Does Bible Criticism undermine faith? I would argue that, if understood correctly, it has the potential to strengthen it! We can try to peer back into history to see the stages of the Torah’s development without in any way detracting from its divine origin. The idea that the incredibly meaningful work that we have today may have been the end result of centuries of development only heightens the wonder. Certainly it doesn’t lessen it. If anything, it makes it seem even more miraculous, that out of all the possible things that might have gone in, just the right bits did make it into the mix, in just the right proportions to create the multi-layered text that we have today.
It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
Jewish Law represents the accumulation of our national wisdom and the repository for our experience as a people. We are unique in our identity as a people with a particular relationship with God and with history. Whether any particular halakhic decision is made by a rav in response to circumstance or goes all the way back to Moshe and Sinai is irrelevant; all are part of our cultural DNA and are no less God-given than our physical DNA. It is quite literally a part of us. And we are a part of it. We all have an input to the halakhic process just by doing or not doing.
Against the backdrop of terraced hillsides covered with vineyards and thousand-year-old olive trees, over a thousand people of all ages and backgrounds come together every summer to learn Tanakh. Amid the everyday miracle that is Israel, a Jewish renaissance is underway. One of the many expressions of this revolution in Jewish learning is the annual Tanakh Study Days, a week-long celebration of the Tanakh in all its complexity. This year features some intriguing insights into the underlying purpose of the Shmittah year.