R' Zev Farber's articles on thetorah.com sparked considerable hostility at the beginning of this summer, and calls for Orthodox refutation of biblical criticism. At that time I was doing some reading on Enlightenment ideas in ancient Greece and in 18th century Europe, and that research led me to some conclusions I've been reflecting on these past few weeks.
Two of my conclusions are:
1. Disproving biblical criticism is impossible, and
2. Modern Orthodoxy, as opposed to more traditional forms of Orthodoxy, is particularly drawn to biblical criticism.
First: Disproving biblical criticism is impossible
Biblical criticism both ancient and modern, as I understand it – and I've read quite a bit of it – is not about debunking religion. Rather, it's about identifying problems in biblical text and offering reason-rooted explanations. It's based on the assumption that the human mind is powerful enough to be able to solve any problem, an approach which was found in ancient Greek philosophers, in the Karaite-related heresies of the early Middle Ages, and in Enlightenment Europe.
Because biblical criticism is about a search for answers via human reason, it examines and rejects answers which are illogical or which run counter to evidence. The answers which survive that examination are logically convincing.
This is why Orthodox Judaism cannot reasonably disprove biblical criticism: you simply cannot use critical reason to disprove the entire product of critical reason.
This doesn't mean that the school of reason is correct, or consistent with faith and revelation - only that reason won't disprove reason.
We might show particular hearos of the critics to be flawed, but one cannot disprove every finding of logical analysis. It would be like refuting the study of biology – one might debunk a particular scientific finding due to a weakness in its reasoning, but how likely are you to be able to refute the reasoning behind every finding of a field of research?
Our Sages understood this. This is why they banned the study of Greek philosophy [which was founded on the idea that the human mind could comprehend everything on its own] and why they prohibited reading sefarim hachitzonim. Despite the mishnaic imperative, "Know how to reply to an apikoros," the sages did not publish challenges to each of the ideas expressed by the Greek schools (other than a few scattered debates recorded in the Talmud). Rather, they rejected the entire approach, and simply banned it. Ditto, in a more modern age, the opposition to university education.
So there can be no disproof of the set of findings of biblical criticism, only a faith-based rejection of its method.
Second: Modern Orthodoxy is particularly drawn to biblical criticism
Judaism is bound to revelatory tradition, but it also endorses the use of human reason, even within the development of Jewish law. We have hermeneutical methods which operate only based on received tradition, but we also have the kal vachomer which is applied by human reason, within certain limits (אין עונשין מן הדין). There is a balanced relationship, in which Revelation is primary and Reason is secondary.
Classically, Orthodoxy honored the primacy of revelatory tradition, and opposed empowering the investigations of human reason. Hence the aforementioned bans on Greek philosophy and university attendance, and hence the fervent opposition to Rambam's publication of Greek philosophical ideas as part of Judaism.
Modern Orthodoxy, to my mind, is an embrace of the Enlightenment ideology that touts the power of the human mind to comprehend and assess all phenomena. The various isms of Modern Orthodoxy – women's education, Zionism, universalism, personal autonomy – are only applications of the fundamental idea that I, with the cells inside my cranium, am able to draw my own conclusions about the world.
To that point of view, biblical criticism, rooted in personal critical thinking, is very appealing. How can we send our children to university and train them in critical thought and the idea that the mind can comprehend the universe, and then expect that the application of critical thinking to Torah will not draw them?
My question, then, is this: If our Modern Orthodox community is being drawn to this approach, which opts for logical evisceration of the meaning of "Torah miSinai", and if we cannot disprove that which people are embracing, then what do we do? Is it a matter of reinforcing the primacy of faith? Or re-examining our approach to university education? Or simply accepting the problem?