The Torah, TheTorah.com, and the Recent Tumult in Context – by Rabbi Zev Farber

Background

I completed two educations as an adult, religious and academic. After spending four years in yeshiva studying gemara and chumash intensely (and teaching chumash and gemara in my early twenties), I spent one year working on peshat and literary readings of Tanakh, then attained my semikha, followed by dayanut. That was my religious education. I also have an academic education. After my B.A. (in psychology), I completed an M.A. in Biblical History, and following a 6 year break, earned my Ph.D. in Jewish studies with a focus on Bible.

Throughout this period I led a bifurcated intellectual life. I understood that both the religious and academic courses of study were meaningful, and believed both in Torah Mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim, and academic bible studies. To live with this tension, I followed a version of the David Ben Gurion philosophy: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” In other words, I kept my academics academic and my halakha halakhic. This is still my philosophy, in essence, but over the past few years I have given serious thought as to whether I can make the two sides meet at any point, or, at least, put them in serious conversation. Thoughts were percolating in my head but nothing clear had as yet emerged.

 

Project TABS / TheTorah.com

The opportunity to begin to resolve a meeting point between academic Bible studies and classical religious faith emerged when Rabbi David Steinberg hired me to research and write for Project TABS’ website, TheTorah.com. Project TABS was founded by David Steinberg, a former kiruv professional, together with Marc Brettler, an observant Jewish Bible professor. According to the about page,

Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) is an educational organization founded to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of modern biblical scholarship.

When David and I first spoke, it turned out that we had had many of the same experiences even though we came from very different communities and backgrounds. Each of us had been contacted by people who were grappling with difficult questions. Some dropped out of the religion entirely; others stayed because they had children and spouses who wanted to, or because they enjoyed the social scene, but the fire had gone out. On top of this, it was becoming clear to me that a disturbing number of people in the Modern Orthodox world who were, ostensibly, doing well were, in fact, intellectually and emotionally checked out of Torah study. For some, the study of Torah lacked the intellectual intensity, rigor, and openness of their secular and professional pursuits. It was almost as if they “knew” that they couldn’t possibly really believe what they were being told, so they preferred not to invest too much emotional energy in it and risk disappointment, or worse.

At a certain point I realized that I had a choice: I could allow myself to avoid these questions, keeping whatever personal synthesis I had thought of to myself, or alternatively, I could offer my thoughts publicly and start a real conversation about the challenges academic biblical studies poses to the Orthodox Jew and brainstorm about how best to deal with it. It was beshert that David Steinberg and I were put in contact with each other at this time by another observant Bible scholar, since we both believed that the latter was the better course. In fact, it is part of my emunah that if otamo shel ha-Qadosh barukh Hu emet (the seal of the Holy One is truth) that an honest search would yield a way through.

The Manifesto

In my programmatic essay on Torah, History, and Judaism, recently posted on TheTorah.com, I offer my preliminary thoughts on a range of issues. No single point of my piece is novel in itself, but the overall presentation is meant to guide the reader through the full spectrum of my struggle to make sense of the divinity of Torah without denying aspects of academic biblical study that seemed to me to be correct.[1] Certainly, as some have pointed out, some or many of the conclusions of academic Bible study or archaeology could, in theory, shift over time in a very different direction and be disproven, but that point does not help the religious person stuck in a quandary today. We need to understand the world, including the Bible, according to the best tools we currently have.

Do the worlds of tradition and academic biblical study need to contradict? Does it have to be one or the other? Can a person feel like he or she can engage in honest inquiry about the Torah and still keep his or her faith intact?

I will note that, throughout this process, my own faith has remained intact, albeit its hue has altered as my understanding of the issues matured. To be clear: I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people. These are more than just words to me. My life is about studying, teaching and living Torah. The divinity of the Torah and the Sinaitic moment pulses through my veins – it’s who I am. Nothing I have said or written should fool the reader into thinking that I have abandoned my deep belief in God’s Torah and the mission of the Jewish people.

My own experience has taught me that it is possible to look at the issues honestly, to struggle with them, and to strive for synthesis, all the while maintaining a deep connection to Torah and Jewish observance. In fact, I strongly believe that if I had taken the opposite approach and denied myself the study and the struggle, my religiosity would have suffered. It is for this reason that I felt it necessary to take on these critical issues, and offer a possible synthesis in the hope that this will inspire others to do the same.

