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


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.

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

  1. Lisa says:

    “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.”

    This isn’t a question of “some graduates”. This is a question of YCT’s only dayan, and respecting an honest struggle does not mean accepting that he is still within the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism. And the more YCT people make such lame excuses for him, the more it becomes clear that YCT is not an Orthodox institution.

    Remember, even the Conservative movement started off with leaders who believed in Torah miSinai and kofrim who didn’t. But those who did believe were willing to accept those who did not, and as a result, today, none of them do. Every single excuse we’ve heard from YCT is something we heard previously from JTS. Except that JTS acknowledged it was not Orthodox. Why can’t YCT display the same honesty?

  2. Shlomo says:

    The Manchester-Louis Jacobs analogy does not fit, as YCT accepted Farber as a semicha student and awarded him semicha knowing what his views were on the divinity of Torah.

    • Shlomo says:

      To add to what I wrote above, YCT’s knowing what Farber’s views were did not prevent them from granting him a more credible platform upon which to promulgate those views, by their granting him the title of Orthodox authority (TWICE OVER!)

  3. […] promoting their understanding of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. YCT student Dr. Ben Elton likewise affirmed in a new article that belief in a man-made Torah is inconsistent with Orthodoxy. Sadly, this will not suffice, as […]

  4. IH says:

    Shlomo and Lisa’s points border on the absurd given the same comments were made about YU and Rav Soloveitchik by the people who then considered themselves “the real Orthodox”.

    “In 1932, the following anonymous placard was distributed in Orthodox synagogues throughout the east coast: ‘We Jews of New York discovered that in the Yeshiva Rabbi Isaac Elchanan … there is a nest of atheism and Apikursus (denial of God). Therefore we do warn and announce, that you should not send your children or the children of your acquaintances into this Yeshiva until you will find out what is going on in the Yeshiva, who is responsible for the terrible situation, and how it is to be remedied.’ […] Despite the presence of prominent scholars in RIETS, men whose abilities were acknowledged by all who moved within the orbit of talmudic learning, opposition to Yeshiva’s philosophy was constant. Sometimes it was rancorous. When the famed head of the yeshiva in Baranowicz, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, visited the United States, he praised the more traditional institution, Mesivta Torah Vodaath, and condemned Yeshiva College. He refused, despite personal pleas by Dr. Revel, to set foot in the building. Rabbi Wasserman’s view was that although philosophy had been studied in the past by gedolim (giants in scholarship) such as the Vilna Gaon, in these times there were no individuals of sufficient stature to study such subjects without risking their faith.”

    _The_World_of_the_Yeshiva_ by William Helmreich (KTAV, 2000) pp 22-3

    • Shlomo says:

      Sorry, but I did not follow why you felt my comment absurd, nor what the quotation you brought had to do with what I wrote.

      Please explain.

      Ben felt that YCT was in no way responsible for the views of a former student, no more than Gateshead was with Louis Jacobs.

      My comment was that given that they granted him two semichot while fully aware of those views renders the comparison invalid.

      As for the comparison you brought, I also don’t see the parallel, as in the YCT case, Ben tells us that YCT themselves reject his views, albeit that not being so evident from R’ Yssocher’s version..

    • IH says:

      Shlomo – In both cases, the innovative institution is being defamed with the emotive charge of aiding and abetting apikorsut. What goes around, comes around.

      • Milhouse says:

        So are you claiming there is no apikorsut? That because someone once falsely or mistakenly accused someone else of apikorsut, no such accusation can ever be true? We have Farber’s writings before us. They are clearly apikorsut, he is clearly passul le’eidut, nochrim who are converted by him and two others (be the other two as kosher as Moshe Rabenu) remain nochrim, and yet YCT has not declared that he is outside their camp, and the IRF has not removed him from his position.

