Of Telling Tales and Banning Books

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky


The discrepancies between the story of the spies as narrated in Shlach, and the way that the story is retold in the first chapter of Dvarim are significant and numerous.  They include (but are not limited to):

(1)   Whose initiative was it to send the spies? (God’s or Israel’s?)

(2)   What was the nature of the spies report when they returned? (Negative or positive?)

(3)   Who chastised the people when they depaired of being able to enter the land? (Caleb or Moshe?)


Every major parshan (exegete) addresses these discrepancies, each in his own way. I often wonder whether Abarbanel’s effort in this arena contributed to his commentary on humash being banned (or its use highly discouraged) in many quarters of the Orthodox world.


Abarbanel’s alleged heterodoxy here begins with the general observation that he makes about the first several chapters of Dvarim. Abarbanel states concerning these chapters, that “Moshe himself spoke them”, and that it was only through a subsequent Divine decision that they were included in the Torah (see pages 11 and 12 in the standard edition of Abarbanel on the Torah). He proceeds from this premise of human (albeit the greatest of human prophets) authorship of these chapters, to explain the genesis of the discrepancies between the telling and the retelling of the spy incident.

In Dvarim,  Abarbanel teaches that as Moshe is offering the first of several farewell addresses to the children of Israel,  he seizes his prerogative as leader and teacher to knowingly and deliberately alter the details of the original story. Knowing that the Israelites he is now talking to were by and large not present at the time that the event unfolded, Moshe is concerned about what might happen if “they would hear the truth of the incident as it actually occurred” (p. 21). If they were to know that in fact it was at God’s initiative that the spies were sent, the people would say, “why did God place an obstacle in front of the blind?”. And if it were revealed that it was in response to Moshe’s own questions (“Are the people mighty?”,  and the suchlike) that the spies said what they did, then the people would  “complain against Moshe, contending that he too caused the [38 year] delay”  in entering the land. The dissent and tension that would result could be terribly destructive to the people’s relationship with God and Torah, and might even trigger an additional generational delay. So Moshe adjusted the story, for the people’s own spiritual benefit at that moment.


Abarbanel continues to systematically solve many of the other discrepancies using similar tactics, and the reader is encouraged to take a look at the balance of his commentary. But I want to return at this juncture to a memory from 1981, when my sister reported to me that Abarbanel’s commentary had mysteriously disappeared from the shelves of her prestigious Jerusalem Seminary, now to made available only upon special request, and under the supervision of one of the rabbis. This passage of Abarbanel’s commentary was one of those that immediately leapt to my mind.


There is of course, nothing heretical about the passage. Ramban takes a similar approach to much of Dvarim, and the Zohar regards all of Dvarim as the work of Moshe. (See Dr. Yaakov Elman’s fine article, “The Book of Deuteronomy as Revelation: Nahmanidies and Abarbanel”) Why then is Abarbanel treated as if he is radioactive in many places?  He is a victim of the progressive closing of the Orthodox mind that has ensued now for several decades, as we have been sniffing out and snuffing out any idea, philosophical or exegetical that might intersect in any way with contemporary academic or literary or critical methodology. This fear of the larger world of biblical scholarship has narrowed our options, smothered our creativity, and has led even to the dismissal of classical voices (Don’t make the mistake of citing Rambam concerning the existence of angels, or Rashbam concerning the Biblical day starting in the morning rather than in the evening).  Our children come home from day school with the same tired “divrai Torah” year after year, presentations which usually amount to little more than a cute “vort” or a gematria. This is a not only a terrible shame in terms of our ability to creatively engage our study of Torah and Nach, though this by itself is bad enough. But beyond that it has contributed to Orthodoxy’s being simply unattractive to the vast numbers of our co-religionists. If we are reflexively unable to engage in anything that smells even remotely like modern study of the Torah , how much could we possibly have to say to a Jew who thoroughly lives in the modern world? 

Abarbanel and so many others belong back on our shelves, in our schools, and in our conversations. And we Orthodox Jews belong at the forefront of dynamic, creative, and even broad-minded study of our most sacred texts.

6 Responses to Of Telling Tales and Banning Books

  1. yosef kanefsky says:

    Correction: My sister was in Jerusalem in 1986, not 1981. Wow. The mists of time…

  2. lilee says:

    I don’t beleive MO education will change any time soon. Therefore what do you propose in order for our children to become more creative? How about parents attending stimulating adult ed classes? Perhaps what they learn can be handed down parent to child. What a revolutiionary idea!
    How do you propose getting parents to attend?

  3. Asher Lopatin says:

    Thanks Rav Yosef for opening up a fascinating area for discussion. I never saw it inside, but I heard from Prof. Marc Shapiro, I believe, that there were several Rishonim (Ibn Ezra?) who believed that Torah Misinai only applied to the legal parts of the Torah, not necessarily to the stories. However, that distinction would be kind of Old School since newer thinking – even in the Yeshiva world, let alone the academic world, doesn’t always make that clear distinction between hashkafa and Halacha.

  4. For years I was troubled by the story of David and Batsheva and how the Gemara handled it: “Whoever says David sinned with Batsheva is in error”. It seemed almost too obvious that they were trying to whitewash events by introducing concepts not mentioned anywhere in the text (soldiers giving a get before going to war so technically she wasn’t married, etc).
    I was thrilled when I read the Abarbanel on that story and discovered that he also felt that David HaMelech did sin. Ah, someone who thought like I do.
    Then I read a few more commentaries and changed my mind. First of all, there are subtle indications in the text which support the version of Chazal. Secondly, they were Chazal. Did Abarbanel, genius as he was, know the mesorah better than them?
    The problem with exceptional commentators like the Abarbanel is that they can be used in inappropriate ways. Someone who wants to see the sin in the story of David and Batsheva can hold up his commentary and use it to dismiss every other one – “See? Abarbanel is the only one who’s telling the truth!” There is also the context – if he’s so radically different than every other major Rishon on the subject as well as Chazal, then accepting his viewpoint wholeheartedly instead of just a single opinion against many means dismissing the many because it doesn’t suit our understanding of the text. Are we smarter than the Ramban, Rambam, Rashi, etc.?

  5. Yosef Kanefsky says:

    A hurried response to Garnel (I hope to be able to check the source shortly): I’m almost positive that it is Netziv, in his introduction to his commentary on humash, who teaches that in the area of Biblical interpretation – as opposed to halacha – we are granted extensive interpretative license, as there is no definitive interpretation of narrative portions, and indeed it is meritorious in terms of the mitzva of Talmud Torah to be creative. In other words, while a minority opinion may be of little but academic interest in a halachik discussion (and even this, the Mishna in Horoyot says, is an unfair characterization) the same is not true in a parshanut discussion.

  6. But there are limits even on the narrative section. One cannot simply take a story and say “Well, I think that this means…” without any support other than a hunch. That’s what Chrisians do with the Bible specifically because they have no mesorah to work with.

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