A Note about the Future

In my work for TABS I will be publishing my ideas and tentative theories to engender this conversation. Sometimes ideas might not be as fully nuanced as they should be or might be misunderstood;[2] I will make mistakes, state things too forcefully or not forcefully enough, we will rethink and revisit constantly—this is the nature of the type of endeavor upon which Project TABS is embarking. I look forward to the pushback, critique, and give-and-take our website will hopefully foster. The key is to be in conversation and to be exploring possibilities and struggling together.

To be clear, my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t. Hopefully other people will share their suggestions, but we can’t just leave these issues as “a kasha”, “an interesting question” and end with that. The issues are too pressing, the problems are too large and too numerous, the consequences are too dire.

Our community desperately needs to have a candid conversation about Torah and faith, and the conversation must be held in a safe and open-minded environment, where there is no bullying, no threats, no name-calling, and where each person’s intellectual and religious integrity can remain intact. It is my hope that Project TABS, and its website, TheTorah.com, will contribute to a greater engagement with Torah study. I look forward to continuing this conversation with the community as we all work together to find the right path in this challenging but crucially necessary endeavor.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Ph.D.

Fellow, Project TABS / TheTorah.com


[1] In this sense I see myself as following in the footsteps of modern Torah thinkers such as Mordechai Breuer, Amit Kula, Tamar Ross, and Yuval Cherlow, not to mention the great medievalists such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Rambam, Yehudah ha-Chassid, and many statements of Chazal. Certainly the particular synthesis is my own, but many others before me have attempted to reconcile traditional belief with science and philosophy, as they understood these disciplines in their time-periods.

[2] I would like to take this opportunity to clarify one matter. Another piece of mine, an introduction to the opening section of Deuteronomy, caused quite a stir. One of the reasons for this was the abrupt end of the original posting. This was pointed out to me by a number of friends and colleagues—well before the Rabbi Gordimer’s Cross-Currents article attacking mine was posted—and I quickly reworked the ending to further clarify and add nuance. The reason the ending was so abrupt is because this post was originally part of a longer essay, which was divided into part 1 (the post in question) and part 2, which offered a modern midrashic understanding of the differences between Deuteronomy 1-3 and the other parts of the Torah. When the two were divided, the first was left, essentially, without an ending. This was a sloppy but serious mistake, and I apologize and will strive to be more careful and precise in the future.

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20 Responses to The Torah, TheTorah.com, and the Recent Tumult in Context – by Rabbi Zev Farber

  1. Josh says:

    “To be clear: I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter.”

    Growing up in Modern and Centrist Orthodox yeshivot, I was taught that Reform Judaism believes that the Torah is the product of human ingenuity, and is not divinely authored or inspired; that Conservative Judaism believes that the Torah was divinely inspired, but was not a word-for-word dictation from God; and that Orthodox Judaism, per the plain meaning of Rambam’s Eighth Ikkar, believes that every word of the Torah was dictated by God (subject to the Talmudic debate about the last several pesukim of Devarim). This is obviously a simplistic categorization, but it begs the question: Is your approach to Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim different from the prevalent Conservative approach? If not, are you comfortable sharing theological ground with the Conservative movement? And if you are comfortable with this, what makes your views distinctly Orthodox? Thank you.

  2. Here’s what you might be missing:
    A believing Jew starts with the assumption on faith that the entire Torah as we have it today is a product of the Divine Revelation over 40 years as detailed in said Torah. Not just the first four books. No multiple authors. Your article, the conversation starter, raises great topics for discussions for academics but for Torah-observant Jews they are irrelevant. There is no different “style” in Devarim. It’s the same product as the rest of the Torah.
    In addition, your statement “I believe in Torah Min HaShamayim” might be seen in the same context as two or so posts back where the author said things like “We’re told we have to accept the Torah” but it never says “the WHOLE Torah so do we have to?” and the like. You believe in Torah Min HaShamayim, great. How much of our Torah does that include?

  3. Jacob says:

    The divinity of the Torah and the Sinaitic moment pulses through my veins – it’s who I am.

    R. Farber:

    I am now confused. Is your use of the phrase “Sinaitic moment” indicative of a change of heart in your belief now that Revelation at Sinai was an event that actually occurred? Your original essay seemed to indicate pretty clearly that you held it was legendary.

  4. Yirmiyah Chegall says:

    A Kofer who mouths pretty phrases and professions of piety is still a Kofer. Zev, just have the guts to give up your Orthodox charade. [That is good advice, actually, for all of the leaders of your seminary, as well.]