        Gateshead did not have to distance itself from Jacobs; he publicly distanced himself. If Farber were to resign from the IRF and announce that he is no longer an Orthodox Jew, if he were for instance to become a Buddhist or a Reformer, then there would be no need for YCT to distance themselves from him. But he hasn’t, so there is such a need.

      • milhousevh says:

        If that is what they believe, I would worry about their own kashrus too. At least, I’d worry enough not to rely on their certification that something was witnessed by kosher eidim.

        By the way, Yuter’s argument from the existence of copyists’ errors is simply nonsense. It refutes itself. “This Torah that is in our hands” refers to the text as a whole, not to any specific copy of it. The Rambam can’t have meant that every single copy in the world is exactly as Moshe transmitted it from Hashem, for the obvious reason that not every copy in the world agrees with all the others. And in the Rambam’s day, before printing, this was much more obvious; no two sifrei torah could be expected as a matter of course to agree with each other letter-for-letter, because they were all written by fallible sofrim. And to this day we find mistakes in sifrei torah and correct them. That doesn’t make us question the authenticity of the text itself, we just recognise that the text is correct but any specific copy is only an imperfect instance of that perfect text. That is all, and it’s so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how Yuter (and others who make the same silly argument) can have missed it. It’s his desperate desire to be metaher es hasheretz that blinds him so.

      • Lisa says:

        WADR, if you think Eliyahu is not LWMO, you need to check your premises. He may not be as out there as people like Avi Weiss, but he’s definitely LWMO. As for Josh… he has to tread lightly lest he step on the toes of someone who is LWMO.

  5. Ben Elton says:

    I do not want to be drawn into a long discussion. I think my article is clear and speaks for itself. However, I want to make three points

    1. R Farber has stated he did not express these views while at YCT. It is therefore pure mischief to assert he was given semikha though the yeshiva knew about these views.

    2. Louis Jacobs did claim to be Orthodox at the time he made his views public and for some time afterwards: By the way, even so Lord Jakobovits זצ’ל wanted to find a way for him to rejoin the United Synagogue.

    3. On the basis of today’s comments here and elsewhere it is plain to me we have moved from genuine concern about where YCT stands on TMHS to old-fashioned YCT bashing. The articles by Morai veRabotai R Helfgot, R Katz and R Lopatin have made the yeshiva’s position abundantly clear. Without using harsh language they have stated that they disagree with R Farber, whose interpretation of TMHS contracts their own and that of the yeshiva. Those who are not satisfied will never be satisfied because they do not want to be satisfied.

    • Lisa says:

      Sorry, Ben, but Asher’s post was פוסח על שני הסעיפים. He said that Farber’s position is in the outer boundaries (but no further) of Orthodox Judaism. Are we also not supposed to take his position as representative of YCT?

      YCT is philosophically opposed, it seems, to labeling anything as outside of Orthodoxy. By not simply stating, “This is outside the bounds of Orthodox Judaism”, YCT has indeed made their position abundantly clear.

    • Nathaniel Helfgot says:

      I appreciate the intensity of the debate, but people are only entitled to their own opinions, not to the their own facts.
      As a rebbi at YCT Rabbinical School for the last 13 years who both was part of the admissions committee over ten of those years and has been at the yeshiva on a daily basis, to the best of my knowledge, R. Farber never publicly expressed any views similar to the ones he recently expressed in print. He began his acdemic Bible studies a number of years after he left the yeshiva and received his doctorate this past year a good number of years after completing his semicha at the yeshiva. The first public statement of his views was a few weeks ago on the TABS webiste.

      R. Nathaniel Helfgot

      • Nathaniel Helfgot says:

        I apologize for a slight error in my last comment and offer this correction to my previous comment.

        R. Farber began his academic Bible studies in Israel prior to coming to returning to America, during the period when he was working and learning at the branch of Yeshivat Bnai Torah (R. Chait’s yehsiva) that existed at that time in Israel.
        After a six year hiatus during which he studeid at YCT Rabbinical School and received semicha, and following another few years, he then began a doctoral program at Emory University completing his PHd this past year.

