Currently a professor at Harvard, Jon Levenson is one of America’s leading scholars of the Hebrew Bible. He reflects here on how he sees the connection between his commitments to Judaism and the demands of academic study:
As I see it, there should be room within religious Jewish communities for historical-critical scholarship—intellectual honesty in our times demands it—but historical-critical scholarship alone does not constitute “Torah.” In order for biblical scholarship to be defined as “Torah,” it must recognize that the meaning of a scriptural text cannot be limited to the intentions of the original authors or the cultural meanings that the texts offered their first hearers, important as these are. It must pay respectful attention to the processes of recontextualization and appropriation within the continuing Jewish tradition, including those within the Bible itself. It cannot reflexively brand those processes as wrong, definitively and irreversibly superseded by the characteristically modern focus on the authors of the text and their historical worlds.
Similarly, such scholarship should recognize that the Bible has multiple uses and that, in the Jewish case, standing legitimately among them are those that encourage faith in God, identification with the people Israel over the millennia, and the enriching of practice (such as that of prayer). Needless to say, these are not the uses to which biblical scholarship in most contemporary colleges and universities is addressed. Nor can they be.
Neither the secular academic approach to the Bible nor the religiously driven one is likely to refute the other or to go away. A more nuanced model of the relationship is called for. In particular, both religious traditionalists and critical scholars need to be more self-aware when claiming to relate what the text “really” means.