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.