The Scientific Approach to Learning Tanach

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Ki Tavo 5772 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: There’s an increasing tendency in the yeshivot to introduce the academic/scientific approach to Tanach study. In other words, to make comparisons with various sources, to provide historic elucidation, style analysis, moral criticism and even to highlight aesthetics. Ostensibly there should be no problem with this approach, for ultimately our goal is to increase knowledge. Am I right?

Answer: Certainly our desire is to increase knowledge, wrote Rabbenu Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook in his article, “The Scientific Approach to Jewish Sources” (Li-Netivot Yisrael vol. 2, p. 242): “After all, that’s what we do in yeshiva day and night. We seek to know Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud and Jewish law. We are men of science, toiling to learn and to analyze, to increase knowledge and wisdom. Surely we are interested in knowing and understanding our Jewish sources. Could we possibly approach them without the goal of knowing them?”

Yet it all depends on one’s starting point. Do we believe that the corpus before us is Torah from Heaven, from the first letter to the last, or do we think that it constitutes something man-made? There are scholars who ponder Tanach as a fabrication of man - just some historic literary text. They view themselves as standing above it, and they decide based on their own considerations whether this text is worthy of entering the canon of truth and morality. This is an “entirely illegitimate approach to studying Jewish sources, Tanach, Talmud or Aggada.”

This illegitimate approach they call “science”. They arrogantly claim a monopoly on science, and they pronounce that what is learned in yeshivot is not science.

With this kind of Torah study, we do not say that the light it contains will return them to the proper path, for the student is locked in a place where the light cannot reach, since he relates to the text disparagingly. It is the researcher who decides whether or not the text has worth (see Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1; Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav, Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:17; 4:3).

Out of this separatist, ostensibly objective approach, the student will understand nothing. The gates of Torah will be locked before him, because he will not believe in its divinity. Blocked before him will be the divine gate of infinite wisdom that preceded the world, into which G-d gazed before He created the universe.

“If we long for knowledge in its fullest sense, knowledge built on delving deep, with the presupposition that the Torah before us is the truth, the absolute truth, the uncontestable truth, the truth from Heaven and not from mankind, and our entire purpose is to reveal that truth, to understand that truth, with our being believers, convinced that the truth is before us, but that it presently is concealed from us – then our longing is positive and sincere.

In this longing, we are duty-bound to engage in all the spheres that find expression in our sources.

We must devote our efforts to the Tanach, to the words of the prophets, to their manner of speech, to examining the truth concealed within the aesthetics, the truth within the historical stories, the truth within the moral ideas, and all the more so, in the truth of our holy mitzvot.”

We strive to uncover the truth, not to create it. It’s not for us to accord the truth a stamp of approval. Rather, we humbly stand before the divine truth and wish to understand it. We believe and are convinced that we are standing before an infinite, divine intelligence.

We believe that G-d, in His kindness, teaches Torah to His people, Israel, and gives us the Torah which we can study and delve into, absorbing it into ourselves.

Everything must start with reverence for G-d. Whoever’s reverence does not precede his wisdom will never taste the taste of Torah. That same researcher, ostensibly objective, has set himself apart from G-d’s word, and he decrees what for him is the truth and what is primitive. This approach “forgets the first principle of faith that the Torah’s words are from Heaven. This approach does not distinguish between divine writ and the writings of man, and its approach to both is the same. This being the case, any idea that seems impossible to understand is deemed illegitimate, since everything is judged by a human yardstick.” The result is that this approach offers its adherents no possibility of being spiritually elevated and basking in the light of a higher truth.

Everything depends on one’s point of origin. One may ask questions, but he must do so out of faith and reverence.

When the illustrious Rabbi Akiva Eiger does not understand Tosafot he writes, “This requires further analysis.” Who requires further analysis? The Tosafot? No! Is the Talmudic source too difficult and impossible to understand? No! It’s we who have the difficulty. It is we who don’t understand. Tomorrow, a Torah scholar will come along and explain the source to us, and then everything will be clear.

“We approach Jewish sources as sources that were imparted from Heaven, and their words are the words of truth, an uncontestable truth. Our entire goal is thus to uncover that truth, to uncover it – not to create it. For the sake of uncovering it, we thus use all the means at our disposal.”