Christian Smith on Biblicism (and halakhah)

A mere 13 years ago, Christian Smith wrote American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. That was the book that explained why people were becoming Evangelical and Orthodox Jews in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It also explained how modern and engaged Evangelicals are not the same as Fundamentalists. It allowed one to differentiate Centrist Orthodoxy, Engaged Yeshivish Orthodoxy, Kiruv, and Chabad from old-time Ultra-Orthodoxy and from liberalism. It rejected as non –empirical both secularization theory and those nostalgic for old time 1950’s Orthodoxy.

Six years ago, he published Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press,2005 read by many Orthodox educators. Several mehanchim offered in 2008-2009 to lend me their copies as a way of showing me they are in the know. And in 2009, he wrote the book about twenty somethings – that led to articles in the Jewish papers last year about the new affiliating patterns of college and post-college students, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. Oxford University Press. Smith just issued a new book and if the reception of his other books are any indication, it will be much discussed in the newspapers next year and the year after. The new book is The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, in which he deals with the hopelessly un-intellectual and non-empirical way that religious texts are dealt with in evangelical circles.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. When he wrote the prior volumes, he was a committed Evangelical teaching in a religious setting. Recently, he converted to Catholicism because he believes in a more complex tradition; he also just published a book on his conversion. So his book will have a greater knee-jerk rejection by less thoughtful Protestants.

Smith opens his book stating that his book is not an attack on authority or the Bible and that he is not a skeptic nor a liberal so he will not be referring to them. He is writing is within the non-liberal spectrum of the religious community. “The goal of the book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture.”

He identifies a number of traits that he calls Biblicism and finds them lacking. Jews should not get caught up on the fact that Evangelicals have a high view of the Bible while Orthodox Jews use the interpretive tradition of the Talmud and Halakhah because most of his comments apply equally well to the way the halakhah is used by Orthodoxy and the Orthodox high view of the Talmud. If it helps you – substitute the word Talmudism, Halakhah or Hazalicism for the word Biblicism. Or think of his book as if called “Halakhah made Impossible.” Judaism and Christianity are not the same, an Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are not the same – so there are differences that we should note. But the commonalities of group think, fighting liberalism, and lack of self-awareness are similar (see below for details).

Here are his basic tenets of this univocal approach.

• Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the detail of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
• Total Representation: The Bible (or halakhah) represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humans, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
• Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to belief and life are contained in the Bible (halakhah).
• Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible (halakhah) in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
• Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts (and Rabbbinic and halakhic tetxs) is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
• Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical (halakhic) text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible (halakhah)from scratch.
• Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible (halakhah)on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
• Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid at every other time..
• Handbook Model: The Bible (halakhah) teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
Smith understands that this is not a “formal” position held by evangelicals, and that different people and groups hold and emphasize various aspects of these points differently.

Smith sees that Biblicists minimize differences between people, texts, and interpretations. – Most “real” believers all believe the same thing, due to error they may disagree slightly. Smith says that is wrong.

Evangelicals turn necessity into virtue and they create books like “four views on x belief” or “the debate between r and s on that belief. Jews do the Rashi-Rambam or the Rambam-Ramban debate. For Smith, even that is illusory, there are way more opinions out there, the reception of texts has greater variance, and there are wide debates over the meaning of a text. On important matters the texts and tradition are not “clear, consistent, or univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned most highly skilled readers to come to an agreement…: That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever present reality.” We have massive fragmentation of opinions. The fact that believers have worked for centuries to sort through these differences does not change empirical reality.

Many of those Biblicists establishing certainty are doing it with pre-interpretive assumptions not supported by any univocal text. They debate divergences constantly but assume the other side is just wrong or influenced by sociology. They never realize there may be other readings of the tradition. They do not connect the social splitting, factionalism, and controversies to the very complexity of the tradition. When divergent groups come together it is because they found common ground and avoiding discussing secondary issues.

What of thinking that the Divine word is so complex and multidimensional that it is greater than one interpretation, but there is a higher synthesis? It does not take away from the interpretive pluralism of the text.

Can there be so many misreads by others if the text is harmonious and self-sufficient? According to Smith, what are the common causes of routinely divergent readings? Texts have a vast array of terms, concepts, genres, styles, narratives and statements. Then the reader applies paradigms, essential themes, and organizing frameworks to create a single statement. Biblicist groups ignore leftover texts and think the left over texts can be explained away if rightly understood. Biblicists contend that there is really only one meaning and it is found in the words.
Smith argues for a multi-vocality, polyseme of meaning, diversity, and divisions. Multiple possible meanings are NOT from reader’s subjectivity, but rather the texts give rise to more than one possibility and that there is more than one (or even more then 3,4, 5) legitimate interpretations.