      • Shlomo says:

        Thank you for the clarification, R’ Helfgott.

        However, my point was not whether R’ Farber expressed his views publicly, but whether he expressed them PRIVATELY, to those who granted him semikha.

        R’ Farber says that his turning point was when he did his Masters at Hebrew U — and he entered your program AFTER that point.

        Contrary to what IH thinks I said, I never accused R’ Farber of heresy or anything else, nor did I attempt to trash YCT, which O happen to think has some attractive aspects to it.

        All I wished to do was clarify that YCT accepted R’ Farber into its program knowing how he held as regards to Torah min HaSHamayim and granted him two semikhot knowing how he held regarding Torah min HaSHamayim.

        Are you prepared to say, R’ Helfgot, that neither you nor the other members of the senior faculty were aware of R’ Farber’s personal views, as opposed to his public view at that time?

        Again, I am not accusing anyone of anything or trashing anyone or any institution.

      • Lisa says:

        That doesn’t exempt YCT from making a clear statement that those views are outside of Orthodox Judaism.

    • Shlomo says:

      Ben: I am sorry that you are accusing me of “pure mischief.”
      R’ Farber acknowledged in his essay that he had already made this break while studying at Hebrew and and acknowledged that he has shared these views with his colleagues, only not expressing them in public forums.

      I believe him.

      And that is why I would assume that among the colleagues he shared this with were those at YCT who gave him his two semikhot.

      WHy should I not take R’ Farber at his word?

      You will note that R’ Helfgot as well only speaks of what was said publicly, not what was known to YCT itself.

      Please correct me if I err.

      Good Shabbos

  6. sp says:

    Ben and R. Nati, I’m not a student at YCT, but I have numerous friends who are (including I’d consider you Ben). Last week I discussed with another mutual friend / (talmid of your’s R Nati) and he seemed to surprised that this was blowing up now, as nothing had changed and this seemed to be well known about Zev.

    I have no clue if this is true or not, but why would a student within the yeshiva think his views were well known if that wasn’t the case? my only ability to dan l’zechut it is that perhaps it was simply scuttlebutt that the came up once this became public and someone made it up and the student (or others) took it as fact.

    One think I’m wondering about, R. Nati says he completed his semicha years ago at YCT, that would be accurate re yoreh yoreh. what about yadin yadin? was that smicha not from YCT?

  7. Moh Oshiv says:

    Dr. Elton,

    You have made your position clear, viz. that you accept the Divine origin of the Torah. That being the case, will you cooperate with any movement which grants legitimacy to those who believe that the Torah is not of Divine origin but rather just “divinely inspired”. Specifically, will you become a member of the IRF or will you continue supporting Yeshivat Maharat, both of which movements Farber is a member of?

  8. Ben Elton says:

    I think it is clear that when R Nati said R Farber did not express his views publicly he also meant within the yeshiva. What R Farber told individual friends is a different matter. Yeshivoy do not know the content of every private conversation of their students.

    I certainly did not know about R Farber’s views until the current series of events. Even when was launched on Erev Shavuot, YU and other people were involved. It was not clear exactly how it would evolve or the view of everyone on it. R Farber did not write for the website for a little while.

    I think R Nati’s distinction between dealing with private doubts and making public conclusions is a very valid one. While he was working out his way it would have been wrong to condemn R Farber.

    As I said, I don’t want to make this an endless conversation, so this will be my final comment.

  9. Shlomo says:


    If I understand you, you are saying that although Dr. Farber’s views were well-known to his fellow students, they were not known to the YCT faculty that awarded him two semikhot.

    You say this not because you asked them, but that is what you infer from what R’ Nati wrote above.

    R’ Nati has already offered one clarification to that posting.
    Perhaps he could offer one on this point as well, given that there seems to be some confusion as to what he meant.