  5. Adir says:

    As I read this post of the MO guy who “checked out” of Torah study for quite some time, I couldn’t help but think you were referring to me. I have known for quite some time that the Torah is not the word of Gd (and if what you maintain in this blog post is true, I am quite more “academic” minded then you are), but I have continued to live an MO life for many of the same reasons you discussed.

    That being said, I really like Josh’s question above and await your answer. I have always described myself theologically closer to conservative or reform, but halakhicly closer to MO. I would love it if one day I could reach a point where my beliefs and practices were more aligned.

  6. Ben says:

    Look, if you don’t want to believe in the Torah’s divinity and truth, just go do that. According to your other writings besides the infamous essay, you don’t believe there was a mabul, a person named Avraham Avinu, a Yetzias Mitzraim, nor presumably a maamad har sinai (since no yetzias mitzraim).

    I’m confident you don’t believe there ever was an eliyahu who spoke the following words, but you should consider them anyway: עַד מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים?! אִם ה’ הָאֱלֹהִים – לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו. וְאִם הַבַּעַל – לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו.

  7. […] what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT.  He discusses his struggle in more detail here.  Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We […]

  8. Mayer Adler says:

    I appreciate that you are struggling to integrate your academic bible education with your Torah beliefs. Nevertheless, while your essays may be intellectually honest, they are inconsistent with Torah Judaism. I don’t see how your tortured attempts to deny maamad har sinai and yet still maintain the existence of a divinity is any different from previous attempts by Rabbis Zecharia Fraenkel, Mordechai Kaplan, or Louis Jacobs. and just like those rabbis, you need to be drummed out of Orthodoxy.

  9. Avraham says:

    Rav Zev – I read your original article and was left with a sense of profound disappointment. I had expected the questions that led to your creative approach to be exceedingly difficult, if not insoluble. Instead I encountered queries so simple that I was shocked by your response. I suggest that all readers of this post read your initial piece and see if their conclusions echo mine. Let me share a few examples that illustrate my point:

    #1 Sarah knows her real age and therefore does not expect to have children, and yet is still found attractive and this is impossible. Really? Have you never encountered an older woman who looks younger than her real age? Should I list famous women alive today who remain attractive despite being over 70?

    #2 Yaakov has 11 children with four wives in seven years and this too is impossible. Again I must ask – really? In present charedi circles having seven children with one wife in seven years is not at all uncommon and yet this question forces you to reject the classic understanding of revelation?

    #3 To quote one more example – you are shocked that Moshe’s father in law can have one more than name. Obviously this must be a made up personage. Once again – really? As a dayan have you never been involved in a get where we are required to list all of a person’s nicknames? Does that mean that the individual is a fictional character?

    I was shocked and disappointed by the level of challenges that forced you to change cornerstones of our belief. Quite simply, I expected more from you.

    .

  10. Jack says:

    Your essay indicated that whenever the story implies the supernatural that it must be a legend or a metaphor. Do you accept that God can do miracles?

  11. […] the next just-released damage-control article was written by R. Farber himself. One would expect this article to either consist of a major retraction and withdrawal of the […]

  12. Jon Baker says:

    I don’t know how to make a trackback, esp. from blogger to wordpress, but I wrote a long-ish piece on my current thoughts. This comment thread was too short to include it.

  13. krautie11 says:

    (1) it would be easier to stomach farber if he were a bit humbler: (i) there is no reason to repeatedly use a term like “mnemohistory” except as an appeal to authority. (ii) not mentioning academic views inconsistent with his opinions – both more and less “traditional” views – gives the false impression that farber’s presentation represents some sort of scholarly consensus. in truth, very little consensus exists regarding many of the issues that farber raises. (iii) A statement like this, for instance – “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s” – is unnecessarily combative and, frankly, just silly. this is the academic line in the sand that farber wants to draw? he can definitively prove that no couple named abraham-sarah had anything to do with the founding of ancient israel? it’s really a ridiculous, unfalisifiable/unprovable – and, therefore, needlessly provocative – claim. farber’s apparent need to make rhetorical points too often overwhelms judicious use of argument/evidence, particularly given his audience. who’s going to listen if he makes a point of belittling traditional assumptions that aren’t even inherently unlikely?

