Chaim Potok on biblical criticism

chaim-potokI’m a big fan of the late Chaim Potok, one of the great Jewish writers of the 20th century, who died in 2002. His novels, including ‘The Chosen‘, ‘The Promise‘, ‘My Name is Asher Lev‘, and ‘The Book of Lights‘, all deal with Jewish people trying to find a way to be faithful to their religious tradition in the context of a secular culture. For instance, ‘The Chosen’ and ‘The Promise’ deal with the problems of textual criticism and modern psychology; ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ deals with art; ‘In the Beginning’ deals with biblical criticism. My personal favourite is ‘The Book of Lights’, which follows the journey of a young Jewish chaplain (and student of Kabbalah) in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. The Amazon.com site sums it up in this way:

Gershon Loran, a quiet rabinical student, is troubled by the dark reality around him. He sees hope in the study of Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism and visions, truth and light. But to Gershon’s friend, Arthur, light means something else, the Atom bomb his father helped create. Both men seek different a refuge in a foreign place, hoping for the same thing….

In 1978 Chaim Potok gave an interview to Cheryl Forbes, which appeared in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. Forbes didn’t pull any punches and at times comes across as aggressive and abrasive in expressing her evangelical point of view, but Potok gives as good as he gets as well, although at times he is surprisingly generous in his assessment of evangelical Christianity.

I particularly enjoyed the following exchange about biblical criticism (Forbes’ questions are in bold):

The battle of David Lurie with Bible criticism is somewhat akin to that faced by evangelicals today. What is the significance of this?

Bible criticism presents a particular problem to the Jewish tradition that isn’t faced by Christianity. Orthodox Jewish law is predicated on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text is fixed and divinely given. Once you touch the fixity of the Pentateuchal text the whole mountain of Jewish law begins to tremble.

That’s similar to the problem within Christianity. If you accept one portion of Scripture as culturally conditioned, say, who’s to decide where to draw the line?

Yes, if you say a text is spurious you might say it about a doctrine as well. That’s perfectly true. Essentially both fundamentalisms face the same problem. That’s why fundamentalists are afraid to confront Bible criticism. They don’t know how to handle it.

You don’t think that in confronting it faith will crumble?

Here’s the problem in Judaism: The tradition itself has Bible criticism in it. You can find it all through the medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. If the tradition were entirely devoid of Bible criticism, then a David Lurie might never have been attracted to the excitement of that discipline. First, David Lurie turns his back on the modern version of Bible criticism. Then he realizes that there are truths involved. How do you relate to the truths? You have to rethink your relationship to the tradition. You have to come to an understanding of how you relate to the tradition without basing yourself on a fundamentalist version of its sacred text. And that involves rethinking your relationship to the history of your people. Many people don’t want to do that and simply use Bible criticism as the most convenient excuse for the quickest way out of the Jewish tradition. They claim that Bible criticism proves the tradition to be infantile fables. Well, Bible criticism doesn’t prove that at all. Quite the contrary. We know today that the Bible is far more complex and sophisticated than we ever suspected; it is far more awesome as a creation of man than as a word-for-word revelation by God.

You can read the entire interview starting here.

P.S. Many thanks to Grandmère Mimi for reminding me of this interview with this very great man.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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