Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models – Guest Post – Rabbi Nati Helfgot

Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is on the faculty of the SAR High School and serves as the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Though Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and is on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum. He is a member of the RCA and an officer of the IRF. He is most recently the author of Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation (Maggid/Koren, 2012).

He is also the author of  Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav, 2006) and served as the editor of Or Hamizrach and the assistant editor of the Meorot Journal.


1. For the last two centuries theories of higher Biblical Criticism have challenged traditional notions of the Divine authorship of the Torah. Classical academic theories claimed multiple human authors composing various portions of the Torah at different points in history, as a purely human creation.

This directly flies in the face of traditional notions of revelation and authorship of the Torah.  The challenges of academic theories of the authorship of the Torah continue to engage the thinking of many believing Jews who struggle in their attempt to reconcile their faith commitments and the serious questions and dilemmas posed by critical study of the Torah.

At the heart of any traditional notion of Judaism lies the principle of Torah Min Hashamayim- the truth claim that the God is the source and origin of the Pentateuch. The Mishnah at the opening of the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin which states “Haomer Ein Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Ein Lo Cheilek Leolam Haba” itself does not spell out what the exact meaning of the phrase “Torah” is. In classical rabbinic literature the phrase Torah has a range of meaning from a narrow reference to the Decalogue, to the Five Books of Moses to the entirety of the Bible to the whole corpus of the written and oral law. From the Talmudic discussion it emerges that Hazal understood this unique dogma to refer specifically to the Torah proper.   In one formulation in the sugya that discusses this concept, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that one violates this principle if one maintains that the entire Torah comes from God except for “one verse which was not said by God but by Moses on his own”. This phrase is ambiguous as it may be interpreted to be focusing only on the Divine source of the Torah, or that notion plus an insistence on Mosaic authorship. In other words, is the Talmud insisting only on the Divine authorship belief or that this must be coupled with Moses being the vehicle for all of that communication. The practical ramification would be if one maintained that part of the Torah was directly from God but not through Mosaic authorship. (The original and primary valence of this passage has been discussed in the writings of Rav Hayim Hirshcenson z”l and in a seminal essay by the Jewish philosopher Shalom Rosenberg printed in the classic volume “Hamikra Va-anchnu”.  This dispute in interpretation is at the heart of the famous dispute in the Talmud in Bava Batra (15a) as to whether the last eight verses in the Torah were written by Moses in anticipatory prophecy or were written by Joshua subsequent to Moses’ demise.

2. As is well known Maimonides in his Introduction to the commentary to the  Mishna on the Tenth Chapter of Sanhedrin takes a very unequivocal position on this matter. In his famous 8th principle he maintains that Torah Min Hashamayim (Rambam’s language-never uses the phrase Torah Mi-Sinai in the introduction to Perek Cheilek) asserts both the Divine origin of the Torah and its total and complete authorship by Moses as a conduit of God’s direct revelation of the text to be copied down. He further asserts that the text that we posses today is exactly the same text that was handed down to Moses. This last assertion touches on the question of what is termed lower Biblical criticism. This issue has been discussed at length by generations of masoretes, rishonim and aharonim and has been examined in various essays and books by Profs. Yeshayahu Maori, Menachem Cohen and R. Mordechai Breuer in the volume :Hamikra Ve-Anachnu and the Orthodox Forum Volume on “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah” and in the volume by Prof. B. Barry Levy, “Fixing God’s Torah”. It is not my intention to discuss those issues below.).  Maimonides rejects any and all claims that even one word of the Torah is post-Mosaic in its origin (including rejecting the position of those Tannaim that claim that the last 8 p’sukim of the Torah-were written by Joshua.)

There is no doubt that this position came to be the derech hamelech of traditional thought from the Rambam’s time on throughout the ages and certainly was affirmed vigorously in the polemical wars of the 19th and 20th century between Orthodoxy and the heterodox movements.

3. We, today know that this position, while dominant, was not universally held by all rishonim. From the careful study of Ibn Ezra and his supercommentaries such as R. Yosef Tov Elem (Tzfnat Paaneach), and portions of commentaries from some rishonim in Ashkenaz  such as R. Yehuda Hahasid we know that alongside the Maimonidean position there were other minority voices in the tradition that went beyond the explicit position of one of the Hazal in Bava Batra (15) that claimed that the last right psukim were written by Joshua (ostensibly in prophetic mode). These rishonim were willing to maintain that other words, phrases, psukim, and small parshiyot were also post-mosaic in origin, introduced into the text by later prophets. This material has been brought to the attention of the public in the last fifty years by rabbis, thinkers and scholars such as R. Yisrael Lange, Profs. Yisrael Ta-Shma, Louis Jacobs, Shnayer Leiman, Marc Shapiro, and most recently has been analyzed in the new volume by my dear friend, R. Amon Bazak, “Ad Hayom Hazeh” (Michelet Herzog, 2013) Ch. 2  and presented as two legitimate positions within the tradition. It is, of course, clear that rishonim such as R. Yehudah Hasid or Ibn Ezra, spoke of small passages and seem to have maintained that these passages had their origin in prophecy[1]- (In contrast to the false claim of Spinoza that Ibn Ezra believed the Bible as a whole was not the work of God but the work of man without any divinity.)