Smith shows that the goal of Evangelicals (and Orthodox Jews ) and their Biblicism was to resist liberalism

Texts are read through common sense realism treating texts as a realistic picture of the world. Meaning is from collecting facts and texts are treated as if religious texts were the same as civil engineering or gardening. Words are seen as offering direct meaning.

This Evangelical reading works because people live in “small worlds,” echo chambers of their own denomination. The more homogeneous the social network, the more the given position is taken for granted.

Biblicists can give sermons on scripture’s view of dating, the economy, TV, or childrearing without any self-awareness that the conenction between the tetx and contemporary reality was not explicit in the text. They do not acknowledge the large amount of outside information they brought to bear in their interpenetration and the latitude of interpretation from the same tetxs.

In addition, Smith thinks that people establish their religious group identities and priorities through establishing difference. Organizations thrive on competition and rivalry; skirmishes and conflicts generate energy. Therefore they don’t take the substantive claims and positions of the other group seriously. Groups blatantly ignore texts and passages used by other groups to cheer their own position. And in the rhetoric of America, they make arbitrary determination of another group’s cultural relativism.

These are some highlights of the first half of the book, which deals with data and sociology. The second half tries to offer solutions from a religious perspective and to think theologically. Maybe I might deal with some of the second half.

Any thoughts on the application of this book to Judaism? Is Talmud or halakhah in contemporary hands different?

13 responses to “Christian Smith on Biblicism (and halakhah)

  1. On first reading, I do not see how you conclude “most of his comments apply equally well to the way the halakhah is used and the Orthodox high view of the Talmud.”.

    Some examples:

    1. Commonsense Hermeneutics: Pshat wins in Tanach: I think not.
    2. Democratic Perspicuity: e.g. Shir ha’Shirim? Kohelet?
    3. Solo Scriptura: no need for Rambam’s 13 Ikkarim? (Or, Mishneh Torah. Tur and SA for that matter.)

    Also, as I was reading the passage starting “Many of those Biblicists establishing certainty”, I was thinking the opposite of what he intended. In Judaism, it seems to be the more RW Orthodox, the more one holds the view Smith ascribes to “Biblicists”.

    Have I mis-understood?

    • Yes, you misunderstood. That is exactly what I said NOT to compare. DOnt compare our use of the bIble, rather their use of Bble to our use of Hazal and halakhah. Commonsense of Talmud wins over literal readings. Commonsense and democratic means without history or philosophy et al and we treat halakhah with that unselfish-conscious commonsense. We treat the Rambam, SA MB, or even a newsletter with a solo scriptura sense.

  2. And does Smith concur? I.e. is it a reasonable jump to make in interpreting his thesis?

    • We can ask him afterward. That might be a good interview. In the meantime, it worked reasonably well for his American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Maybe we should go back to that volume and see where the 1998 paradigm fit and did not fit. The closer we are to certain political and sociological issues it works, the closer we are to pure theological issues it fits less well. He would see Biblicism and univocal texts as a social question and not a theological one. There have been several studies of specific issues comparing the two communities.

  3. The social phenomenon of Biblicism parallels the way those with very strong and narrow opinions troll the internet for opinions and “facts” that mirror and support their own bias. Not enough research has been done to analyze how the internet has changed research and fact finding and how we learn and think. Learning and newsgathering have become a modern form of apologetics and polemic rather than true learning and informed enlightenment. As they say… “You can change the facts, but you can’t change opinions”.

  4. What they have in common is the belief that the holy scripture provides both an insight into God’s mind and solution to the problems of how to live.

    In Ish Hahalacha, the Halachic perception of the world is qualitatively better than the scientific or the aesthetic. The Halachic Man sees the sun going down and the ears in his head hear a Divine Command to daven Mincha.

    20 years ago, I interviewed American kids studying in yeshiva in Israel. What motivates them? The answer: Studying Talmud is as close as they can come to understanding the Mind of God.

    I forget the exact context in which I heard this line in the name of a modern-to-right Orthodox Jews: “How would God create the world and not include an instruction manual?” The logic is that underlying solo scriptorum: Wouldn’t an omniscient benevolent God tell us what to do? And the Bible — or, in our case, the Talmud, is a venerable book that claims to do just that.

  5. Actually in the second half of the book, Smith wants to go back to positions like Rav Soloveitchik or Karl Barth. He find’s treating the text as an aspiration, a sensibility, a philosophy, or an insight to be the correct approach. These approaches acknowledge the complexity of hearing the divine voice in the sun set. Smith differentiates this from the current generation that speaks of instruction manuals with its realism and univocal directions, unaware that God does not speak like a Home Depot manual.
    Smith can live with Thomistic, Kantian, or Existential truth, not home manuals.
    Smith is actually the idealist who wants to go back to the Christian equivalents of Rabbis Soloveitchik, Lichtenstein, or Amital who taught a multi-valence approach and taught a method that has to be personally applied by the individual, knowing that others will not arrive at the same conclusions. He would like Newman, Barth, and Aquinas. He does not like phrases like the “Torah view of the stock market.” But he would like “cultivating a personality of Torah values.” As long as the latter would understand that there are alternate choices to one’s own. He does not like those who troll for halakhic factoids as singular Biblicist truths by which to beat others up.

