Living by the Word of God – Guest Post by Dr. Ben Elton

July 26, 2013

Introduction

This coming Shabbat morning Jews around the world will listen to the verse (Devarim 8:3): ‘So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.’

An unbroken chain links the Jews who heard those words from Moshe and those who will hear them in the synagogue this week. Orthodox Jews, of whatever stripe, hold fast to the belief that God spoke to Moshe and gave him the Torah. We believe that we were founded as a people by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that we went down to Egypt and were enslaved there, that God took us out and brought us to Mount Sinai. There, a truly mysterious event took place, which we shall never understand and none of our ancestors understood. The Infinite met the finite, Heaven and earth touched and God transmitted His words and His will to the Jewish People.

That is the source and origin of Hamisha Humshei Torah.[1] They are not a product of inspiration or ‘channelling the Divine,’ in a way that later biblical books or even the rabbinic literature might be described. We believe that ‘this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel, by the mouth of the Lord, by the hand of Moshe’.[2]

That is my faith as an Orthodox Jew and it is what took me to the Orthodox beit midrash of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT). It is the belief I will teach as an Orthodox rabbi, just as I have been taught it by my rebbeimin the yeshiva. If some graduates of the yeshiva take a different view, that is a matter for them, though we should respect the integrity of an honest struggle. Like any yeshiva, YCT can only be held responsible for what it teaches and the beliefs and conduct of its current students – just ask Gateshead Kollel about Louis Jacobs.

The Place of Torah Min Hashmayim in Traditional Jewish Thought

This is not the place to rehearse the rabbinic literature on Torah Min Hashamayim. Suffice it to say that Hazal took it as given that there was a Revelation on Sinai. Their main concern was that people might argue that while Moshe went up the mountain he brought down a forgery, and they declared that anyone who claimed that Moshe wrote the Humashof his own account would have no place in the World to Come. This is a very serious statement considering that in general every Jew has a portion of the Afterlife. It certainly never entered the heads of Hazal that Moshe is a fictional character and that the whole text, both its sources and its current form, dates from much later than his supposed lifetime.

Indeed, until relatively recently no-one at all thought that. From Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century to Moses Mendelssohn in the seventeenth, there was unanimity that the Torah’s status as the product of unmediated revelation was the basis of the whole of Jewish life and belief. Even some early proponents of the academic study of Jewish literature, for example Nachman Krochmal and Zacharias Frankel who were otherwise fairly radical, drew the line at Higher Criticism of the Humash itself.[3] In recent times, even David Weiss Halivni, whose view of the composition of the Humash as we have it is novel, would not abandon the commitment to the revelation at Sinai.

Must We Accept the Documentary Hypothesis?

Of course that is not a good argument for Torah Min Hashamayim. An idea is either true or it is not. However, the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis have been thoroughly dealt with by traditionalists like Rabbi David Tsevi Hoffman, moderate traditionalists like Umberto Cassuto and radicals like Benno Jacob. The Documentary Hypothesis proceeds from the premise that the text is human, and then concludes how it could have been assembled as a human text. It is driven by its starting assumptions. Furthermore, it is the product of hyper-modernity, in which everything can be dissected, including literature, using methods that were described as ‘scientific.’ Scholars of literature and of history would be embarrassed to use such a term today. Literary theory and historical practice have both come a long way since then, but simply accepting the Documentary Hypothesis takes none of that development into account. It is odd that sometimes we are more concerned about the Documentary Hypothesis than the academy, many parts of which concentrate on more interesting and fruitful literary questions.

As we well know, the problems that bible critics have identified have been dealt with by traditional scholars for millennia. The explanations of Hazal, the Rishonim and Aharonim have all addressed the same questions of different accounts of events or expressions of laws. There has been no diminution in the brilliance or insight of these explanations in recent years. Two examples of this approach are Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s explanation of the two accounts of the creation of man in Lonely Man of Faith and Rabbi Mordecai Breuer’s entire approach. More recently, the work coming from the journal Megadim, Aviva Zornberg, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or Rabbi Shalom Carmy all assumes the unity and Divine nature of the text of the Humash.

The Breadthand Boundaries of Orthodox Opinion

As these scholars, and their predecessors, have shown, the Humash is a far from simple text. There are also many questions to be asked about which parts of the Humash are to be taken literally, which are allegorical or might be dreams, although we should note that those question go to its meaning not its authorship or its authority. The Talmud discusses how it was communicated to Moshe and compiled by him. Did it come in one revelation or was it given piece by piece and then collated at the end of forty years? Is Devarim different in some respects from the earlier four books? Did Moshe write the account of his own death or did Joshua? Were there some small sections added later, as Rabbi Yehuda HeHassid and the Ibn Ezra thought? It is possible to say that about some other parts, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and others have suggested? Has the text been corrupted over time or must we believe that it was transmitted entirely without scribal error, as Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg thought? These are all ideas to explore and they have a place in Orthodoxy because they are authentic elements of our Mesorah. We have to resist any attempts to narrow our intellectual vision by expelling them or their advocates.

All of these positions have the support of traditional authorities, or at least traditional roots, and they are a world away from JEPD or any variation on it. To accept the Documentary Hypothesis and still claim to believe in ‘Torah Min Hashamayim’, or ‘Torah MiSinai’, is no more than playing with words. I can claim to believe in any term I like if I change its meaning enough. However, words and phrases have integrity; they communicate meaning based on their usage across space and time. To appropriate them for new positions, simply because of a desire to hold onto traditional language, is untenable. Only in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There does a word means just what the speaker chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. On any non-tendentious reading, I find it hard to see how a rejection of the classic formulation of Torah Min Hashamayim can be consistent with Orthodox theology

Does It Matter?

Acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis is therefore unnecessary and a radical break with Jewish tradition. But does it matter? Classical Torah Min Hashamayim may have become one of the recognized boundaries between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, but should it be? Surely if we come to the conclusion that the text is Divine, the mechanics of its writing and editing are immaterial.  I think that is an error. This is a dogma we should care about andhalakhic Jews should not delude themselves that they can abandon Torah Min Hashamayim and maintain the Judaism they cherish. Their attempts to do so fail even on their own terms, both in theory and practice.

The rejection of Torah Min Hashamayim makes a nonsense of both parshanut and the Gemara. The varied explanations of the traditional commentators might be inspiring but they do not give us an insight into what the words were meant to convey.  We can only hope to uncover their meaning through the study of authorship and context, like any other text. Traditional and modern exegesis cannot exist alongside each other. It would make no more sense to devise a devar Torah based on Vayikra than on the Code of Hammurabi. In the realm of Talmud, for one who accepts the Documentary Hypothesis, when Hazal seeks sources in the Humash for halakhot, they are on a wild goose chase, because to a modern critic the words of the Torah never meant what the Rabbis took them to mean. The entire halakhicliterature becomes an elaborate intellectual folly. It might be interesting or valuable in the study of a particular people in order to understand how they constructed their spiritual life, but it cannot be taken as a real explanation of the biblical text.

This has profound implications for halakhah. Judaism stands on its belief in heteronymous law, the idea that we are commanded by Another (God) and His law is unconditionally binding. He communicated His will to Moshe in the form of the Torah shebikhtav (Humash) and the Torah shebal peh (oral explanation) that accompanied it.[4] Once we come to the view that the Humash is, as a matter of history, a human work, it might well be an attempt by a series of writers in the ancient near east to reach out to God, but how do we know He reached back? Some parts are very challenging but we keep faith because we believe it represents the direct Divine will. If we cease to believe that we are mandated by the Divine Will how is Humash any different than  the Koran, the Gospels or the Baghavad Gita, all of which contain parts we like and parts we don’t?

The founders of the Conservative Movement claimed that although critical scholars were correct about the composition of the Humash, the authority of the mitsvot was unaffected. They argued that a human text could receive the Divine imprimatur through its survival and acceptance. history legislates. However, they failed to persuade their followers to lead halakhic lives, because while an individual might feel that, they cannot transmit that belief. Furthermore, that total commitment sooner or later gives way even in its advocates.[5] Louis Jacobs who at first claimed that under ‘halakhic non-fundamentalism’ all mitsvot were Divine and binding, later found he could not justify institutions such as themamzer. All who have rejected Torah Min Hashamayim have come to the view that the Humash contains higher as lower parts, and have therefore broken its binding nature. It is not a chance of history that Reconstructionism came out of the Conservative Movement and lived for a long time within it. It is the logical outcome of the process which begins with rejecting Torah Min Hashamayim.

Finally, supporters of progressive Orthodoxy should also be extremely wary of accepting the Documentary Hypothesis. If God did not speak directly to us, but has rather endorsed whatever we happen to construct for ourselves, then we create a Panglossian world in which ‘whatever is, is right.’ If I have heteronymous, authoritative texts and traditions which I can study, investigate and probe there is room for development on issues as diverse as relations with non-Jews and non-observant Jews, the role of women and family law. If history is the voice of God, if the status quo is always what God wants us to live by, where is the capacity for change, which has always been a feature of the Mesorah? We come to pick and choose based on whatever feels right at any particular time, or the halakhic process is frozen. Neither is the way of traditional Judaism.

In Sum

I am Open Orthodox. I do not want to throw anyone out of Orthodox communities. We have to provide a home for people of varying levels of observance as well as those wrestling with difficult theological questions. Nevertheless, I am clear that accepting the Documentary Hypothesis, or any similar theory, is not only a breach with tradition, it is also unnecessary and harmful. There is a great deal to discuss and debate and the study of Mikra is becoming richer every day. I am lucky to have access to master teachers of Tanakh, whose insights are innovative and compelling, all within the bounds of tradition. We must continue to live in the knowledge that when we pick up a Humash we hold in our hands the word of God. It contains a sacred gift He gave us 3,000 years ago, and because that revelation is pure and direct, it contains infinite wisdom, beauty and goodness. That is the way for modern and open Orthodoxy to flourish, and any alternative would be a tragic error.

Ben Elton is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School


[1] I will address later in this essay which parts of the Torah were given, and when. I acknowledge it is not necessary, or even sensible, to believe that the entire Torah was given on Sinai.

[2] I am aware that this verse does not have that expansive meaning in its original context. However, that is the way the verse is used in our liturgy. It expresses our belief in the nature of the entire Torah, as it is lifted up and we look at it.

[3] Leopold Zunz and of course Abraham Geiger did accept the Documentary Hypothesis.

[4] If one holds that the Humash is a single text then it follows that there must have been an oral accompaniment, because otherwise it makes no sense. There is a great deal of debate among the classical authorities about how expansive that original Oral Law was, but that is not a question for now.

[5] Louis Finklestein may be an exception.

Advertisements

Revelation and the Education of Modern Orthodox Rabbis

July 26, 2013

Guest Post by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President YCT Rabbinical School

As an Orthodox Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is committed to the classic, Torah-true mesoret of Torah Min Hashamyim, a basic tenet of Jewish belief. That is what we teach. As Rav Nati Helfgot, Chair of our Philosophy Department (Machshavawrote, the yeshiva teaches in a classical and traditional way that both the oral and written Torah were revealed to Moshe at Sinai and in the wilderness.

At the same time, as Rav Ysoscher Katz wrote, since we are an Open Orthodox rabbinical school, we want our students to struggle openly throughout their lives as they integrate the mesoret into their own hearts and souls.

