Jay Michaelson of The Forward has a recent editorial, How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands. In it, he reviews three recent scholarly works regarding the formation of the Hebrew Bible–the composition of the texts, their sources, and the canonization process. (I’m not 100% impartial to the review, as I studied a little bit with the author of one of the books discussed, but I’ve not yet read the books themselves.)
Michaelson is, I think, correct that the truth matters. More crucially, he notes that the truth hurts. There’s one problem with his thesis: no one knows it!
The problem is that too often, we’re training rabbis and cantors in scholarly material like the Documentary Hypothesis and the canonization process (and for what it’s worth, I think Prof. Satlow’s approach to canonization as an activity primarily of elites is probably dead on), but it never makes it out of the seminary. Even among rabbis in the liberal wings of Judaism, divrei torah are delivered as though the events related in the texts are fact. But scholarship tells us that these things aren’t fact (or, if you want to be all quantum-physics-like about it, they are almost certainly not fact).
So why do we teach these myths–and they are myths in the classic sense of foundational and origin stories, no matter what you think about the question of divine inspiration–as though they are fact? (In case you’re wondering, no, Secular Humanistic Judaism DOES NOT paper any of this over.)
We simply shouldn’t be doing this. As you’ve no doubt noticed if you’ve hung around on this site, I absolutely don’t do this, but I’ve occupied more or less the same mental space on the divinity and truth of the biblical texts since about 1994, when I took Intro to Hebrew Bible from the late, great Prof. John Priest during my first semester of college. (Most recently, I’ve jabbed at the Korach story with a pointy fork. Also, maybe we can blame my mom for this a little–she mentioned her biblical studies class in college in the early 1970s, where she heard about the Documentary Hypothesis, though she didn’t call it that when I was 16.)
This is all wrapped up with a bigger problem: we too often find liberal Jewish congregations occupied with the practice of pediatric Judaism. Sermons are reduced down in their level of truth–because our congregants “can’t handle it.”
Liberal Jewish leaders, here’s the bottom line: the truth hurts. You already know the truth. Suck it up, and pull off the Band-Aid. You might just find your congregation can handle the truth; in fact, they probably already know it.
Why? Once you do this, you and your congregations own your Judaism. And isn’t that the point of liberal Judaism in the first place?