Part of the hostility of Orthodox Jews towards Biblical criticism is that by taking the text as a human artifact rather than a Divine revelation, you find yourself in diametric opposition to the fundamental assumptions held by Masoretic sages over thousands of years of Biblical interpretation. Usually, this discomfort is expressed in the halachic sphere, which, at first glance, appears to require a Divine text in order to be comprehensible and meaningful.
I would argue that this is a relatively minor aspect of the difficulties of a human Biblical text for religious life and thinking. Traditional Judaism embraces two sources of revelation, one the Written Law, and the other the Oral Law. The extensive effort of the Talmudic sages to relate, connect, and reconcile these two sources speaks volumes for the non-contingent nature of these sources. Put simply, the laws of the Oral Torah proceed only tangentially from the text of the Written Torah, so rejecting Divine authorship of the Written Torah need not lead to rejection of halacha.
The larger problem with human authorship is that it calls into question the legitimacy of interpretations based upon close readings of the Biblical text. So long as the text is Divine, we can believe that many layers of meaning wait to be uncovered by the patient scholar, and that all of these meanings are authentic and authoritative – as authoritative as the Author Himself. But if we remove an Author who is master of all His intentions, we are left with the mundane yet vexing problem of all literary interpretation: how to discern what an author truly meant.
While this problem has been addressed, to no final conclusion but nonetheless to a wealth of powerful ideas about the human endeavor of literature, there are at least two additional dimensions to the problem for the religious reader of the Bible.
The first is that the Bible is a composite document with many authors and editors, which means that there are many writers, and these writers surely did not share identical intentions for the text, and who could not possibly even know all the intentions of all prior or future parties to the final text. The second is that, as every writer knows, the text takes on a life of its own, and embodies meanings that were never intended by the author, or in the case of the Bible, any author or redactor.
The doctrine of Divine inspiration may successfully address these issues. If you believe that the text itself, in whatever form it takes or has taken over the years, is always precisely what God intended it to be, and only those meanings that God intends us to have at any given point are revealed, even through all-too-human means, you can resolve the dilemma presented by a human text. This positivist view strikes many as a bit pat, much in the way that the argument that God’s foreknowledge of human choices does not contradict human free will does. Perhaps this is a problem without resolution, as it depends upon our ability to decipher the unknowable Divine mind.
Yet that is the very task set before us! We are commanded to do God’s will, yet we remain forever uncertain as to what God’s will is. I’m reminded of the “What would Jesus do?” bracelets that are meant to remind Christians to imitate Jesus in their own lives. To me, the question sounds rhetorical, and the mutability of the answers is reflected by the variations on that question in modern life, from the earnest environmentalist’s formulation ‘What would Jesus drive?’ to the pacifist’s rhetorical declaration ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ to the hipster’s ironic dissociative ‘Who would Jesus do?’
Claiming knowledge of God’s mind or will is a dangerous game, and it is made even more dangerous when that claim is buttressed by the positivist argument that those interpretations that we make are those that are authorized and intended by God by virtue of our ability to make them. Left unresolved in this is the problem of mutually exclusive interpretations, or interpretations that proceed from different assumptions about the text.
As Jews we interpret the Biblical text charitably, seeking to resolve its contradictions and gloss over its lacunae in service of an interpretation that matches our theology. Gnostic Christians, on the other hand, took a radically opposite approach to the text, with Muslims and traditional Christians falling out in other places along the spectrum. What’s to say that the Muslim interpretation of the Binding of Isaac as actually referring to the Binding of Ishmael is incorrect? Or that the Christian interpretations of various prophecies in Isaiah are misguided?
In the end it’s a matter of authority. Which interpreters, ancient, modern, and contemporary, do we acknowledge as having authority to ‘uncover’ meanings in the text? And what do we truly mean by this grant of authority?
At least part of this answer can be found in the Rabbinic dictum from Pirkei Avot to make a rabbi for oneself. Though it may be tempting for some (even as it is terrifying for others) to undertake the responsibility for sorting through all this alone, and to vest authority in the individual, this is not truly an answer to the questions of to whom authority is granted and what is the nature of that authority. It is a negation of the possibility of authority, because it fails to separate the responsibility for the decision from the accountability for its execution.
Only God can perfectly merge action and intention in all ways. For us humans, we strive to vivify our will by following through on our intentions with actions. The process of decision-making is an entirely human endeavor, through which we attempt to both clarify and give weight to our intentions and thereby bind ourselves to act upon them. In the religious sphere, introducing a rabbi to the equation automatically means that there will always be a gap between what our theology might demand of us and what our rabbi would command us to do, but that’s a good thing. The nature of authority, as we discussed is that we must submit to it, and the purpose of submission to authority is to expand the circle of people and ideas that define our religious expression. It is a necessary prerequisite to community formation.
To return to our original issue, I would say that it is less important what position you take on the question of Biblical authorship and interpretation than it is to attach yourself to an interpretive tradition, and to submit to its authority in practical terms. The friction generated between that and your personal theology is itself an expression of that age-old dilemma that we are commanded to do God’s will, even as His nature and will are unknowable.