Our talmidim are exposed to a range of views on Torah Min Hashamayim from our classic commentaries and thinkers, and students will embrace different views along this traditional spectrum. Some talmidim are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest.  One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, 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 support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim that we at the Yeshiva believe in.
 
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School actively encourages diversity of thought—all anchored within our students’ passion for their Orthodoxy. I invite you to become part of the conversation, part of a dynamic Orthodoxy that is open and contemporary, but, most important, an integral part of the unfolding of Hashem’s holy Torah, given to us all so long ago at Sinai.
 
 
 

Should We Stop Worrying and Learn to Love The Documentary Hypothesis? A Response To Zev Farber

July 25, 2013

Guest Post by Moshe Shoshan

“When a prisoner sees the door of his dungeon open, he dashes for it without stopping to think where he shall get his dinner outside” George Bernard Shaw, Introduction to Back to Methuselah

 

Rabbi Zev Farber has recently produced a carefully and eloquently written monograph arguing that Orthodox Jews should embrace the findings of modern Biblical criticism and incorporate it into their religious worldview. Like Rabbi Farber’s other writings which seek to challenge us to rethink some of the basic assumptions of contemporary Orthodoxy, this piece deserves a careful and thorough response. Unfortunately at this time I am not in position to write such an essay. What I am offering below are a few of my immediate reactions to the piece, which I hope will at least help spur further productive conversation on this matter. I should note that I do not deem it to be my place to determine the limits of Orthodox theology and declare a particular position to be on one side of the foul line or the other. My purpose is rather to consider the extent to which Rabbi Farber’s ideas can be productively integrated into what I think would be generally acknowledged to be an Orthodox worldview.

Where I agree with Zev Farber

In my excursions into the world of Biblical scholarship, which are far more limited than Farber’s, I have come to concur with him on one fundamental issue. The challenges raised by modern Biblical criticism to Orthodox Judaism cannot be countered merely with “Orthodox Biblical Scholarship” which seeks to disprove the claims of academic scholarship on its own terms. I do not believe that using the tools, methods and assumptions of modern critical scholarship it is possible to produce a compelling academic argument that it makes sense to conclude that the Torah is a unified document produced in the wildernesses of Sinai and Transjordan sometime in the final centuries of the Third Millennium BCE. It may be possible to argue that the Torah is more unified and more ancient than biblical scholars commonly assume, but this approach will never produce a conclusion that is in line with traditional understandings of Torah mi-Sinai.  We may succeed in dispatching the theories of Wellhausen and Gunkel but Spinoza’s basic arguments against Mosaic authorship and the “mild kefirah” of Cassuto and Kaufman challenging unified authorship will still remain.

This presents a profound challenge to Orthodox Jews who are not willing to dismiss modern academic methodologies. Indeed I believe that this challenge is much greater than R. Farber acknowledges. As such I think that his solution that Orthodox Jews can simply reconstruct their faith in manner that integrates modern scholarship is quite problematic and that we as Orthodox Jews cannot simply embrace it. In my experience the world “down the rabbit hole” of Biblical criticism can often resemble the stark world that Neo encountered after swallowing the pill, more than the sunny environment which Farber describes as his habitat.

Why Torah MiSinai is not like Maaseh Bereshit

Farber argues that Biblical criticism is merely the most recent in a long series of intellectual revolutions that have reshaped the way people understand the world and the paces of God and humanity with in it. Modern Orthodoxy has managed, quite successfully it seems, to adjust its understanding of Maaseh Bereshit and ultimately accept Copernicus and Darwin. In Farber’s view the documentary hypothesis should be no different. Farber is charting a course that Christian and liberal Jewish scholars have already pursued for generations. However, this does not mean that similar path can be easily followed by Orthodox Jews. This is because of the unique place which the concept of Torah mi-Sinai plays in Orthodox Judaism. For Orthodoxy, as for most forms of traditional Judaism throughout history, Judaism is first and foremost (thought certainly not exclusively) a religion of mitzvot,  of binding norms whose force in rooted not in a constructed social contract or categorical imperatives but in a direct irruption of the Divine Will into human history.  This places an extraordinary amount of the weight of Jewish belief on the acceptance of the concept of Torah mi-Sinai. Indeed as I suggested in the last chapter of my book, Stories of the Law, for Chazal, Sinai may be the only truly significant event in human history.  As such, Torah miSinai (TmS)  is not as malleable as other tradition Jewish beliefs, such as those regarding God’s creation of and ongoing relationship with the natural world. Unlike for others whose faith is rooted in the Bible, for us, the Torah, Written and Oral is not merely a source or moral guidance and spiritual inspiration but the basis divine commands which represent the frame work of our existence.  As such any re-conceptualization of the concept of TmS must provide a grounding for halakha as a heteronomous set of obligations. This is not to say that this can only be accomplished through traditional views of TmS, but it creates an extra burden on those who suggest new interpretations which Farber does not sufficiently address.