The contemporary question, that has arisen in the last decades is the legitimacy of extending the basic principle laid out by these rishonim, that certain passages are post-Mosaic in origin, written by others in prophetic mode, to whole parshiyot and large swaths of the Torah. In other words can one claim that the Torah is Divine, but was composed of a number of prophetic revelations, some directly to Moshe and others to later prophets which were then edited finally into one book in the prophetic mode. This touches directly on the interpretation of the beraita in Sanhedrin 99 that we discussed above. This view of multiple authorship of the Torah by various authors who were prophets writing in the prophetic mode and thus does not undermine the notion of the Torah’s divinity.

4.  In dealing with the challenges posed by higher Biblical Criticism, I personally do not adopt this more radical view of revelation. I believe that the resolution of many of the issues lies in adopting a combination of some of the important work of U. Cassutto, Benno Jacob, R. David Tzvi Hoffman together with the basic approach of my teacher, Rav Breuer z”l and his shitat habehinot, (without signing off on each and everyone of his readings. This eclectic approach coupled with the insights of my teachers Rav Shalom Carmy and  Rav Yoel Bin Nun and the literary-theological school can provide an intelligently cogent and religiously meaningful  reading of Torah that seeks to understand the dvar Hashem with integrity and honesty.

I also was heavily influenced by Rav Breuer who very strongly rejected the more radical reading of the notion of Torah Min Hashamayim outlined above. He vigorously against it in the first part of the essay that was published in the Orthodox Forum Volume “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah”.  A decade later he returned to this topic in an essay in Megadim 30. In that essay he strongly critiques this expanded view of Torah Min Hashamayim as having no basis in traditional Jewish sources and being a “new belief system that has been entirely fabricated out of whole cloth”. A number of issues later in Megadim 33, Dr. Israel Knohl took issue with R. Breuer and forcefully argued that were solid sources for this expansion of the notion of Torah Min Hashamayim.  This essay was printed together with a rejoinder from R. Breuer in that issue. A decade later  Prof. Uriel Simon wrote an important piece in Megadim 51 analyzing the use by both R. Breuer and Dr. Knohl of the writings of Ibn Ezra on this topic and the merits of each one’s readings of Ibn Ezra. The reader is encouraged to read these important pieces which engage the issues in a serious manner.

5. Given all this background where does this leaves us today. The vast majority of Orthodox rabbinic leaders and thinkers, both Hareidi and Modern, at least publically, affirm the traditional notion of Torah Min Hashamayim as outlined by the Rambam. In addition, some writers and thinkers go further and maintain that the weight of Jewish history and the “consensus” of rabbinic statements in the last five hundred years have rendered the discussion moot. They maintain that Rambam’s view has been adopted as the only legitimate view and any other approach is heretical. Others do not take such a strong position, and thus while affirming the Maimonidean view, believe that someone who maintains the actual view of that the last 8 verses of the Torah are post –Mosaic from the pen of Joshua or that other isolated verses were post-Mosaic, are not maintaining heretical views. Indeed, Rav Breuer himself, while rejecting Dr. Knohl’s expansion of the view of Ibn Ezra and others, writes explicitly:

“I do not know if these words (of Ibn Ezra) were to the liking of the rabbis. In any event, they were uttered by Ibn Ezra, and we can therefore not reject their legitimacy”.

