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

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.


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)

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

  1. Yirmiyah Chegall says:

    Copernicus and Darwin at least started with empirical data and formulated theories! The Documentary Hypothesis is empty speculation based on texts that somehow didn’t jar the faith of Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Maimonides, Rabbi Soloveitchik, etc. AND it is merely a hypothesis.

  2. Atheodox Jew says:

    Dr. Shoshan, I understand your skepticism about what R. Farber is trying to do. However, it seems to me that the main difficulty has to do with what’s considered “heresy”.

    Imagine if the original “tradition” was that the Torah had multiple authors and a redactor – and that each of them were nevi’im, in direct communication with God. Why would the mitzvot be any less binding? Meaning it’s only because we have a tradition of a single authorship by Moshe that we take anything else as heresy. But as long as you have a Divine text, you have the will of God, correct?

    So in theory, if we were to effect a change in the culture as to what constitutes “acceptable” belief about the Torah’s origins, I think it’s entirely possible R. Farber could succeed.

    Also… You may want to know that there are Jews like myself who are Orthodox yet deny ANY Divine authorship of the Torah – and in fact who leave out the “Divine” altogether. I know from experience that such a path is workable – just that non-acceptance of “our kind” in normative Orthodox belief circles can be a challenge.

    • I think if the original tradition recorded miracles and a voice from the sky regarding more prophets than Moshe then that belief would fall under the scope of orthodoxy.

      • micha says:

        I would say the same. Orthodoxy is based on the entire Torah, Written and Oral. And in fact, most if not all of the misgivings Dr Farber has with ignoring Biblical Critical findings wouldn’t even have begun given a belief that the Oral Torah is as old as the Written, Chazal aren’t giving a weak apologetic for two contradictory statements, Hashem is fueling the process that is Oral Torah.

        It is also a primary difference between Creation and the Giving of the Torah. The full Torah, including oral traditions, never insisted on a young universe. Even when contemporary philosphy or science had an equal problem with a universe billions of years old as one that was thousands, with any universe that had a finite age, we have record as far back as the Orah Torah was recorded that the universe was believed to be old. In fact, it’s hard to find a rishon who definitely says otherwise! The notion that Maaseh Bereishis is esoteric and either non-literal or not comprehensible literally is a mishnah.

        The giving of the Torah at Choreb, a mountain in the Sinai Desert, accepted as a historical event, on the other hand, was not only the sole voice in Jewish Tradition, halachic consensus has concluded that denying it is the measure of a rebel. (Which is why Dr Farber’s sitting on a conversion court raises a halachic question about the state of its converts. Geirus requires a beis din as part of the rite.)

        More than that, Farber’s God doesnt speak in anything mappable to sentences or as specific as a legal text. Aside from many of his questions betraying from a disbelief in the G-d-given nature of the Torah, we are left with a system that uproots the reality of derashos and the Divine origin halachic process. While he manages to keep fealty to classical halachic process, the worldview he espouses more naturally supports Conservative legal process. If one doesn’t believe that G-d wrote the text one is attributing that kind of significance to, then derashos are a game. And if one does think every textual oddity is part of G-d’s message, then why is one particularly bothered by the Bible Critic’s questions? The platitude about the Torah evolving into its current form is pretty, but if it doesn’t translate to dismissing questions about why certain laws are repeated with variation (as one example), it doesn’t support the halachic process.

        After all, if the rabbis of the mishnah ruled as what they thought was moral or ritually appropriate or sociologically necessary and then played a game of derashos to justify the desired conclusion, what stops rabbis of today do the same? The entire notion of halakhah as a legal process which then illuminates what kind of morality Hashem wants us to absorbed has no rational support without starting out with a book relayed with legal text precision and with derashos being part of the Author’s intent.

      • IH says:

        Micha — I don’t understand your last paragraph. Le’havdil, why do we in the United States constrain ourselves to the Constitution?

      • micha says:

        Actually, fealty to the Constitution in the US /is/ more like the way the Committee on Law and Jewish Standards (Conservative) decides Jewish practice than the way Orthodox Jews decide halakhah. Even the strictest Constructionist has a lot more wiggle room than we do.

      • IH says:

        Micha – I don’t know much about the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Jewish Standards, but I thought the rap against them was the claim they bent halacha to the popular will. I’ve never heard that complaint about the “undemocratic” Supreme Court. Shabbat Shalom.