Between History and Fiction

My second objection has to do with the way in which narratives function to construct and maintain ideas, values and norms in the cultures in which in they operate. Farber argues that we need simply to reconceive Biblical narrative as fiction and not history.
In his view this will not completely undermine our religion because in fact fiction is a better transmitter of the sort of truths that really matter than is history.  This argument about the value of fiction, which has been put forward in different forms by many modern writers and thinkers, from Tolstoy in War and Peace to Stanford professor Joshua Landy in his recent How to Do Things with Fictions, is one to which I am highly sympathetic. It rests however on a dichotomy between “history” and “fiction” which is a distinctive product of modernity. Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism like most ancient and traditional cultures did not recognize such a distinction. Rather, they operated with a unified category which I call “storytelling”. In this view, the “truth” that inheres in some stories cannot be pulled apart into categories such as “historical,” “moral” and “metaphysical” truth. Stories were evaluated by the way in which they integrated all of these truths into a single narrative framework.  In modern Western history it was only fairly recently that people have begun rigorously distinguish between the truth claims of different types of narratives. Thus in the late eighteenth century the writing of novels on the one hand and critical history on the other emerged as two fully distinct and dominant modes of narrative in European culture.  (To be sure this account is highly over simplified, ignoring important precedents both in the Hellenistic world and among Medieval, including Jewish thinkers, but I think it will serve our purposes for now.)   We should not underestimate the power of traditional narrative structures in which historical, moral and metaphysical truth are presented in a single mutually re-enforcing structure.  Modern Western culture has paid a significant moral and spiritual price for its predilection for dividing libraries and best sellers lists into “fiction” and “non-fiction”. The continuing power of narratives that  lay claim to historical as well as other forms of truth can be seen in the great scandals that have erupted in recent years surrounding best-selling “memoirs” that have been revealed to be pure fictions invented by their authors. If fiction is just as good at delivering what we seek from stories as “fact,” why did so many readers feel so betrayed? These authors had fraudulently laid claim to the status of being a “true story” in order to gain for their narratives a power over the reader that they did not deserve.  Before calling for the Bible to be placed on the shelf with Jane Austen and not Gibbon, we would do well to consider the potential implications for those whose religious faith is in rooted in the Bible.

To be sure, I do not believe that it is possible to go back up the rabbit hole to world in which the truth to found in narratives is unified. Indeed, I argue that much of the corpus of rabbinic narrative cannot be accepted as historical. However, I would not deny that there is a great advantage to faithfully maintaining the sacred canopy of an all-inclusive narrative structure, which offers us the shelter of a historical, moral and metaphysical reality all in a single location.    For many reasons, this price for abandoning this model is exponentially higher when it comes to Biblical narrative. Farber may find it necessary to classify the Torah as fiction, but he should not under estimate the difficulty of maintaining an Orthodox worldview and practice based on fictions alone.

“Greetings Dr. Farber, Do you want to play a game?”

The challenge of modernity to traditional religious worldviews is not limited to the fragmentation of truth. The ultimate challenge lies in the secular nature of the modern thought.   The most fundamental assumption of all critical historical study is  olam keminahgo noheg. History is part of the humanities and past events must be interpreted in human naturalistic terms. A historian who explains historical events by recourse to claims of divine intervention is no historian.  As such the most fundamental underlying assumption of modern Biblical scholarship is that Bible must be human document produced through the same processes as other ancient texts, and not a product of revelation. Certainly many individual scholars who believe in the divinity of the Bible accept the principles of critical methodology only provisionally, using its tool to gain valuable insights into the text without accepting its fundamental assumptions.  However, the ultimate telos of academic Biblical scholarship can only be the rejection of the very notion of Divine revelation.  Once I show that the Bible can be understood using the same tools and categories as the Upanishads or the Koran, why should I view it as being metaphysically distinct from those texts? As such Orthodox Judaism and Biblical criticism would appear to be opposed to each other not only in their conclusions but in their very premises. To a certain degree, to quote the computer “WOPR” in the 80’s movie Wargames, “The only way to win is not to play at all.” Of course I reject fundamentalist positions such as those of R. Tau, R. Aviner and their followers which oppose any influence from secular Biblical tradition on our study of Tanakh.  On the other hand, I see the notion that Farber seems to be advancing, that Orthodoxy and the methodology and assumptions of critical Biblical scholarship can simply be synthesized into a single world view, to be an inherently unstable and problematic position.

Conclusions

While I respect Rabbi Farber’s conclusions on a personal level, I am unsure as to whether or not they can be successfully integrated into a worldview that fits a conventional definition of Orthodoxy.  I am concerned that a community that embraces such an approach will not in the long term remain committed to a covenantial life and worldview.  Nevertheless, I believe that the search for truth of all sorts using the most compelling tools to which we have access is itself a religious imperative for those of us who believe in a God whose seal is Truth.  As such, it cannot be jettisoned because it is not compatible with other divine imperatives.    But I have no way relieving the tension that this position creates for the Orthodox Jew.  I  cannot even offer my teachers’ fun a kasha shtarbt man nisht- “no one dies form a question” with full confidence, because in my experience some people do “die” or at least get sick from nursing certain questions without relief.  All I can say is that we need to continue moving forward, acknowledging the short comings and strengths of both traditional and academic approaches.

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan teaches rabbinic literature and Biblical interpretation at the Rotheberg International School of The Hebrew University and at the religious teachers college at Givat Washington. He is the author of Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah (Oxford University Press, 2012)


Torah and Historical Proof: Guest Post by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

July 25, 2013

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is on the Judaic studies faculty of the SAR High School in NYC. He is the chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ. He is the author of hundreds of articles in Jewish studies and most recently published a volume of studies on Tanakh entitled Mikra and Meaning (Maggid/Koren, 2012). He is a member of the RCA and an officer of the IRF as well as on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum sponsored by Yeshiva University.

 

Disclaimer: This essay is not an exhaustive treatment of the topic but simply some reflections in light of the ongoing discussions that have arisen both here and in Israel in the last number of years in Modern-Orthodox and Dati –Leumi circles, including the most recent discussions on the blogosphere. It examines certain issues and leaves others open for more discussion.

  1. As ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim in the Divine origin of the Torah, a question that confronts us, especially in the modern period, with the rise of academic Bible studies and the related field of archeology of the ancient near east,  is the challenge to the historicity of various events, both central and peripheral to the Torah’s narrative. This often expresses itself around key questions as to: Did the Flood “really” happen as described in the Bible? Did the Avot “really” exist?  Do we have “evidence” of a mass Exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Sinai?

