Rav Aharon Lichtenstien on the Bible and Criticism from 1962

In the recent volume Rav Shalom Banayikn  (2012) Rav Aharon Lichtenstein published an essay that he wrote in 1962 on criticism and the Bible. Rav Aharon considered publishing it in the 1970’s but was dissuaded.  In short, in the essay he rejects the historical and philological criticism of Biblical criticism.  But he strongly encourages aesthetic literary criticism that brings out the depth of the meaning of a  text. But even here the literary criticism should best be done without history, referencing allusions, or critical evaluation and judgments

He describes the opposing sides of Biblical critic and rebuttal as a choice of “revolting desecration and animated, if not angry, debate.” He offers the insights gained when we consider how Victorians confronted the pre-Wellhausen criticism of John William Parker’s Essays and Reviews or the Biblical writings of Bishop Colenso as based on the strength of their prior religious faith.

This essay was initially delivered as a public lecture at Stern College for Women during the spring of 1962. However, after a decade and a half of inertia, as some of my doubts waned, I once again considered publication. Hence, I sought further counsel and submitted the text to a prominent and qualified author for evaluation. The advice was appreciative but decisive: thumbs down.

“Criticism and kitvei ha-kodesh” — the conjunction hovers between anomaly and anathema. When we hear the term “criticism” employed with reference to Tanakh, we immediately and almost instinctively associate it with the school of so-called “higher” critics who, since Spinoza, and especially in the last century and a half, have attempted — through the persistent application of historical, philological, and archaeological scholarship — to undermine the sanctity and integrity of Scripture; who, tearing it to shreds, have sought to reduce it, has ve-shalom, to the status of purely human writings. As such, to benei Torah, the term is both an alarm bell and an abomination. It conjures up memories of the onslaughts of Milman or Wellhausen, on the one  hand, of the stirring rebuttals of Rav Chaim Heller or Professor Cassuto, on the other; of revolting desecration and animated, if not angry, debate.

I feel no overriding and urgent interest in grappling with a topic which, while unquestionably important, tends to be treated at the level of apologetics. Under contemporary conditions, certainly, one’s stand vis-à-vis Biblical criticism is most likely a function of that religious faith rather than vice-versa.

Many Victorians who were troubled or overwhelmed by Essays and Reviews or Bishop Colenso succumbed because their religious faith had previously been sapped as its experiential roots had withered for reasons which had no link to philological or theological discourse.

Hence, confrontation with Biblical criticism today, while still a formidable challenge to some, should probably focus less upon the heresy proper and more upon the cardinal concerns at the heart of our spiritual life — the intensity and range of religious experience, the depth and scope of Torah knowledge, the internalization of our bond to the Ribbono Shel Olam and His will.

The focus of the essay and its clear importance is as a clear mandate to master literary criticism for the appreciation of the Bible. The first reason is the Victorian role of aesthetics as cultivating our humanity into harmonious individuals. The second is the Thomistic revelation into nature; the world is filled with divine glory and beauty. I wish this later point had been expanded because we have few Jewish sources on beauty as a path to God. God’s beauty is not just in nature but also in Scripture. His third reason is that aesthetic criticism leads to understanding the deeper meaning of the verse.

Quite simply, I propose that we strive to apply literary criticism to kitvei ha-kodesh — that we master its categories, familiarize ourselves with its canons, and bring these to bear upon our reading, understanding, and appreciation of Tanakh.

In short, I propose, first, that we discover — or rather, rediscover — kitvei ha-kodesh as literature; and second, that in order to deepen our appreciation of them as such, we seek to approach them critically.

First, aesthetic experience per se, properly channeled, is spiritually desirable. It serves to sharpen our perception, to expand our horizons, to refine our sensibility and deepen our humanity — to make us richer and more harmonious individuals.

Secondly, the specific aesthetic aspect of kitvei ha-kodesh has its own significance. For it is no mere man-made ho kalos [logos ho kalos = the good word]. It is beauty as divine revelation, as a refection of the form in which the Ribbono Shel Olam chose to manifest His will to man. We are all familiar with the concept of dual revelation — that of prophecy and creation, respectively.

With respect to the latter, we assume as a matter of course that much of its impact is effected by cosmic beauty — by structural design and harmonious order, by majesty and grandeur fused with delicacy and grace. Whether in the panoply of the galaxies or the tenderness of the snail, it is clear to us that the message of divine glory told by the heavens is largely communicated by awe inspiring beauty.

Ought we, then, to dismiss with respect to Scripture what we so readily acknowledge with regard to nature? Hardly. And lest we wallow in doubts, the pasuk has resolved them unequivocally (Tehillim 29:4): קול ה׳ בכח קול ה׳ בהדר “The voice of the Lord” — the direct no less than the oblique — “is in power, the voice of the Lord is in magnificence.” Splendor and force were manifested not only in the fire and wasteland cited in subsequent verses, but, equally, in Torah given in flame-lit desert, and in prophecy or divine inspiration throughout the ages.