  6. I think I agree with your thesis if I understand it correctly, to wit that the criticism levelled against the Evangelical use of scripture also applies to similar uses of halacha. Nevertheless it seems to me there are profound differences between halacha and the Christian use of the bible. The Torah we have came from places far away and from cultures and times very different from ours. This makes the Talmud strange, uncanny in a way. What is say Soteh about? Who would act like this? What is taharos about….how does impurity travel? For every mitzvah that seems natural and of moral import, there are many more that are pretty much incomprehensible. The tragedy and greatness of Orthodoxy is that however strange a halacha should be, no mitzva, no text gets left behind, whether there are satisfying apologetics or not. The upshot is the content of Torah is not very pliable, you can discard it, throw it overboard, but you can’t turn it anything you want. There is no way to go from Seder Nashim to a charitable mission in Togo, or from Seder Nezikin into liberal or conservative politics. Torah in its broad outlines is recalcitrant, it says what it says, and we try to learn this in all its detail even when it doesn’t fit our secular or modern views.
    Not so Evangelical Christianity. This is brought out, though not in the clearest way, in a book you recommended to us at the beginning of this blog, “America’s God” by Mark Knoll. The Protestant churches created the American version of Protestant theology by incorporating important features of American life. They grew to favour a republic, though the European Protestants supported monarchies; they eventually opposed slavery, and found support for both these doctrines in the Bible. Until today I have no idea whether Orthodoxy is republican, in favour of separation of church and state with all that entails, or not. Chasidic rebbes and heads of yeshivoth inherit their positions. We continue to talk of the melech hamashiach. Would the Vilna Gaon have encouraged the American revolution, would the Bais Halevi or Reb Shlomo Kluger have been opposed to slavery and in favour of the Civil War? Who knows? The Evangelicals have much more freedom to create a religion that mirrors their beliefs, because they are much more at liberty to begin with the present.
    I was pleased to see Stanley Hauerwas, who is apparently an important Protestant theologian, makes a similar point in an article I stumbled across on the internet.

  7. I certainly see commonality with Orthodoxy in “Complete Coverage.” I know successful Orthodox businessmen who consult their rebbe before closing any major transaction.

    “Internal Harmony” is ignorance, no different from the uneducated lay looking upon Hasidim and the Pennsylvania Dutch, and concluding they are the same religious sect. Similarly, I find no difference between Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics and Richard Feynman’s quantum mechanics. Bohr and Feynman seem pretty harmonious to me.

    But professional physicists, who know better, would find strange an attempt to locate the “hacha b’mai askinan” that enables harmonization of Bohr and Feynman.

  8. EJ,

    Note the increasing number of post-high school yeshivas that specialize in things other than Nezikin and Nashim.

  9. I don’t see how moving to the Catholic Church is going to solve any problems long-term. You’ve escaped from the worst excesses of trying to project the emotional experience of perceived Truth on to a specific collection of ancient texts that, on close analysis, have multiple meanings and agendas. (The emotional perception of having perceived the deeper and absolute truth would seem to be a certain set of brain circuits.)
    But affirming to a Church, no matter how Catholic, means giving the truth claims to either a set of committees, or an institution… and the implicit notion that the Absolute Divine, the Allegedly Omnipotent and Omnibenevolent, could think of no better institution to leave to his followers than an institution which opposed democracy, human rights, and the prosecution of child molesters.

    The really interesting question is why Smith is so adamantly refusing to identity as liberal, even as he works through the same contradictions that led so many generations of his theological predecessors to conclude, no matter how reluctantly, that there is no Absolute divinity or truth in recorded revelation and human institutions, no matter how much Holiness might be experienced there.

  10. Michael Bernstein

    It strikes me that the Biblicists (and their counterparts in the world of halakha) take what could be called a normative approach, seeing the sacred text as stamped with Divine authority, but subject to straightforward interpretation that makes clear the guidelines for proper behavior and belief. The other approach would be an immanent approach in whuch the text is a meeting place between the human and the Divine and, as such, not reducible to any one meaning, especially one that would be characterized as “peshat.”. To read Bible (or halakha) that way is to sacrifice doctrinal clarity for the depth of encounter with the Divine hrough the sacred text (or tradition).

  11. Michael Bernstein,
    I think that Smith would even consider the normative approach as a solution. He is complaining about things like “The Bible’s guide to finance” which does not see the distancization from the text. He does not like the investing a sermon with fixing univocal meaning. Maimonides and Nahmanides offer both clarity and understanding of a hermeneutic,lacking in the handbook approach.

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