Many essays and books have been authored about this topic within both academic and religious circles in the last twenty five years. This has also led to deep debates within the world of the academy itself between “minimalists” who basically reject all the accounts of the Torah as lacking in any historical reality unless “proven” by outside sources and the “maximalists” who basically accept the account of the Torah , in broad terms, as long as there is no explicit “evidence” to contradict it.

 

  1. My personal beliefs and approach to these questions are traditional and I believe with a full heart that the avot existed , that yetziat mitzrayim occurred and that the revelation at Sinai was a real event and not simply a metaphor.  I am not convinced by much of the argumentation that has been made for the minimalist point of view, especially as a significant portion of it is predicated on arguments from silence (lack of positive archeological evidence) which should always be approached with skepticism and wariness. The question that confronts us, as ma’aminim is, whether there is room, however, to entertain a less traditional conception of the historicity of the events in the Torah than the one I outlined above, and remain within the parameters of Torah Min Hashamayim. In other words: Can one entertain the radical notion that God would communicate to human beings narratives and details which were not historically accurate or did not even occur in order to convey metaphysical, religious, philosophical, or national “truths” even if they did not reflect the reality as it occurred? This issues needs to be addressed both on the macro level as well as on the level of details.

 

  1. One area of discussion that has explicit precedents in medieval rishonim are questions related to the first chapters of Genesis. A  number of rishonim, including most prominently, Rambam, have taken the position that in light of their understanding of science and reason’s dictates, parts of the Creation narrative and the stories related to Adam and Havvah in Gan Eden do not have to be read literally but should be read allegorically. In the modern period, other Orthodox rabbis have entertained extending this precedent to other narratives found in Ch. 1-11 in Bereishit. In recent years, these issues have been discussed at length by R. Natan Slifkin and others and in the blog posts and essays that emerged during the controversy surrounding the “banning” of his books in the Hareidi community. In a number of public lectures both at YU and in yeshiva high schools in the NY area, YU Rosh Yeshiva, R. Jermey Wieder has addressed these issues as well. R. Wieder’s examines the writings of Rav Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam and other rishonim on this issue. Of course the question that is unclear is what exactly are the limits of interpreting narratives in an allegorical way, how far can one go with this and to what extent?  R. Wieder’s bottom line conclusion regarding the stories of Genesis, Ch. 1-11 is that if one was convinced that these narratives were not entirely historical, one would not be in violation of any yesodei ha-Torah in adopting that position.

 

  1. Moving on to the narratives of the avot up through the sojourn in Egypt, R. Wieder raises the question as to whether a believing Jew can maintain that these stories are foundational narratives communicated by God rather than actual historical events. In his lecture at YU R. Wieder states:

When you move to the stories of the avos, let me state from the outset again here I have no reason to believe the stories of the avos weren’t historical. But suppose someone were to come along and say, ‘I suppose they were not history because of x,y,z evidence- would prove they can’t be historical figures’- In this particular case even though I profess a profound degree of uncomfortableness I don’t think the person has crossed the line because I don’t think the historical existence of the avos is compelling or necessary as one of the ikarei haemunah.  Now I know that the Torah frequently mentions Avraham Yitschok and Yaakov but nonetheless it’s not really fundamental, if you look, even though at the outset I mentioned, I denied that there is a clear definition of what ikarei haemunah are despite the Rambam’s 13 ikarei haemunah, if you were to look at the Rambam’s 13 ikarei haemunah and say the avos never existed historically I don’t think there would be any conflict… 
I can’t tell you exactly what would be enough to persuade me that a certain part of the story of Avraham Yitschak and Yaakov should be read as non historical. Do I think that there could be such evidence? Yes. But do I know of any? Not necessarily… What is the purpose of Breshis then? And I believe that the answer lies, I will say this carefully, the way I might term a divinely dictated creation ‘mashal’  
 Hashem told us metaphysical truths, whether it’s Breishis or parshas Noach, that were meant to teach us fundamental truths.” 

This is a very radical notion and I am not sure whether other contemporary Orthodox rabbinic thinkers who are comfortable with reading parts of Ch 1-11 as allegories would be willing to sign on to R. Wieder’s conclusion. What would be interesting to examine as well is a middle position. What would be the status of a view that suggests that the avot and imahot existed but individual details of the stories did not take place as recorded. To take a small example, what would be the status of a view that maintained that Yaakov and Rachel were real figures but they did not meet at the well, but that the well scene is a typological scene intended to fit the avot into a certain literary model? This question has not been addressed explicitly in these discussions and would need to be addressed.

 

 

  1. When we move to the foundational events of the narrative of the Torah such as yetziat metzrayim and Matan Torah, R. Wieder articulates the clear theological truth that these events are at the core of the notion of the yesodei Hatorah and the underpinnings for our obligation to keep the Torah and mitzvoth. He would read any metaphorization of these events as beyond the pale of acceptable beliefs in any traditional sense. He specifically speaks of a rejection of yetziat mitzrayim as “safek kefirah” and a rejection of the historicity of Matan Torah as heretical. Again the interesting question here from a theoretical point is where would someone who rejected the notion of 600,000 men leaving Egypt at once being “true” but did accept the notion of a smaller Exodus of e.g.  60,000 people- where would that position appear on the spectrum?