6. The more challenging issue is the attitude towards the view that expands and builds upon the view of these medieval rishonim to include wide swaths of the Torah. As in the previous paragraph, the mainstream Orthodox view maintains that such a position is out of the pale and cannot be part of traditional Jewish thought. On the other hand there are thinkers who do not take this view and have articulated a more nuanced view. Rav Hirscenson z”l almost a century ago, already noted that the Rambam’s read of the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin was not the plain sense of the words. In recent years, Rav Yoel Bin  Nun (in personal conversation) and Rav Yuval Cherlow, two leading thinkers/leaders in the Dati Leumi community, while not personally advocating the expansive understanding of  Torah Min Hashamayim articulated by Dr. Knohl have maintained that someone who does has not violated the parameters of Hazal’s dictum of “Haomer Ein Torah Min Hashamayim”. This view has also been cited in print by a number of writers to the noted Rosh Yeshiva Rav Shlomo Fisher of Yeshivat Itri. Namely, he does not believe that maintaining such a position does not put one out of the pale. The key in this formulation is as Rav Yuval has written: ל כן, בשעה שמאמינים במוצא העליון המוחלט של כלפסוקי התורה אין איסור להרחיב את מה שאמרו חכמינו על הפסוקים האחרונים בתורה לעוד מקומות בתורה, בשל העיקרון הבסיסי הקיים בדברים אלה – התורה היא מוצא “פיו” המוחלט של ריבונו של עולם.[2]

7. Given all this, and my general inclusivist inclinations, I would argue that we not write, people who maintain this more radical position, out of traditional Judaism. This is especially the case given the fact that if I were to look at large swaths of Orthodoxy today, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who believe things about God and His actions, or His emotions and feelings or about prayer to intermediaries or the nature of the sefirot that would clearly put them outside of the pale in the eyes of the Rambam. I, of course, realize that the 8th principle of the Rambam was one of the central points of contention between Orthodoxy and heterodox movements in the last two centuries and thus has greater resonance and emotional power. However, if we are not going to read out of orthodoxy those who directly violate the fifth ikar of the Rambam or his clear words in the Guide to the Perplexed- Section 1:36 than I am reticent to do so in the case of those who do not adopt the Rambam’s formulation in the 8th ikar, especially if they conform to the notion of the Divine origin of the Torah, a principle that has been rejected in-toto by so many modern Jews.

[1] See, however, the formulation of R. Breuer in Megadim 33, pg. 131-132.

[2] Many of the direct citations of  Rav Fisher , Rav Cherlow and others can be found in the blog post of Prof. Marc Shapiro at:

12 Responses to Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models – Guest Post – Rabbi Nati Helfgot

  1. Michael Stein says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Helfgot, for bringing up this important topic.
    I count myself among those for whom the nature of revelation is a very engaging topic, and one in which I have great difficulty accepting the Orthodox party line. I believe that the holiness of the Torah comes from the Divine inspiration of its various authors and editors, and from Klal Israel’s treatment of the Torah over time. I am fully aware of, and even saddened by, the fact that it is far harder to induce large numbers of people to stay fervently observant once such notions of revelation become prevalent. But the merits of the ideas cannot be judged by practical outcomes.

    It doesn’t bother me if Orthodoxy calls me out of the pale or not. I’m an observant Jew, I study and think about a wide variety of texts and topics, including the nature of revelation, and I try to be as honest as I can with my conclusions and beliefs. I try not to let concern about public censure intimidate my conclusions, nor to I seek to be purposefully provocative or divisive.

    I note that many Orthodox men and women are focused on what they are allowed to believe on this topic, or what they think they are allowed to believe. I believe Rabbi Helfgot’s article focuses very heavily on this approach as well. What is allowable? What is beyond the pale?

    I find that approach sort of depressing. Shouldn’t we talk about what we truly believe? What we find compelling or not compelling? What are the merits of the arguments at stake? How plausible are they? This line of thinking, the meat of the matter, seems to be left to a small minority who find it interesting, while the rest, the majority of people, perhaps the vast majority, stake out positions regarding the nature of the Torah text and revelation, based on a combination of which community they wish to belong to, and what’s allowable or respectable according to that community’s standards. Beliefs are almost entirely subservient to social norms and aspirations.

    The focus on what we are allowed to believe results in tremendous amounts of apologetics, as people start with a tremendous constraint: fitting into their desired community. I for one find Torat Habechinot particularly unconvincing as a response to Biblical criticism, and I believe the only people who do find it convincing are those desperate for an Orthodox response to the Documentary Hypothesis that doesn’t engage in denial over the DH’s overwhelming power. Breuer acknowledged the DH’s power, but his answer strikes me (and others) as analogous to those who want to deny evolution and say that God put dinosaur bones in the earth and created the process of carbon dating, but He is testing our faith, and the conclusions we might draw from carbon dating those dinosaur bones are not true.

    While my own personal views, as articulated here, are not Orthodox, I am very supportive and appreciative of Rabbi Helfgot’s inclusive approach to beliefs in general, and his desire to maximize the size of the Orthodox tent. The Orthodox community is the only place I can find large numbers of people engaged in Jewish learning, and open to these discussions, even if they generally come to different conclusions. Frankly, I believe many Modern Orthodox Jews in fact do agree with the positions I’ve articulated here, but prefer to avoid conflict, and don’t talk about it much.