  3. Lisa says:

    “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.”

    This is undoubtedly true, but it’s circular reasoning. The fact that the Torah was not received as a unified text in its present form is one of those assumptions. More than an assumption, it’s an axiom, and any argument which suggests that it is a divinely authored unitary text is dismissed. Which may make sense, since it’s not something that can be proven, but neither can any of the models for the origin of the text given by proponents of DH be proven. They are merely the most reasonable solutions people can come up with given the axiom that the text was not given at Sinai.

    I think that needs to be emphasized. People think that modern critical scholarship is some sort of science. Perhaps a soft science, but a science nonetheless. This is not true.

    What’s more, morder critical scholarship and secondary sources in archaeology exist in a sort of feedback loop. Primary sources in archaeology, such as dig reports, represent observable evidence. Secondary sources are an archaeologist’s interpretation of that evidence, and that interpretation relies heavily on the views of modern critical biblical scholarship. Which in turn, uses the conclusions of archaeologists to strengthen their arguments.

    It’s a strange sort of game, and one which continues to work largely because the number of experts in these fields remains small. It’s vanishingly unlikely to find something like this in the physical sciences, both because results are reproducable and because there are so many experts in the fields that such circular reasoning is almost invariably caught.

    With that, we come to the real problem. In modern western culture, it is embarrassing to face down the views of academia. Because no distinction is made between them. Hard sciences cannot be treated the same as soft (social) sciences, and these cannot be treated the same as conjectural scholarship. And that’s what we’re talking about here: conjectural scholarship. There is nothing to be tested, nothing to be reproduced. The best model is the most plausible story which can be created to explain the most evidence.

    There is a tremendous amount of important work being done by archaeologists in the Land of Israel, and certain parts of modern critical biblical scholarship, such as philology, are fruitful. But the field as a whole has to be put into its proper place, and we need to make it clear that rejecting conclusions in modern critical scholarship does not mean rejecting science.

  4. IH says:

    Kol ha’Kavod, Moshe, on an essay that moves the discussion forward in a constructive manner. As you rightly say, it is not possible to go back up the rabbit hole.

    I think you are mostly correct in your scoping of the issues, but note that Rambam does not mention “Torah mi’Sinai” in either his 7th or 8th Ikkarim; the phrase he uses is “Torah Min ha’Shamayim”. I raise this not to be pedantic, but because this distinction provides more maneuvering room in our need to reconcile what we have learned academically with our core principles.

    It is also not clear to me there is a slippery slope in regards to observance. As Armand Abecassis has phrased it so well — we are not the people of the book, we are the people of the interpretation of the book. Traditional Judaism does not follow divine mitzvot as written in the Torah, but human legislation as enshrined in the Talmud and the halachic process to this day. We are not Karaites. And certainly any reader of B. Shabbat or B. Eruvin can see how much of halacha is the product of Rabbinic creativity.

    Moshe Halbertal captured both of these important distinctions in his brilliant 2011 talk בין מדעי היהדות ודת ישראל:

    המושג ‘תורה מן השמים’ הוא בעייתי ביותר, גם בהגות ימי הביניים. יש כאן לדעתי לא יותר מאשר ‘מחויבות פונטית’, כלומר להאמין במשהו מילולי, שלא באמת מבינים, וגם לעולם לא נבין עד הסוף. כמו נוסחה מתמטית. ל’תורה מן השמים’ היה מעמד כזה במשך דורות רבים.

    שנית, אדם לא מאבד את אמונתו בעקבות כך שעובדת היסוד של אמונתו התערערה. כשם שנכנסים לאמונה כך יוצאים ממנה. איש לא נכנס לחיי מצוות עקב אישור אמונת היסוד, ולכן גם היציאה אינה עקב ערעור של אמונת יסוד. צורת החיים הדתית כל כך מעורבבת באמונת היסוד, כמו גשר דו כיווני, לא כמו יסוד לבנין.

    Finally, my own disagreement with R. Farber’s monograph is his uncritical approach to source criticism. It has longed seemed to me that a promising approach for Modern Orthodoxy to take relates to the orality to literary transition(s) that likely took place with the Chumash.

    Evidence of this can be seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as Prof. Schiffman wrote in Qumran and Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2010):

    “Among the most significant of the Qumran scrolls are certainly the biblical manuscripts. These documents will shed important new light on the history of the biblical text in Second Temple times.

    The last statement is itself much more important than meets the eye. In the early years of Qumran studies, it was thought that the biblical texts from Qumran would somehow illuminate the ‘original’ text that emerged from ancient Israel. This entire notion has been proven wrong. It is now clear that the biblical text has a history of transmission, and that major parts of this history, which indeed testify to the place of Scripture in the Judaism of the post-biblical period, are to be understood from the scrolls. Indeed, we now know that many textual variants result not only from transmission, but from interpretation and linguistic updating, phenomena that, before the discovery of the scrolls, could not have been understood.”

    • Lisa says:

      “I think you are mostly correct in your scoping of the issues, but note that Rambam does not mention “Torah mi’Sinai” in either his 7th or 8th Ikkarim; the phrase he uses is “Torah Min ha’Shamayim”. I raise this not to be pedantic, but because this distinction provides more maneuvering room in our need to reconcile what we have learned academically with our core principles.”

      I don’t think it’s legitimate to go back and reinterpret the Rambam in a way contrary to how Klal Yisrael has understood him over the past three quarters of a millenium. It doesn’t actually matter whether he formulated it one way or the other. Orthodoxy does not go back in time and “fix” 800 year old “mistakes”.

      • micha says:

        I think this is a disagreement of no content. Farber denies Divine Dictation whether to Moshe at Sinai or elsewhere. The entire concept of studying where multiple texts were redacted presumes a nature of the text at odds with the Rambam.

        Also, which is more binding, the Rambam’s original words, or the forms in which they were accepted by all of the observant community? Yigdal is shared by Ashkenazi, Sepharadi, Edot haMizrach and Yemenites alike. Ani Maamin has been in the liturgy for centuries. Clearly the limits of Orthodox faith as practiced has been in general looser than the Rambam’s in most ways, but had the Rambam meant to insist on min haShamayim without insisting that miSinai is a mandatory belief, in that way we would have been more restrictive. Reading into the exact wording of the Commentary on the Mishnah doesn’t mean much if the Commentary’s form isn’t the binding one.

        That said, I agree with Lisa that the Rambam is also generally understood as requiring it. If not in the article about the Torah, than in the one about the uniqueness of Moshe.

  5. In addition to sinai being the seminal event in jewish history there is another reason to distinguish it from sefer bereshis.

    According to tradition, Moses the main character of the chumash, wrote the chumash. And why wouldn’t he write it down? Even if you want to say the torah is metaphorical only the most cynical will say that it has no grounding in actual events. There was most likely a major event with egypt, and a man Moses, the lawgiver. According to this it is reasonable to say that Moses and everything that follows in Tanach is recorded history, and everything preceding is a recalection or collection of traditions (concerning the patriarchs) and prophesy (adam and eve, noah). And therefore subject to a different degree of historicity.

    • Lisa says:

      I disagree. If you say that what Moshe wrote down was untrue, who cares whether he wrote it down or not? Who cares where it came from? Chotamo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet. You can’t say maybe God lied to us about our past.

      • milhousevh says:

        I don’t know. It’s an intriguing idea, that Hashem may have told Moshe fictional stories, meshalim, which convey a lesson but didn’t literally happen. I see no reason not to believe this, but since it doesn’t answer any of the questions that cause people to accept biblical criticism, I also see no reason to believe it, unless one can show from the text itself that a story isn’t meant as literal history.

        By the way, there are certainly fictional stories in Tanach and even in Chumash. But their fictional nature is obvious from the text. For instance, the second half of, Bereishit 39:17, and all of 39:18 is a barefaced lie — and every child learning chumash for the first time understands that it’s a lie, and is not bothered by it.

      • Lisa says:

        Cute. But that’s the Torah relating someone else’s lie. Not the Torah lying itself.

      • milhousevh says:

        If the Torah can contain lies, why not fictional stories intended to teach us lessons? Take another example from Tanach, the story Natan Hanavi told to David Hamelech, about the rich man who stole the poor man’s sheep; nobody has ever imagined that this story is historically true. It is a fictional story that Natan made up, and the context makes this obvious. But it is in Tanach. How can you rule out the possibility that there are other such stories whose fictional nature is less obvious, so long as the signs are there in the text for those who look? I don’t know that they do exist, but it wouldn’t disturb me if they did, so long as the reason for declaring them fictional is something the Author could expect His readership to notice.

      • milhousevh says:

        Put it another way: that lie is Torah. If one reads it first thing in the morning, one must make a bracha first. A sefer torah that omits it is passul. Indeed, it is heresy to deny that Hashem dictated this lie to Moshe, word for word! And yet it is a lie. So chotamo shel hkb”h emet can’t literally mean that no untruth can emerge from it. And that this is so should not bother us at all.

      • Lisa says:

        What? The Torah contains idolatry, too. That doesn’t mean the Torah is idolatrous. If I say “Bill Clinton said, ‘I did not have sex with that women’ “, I’m talking about a lie, but I’m not lying myself. My words contain lies, as you’re putting it, but my words are true.

        I have no objection to the Torah relating stories *about* lies. But telling lies? No. If God did that, chas v’shalom, you can have him.

      • milhousevh says:

        Did Natan Hanavi lie to David Hamelech? No, what he told him was a fictional story, not a lie. It didn’t literally happen, but it was designed to convey a true message. I don’t see why HKBH can’t tell such stories too. If there were internal evidence within the text that a story was not meant to be literally true then I would see no contradiction to HKBH’s emet. But there has to be evidence within the text, or somewhere that was available to everyone.

  6. IH says:

    Despite the emotive nature of the argument, historicity is not essential to faith.

    An example from more modern history: like most Americans, I suspect you believe the etiological myth of the founding of the United States is true, at its essence, despite e.g. that slavery was enshrined in the Constitution.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    That is not (historically) factual, but we believe it is truth and, further, act as if it were always truth — natural law — despite the facts to the contrary.

    • Lisa says:

      First of all, that’s the Declaration of Independence, and not the Constitution. Second of all, the Declaration of Independence doesn’t say, “Once upon a time, there was a guy named Phil, who discovered that all men are created equal, etc.” If it did, it would be a lie. But men lie. God does not. Furthermore, it is not a historical claim at all, but rather a claim about reality. To say that it is “not (historically) factual” is true, but it’s equally true that it is not a tomato.

      Your analogy is without value. And quite frankly, the idea that someone would follow a god who lies baffles me.

  7. IH says:

    As alluded to earlier, I am not a fan of source criticism in its Documentary Hypothesis form; but, I think we have much to benefit from the more literary criticism that, e.g., Robert Alter includes along with the standard mefarshim in his Tanach translations. An example that I previously typed in, is Alter’s note on Lev. 18:18:

    יח וְאִשָּׁה אֶל-אֲחֹתָהּ, לֹא תִקָּח: לִצְרֹר, לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ–בְּחַיֶּיהָ.

    a woman and her sister. As many interpreters have noted, this and several other prohibitions on the list are explicitly violated by figures in the national narrative of Israel: Jacob marries two sisters; Abraham claims that Sarah is his half-sister; David’s daughter Tamar appears to think it possible that her father can arrange a marriage between her and her half brother Amnon. Either these laws represent a Priestly “reform” in sexual practice, as Jacob Milgrom proposes, or certain once acceptable sexual unions had come through evolving social consensus to be regarded as taboo.”

    c.f. Ibn Ezra.

    • milhousevh says:

      Good grief. Anyone who suggests that the prohibition on marrying one’s wife’s (or living ex-wife’s) sister postdates 7 Adar 2490 is an outright apikores, and must be regarded as michutz lamachaneh; any machaneh he is not out of must itself be regarded as chazer-treif.

      And to suggest that the ibn Ezra held such a view is outright defamation.

    • Lisa says:

      That doesn’t even remotely follow. Yes, there are midrashim that say the Avot kept Taryag mitzvot, but that’s midrash. There is no indication anywhere in the Torah that these commandments were retroactive. Which would be dumb anyway.

      Jacob was not commanded not to marry two sisters. Tamar was traumatized, and we know that David’s children cut corners halakhically, to say the least.

      This is a beautiful example of the way modern literary criticism works. It’s riddled with false assumptions, and comes up with nutty conclusions from them. It’s sad.

      • milhousevh says:

        There are of course answers to how Yaacov could violate this commandment. But take another example, that nobody sees a need to explain: Amram and Yocheved. There is simply no question at all, there can’t be any question, that if they were both alive at Mattan Torah (we don’t know that they weren’t) they would have had to divorce, and that if the mitzvot had applied before Mattan Torah then Moshe, Aharon, and Miryam would all have been mamzerim. Everyone acknowledges this, and no one is bothered by it. It is certainly no basis on which to claim that the description of their marriage was written by an author who predated the prohibition, and didn’t know that such marriages would eventually be banned.

        Indeed, standard Orthodox belief is that, whether or not the Avot kept the Torah, they knew about it, and that Shevet Levi studied it instead of working, so A&Y knew that their marriage would eventually be forbidden. It didn’t matter to them, because it wasn’t forbidden at the time.

    • Lisa says:

      Also, since you like midrash so much, Chazal say that Maacha, the mother of Avshalom and Tamar, was a yefat toar. And that Tamar was conceived the first time David slept with her. Which means that she was a giyoret herself and d’Orayta would have been permitted to Amnon.

    • IH says:

      The question isn’t whether Ya’akov/Yisrael was permitted to marry two sisters. Lev. 18:18 explains the reason for the prohibition based on the human condition. So, the question is why God, dictating the Torah to Moshe on Har Sinai, would articulate our national narrative on a relationship that He then forbids because of the human condition. Did the human condition change between Ya’akov’s time and Matan Torah?

      More importantly, aren’t we supposed to ask these questions rather than just gloss over this discrepancy as if it didn’t matter? In a real engagement with the text, it seems to me, one asks uncomfortable questions like this – just as the Amora’im once did – as opposed to the knee-jerk reaction to rationalize that there is no discrepancy.

      • milhousevh says:

        No, the Torah does not give a reason why we must not marry one’s wife’s or ex-wife’s sister. And even if it had given a reason why it was banning this from that moment forward, why would this affect someone centuries earlier? Did the reason apply then? Probably it did, but so what?

        And no, we are not supposed to ask these questions, because they’re nonsensical. In the case of Yaacov we are supposed to ask it because the Avos are supposed to have kept the Torah. OK, so everyone asks it, and gets answered. But without that medrash there would be no question in the first place. Nobody even asks about Amram and Yocheved, because there’s nothing to ask. There is no medrash that Amram kept mitzvos before they were given, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have married his aunt. And anyone who’s ready to doubt the truth of what’s explicit in chumash is certainly ready to doubt a medrash, so such a person should have no question about Yaacov either.

      • Lisa says:

        It doesn’t say anything about the human condition. You’re making that up. It’s a gezerat hakatuv. If it was the human condition, it would be one of the Noachide prohibitions as well, and it isn’t.

        And you weren’t asking questions. You were making a declaration. Just like Farber. You’ve chosen — deliberately chosen — to interpret the text in a way which belies the Torah. That’s not asking a question.

      • IH says:

        See Rashi, Ramban and most interestingly Ibn Ezra on the pasuk (Lev. 18:18).

      • milhousevh says:

        Rashi does not give a reason. The ibn Ezra also does not give a reason. The Ramban does say that the pasuk is giving a reason, but if so why would it apply to an ex-wife as well?

        But in any event, even according to the Ramban, who sees a reason in the pasuk, so what? Every prohibition has a reason, whether we know it or not, but how does that make the prohibition apply before it was enacted? One presumes that every law Congress makes has a reason, at least in principle, but Congress can’t make retroactive laws.

  8. Shlomo says:

    Moshe – Thank You for your thought-provoking essay.

  9. krautie11 says:

    thank you, moshe. i, too, find farber’s dicussion of “fiction” and “history” to be deficient. and once again, i recommend meir sternberg’s discussion. (“The Poetics of Biblical Narrative” pp. 23-35). here’s a brief excerpt regarding the contention that Torah narrative should be viewed as fiction:

    Suppose the Creation narrative elicited from the audience the challenge “But the Babylonians tell a different story!” or the Exodus cycle met with the protest “But the Egyptians deny the whole thing!” Would the biblical narrator just shrug his shoulders, as any self-respecting novelist would do? One inclined to answer in the affirmative would have make fictional sense of all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; and I do not see how even a confirmed anachronist would go about it with any show of reason. This way madness lies – and I mean interpretive, ideological as well as theological madness.

    • Lisa says:

      I think you’d have to demonstrate that the Babylonians actually do tell a different story, as opposed to another story about something else. And the Egyptians do not deny the whole thing, so that’s moot.

  10. Meshulam says:

    Thanks Moshe for posting a sophisticated reply that provides (among other things) the language necessary for articulating and explaining a truth I have often believed self-evident: for most Jews (and non-Jews) it does make a difference whether or not the Bible is historical truth.


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