    R’ Nati, thank you in advance!..

  10. Atheodox Jew says:

    Dr. Elton,

    Thank you for writing a thoughtful post. There are many points I’d like to address here, but I’ll limit myself to just one.

    >> The rejection of Torah Min Hashamayim makes a nonsense of both parshanut and the Gemara.

    I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree. As someone who does not believe in Torah min hashamayim, I nonetheless derive a great deal of meaning and insight from the classical mefarshim. Their sheer intimacy with the text gives their commentary much validity even at the pshat level. And with regard to drash, once one is out of the “min hashamayim” frame, ALL drashot effectively operate at the level of “asmachta”, where teachings from the Oral Tradition (aggadic and halachic) are hooked onto the Chumash text (as opposed to being viewed as a “level” of the text per se which the Divine author preprogrammed from its inception). From a non-theistic point of view, drash serves as an excellent pedagogical mnemonic device for delivering key teachings, and there is nothing the Documentary Hypothesis or any other academic theory can do to invalidate that.

    And yes, one could theoretically present a devar Torah based on Hammurabi’s Code – or the Koran or the Baghavad Gita. But why? They’re not our text, not the one which is so dear to us, not the one we’ve been grappling with for thousands of years, not the one which has shaped our thoughts, ethos and practices as a people throughout our long and tumultuous history. The Torah doesn’t have to be “perfect” or “Divine” in order for us to fall in love with it. Drashot on the text do not have to be min hashamayim in order for us to learn from them, or to use them as a basis for living a meaningful life as a practicing Jew.

    I can understand your concerns about maintaining the commitment to Torah observance if the “min hashamayim” notion is tampered with. That is indeed something which needs to be addressed. But to refer to Parshanut or Gemara as “nonsense” without the supernatural back-story? As if they contain nothing inherently worthwhile? As if their teachings are not robust or relevant enough to stand on their own? As if they are meaningless without the Divine “stamp” on them? That strikes me as tragic, and I want to think you’re using a bit of rhetorical hyperbole here, because I find it hard to imagine that anyone seriously immersed in Torah study could ever really believe that.

    • Nathaniel Helfgot says:

      Shalom From Camp Stone. To the best of my recollection, (I have four little children so lots of life has happened since the mid 2000’s), R. Zev never expressed his views, whether in inchoate form or as finished products to me, either publically or privately during his years at the yeshiva or beyond.
      I have aboslutely no knoweldge of what he expressed to other people in private on these issues.

      R. Nathaniel Helfgot

      • Shlomo says:

        Thanks for your reply, R’ Nati.

        Perhaps the rest of the faculty could reply to this query as well — as could Dr. Farber.

        Surely it is material to know whether his semikhot was obtained under false pretenses (concealing his non-traditional views from those from whom he wanted Orthodox semikhot) or whether he was open and honest about his views and his teachers did not see them as a reason to not give him two Orthodox semikhot.

  11. ben dov says:

    Rabbi Helfgot, now that Farber’s views are well known, YCT is obligated to revoke his smicha. No excuses for being passive.

  12. Avraham says:

    Rav Nati and Ben – I appreciate and respect your clarifications regarding YCT’s position on this issue but I think that by focusing on “what did YCT know and when did they know it” the larger real difficulty is not being addressed.

    When the yeshiva was started the intent (I believe) was to create a more open minded institution that would have a healthier attitude towards other denominations and would be more progressive in its halachic approach while remaining firmly in the Orthodox camp. Its detractors on the right claimed, and its supporters in the more Centrism camp feared, that Open Orthodoxy would ultimately have no borders and that fidelity to halacha (and/or mesora) would be sacrificed and that in the guise of inclusiveness, lines in the area of core hashkafic beliefs would be blurred as well .