 

  1. In the lengthy programmatic essay to my volume of Tanakh entitled Mikra and Meaning (Maggid/Koren, 2012) I addressed the broad issues involved in our discussion. I reproduce that discussion below (pgs. 45-48):

 

The assumption behind the use of such disciplines and data lies in the notion that Tanakh is a tome that reflects the concrete historical and sociological reality into which God chose to reveal His eternal will to mankind. As Rabbi Yuval Cherlow has described the methodology of his mentor, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun:

 

The Tanakh took place in a concrete reality. The position of “accursed philosophy” that events described in Tanakh did not occur and that it is entirely a symbolic work were entirely rejected by gedolei Yisrael. The Tanakh is not only ensconced in the heav- ens, but is rather a ladder rooted in the ground whose top reaches the firmament. Therefore, understanding the reality in which the events of Tanakh took place enables one to understand the Torah itself. The concrete reality is an indispensable part of the Torah and it is not for naught that the Sages stated that “dibber hakatuv bahoveh” – “the text speaks in the present reality”… This is all done with a clear distinction between the holy and secular, and  a profound understanding that the Torah is not chained to a spe- cific [historical] reality. The purpose of engaging in understanding the concrete reality of the biblical stories is not to transform the Avot into simple merchants or [to see] the divine laws as parallels to human legislation, but rather to serve as comparative soil upon which to uncover the foundation of the word of God and His Torah and understand the divine revelation in its profundity.

If this idyllic picture were the entire story, I imagine that there would be little opposition to the use of these disciplines in the beit midrash. The broader picture is, of course, more complicated. First, there is the matter of conflicts between the academic or scientific evidence and theories and the history laid out in the biblical narrative. This is a sub- set, of course, of the millennia-old tension between “scientific” truth and “revealed” truth that has agitated thinkers and theologians across a variety of faith traditions.

In general, the same strategies with which we deal with conflicts between the physical sciences and the truths of tradition should be utilized here as well. In some instances, we will have to explore whether what we consider a “revealed” truth is really no more than an interpretation that can be reevaluated in light of compelling scientific evidence. In other words, have we truly understood what the word of God is saying, and is the conflict indeed so direct? A good example of this is Nahmanides’ reevaluation of the location of Rachel’s tomb after he reached Eretz Yisrael and saw the geography of the biblical sites themselves.63

In other instances, we will note the distinction between scien- tificfacts and the scientific interpretation of those facts or conjectures/ theories as to the meaning of those facts. While actual facts must always be assimilated and interpreted, we must recognize that interpretation of archaeological finds is often “more art than science…and that new discoveries and new perceptions are constantly forcing reevaluations of currently held positions. It is this state of flux which helps alleviate such tensions to a certain degree by allowing discrepancies and contradictions to stand while awaiting further clarification.64 We will also highlight distinctions between positive evidence and arguments from silence – that is, the absence of historical or archaeological finds to but- tress a particular biblical narrative. Given the fact that so much about the Ancient Near East is not known, many important sites have not been excavated, many important finds have been discovered by chance, and in the estimate of some scholars, less than 10% of the material and documentary culture of the Ancient Near East has been discovered. Thus, arguments from silence (for example, lack of material evidence of Joshua’s conquest of the land of Israel) are rather tenuous in establishing the lack of historicity of this or that biblical episode.

In more extreme situations, we may have to follow in the footsteps of Maimonides, who articulated the position that if an unassailable scientific theory conflicts with the plain sense of the biblical text and there exists no other tenable scientific theory conforming with the biblical text, we are obligated to accept the scientific theory and reinterpret, even metaphorically, the biblical passage under question.65 In the particular issue that he was discussing – Aristotle’s theory of the eternity of the universe – Maimonides notes that the alternate theory of Plato is also logically cogent and it can co-exist with a belief in the Creation of the World and the possibility of miracles, and we are therefore entitled to adopt that theory. Maimonides factors in the theological cost of metaphorizing a significant part of Tanakh; given that two equally possible theories exists, we are entitled to privilege the one that fits in with the plain understanding of the biblical text.

Applying this to our context, Professor Uriel Simon has noted that:

“Metaphorizing large sections of biblical historiography [as would emerge from the conclusions of certain radical Israeli archae- ologists] would demand of us a high theological cost…and one cannot ignore that factual truth has a unique persuasive power… In the dilemma we confront, it is appropriate, in my opinion, that we struggle for the maximum historicity of the Bible, with a careful watch on maintaining our intellectual and scientific honesty, as if indeed the historicity [of a particular episode] is debunked, we have a sort of safety net [in the use] of legitimate metaphorization.”

 

There may be instances in which even this method will not yield a satisfactory resolution. In those cases, we will humbly take our cue from our patriarch Abraham and the message of the Akeida, recognizing the limits of our human comprehension and accepting the divine call and message that emerges from the text, although it flies in the face of the “scientific” data that is before us. We will humbly wiat for resolution, accepting with faith the divine imperative as we continue to living and wrestling with the problem.

  1. On the question of the historicity of specific details of this or that narrative, there is an important perspective that was developed by Rav Mordechai Breuer z”l.  For those who follow in his footsteps the following view raises much food for thought.

In the recent volume Ad Hayom Hazeh on fundamental questions in Bible study, published by R. Amnon Bazak , a RAM at Yeshivat Har Eztion and leading Tanakh educator at Michlelet Herzog he summarizes R. Breuer’s perspective on this issue as follows:

“The fundamental pillar of the Shitat Habehinot, the approach of the perspectives [of Rav Breuer] is that in relation to contradictory descriptions [in the Torah] of events, one cannot know from the plain sense of the text what actually happened, and how one resolves the contradictory descriptions which reflect the various perspectives. The essential point of the text is to convey the events and their meaning, However, in order to express the various distinct philosophical ideas, the text emphasizes varying perspectives, which can create contradictions that have no clear practical resolution in the text itself.”