    (2) a more precise discussion of terms like “fiction” and “history” would be useful. i tend to think that meir sternberg’s analysis (in “The Poetics…”) cuts through a lot of the jargon and vagueness in the presentation of farber and others. sternberg’s basic point is that “history” and “fiction” are defined not by “historicity,” a question of fact, but by “truth claim.” that is, works that CLAIM to be historical are “history” (regardless of whether they are accounts of actual historical events or not). works that do not claim to be historical are “fiction” (even if they incorporate actual historical event – e.g. Shakespeare’s historical plays).

    sternberg argues – rather convincingly, it seems to me – that the Torah is entirely (or virtually entirely) “history.” that is even farber’s “symbolic” content – creation, patriarchal narratives, exodus – is presented in the torah as a record of events that actually happened. Hence, the scores of commandments that are directly tied to events like the exodus (or creation or abraham’s circumcision or jacob’s thigh injury, etc.). if there is no truth claim regarding the stories that these commandments commemorate, then how could anyone expect a people to take seriously the commandments based on these stories? again, to be clear, sternberg is not arguing that the stories happened. he’s arguing that the torah is claiming that the stories happened and – if one wishes to be true to the intent of the author(s) – one should treat them as such.

    the notion of “mnemohistory,” or whatever farber feels like calling this stuff, would seem to be foreign to the original intent of the writer(s). farber seems to be taking a modern construct and injecting it, anachronistically, into the times during which the text was created. or is farber claiming that “mnemohistory” existed and was understood by these ancient peoples as he understands it today? it would be a provocative claim, if farber intended to make it. but, needless to say, a bit of proof would be necessary.

    (3) all of this said, i genuinely wish farber luck and hope that, on balance, he helps more people than he alienates. i do not envy him or others the task of helping people navigate the morass of bible scholarship and orthodox jewish religion. i just hope that those involved in such efforts realize that these issues are bigger than their own personal journeys.

  14. juda says:

    i am a orthaprax avriech and am of the opinion that conservative got it right i saw zev farbers artificial and i am at a loss for what he thinks he has to gain by not just saying straight out the conservative theology is right and orthodoxy needs to move towards its adoption

    • Jon Baker says:

      Because we know what happens when a community gives up on its tie to God and God’s Torah – they stop keeping the mitzvos, and become contemporary Conservative Judaism, as happened to Reform before them.

      I know Conservative rabbis who join Modern Orthodox shuls because it’s the only way they’re going to find a community of people who think Jewishly, live Jewishly, etc. Conservative with its 97% non-observance rate is the result of consciously adopting a Torah devoid of God – an Oral Torah that is a human creation, a Written Torah that was not dictated (more or less, to within in a few letters) to Moshe (and the last few vv. to Joshua).

      Look at yourself – you’re still orthoprax, being observant means something to you. But could you maintain an observant life among a whole bunch of people like yourself, who don’t think the Torah is divinely mandated? Even Orthodox people are sloppy with mitzvot, but realize they need to improve. If you don’t think God commanded you to do X or Y, why should you improve in it? Eventually everything will slough away, and you’ll be driving to the movies on Shabbos

      • Holy Hyrax says:

        Rather interesting no? On one side, you have Conservative THEOLOGY perhaps correct, but yet unable to sustain itself. Then you have Orthodoxy with a wrong theology that has all the tools to sustain itself. If one chooses truth, then Judaism collapses. If one simply wants to sustain Judaism for its own sake, then you have to toss truth out of the equation.

        BTW, for the philosophers in the room, doesn’t this sort of hint that Judaism is in no way based on anything revealed by God? Why would God create a system, that if its adherents seek out the religions historical beginning, that system will just collapse?

  15. DRL says:

    The issue here is that biblical criticism is not as troubling to many Jews as it appears to be for R Farber. In contrast to the great questions of emunah – evil in the world, God’s omniscience, etc – it ranks pretty low in content and depth. Unfortunately, R Farber’s presentation appears to lend more weight to biblical critic, in a manner which dismisses Orthodox theology, and even if the validity of Orthodox theology is obvious to him, because of articles like this it will not be to his talmidim.

  16. […] Unfortunately this statement does nothing to clear the air, for it does not explain what is meant by the term Torah Min Hashamayim. There are those who claim that Torah Min Hashamayim means that God cooperated with man to help man write the Torah, so that the Torah is not the word of God, but rather divinely inspired, much like Beethoven’s Sixth or Gibran‘s The Prophet. Or in Farber’s own words: […]

  17. Solomon Schimmel says:

    For an analysis of the psychology of how modern orthodox Jews deal with conflicts between traditional Jewish faith and beliefs on the one hand and modern scholarship and science on the other see my book “The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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