    It is against this backdrop that the writings of Rabbi Farber and the yeshiva’s response to them are being scrutinized. Let us be candid and acknowledge that Rav Zev is not merely another graduate of YCT. He is the most illustrious graduate to date and deservedly so. He is a brilliant talmid chachom, the only YCT musmach to receive Yadin Yadin semicha and a key figure in the IRF. As such his writings do reflect powerfully on the institution and YCT’s responses all the more so.

    Let us now examine three different issues that have arisen and the yeshiva’s response to each three. While you – Rav Nati – wrote a touching declaration on how the Orthodox community should respond to Homosexuals (one that was signed by numerous rabbis beyond merely the YCT staff) Rabbi Farber wrote an article that went much further and in a novel approach tried to give halachic backing to homosexuals leading active sexual lives. What was the official response of YCT to his position? I may be mistaken but I am not aware of any response.

    Next we have the issue of Partnership Minyanim. To date I believe that the yeshiva has not taken a position on this development; Rav Zev clearly did – he was decidedly in favor of them – putting him at odds with mainstream Orthodoxy.

    Finally, we have the critical issue of Revelation and authorship of the Torah. Once again we need to be candid. While many of us resent the witch hunt mentality that grips segments of the Orthodox world, had Rabbi Gordimer not written his article would there have been any response on the part of YCT to Rabbi Farber’s writings? Would his position in the IRF been at all compromised by the views that he expressed? I highly It is sadly telling that the strongest condemnation of his views came not from either Rabbis Katz or Lopatin (the former’s statement was, at best, timid) who are members of the hanhala but from Ben, a present talmid.

    Now I appreciate the difficulty involved as you all know Zev to be a fully committed individual who is genuinely searching for truth. However, to the outside observer one is left wondering – what does YCT really stand for? At the end of the day, is there a limit to inclusiveness? Can there be an acknowledgement that I love all my fellow Jews but certain positions they espouse- be they halachic or hashkafic – are simply incorrect? Is there any point where the yeshiva says that halacha does not have felxibilty to allow certain behaviors even if they are socially acceptable?

    I think that these are the questions that really need to be answered. Hopefully the YCT administration can take a step back and be introspective and examine if the yeshiva’s vision is being successfully implemented or if perhaps, most unfortunately, their critics have valid points that require a reevaluation.

  13. מכשפה צייד says:

    Yes, indeed, it is the responsibility of every semicha granting institution and individual to review all those who they have bestowed semicha on and immediately stop being passive and revoke the semicha of anyone and everyone who does not pass muster. Of course, I’m sure the some 2,000 rabbis the Rav granted semicha to will all pass muster.

  14. IH says:

    Shlomo, Avraham, Ben Dov — Let’s turn this around. There are no lack of Rabbis who advocate things with which many normative Modern Orthodox Jews disagree, either in terms of theology (e.g. Meshichist Chabad, anti-Zionist Satmar) or praxis (e.g. R. Belsky on Mesirah in the Kolko case, or R. Schachter on an OU Webcast saying “to have the women sit [in] a separate section of the bus [is] not such a bad idea”). While people may strongly disagree, there are few voices militating for their ouster from the Orthodox Rabbinate.

    What specifically is so threatening about having an honest conversation about Bible Scholarship within Modern Orthodoxy that brings all these calls for renouncing and defrocking R. Farber? And, more importantly – and in all seriousness — what is hoped to be gained by removing him (and others: e.g. Kugel) from identifying as Orthodox, whereas other are tolerated for their“foolish beliefs”?

    • Milhouse says:

      Because there is such a thing as apikorsus. None of the examples you give are defined anywhere as apikorsus,. (And indeed with regard to Zionism that is MO’s defense against Satmar regarding them as apikorsim; Zionism is an innovation at least as deviant as Messianic Chabad, while Satmar is simply sticking with what Judaism has always been. MO’s defense is the same as that of the Messianics: while this is an innovation, nowhere is it defined as apikorsus.)