 

At this point R. Bazak cites the famous comment of the Tosafist, Rabbeinu Peretz of Corveil  that even when it comes to issues of “metziut”- factual events or realities such as the size of the alter in the Temple where we have conflicting Biblical sources as to its height, one can apply the concept of “eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim hayyim” that both these and these are the words of the living God. R. Peretz writes (Eruvin 13b) that:

 

“In reality, it could only have been one size. However, one opinion maintains from a textual source that this is what it should have been (its size) and one cites (a contradictory verse) as to what should have been (its size). And the statement “elei veilu divrei elokim hayyim” means that from the verses there is room to interpret this way or that way, but in truth it only could have been one (size).”

R. Bazak continues:

“This (position of Rabbeinu Peretz) indicates that also in relation to historical/factual issues, the text of the Tanakh, does not present a decisive view on what occurred, and the verses can be interpreted in one direction or the other…even though in truth it is clear that only one version in truth occurred. The Mikra does not, therefore, present, what actually occurred in reality, but rather raises various possibilities as to what could be.”

In R. Breuer’s thinking it is here that the “derash” plays a critical role in expressing what actually happened in reality or what should happen on a legal, juridical level in the legal parts of Humash.:

“The derash describes what happened in reality, in fact [in the narratives portions]. The plain sense of the text- the peshat-describes what should have been. This fact is well accepted and known to all in the realm of the halakhic sections of the Torah. My “Torat Habehinot” simply moved this approach also to the narrative portions.”

TWO SHORT AFTERWORDS

1. The issues raised in these blog posts and in the discussions that have been taking place in the last twenty five years and most recently on the web and blogosphere are highly charged and touch on sensitive areas of emunot ve-deot and core, foundational elements of our perception of ourselves as avdei Hashem, the claims of the mesorah and the integrity of the Torah. We live in an age when the challenges of modern Biblical study are accessible to all, either on the popular level on the internet or volumes written for the lay public or on the scholarly level in the halls of academia. Thinking Jews are struggling with these issues and we can simply not ignore engaging with these ideas head. At the same time, I urge all those who speak and write on these topics in our community to approach these issues with humility and a sense of yirah. Part of that gestalt is ability to live with a tzarikh iyun and the ability to express the tensions between traditional notions and the academic assertions in a manner, tone and language that is respectful of the claims of traditional notions of ikarei ha-emunah, broadly conceived. Struggle and engagement are the reality of our modern existence and we should never be complacent that the regnant academic theory is the last word on any of these critical issues.

In this context, I note with pain that recent formulations that have been put forward in books and in the last few weeks on websites, by some very sincere, thoughtful and serious individuals and talmidei chachamim, by people who have contributed mightily to am yisrael and Torah learning,  did not reflect that struggle. Instead, they expressed ideas in a conclusive fashion that, in my understanding, are beyond the pale of the broadest definitions of what can be considered traditional notions of Torah Min Hashamayim.

I hope that Hazal’s dictum of ke-sheim she-makblim sahar al ha-drisha, kakh mikablim sahar al ha-prisha is part of all of the consciousness of all who write on these sensitive topics. This perspective is critical when we honestly consider whether words we have written may have crossed a line in either tone, style or substance in engaging these devarim ha-omdim be-rumo shel olam.

  1. The words “heretics” and “heretical” have often been invoked on a whole range of issues in the ideological battles within Orthodoxy in the last two centuries.  It is important to note that most of the leading lights of the last two generations have rejected the application of the term  “apikores” to various people who were led to their conclusions based on sincere reading of the sources. The roots of this perspective are in the famous comment of the Raavad that while the Rambam considered anyone who believed in a corporeal God (a rejection of one of the essential pillars of the faith acc. to Rambam) as a heretic, there were many great people who came to that erroneous conclusion from their reading of Tanakh and Hazal. And thus while they were wrong and the idea should be rejected, the person was not to be read out of the community. (This is in contrast to Rav Hayyim’s position that “nebekh an apikorus, is still an apikores”.) This trend was further developed by the perspectives of Rav Kook and the Hazon Ish that saw in the modern zeitgeist a period of hiddeness of God and “intellectual coercion” that neutralized the category of apikores as a live halakhic category. (For an early and full presentation of this perspective see, R. Shlomo Riskin, “Orthodoxy and Her Alleged Heretics” Tradition, 1975). This trend has further been buttressed by the writings of Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l and R. Norman Lamm who have written eloquently that one who harbors real doubts about fundamentals of Judaism does not (even according to Rambam) come under the category of “heretic”, especially if one has not transformed those doubts into functional doubt and rejection of shemirat ha-mitzvot. These sources do not mean that all ideas are therefore considered Orthodox, but it does mitigate the reaction to the individual or individuals ( both ideologically and in halakhic terms) who sincerely maintain positions and perspectives that one evaluates have crossed the boundaries of what can legitimately be part of traditional Judaism.

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

July 25, 2013

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.


Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

July 24, 2013

As a Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah embraces the classical view of Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim in the way the multitude of accepted commentaries and thinkers of our Mesoret have passed down to us through the ages. We also teach our Torah in a way which allows our talmidim to speak freely and openly, without fear, as they seek to grasp in their own ways the very basic theological foundations of Judaism.

In the article below, written by our esteemed Ram and head of the Talmud department, Rav Ysoscher Katz, the Yeshiva presents a glimpse into the way we teach our holy and divine Torah – in a way designed to continue the passing of the Mesorah – and second, a view of how our talmidim are thriving in our open, non-judgmental approach, to be the future rabbonim who will carry on our tradition.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
President

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean

 

Guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך: שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך

It happened again. For several years now the Chareidi newspaper Yated Ne’eman has attacked our Yeshivah, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, on average once every couple of months.  This time the attack came from another quarter.  R. Avrohom Gordimer, identifying himself as a member of the executive committee of the RCA, in a recent CrossCurrents posting, wrote a scathing critique of one of our graduates, R.  Zev Farber. The common denominator in these attacks is the shared format: after a brief, often skewed review of some recent activity by one of our Rebbeim or graduates, we are inevitably tagged with some synonym for apikores: heretics, Reformers, neo-Reformers, etc.

