John Hobbins on his blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry has posted several discussions about the contrast between the scholarly approach to Biblical Study and inerrancy from the perspective of the Homo Religioso. On a recent post
http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2008/04/why-conversatio.html#more there is an interesting exchange between John and Alan Lenzi that I found fascinating and resonated very strongly for me. I have thought many times about the issue and for a time was quite interested in the historical and somewhat interested in the textual analysis of the Biblical corpus. I say “somewhat” regarding textual analysis because I do not have a natural affinity to that type of analysis. I have to force myself to pay more attention to the words as I am caught up in the sweep of the general concept and ideas. As time went by, I realized that Torah is not meant to be an historical literary document but a living educational tool. It was always to be read and interpreted so that it can talk to an individual in whichever era and culture he happens to live in. Torah has to be accepted. Its divinity and inerrancy have to be accepted rather than proven. For Torah to work as an educational tool towards the ultimate goal of knowing God and His ways, it has to be accepted fully as divine and inerrant. It is with that acceptance in mind that one then approaches it and interprets it with the traditional rabbinic perspective of “Shive’im Panim LaTorah” – there are seventy facets to the Torah - the various methods of analysis and interpretation among which are the textual and the historical analysis. From this perspective, that analysis is no longer an empirical approach, but rather interpretive with the view of how it will help teach the message that is pertinent to us in our own particular circumstances. True it had different meanings to the original society and peoples that received it, it also had different meanings to every individual reader since. If it does not talk to the individual, the masses and the society that accept it, at whatever era past and future, it will not have accomplished its intended purpose.
Inerrancy and divinity are only two aspects of the Torah that we have to accept for it to work its intended goal. With the freedom to interpret, restrictions have to be put in place to keep it focused and not allow imaginative deviants to take it into unintended directions. We therefore accept that along with the written text there is also a divine and inerrant oral Torah that is integral with the text. It teaches how to approach and read the text. It is the key to decipher the code. There are also foundational concepts about God that cannot be changed or questioned. Rambam in MN 1:35 lists foundational rules or accepted beliefs that all have to accept before embarking on a discovery journey towards God. They start with the existence of God and exclusive worship of only Him followed by belief that God is not physical, He is transcendent, His existence, life, knowledge are all equivocal statements (they are human concepts applied to a non-graspable entity for lack of better words). There is also no comparison between God and anything else that exists. These concepts are unshakeable and are the starting point for any analysis of text and learning. As Rambam puts it, when these foundational beliefs are accepted and deeply inculcated, one is now ready to confront the text and interpret it. In fact confronting the text, that at first blush seems to contradict these dogmas, forces us to bring clarity to our thinking.
Now, what about scholarly textual and historical analysis? Can a scholar and a religious person be objective? I think the question should be reversed. Can a non-religious scholar analyze the text and understand it correctly? I believe the answer is no! It is like using mathematics for the textual analysis of a literary work. It is applying the wrong discipline to the process. The results will be unintelligible and completely irrelevant. Let us say that we conclude that in the early centuries of
Accepting its inerrancy and divinity is crucial to accomplish the Torah’s intent. It is the inviolate and divine text confronting the perception of our reality, that dialectic, which impels us to a better understanding of our existence. It forces us to put our reality in a perspective that takes into account a greater Truth than our own physical existence. I do not see how the objective scholarly approach can help to accomplish this.
I know that what I write here will probably not resonate with the dispassionate scholar. I accept that. We do not talk the same language. We can cross into each other’s world for short periods and catch a glimpse of what each one of us is trying to accomplish, but we really cannot grasp what the other’s accomplishment means. We both see the other as missing the point. That is a reality we both have to live with.