      But Farber’s views fit exactly the definition of apikorsus. He says Torah is not literally from Heaven. He says humans (not even Moshe!) made up not just one pasuk but the whole thing!

      Not only that, but he doesn’t even claim that the Torah was written by nevi’im, because he denies that there is such a thing as nevu’ah at all. He says nevi’im are not the targets of a direct communication from Hashem, whose meaning cannot be mistaken, but rather “tapping into” some impersonal “stream”, and taking from it what they can or will, in a completely fallible manner.

      In addition, he denies not only that Moshe’s nevuah was of a different and higher quality, he denies that Moshe even existed!

      That is not one but three ikkarim he rejects out of hand. If he is not an apikores, pray tell me who is.

      As for what is to be gained by drumming him out, it’s very simple: he is taking goyim and purporting to turn them into Jews. If he is an apikores, then those people remain goyim, but they honestly think they’re Jews, and others think they’re Jews, so they will be treated as such and they will mix into the Jewish nation creating irreparable damage. How can there be any more urgent need than that? At the very least, the IRF must remove him from its beis din.

      • Lisa says:

        No one is an apikorus according to these people. And no one is a kofer. Because there is no objective truth. All opinions, if arrived at in a spirit of honest intellectual curiosity are legitimate, even if one might disagree with them.

    • Lisa says:

      We’re not talking about disagreements. You honestly don’t get that academic biblical scholarship is antithetical to Judaism. That it is predicated on the axiom that the Torah is not miSinai.

      This is kefirah. This is not a disagreement. It is opposition to the single most core belief in Judaism. V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei bnei Yisrael al pi Hashem b’yad Moshe. If you dispute that, you’re not an Orthodox Jew. No one needs to “oust” you — you’ve ousted yourself.

      The problem here isn’t that there’s a Jew who is a kofer. It’s that there’s a Jew who is a kofer who has dayanut from YCT, and YCT refuses to condemn his position and label it as the obvious kefirah that it is.

      YCT has tried to sit on the fence for some time now. But this is a situation where that’s no longer an option, much as they might want it to be. So long as they were only pushing maharats and partnership minyanim, which are halakhically untenable, but nowhere near kefirah, it could be argued that they were still within Orthodoxy, albeit on the far fringes.

      But kefirah is qualitatively different. And you know it.

      • Tuvia says:

        the DH or form critics or Mod Biblical Critics do not ask the question of whether the Torah is divine or not. They ask the question: was it written at one time by one author — or over hundreds of years with the input of several.

        They don’t have any interest in its divinity or lack there of.


      • Lisa says:

        Tuvia, you’re mistaken. They only ask whether it was written by one *human* author or multiple authors. That question excludes the possibility of divine authorship.

    • IH says:

      Breathlessly and endlessly repeating your fundamentalist opinions with no substantiation does not make them fact, any more than your insistence that Seder Olam Rabbah is historically accurate.

      Have you read for example? Or is he too a kofer?

  15. DRL says:


    Good post and keenly awaited. History will tell, but this may yet be another case of a Jew who has greatly erred with the right intentions. In any event, YCT will need to draw a line in the sand regarding their own position (which they have done), for posterity. The YCT leadership must ensure that in the main, their talmidim understand and champion their cause. Otherwise, they may be surprised by an ideological coup d’etat they did not foresee. (read: the Rabbinical Congress paskening travelling to shul on shabat, against JTS. Once Shaul Lieberman passed away, they were unrestrained.) One day the talmidim of YCT will emerge as a critical mass, an identifiable community, self sufficient and autonomous, and YCT leadership need to ensure they are aligned at heart, with the YCT mission and values.

    • Lisa says:

      They have not drawn any line in the sand. By continuing to maintain that Farber’s views on this are within Orthodoxy, which Asher Lopatin said explicitly, YCT is saying that while it may not hold that position, it accepts it as being part of Orthodoxy. I don’t know how much more clear this can be.

