Responding to Joshua Berman’s recent Mosaic essay on the corruption of biblical studies, Michah Gottlieb looks to Samson Raphael Hirsch’s critique of academic scholarship of both Bible and Talmud to argue that there exists an unbridgeable gap between Orthodox Judaism and biblical criticism. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi who led German Orthodoxy during the heyday of the Reform movement, admired secular philosophy and high culture, but saw no place for the historical study of Judaism:
For Hirsch (as for Benedict Spinoza, [the founder of biblical criticism]), Orthodoxy and historical scholarship rest on mutually exclusive, utterly irreconcilable premises. Historical scholarship assumes that history unfolds according to natural processes and that all literature is generated by human authors operating within specific historical contexts. When problems such as contradictions, gaps, and repetitions occur in the biblical text, the scholar explains them as the result of errors, multiple sources, competing agendas, and so forth. By contrast, Orthodox Judaism rests on the assumption that the Torah is a unique, perfect text miraculously dictated by God to Moses. The Bible’s contradictions, repetitions, and gaps show that it is not a straightforward text, but rather a hieroglyphic work consisting of multiple levels of meaning that must be deciphered.
[However, Hirsch] claims that in an important respect, Orthodox Judaism approaches the academic ideal of historical accuracy better than [academic] scholarship itself. Historical scholarship seeks to understand texts as they were originally intended. . . . Orthodox Judaism seeks to understand the Bible for a practical purpose, namely as a guide to life. Given that the Bible presents itself as addressing the reader with divine commandments, . . . Hirsch sees Orthodox Judaism’s approach to the Bible as coming closer to the scholarly ideal of understanding texts as they were originally intended.