Like R. Akiva in the story told in Makot (24B), I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.

In the yeshivot I studied in my youth I was repeatedly told that R. Kook Z”l was an apikores. I, of course, was horrified at the time. Only later did I realize that, frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising. (It is hard not to make a comparison with what is currently happening in the elections for the Israeli Rabbinate where some of the participants refuse to engage the opposition on the issues and instead simply label their opponents Rasha or Amalek).

We are engaged in a serious debate about the future of klal Yisrael.  As in the times of Rav Kook, we too are at a crucial juncture. Our students, congregants, and followers are turning to us less for help in halakhic matters. Increasingly they look to us for guidance on questions of faith, ethics and social mores.  They are struggling with doubt and confusion that is an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world. The experience at the shul where I daven is pretty typical. Inevitably, at least once a month, and often more, a fellow congregant pulls me aside to share with me his or her doubts about the efficacy of prayer, accepting the traditional view of Torah min ha’shemayim, or conventional approaches to theodicy.

Doubts about the fundamental tenets of our Tradition however are not unique to the Modern Orthodox community. I cannot speak for the specifics of R. Gordimer’s community, but I do have first-hand experience with the average Yated reader. (I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Satmar and Brisk Yeshivot.) Their community, in Israel and abroad, is having serious difficulties, trying to stem the high level of attrition they are currently experiencing. A significant number of those who leave that community do so because they are confronted with serious questions and debilitating doubts about Judaism. Ideological confusion is a universal-across the denominations-crisis.

Let it be clear.  YCT believes in Torah miSinai as it has been traditionally understood.  At the same time, we see that it is our responsibility to graduate rabbis who can engage our community’s doubts, and to do so by opening up, rather than closing down, conversation.

As a member of the YCT admissions committee I meet each and every student before they are accepted to the Yeshivah.  While אהבת תורה and יראת שמים are prerequisites for someone to be accepted to our semicha program, we also have an additional requirement, one of equal importance. A Chovevei student needs to be someone who is willing to grapple with the fundamental challenges modernity presents to the contemporary Jewish believer.

Grappling is the key point.  There is a segment in the observant community for whom אמונה פשוטה, simple faith, works. They are, however, not the majority.  Large numbers of our community struggle with questions of faith, belief, authority, autonomy, ethics, morality and the like. The old methods of response are insufficient; they do not provide the solutions contemporary men and women are looking for. Often times they are counter-productive, feeling trite and superficial. They end up turning people away from our tradition, exacerbating the situation. A successful rabbinic leader is one who is able to honor the struggle and engage these questions seriously. Along with his piety and commitment to the teachings of the Sages, he also must have the courage and intellectual ability to be innovative and creative in these matters.

Creatively addressing these difficult questions takes time, energy and deliberation. We at YCT are committed to helping guide our audience through these murky waters.  In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

YCT is a yeshivah like any other yeshivah. Like any other serious semicha programs, we too teach punctiliousness in Jewish law, optimal observance of Mitzvot, and a commitment to learning Torah. There is one key difference though.  Training towards expertise in Psak halakhah, built on a foundation of punctilious observance, is not the only thing we teach our graduates. We expect them to grow in areas of Jewish thought as well.

There are spiritual risks in such an approach, but given the challenges our generation faces, we do not have an alternative. We owe it to klal Yisrael to guide them in these precarious religious times. (As does Yated and R. Gordimer owe it to their respective communities. It is just a matter of time before they will no longer be able to avoid this reality in their own backyard).

To properly serve our generation, today’s rabbis need to be able to model how an observant Jew wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. That is what we try to do at our yeshivah. In that sense, our critics are right; we indeed expose our student to a cacophony of voices. We want them to hear them, engage with them, and, most importantly struggle with them-regardless of how extreme those views are. Our belief is this: If the general community is exposed to those opinions in university, in the larger society, then our graduates need to be exposed to them as well. This will enable them to engage those questions in an honest and sophisticated way. Exposing our students to the larger world of ideas, no matter how extreme they are, is the modern manifestation of David Ha’melech’s adage: ידי מלוכלכת בדם שפיר ושליא כדי להתיר אשה לבעלה (Berachot 4A).

The Gemara says (Niddah 73A) הליכות עולם לו, אל תיקרי הליכות אלא הלכות. By conflating Halakhah (observance) with halicha, (walking) the Rabbis convey an important lesson. Observance is a journey. We strive to grow and ultimately arrive at an ideal set of behaviors and beliefs. Nevertheless, the divine encounter that halakhah tries to mediate happens during the journey as well, not just after one has arrived at one’s ultimate destination.

When blessing the new month, we implore God to give us a life of אהבת תורה ויראת שמים. We do not, however, ask for ideological certainty. That is a goal but its attainability is incredibly difficult.  R. Chaim Brisker famously explained that faith begins where logic ends. If a set of beliefs makes sense, it is no longer a belief, it is a conviction. Faith requires one to transcend logic and accept dogma. Such a requirement is a hard-sell for our generation. We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge. And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly.  We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people.   Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School 


Anticipating More Guest Posts

July 24, 2013

The editors of Morethodoxy are delighted that we have received several submissions that continue the discussion of the Divine origins of the Torah. We hope that these posts, and the comments to them, will model a way forward for the Orthodox community to discuss sensitive topics with sensitivity and maturity.