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March 11, 2007

“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

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?"

Lhs Schiffman: "Yeah, it’s fair. Inerrancy assumes a kind of literalism never adopted in Jewish tradition.…"

"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.…"

[Hat Tip: The Brooklyn Wolf (via Hirhurim).]


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Orthodox don't think Jesus lived? Or that he was crucified by the Puerto Ricans?

My greater problem with Schiffman, at least as he comes across in the article, is that he presents heterodox beliefs as Orthodox, and he presents himself as an Orthodox Jew while holding to heterodox beliefs.

As for the article, I thought Schiffman had a great bit on Jewish learning - read more here: http://rejewvenate.wordpress.com/2007/03/09/bellying-up-to-the-bar/

Larry Schiffman and I went to the same Conservative Hebrew High School in Great Neck. The difference is that his family was observant Conservative and my family was pretty nonobservant. I underwent a lifestyle change in college; Larry Schiffman did little more that to switch affiliations.

Schiffman first and foremost is a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar. Anyone reading his work would know already exactly what he really believes expecially from Text to Tradition.
The fact that such a bruhaha is made now is more a reflection of the ignorance of the people like the pig rosenberg who obviously never picked up the mans works and seek to exploit whatever he says for their own agenda.
Or maybe Schiffman, is also a friend of his too.???

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are doing the best they can to destroy themselves.

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.

Schiffman's academic approach is that you can't understand the DSS or the early church without an understanding of rabbinic Judaism. This was an almost revolutionary idea since most DSS researchers hitherto had been from Christian backgrounds who either didn't know or didn't care about 1st century Judaism.

You may see this as apologetics, but it was really about restoring some balance and perspective to the field of study.

It's been a while since I read his works, but I believe that Schiffman's thesis is that the Qumrun community was made up of a breakaway group of Sadducees who couldn't countenance the fact that the Sadducees in the Temple acceded to Pharisaic halacha.

Jews of all beliefs can draw inspiration from viewing the Dead Scroll Parchments--not only in Jerusalem--there are exhibitions of these early Biblical redactions that are presented in the United States. These are touchable, tangible expressions of the direct connection of Jews, even in the midst of sectarian conflict, to their history, their tradition, their land. Anyone who helped in the reappropriation of Jewish history from the early romanticism surrounding the supposed pre-Christian Essenes did good work.

rejewvenator: do you think Bereshis is a literal account of Creation? What heterodox beliefs?

Larry Schiffman is not a rabbinic scholar. He never attended a yeshiva or even Jewish high school etc. he studied at Brandeis and is obviously a fine critical Judaic studies scholar.His mentors are the Judaic studies faculty at brandeis , not any serious rabbinic scholars either at YU or other yeshivas.
He has spent part his life "pretending' to be a former Charedi turned academic like professors Ellamn, Leiman and Septimus.
He grew a long beard ,wears a large black yarmulka and dark suits on a regular basis in the hope of impressing this image.
Thus he may speak with authority as an academic scholar of Judaism in the time of the Second Temple, but he is not a religious authority ie a Talmudic , halachic or hashkafic scholar of Orthodox Judaism.Thus anything he says is hardly represenative of the Orthodox jewish belief system.

Well sure.

Unfortunately, I don't have any idea what you are talkng about.

There is a Creator and he wasn't done talking with Jesus (Isa).

Maybe you just need to read that a bit more closely.

Salaam wa alaikum

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