Hershel Shanks has a fascinating interview with four scholars who deal with biblical history and archeology. Shanks wants to know how their scholarship has effected their faith. Two have lost their faith, another compartmentalizes his life to avoid losing his faith,, and another defines his religion – Orthodox Judaism – much in the way the modern Conservative Movement defines its Judaism. The Orthodox scholar? Lawrence Schiffman. Some Schiffman quotes:
[Shanks:] "Is it fair to say that no one here believes in the inerrancy of the Biblical text?"
"An Orthodox Jew can believe whatever he wants and be part of the community, but Orthodox Judaism assumes that a person does believe that there really is a God. There is a force that cannot physically be accounted for. There is a force, even if we don’t know how to present what it is in words. Somehow or other God reveals himself or his will to humanity. This revelation and its experience constitute in some mystical way, if not in a physical way, the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings …"
"…[T]he Bible was never taken literally in Judaism. It doesn’t mean that it’s not historical, but it is not taken literally in the Protestant sense. It’s not an issue in Judaism. Admittedly there is a literalist strain in a minority of medieval Jewish thinkers and a minority—maybe a growing minority—in modern Judaism, but it’s not classical Judaism. The Talmud doesn’t take the Bible literally in the Protestant sense."
"I heard a recent lecture by a rabbi who is becoming a medical doctor. He talked about the problem of creation. And he said, well, evolution is obviously true. What do I do about it if evolution is obviously true? He said that we learn from Nachmanides that nothing in the Bible about creation is intended literally. What’s important to me is that I have the experience of God as the creator.
Let’s take the problem of evil. Somehow or another, Jews have learned throughout their history the bad news that we can’t explain it. We talk about it all the time. We talk about the debate in Job and the various approaches explored there. We see the continuation of these debates in Midrash. But we know that we can’t explain evil, especially after the Holocaust. Any person who says that he can give an explanation for the Holocaust is crazy."
"From the Jewish viewpoint everyone says [the Exodus from Egypt] happened; it’s part of our past, part of our history. Somehow or other, it happened. I happen to believe there was some kind of Exodus."
I happen to dislike Schiffman for two reasons. The first is that throughout his work he tries to cover for Rabbinic Judaism, rather than present the facts as we know them. He does this skillfully, to be sure, but he still does it, and that type of behavior – apologetics – has no place in scholarly research.
The second reason is the NYU conference he hosted on the life of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Schiffman worked (along with an open messianist who co-hosted the conference, paid for by Chabad mega-donor George Rohr) to prevent negative views of Schneerson's life from being presented. In the end, it was Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm who unexpectedly raised many of these issues. Shaul Shimon Deutsch, the biographer of the Rebbe and a man who has amassed a tremendous amount of documentation of the Rebbe's life, was excluded, as were other critics of note. Deutsch is not even a critic of the Rebbe; he is simply a truth-teller who reports the information as it is, without apologetics – something foreign to Schiffman's worldview. Schiffman claimed Deutsch – who is an ordained rabbi – lacked the credentials to present his findings.
What Schiffman is quoted as saying to Shanks is far worse in Orthodoxy's law and thought than anything said or implied by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. Will Schiffman be banned as Slifkin was?
I don't know. Certainly rabbis and movements concerned with what Schiffman said should publicly distance themselves from Schiffman's remarks. After all, the rationale for banning Slifkin was to make sure people did not err by following him.
For my part, I believe much that we Jews have taken as history is really fable, or, more charitably, myth in the classic sense, meant to convey a message but not a historical truth. But I'm already banned, so who cares.
Schiffman has one quote that much of Orthodoxy will disagree with, especially my friend RebelJew:
"I of course believe that [Jesus] lived, preached and was crucified by the Romans."
The best quotes in the piece come from Bart Ehrman and William Dever. Dever has converted to Reform Judaism but is agnostic about God. Reflecting on the suffering that makes up much of life, Dever said:
As the Yiddish expression says: “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”
And also this:
"I worked [in Israel] for 49 years and let me tell you something: Seeing Judaism and Christianity and, God help us, Islam up close and personal does not help.… I became extremely cynical about religion.…"