Sacred or Secular—or Both?

The Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania just presented a program on the question “Can the Bible be read both Critically and Religiously?” “Critically” here of course does not mean “criticizing” it, but applying critical thinking to one’s reading of the Bible. The real question being asked was:

Can the Bible be treated like a human document (as it is in a university setting) and still be read as if it were sacred?

You can listen to the event yourself here. [It’s a link to iTunes U, which opens in iTunes if you have it; don’t know what it does if you don’t have iTunes.] Like any number of classic jokes, this program featured a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew.

The Jew was Marc Brettler of Brandeis University, my teacher, dissertation adviser, and friend. He concluded that the Bible was an entirely human document, but that he could continue to read it as sacred literature because that is what Jews do.

The Catholic was Daniel Harrington. His name was vaguely familiar to me; he’s a professor at Boston College and a Jesuit priest. His conclusion was that the Bible is sacred literature, but that the tools of academic study may be used to understand the Bible—because the Pope said it was okay.

The most interesting of the panelists (to me) was the Protestant, Peter Enns, of whom I had not heard. One my students told me later, “I read his book.” So I guess he is a known quantity in the conservative Protestant world. He focused on the existential difficulty that critical study of the Bible presents for Protestants, whose identity (he explained) is formed by their reliance on the Bible as the word of God.

I’d like to add a little something of my own to the discussion. I have four points to make:

• When Jews read the Bible—even Jews who take a “fundamentalist” approach to the text—we are also reading our family album: stories about, and sometimes by, our Uncle Louie and the other guys with whom he played pinochle. In other words, it’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

• Study of the Bible is an essential element of Jewish religious practice. But study that puts certain questions off limits is intellectually crippling. I find it perfectly possible, even preferable, to set aside certain historical questions when I’m discussing the Torah during a synagogue service. But existentially, those questions have to be faced. A combination of these two points is more or less the Brettler position.

• In my own case, academic study of the Bible was a major part of the larger process that has drawn me closer and closer to Jewish observance. My friend (and fellow Brettler student) Ben Sommer, now of the Jewish Theological Seminary, describes the same phenomenon in an aside in his recent review essay on James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible. I would add that I find academic study of the Bible intellectually important for my Jewish religious life as well. Ben provides a lovely example of this in his article, which I’ll describe more fully in my next post.

• Finally, there is the spiritual aspect of things. For some people, spirituality involves chanting, movement, incense, drugs, meditation—with apologies for the shorthand, it is “New Age-y.” But for me, the only possible approach to spirituality is through text study. Fortunately, this too is an ancient Jewish tradition and (as I noted in my first point) even a commandment. Pursuing the truth of the text, as I can best ascertain it, is also my only path to religious experience. Anything else—whether it’s leyning, davening, or just eating cholent—is merely anthropology. I’ll write more about this, too, in a later post. But the bottom line is that “critical” (that is, free intellectual) study of the Bible is for me an essential aspect of the path to connect with revelation—whatever that means, whatever revelation may have been.

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One Response to “Sacred or Secular—or Both?”

  1. The Bible and Spirituality (Sacred or Secular, Part 3) « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] is Part 3 of the series I began with my post “Sacred or Secular—or Both?” I wrote in that first post: For some people, spirituality involves chanting, movement, incense, […]

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