What’s an Orthodox Jew to Do about Modern Bible Scholarship?

The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible is a collection of essays—mostly by Orthodox university scholars and rabbis living in Israel—about the problem of reconciling Jewish faith with the theories of the past century-and-a-half of secular Bible scholarship. While Ysoscher Katz finds much to praise in the volume, he deems deficient two essays that attempt to use the ancient rabbis’ approach to exegesis as a sort of permission slip for modern religious readers to read the Hebrew Bible in ways long deemed heretical:

Offering a novel understanding of midrash, Rabbi Yehuda Brandes argues that its authors were precursors to Julius Wellhausen, the father of modern biblical criticism. He claims that at its core midrash is a critical enterprise, written by rabbis who believed that there are irreconcilable contradictions in the Torah. As a solution they offer robust non-literal reinterpretations. [Therefore, Brandes claims], the rabbis believed that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken literally. They contend that the Torah’s grammar, terms, and even its core narrative could be reinterpreted to be read in an abstract and allegorical fashion.

Although the argument is creative and courageous, one wonders whether it is not perhaps overstated. Tradition did not see [the most radical] examples [cited by Brandes] as paradigmatic but instead viewed them as isolated cases where the rabbis, the sanctioned interpreters of the Torah, were entitled to reinterpret exceptional verses or texts that they thought needed to be reread. However, to see their project as a carte blanche to reject the literal meaning of formative religious narratives is, to say the least, a stretch.

Rabbi David Bigman takes a different tack. He builds a convincing case that the rabbis had a preference for some parts of the Bible. He infers from the lineup of “important” texts that those that are not on the list are non-essential to the tradition and can therefore be denuded of their [claims to] historicity. [But] the fact that the rabbis saw some aspects of the Pentateuch as being particularly important does not imply that the other parts can be discarded as irrelevant.

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Read more at Marginalia

More about: Biblical criticism, Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Modern Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy