Torah and Historical Proof: Guest Post by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

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.”


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.

8 Responses to Torah and Historical Proof: Guest Post by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

  1. Lisa says:

    “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?”

    I think the answer to that is simple. “God is not a man that He should lie.”

  2. Lisa says:

    ““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”

    Who are you quoting?

  3. H says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article.

    “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.”

    Do you know what RAL feels about these issues?

  4. […] approach with Orthodox rabbinic credentials. (I must commend R. Helfgot for an afterward paragraph in a new article , in which he addresses unnamed authors who have recently gone beyond the pale in promoting their […]

  5. micha says:

    R’ Helfgot, isn’t this blog post inconsistent with your conclusions as published in “Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation”? You write there:

    The more complex issue relates to people who maintain that the Torah is a composite work from the hand of various human authors in different historical settings, but that these authors were divinely inspired — that is, those who view the Torah as equivalent to the writings of the prophets. This perspective, while arguably not technically rendering one as “denying the divine origin of the Torah” as articulated in the mishna in Sanhedrin (90a), undermines the uniqueness of the Torah in contrast to the rest of the Bible, as well as the uniqueness of the Mosaic prophesy. According to some views in [Ch]azal and some of the Rishonim, belief in the latter is an article of faith, and denial of it potentially shatters the foundation of the entire structure of the binding nature of Torah. There clearly were Rishonim, such as the Sephardic exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra and the Ashkenazic pietistic scholar Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid, who maintained that an isolated section of the Torah was post-Mosaic, a gloss from the pen of a subsequent prophet. However, the notion of the entirely composite makeup of the Torah has no precedent in classical Jewish sources, and it is
    therefore impossible to term such a theological understanding as Orthodox in any meaningful sense

    Last year you yourself were among those who considered this position heretical and outside of Orthodoxy.

    • Rabbi David Wolkenfeld says:

      Shalom Micha,
      I think you’ve found a very important quote from R. Helfgot’s book. As I understand the quote you’ve selected, Rav Helfgot is identifying a position which is not “Orthodox” and is without precedent in classical Jewish sources, and yet is not heretical as per Sanhedrin 90a.

      How those of us with more conventional Orthodox beliefs relate to those who are not necessarily Orthodox but also not heretical is an important question.

      Best wishes,

  6. Shlomo says:

    I was wondering why R’ Nati would bring Ibn Ezra as a theological precedent for accepting the possibility for later additions to theTorah when R’ Yosef Tov Ellem’s understanding of Ibn Ezra is that Ibn Ezra would only say that regarding narrative verses, but not halachic ones.

    • Lisa says:

      Because that’s the Conservative methodology. Find anything at all to justify what you’ve already decided you want to justify. Be it a b’dieved ruling, a daat yachid, an out of context quote. As long as there’s something you can use as some sort of asmachta, you’re golden.

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