Let me go a step further, to the third reason. Power and beauty are not merely frosting on the cake of a pasuk’s meaning.  They are — in the more imaginative and emotional passages, certainly of the very fabric of that meaning.

Similar to the classics of New Criticism from the 1930’s such as Cleanth Brooks, Rav Aharon limits criticism to the meaning of the text and cautions that one should not evaluate works. To engage in evaluation he calls  “presumptuous folly and dangerous heresy.” Therefore he castigates Abravanel for evaluating the literary merit of prophetic works. Along the way he historicized Abravanel as based on Renaissance literature. As a student of the new criticism he affirms: “Whatever and however a pasuk or a sefer expresses is, ipso facto, what and how it should express.” And he explicitly advocates Helen Gardner as a paradigm for aesthetic criticism in which one elucidates the text without the need for investigating the allusions of the text whose source is outside the text. Rav Aharon singles out Nehama Leibowitz and Meir Weiss, for following this aesthetic approach. He acknowledges that much of this is not new for much of the community, but still needed “on the whole, for the Torah community at large.”

Application of criticism to kitvei ha-kodesh must, however, be tempered by an indispensable qualification. In popular parlance,“criticism” is primarily envisioned as a semi-juridical enterprise, focusing upon judgment and evaluation. Drama critics grade playwrights, music critics weigh the merits of sonatas, and book reviewers assess the worth of current novels. In our case, criticism in this sense is clearly inadmissible. Grading the “success” or “failure” of a psalm in Tehillim or a chapter in Amos is the interface of presumptuous folly and dangerous heresy.

You may recall, for instance, that Rav Yitzhak Abravanel found fault with the roughness and abruptness of much of Sefer Yirmiyahu, and accounted for it by the twin facts that the prophet had grown up in provincial surroundings and, as he himself demurred — “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak; for I am a youngling” (1:6) — he was young and relatively unschooled when called to prophesy. Of course, if the Abravanel, instead of positing mellifiuous and polished Renaissance literature as a standard, had been steeped in modern poetry — fraught with allusions and disjunction, rich in telescoped imagery, and frequently characterized by psychological rather than logical continuity — he would have understood Yirmiyahu much better. Be that as it may, however, his position is clearly untenable; and we assuredly affirm the strictures justly passed upon it by the Malbim (introduction to Yirmiyahu):

In critical discourse, they are no less the point of departure than the conclusion. We can no more judge them than the botanist can assign a report card to the hyacinth or the astronomer pronounce whether a galaxy moves as it “ought.” Excellence — just raising the issue sounds sacrilegious — is self-defined; we are dealing, after all, with divinely inspired writings.

Whatever and however a pasuk or a sefer expresses is, ipso facto, what and how it should express.

Helen Gardner has succinctly noted, “would be my symbol for the critic. Elucidation, or illumination, is the critic’s primary task as I conceive it.”

it is inevitable that we should respond to them differently. Not all Scriptural texts impact, primarily, upon the same aspect of our personality. Some, to refer to De Quincey’s familiar distinction, belong to the literature of knowledge, others to the literature of power. Some address our sense of duty, others our desire for truth, still others, our passion for beauty.

Of course, what I have been advocating is not, strictly speaking, novel. Some aspects are clearly to be found in Hazal, midrashim, and parshanim, early and late. Others have been developed, more recently, in Israel, in the stimulating work of committed scholar-critics such as Nehama Leibowitz and Meir Weiss, in line with their focus upon textual rather than historical issues. Nevertheless, on the whole, for the Torah community at large, the direction I have suggested entails a degree of reorientation — if not the introduction of wholly new elements, then, at least, a change of perspective and gestalt.

Finally for those who cherish Rav Aharon’s 1961 image about “serpentine psychology,” here we have an image of faith in which “its inner light, shall hold the dragons of quasi-heresy at bay.”

3 responses to “Rav Aharon Lichtenstien on the Bible and Criticism from 1962

  1. Would love to see the article if you have access to it digitally.
    My understanding is Rav Aharon gave the essay to Aviva Zorenberg many years later – after it was written – and her response was, that had he published it at the time – in the early 1960’s it would have been very significant (academically), However in the meantime, others arrived at similar conclusions and expressed themselves in depth making his article relativity “unimportant” . However I think we know that if say Robert Alter (who was working on his phd in Harvard at more or less the same time) has an opinion about studying the Bible as Literature – it will not have the same impact in certain circles as Rav Aharon.

    • It’s hard to judge when it would have the most impact. Earlier (before extremism took hold as much in mainstream Judaism) would have been better, but R’ Lichtenstein may not have been as respected then, either…

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