  2. Roberta Kwall says:

    Yasher Koach to Rabbi Helfgot for his insightful commentary on this critical theological issue. As a “frum” Conservative Jew who does struggle with this issue on a personal level, and who has written about it on a professional level, I appreciate his frank discussion of the sources demonstrating that the relevant tradition contains more nuance than many acknowledge (as is the case with many other issues as well). I also heartily agree with his bottom line of seeking greater inclusivity rather than exclusivity–the Jewish community needs more such discourse!

  3. daniel ehrenreich says:

    What about people who maintain that Avraham and yetziat mitzrayim are fictional? Are they beyond the pale?

  4. […] to defend R. Farber’s views regarding the authorship of the Torah, R. Nati Helfgot wrote an article for Morethodoxy in which he musters several interesting sources that allow for more liberal parameters of […]

  5. Atheodox Jew says:

    I applaud the author for not wanting to write off people who believe that the Torah is God-given, yet cannot believe that every pasuk was given through Moshe. A great start!

    Now what we need is not to write off those who live and love Torah, yet cannot believe that the Torah is in any way God-given.

    Point being – why write *anyone* off who is connected to Torah and at the same time tries in earnest to be true to his/her sechel?

  6. Yonatan says:

    What about denial of the historicity of the Exodus, Sinai or the conquest of Israel?
    Can you please comment on that Rabbi Helfgot?

  7. Shomrei HaDaas says:

    koifer bikar

  8. Moh Oshiv says:

    It is not only a quantitative question, whether or not 8 pesukim, 12 pesukim or 2,000 pesukim were written or not by Moshe, but rather a qualitative questions. By qualitative I mean the grounds upon which the question of authorship is based. The idea of multiple authors to the Torah based on contradictions between the texts, is one that was constructed by non-traditional scholars. Never in tradition do we find that a contradiction is grounds for attributing differing verses to differing authors, on the contrary, the contradictions were always viewed as an opportunity for deeper inspection. It is this adoption of a non-traditional idea what makes it heresy.

  9. […] published a response stating that this belief was heresy. Rabbi Nati Helfgott then declared in a weak wishy-washy article that he prefers that Farber not be written out of Judaism. (Helfgott begins by noting that a number […]

  10. Dovid Shlomo says:

    With all the quoting of the Ibn Ezra and Rav Yosef Tov Ellem’s interpretation of it, I thought it might be a good idea to point out what Rav Yosef Tov Ellem actually says and how he understands the Ibn Ezras in question.

    Yes, it’s true that Rav Yosef Tov Ellem (in Tzafnat Paneach) understands Ibn Ezra as believing that parts of the Torah were edited or added after the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.

    He adds however, that:
    1)This could only be true of a handful of verses, not entire sections.
    2)It could only be true of “sippurim b’alma” but NOT any verses that had halachic consequence.
    3)It was done al pi HASHEM, no different than the process through which the rest of the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu. In other words, it was HASHEM’s choice to reveal these edits to later prophets and HASHEM’s choice that the Torah be changed accordingly The particular navi he chose is immaterial, but it had to be through nevuah — as opposed to flesh and blood taking the initiative.

    I believe that once one actually reads Tzafnat Paneach, one can readily see that Rabbi Helfgot’s citation notwithstanding, Tzafnat Paneach is not even a “sort of” precedent for the approach Dr. Farber and other Academic Biblical scholars and that it is highly misleading to even suggest it.

    It is true that Ibn Ezra set a precedent for using literary tools as well as an openness to accepting the possibility of later additions. But, he did not set a precedent for the theological position that halachic parts of the Torah could have been added at a later time, even through a prophet, and he did not set a precedent for the the theological position that ANY parts of the Torah — let alone ALL of it – came from a source other than HASHEM).

    I believe that Rabbi Helgot’s summary of Ibn Ezra’s perspective in paragraph #3 is highly misleading, as it fails to point out this critical distinction.

  11. YM says:

    . I believe that the resolution of many of the issues lies in adopting a combination of some of the important work of U. Cassutto, Benno Jacob, R. David Tzvi Hoffman together with the basic approach of my teacher, Rav Breuer z”l and his shitat habehinot, (without signing off on each and everyone of his readings.

    I think that Leo Strauss’ description of the Orthodox approach (which Strauss himself did not subscribe to) is preferable (see Intro to Philosophy and Law and section 4 of “Progress or Return?”)

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