With the emergence of Reform Judaism early in the nineteenth century…, appeal to the concepts of modernity and progress came to serve as the normative criterion for determining the value of Torah law. In the words of the third plank of the Pittsburgh Platform (1885): “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted the views and habits of modern civilization.” This statement of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century demonstrates that the medieval rabbinic resistance to pursuing matters of human authorship was not unfounded. Subsequent history has shown that the traditional halakhic life is indeed endangered if the diachronic character of the Torah is openly and actively developed without any countervailing force. Concentration on the human authors could and, in this case, did detract from belief in the divine origin of the book. When a scripture comes to be seen as a product of culture, one that comes into existence through a long, variegated historical process, then the unity of the scripture – the simultaneity, self-referentiality, and mutual implication of all its parts – is thrown into doubt. As in the case of the third plank of the Pittsburgh Platform, the result is often a justification for the nonperformance of scriptural norms, in this instance, offensive or inconvenient Torah commandments (mitsvot). R. J. Zwi Werblowsky points out that “Liberal and Reform Judaism once welcomed Biblical criticism precisely [because] they found in criticism a welcome ally in their struggle to get rid of the Law and to substitute for it a purely ethical (and so-called ‘prophetic’) Judaism.” In fairness, however, it must also be noted that the perception of the Torah as an artifact of human culture that, like all others, reflects its own period led the liberals, in turn, to suspect that the totality of its norms could no longer be applied in the vastly different historical situation of modern Western Europe and America. As a contingent product of history, the Torah – or at least its superseded aspects – had to yield to the contingencies of history. To avoid the putative fossilization of the community, liberalism elected to fossilize large parts of the Torah, using historical methods to show that they are a dead letter. The theological liberals could do this only because they had shifted the locus of normativity from the text and the tradition onto the historical process, the dictates of autonomous reason, the conscience of the individual, and the like.

Jon D. Levenson, “The Eighth Principle of Judaism and the Literary Simultaneity of Scripture,” in The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 75-76.

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