      Either they declare, once and for all, that rejecting Torah miSinai (and that means real Torah miSinai, and not Zev Farber’s cynical redefinition of the term) is outside of Orthodox Judaism, or they themselves are outside of Orthodox Judaism.

      They don’t have to condemn the idea stam. After all, they don’t condemn Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist. But they recognize that those movements are outside of Orthodoxy. They must do the same for this kind of kefirah. Or they will pay the price.

      • milhousevh says:

        I don’t know, Lisa. Is there a meta-ikkar that one must believe that the ikkarim are that? If someone believes all that a Jew must believe, but thinks that these beliefs are optional, is he therefore automatically outside Orthodoxy? And how many levels will you take that? What about one who believes not only in the ikkarim but also that they are mandatory, and that Farber is an apikores, but that YCT is entitled to disagree on that point; is that too apikorsus? That’s a pretty radical position to take, I’d think.

      • Lisa says:

        I don’t think it’s radical at all. We aren’t talking about individuals here. If an individual thinks it’s okay for someone else to be a kofer, that’s bad, but it’s not the end of the world. If an institution such as YCT accepts it as legitimate, it renders everything having to do with that institution suspect. You’re not making the distinction between individuals and leaders/institutions. Is it fair that they’re held to a higher standard? Ask Moshe Rabbenu.

  16. Shlomo says:

    I agree with Avraham that an honest conversation is in order.

    So far, it has not happened, save for some of the commentators here and a YCT student.

    Not that the YCT admin needs to respond to every comment and question, but if an honest conversation is what they have in mind, they should participate in it by replying (substantively) to the many substantive questions that have been posed here and basically ignored.

  17. DHS says:

    The comparison between Gateshead and YCT is flawed. Gateshead and their leadership rejected Louis Jacob’s teachings and disassociated themselves from him. Rabbi Farber remains a board member of the IRF, and YCT will most probably continue to promote him as a YCT success story. Furthermore, YCT has yet to publish condemnation about his statements. Unless, you count Rabbi Nati Helfgott’s piece, which if anything, seemed to justify Rabbi Farbers view!

  18. Jon Baker says:

    I post another long off-line comment on my blog

    In short:

    1) YCT not drawing a line in the sand, is only following RCA precedent in not throwing out R’ Avi Weiss as they tried to do in 1990-92.

    2) Milhouse, kedarko bakodesh, treads the fine line between his pet issues, defending Chabad while at the same time attacking Zionism and Modern O with the same brush, and going after YCT.

    Milhouse is also the only one who actually uses terms correctly: R’ Farber’s ideas cross into the Rambam’s definition of “apikoros”, but not heresy or denial of Torah.

    3) Witch Hunter: exactly. He’s not teaching there, IRF is a different institution and even they say he isn’t sitting on any batei din. Is RIETS, or Gateshead, or Lakewood or Chabad obligated to revoke anyone’s smicha after an inquisition of every one of their rabbis who have gone OTD?

    4) R Gordimer and RYA go overboard in their criticisms.

    a. I don’t see RZF denying the Oral Law one bit. Not even its divine origin – that remains, even though the Written Law’s origin is demoted to the same prophetic level.

    b) RYA quotes a Gemara and Rashi saying that denying that resurrection is from the Torah makes one a kofer – but I don’t see RZF denying either resurrection or its origin. And I don’t think even the Mishnah requires that one see it as coming from the Torah. I’ve never understood this need for it to be sourced in the Torah, which Rashi and (for political reasons) Rambam demand – it’s not a mitzvah, which would have to be present in the Torah, it’s a prediction of future events, which the Neviim are full of. So what’s wrong with it being sourced in the Neviim, where it’s explicit?

    • DHS says:

      Why does Rabbi Gordimer go overboard? There were few adhominem attacks, and nearly every accusation was backed by a quote from a YCT Rabbi.

