far, can break down. (I’ve long been somewhat skeptical of the use of the documentary hypothesis in all situations–for me, the Noah story made plain the problems with the approach.) This is the reason that newer approaches have come into use: various forms of literary criticism, more politically-minded forms of criticism (feminist, ethnic, economic), etc., have become more common over the last couple of decades, and many of them focus on the text as a whole.

But Student has an ax to grind here–specifically, he’s tagging Open Orthodoxy with this criticism (check out footnote 5 at the bottom of his post), and it’s the “mainstream” Orthodox “heresy” du jour. (Here’s Student’s recent op ed on The Forward’s website defending the RCA’s decision to publicly denounce the Open Orthodox folks.) And that is where his critique breaks down, because he is tagging modern scholarship (or really, one stream of modern scholarship) with circular logic while implicitly proposing another bit of circular logic: namely, that there is no human source (or no significant human source) for the Torah, which we arguably would know because it all fits neatly together and says so by its own terms. Or something.

In this, I think Student could be pulling a fast one on the reader–he conflates evidence with proof, and hypothesis with fact. Modern criticism accepts or rejects the documentary hypothesis because it does–or doesn’t–provide the best explanation for why a text or texts end up in a certain state, and various versions of the documentary hypothesis are critiqued on that basis. The texts are, ultimately, only ever evidence and never proof; all such scholarship is inherently argument.

And arguments pushed too far break down. For those of us who intentionally are not Orthodox, it likely goes without saying that Student’s perspective on the status of Torah as revelation is not, as a complete argument, as convincing as the modern scholarly arguments we have heard.

Just…a reminder for those who criticize arguments.

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