      • Jon Baker says:

        I can’t answer for R Gordimer’s internal motivations. I was talking specifically about his accusations against R’ Farber. R’ Farber is over the line, but R’ Gordimer and RYA attack him as if he were even farther (farber?) over the line, on these two issues (denial of Oral Torah, denying Resurrection), without pointing out sources in his articles.

  19. will this incident affect the curriculum at YCT?

  20. DRL says:

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

  21. […] You may wish to read my post on the EB blog about the last 10 days of activity in the blog world, a response to Zev Farber’s controversial posts in late July.  You can see my brief review here:  Right after Shabbat, I came across an article by YCT student Ben Elton and then a flurry of comments/replies by various individuals, including R. Nati Helfgot of YCT.  You can follow that discussion here: […]

  22. Joebug says:

    Dr Elton –

    an honest and enlivening post.
    However, as with many orthodox academics, I could name Rabbi Sacks as an exemplar, you seem to resist a true engagment with the subject matter. You note Cassuto, who died in 1951..1951!…it’s the last 25 years of scholarship that needs to be contended with. Why not properly contend? After all, Biblical and ANE studies have nothing mystical about them, the work of the academy is just the work of a group of clever people, very few of them I doubt any cleverer than you. Read their papers – spend a few weeks, evaluate them, give a reasoned evaluation. By analogy, if a relative has a serious disease, I’m not a doctor, but I know what a standard deviation is, I go on PUBMED and I get an idea of what the evidence says. Sure the analogy is not exact, but it’s close enough, this stuff is understandable, it can be evaluated, especially by clever people who are already part of the academy, and also by those who are not. Give us a real argument based on the actual substance of what biblical scholars say.

  23. Tuvia says:


    You are expecting the impossible.

    Might as well ask the orthodox community to hear the traditional and academic sides both make their case and show their evidence. Try to understand WHY the academics seen a document made by many hands over hundreds of years. Maybe vote at the end of a six month debate where the rabbis share a lectern with the academics. See where audience winds up.

    This is unacceptable, because this debate is not about evaluating evidence. It’s not about using your rational or critical faculty. Above all, it is not about whatever answer you may arrive at by doing the above.

    The “debate” actually is predicated on NEVER taking a sustained, unflinching look at the academic case.

    And calling someone a heretic is frequently an easy way to AVOID confronting the serious issues they are raising.


  24. Joebug says:

    Tuvia –

    you are of course correct when it comes to much of the debate.
    inter alia I think it is a legitimate position to say, this world is not my world, I take my truth from my fathers and my community, in other words when the charedi world says we won’t hear this, it is not even on our radar, I do think that is in fact a reasonable intellectual position. The problem is for MO, which wants to have a foot in both worlds.
    But my main response would be that Dr Elton is a scholar of very considerable ability, who does have a foot in both worlds, so I legitimately call on him to engage in a full intellectually honest debate.

    • Tuvia says:


      I hope you could sense I was being a bit sarcastic. I am not orthodox. But what I find appalling is that the orthodox want to make very serious claims about the origins of the Torah, but also explain that no one among them can investigate these claims.

      They will mock the DH or form criticism or whatever they call it these day. They will mock and snicker at the goyim and how they believe in JC, or how seculars are fooled by the DH. They will tell us seculars with a straight face we are in for bad times for not being orthodox – in this world and the next. They will claim mesirah on reporting crimes. They are often very poor and condemn their children to even more poverty and a life on welfare.

      It is all about control, and not much else. I don’t see how a world that does not permit open inquiry in general can see itself as functioning well. I don’t see how the orthodox world can claim to be so firm in its convictions and yet so afraid of a sustained encounter with outside ideas and thinking.

      It reminds me of the former Soviet Union – “communism is obviously superior and the truth,” and “the West is decadent and materialistic and classist.” But they did not have the confidence to permit their people to travel abroad. And in the terrible West? You come and go as you please.


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