An Apology to our MTA Classmates Who Were Victimized, posted by Yosef Kanefsky

August 18, 2013

As Elul rushes toward Tishrai, my good friend Joey Lipner and I have penned a letter of apology to our classmates who were compelled to “wrestle” with Rabbi Finkelstein. In it, we apologize for never having said or done anything, even as we were quite aware of the bizarre things that were going on.  If you were in MTA in those years, or if you know someone who was, please consider signing the letter and/or passing it along.   We hope that it will bring some tikkun to this awful situation.  Here’s the link:

At the same time, we await the report that Yeshiva will be putting out revealing the results of its investigation. I have received assurances that it will be released in full to the public. This is of course a vital first step in fulfilling the spirit of up Rabbi Lamm’s statement of apology.

The Lesson of Tishuvah -Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 15, 2013

This month of Elul leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is a time of reflection and tishuvah, return, but with what should we emerge from this process?

Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the 10 Days of Tishuvah and Yom Kippur culminates in a service performed once a year on Yom Kippur itself, on the holiest day, in the holiest place, by the holiest person.  But it was also, perhaps the strangest service in Judaism.  As the Torah states in Vayikra/Leviticus 16:

ומאת עדת בני ישראל יִקח שני שעירי עִזים לחטאת ואיל אחד לעֹלה… ולקח את שני השעירִם, והעמיד אֹתם לפני ה’ פתח אֹהל מועד. ונתן אהרן על שני השעירִם גֹרלות: גורל אחד לה’ וגורל אחד לעזאזל. והקריב אהרן את השעיר אשר עלה עליו הגורל לה’, ועשהוּ חטאת; והשעיר אשר עלה עליו הגורל לעזאזל יָעֳמד חי לפני ה’ לכפר עליו, לשלח אֹתו לעזאזל המדברה.

7. And he (the High Priest) shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting.

8. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel.

9. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.

10. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be for Azazel, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go to Azazel into the wilderness.

This Yom Kippur service is the only ongoing mitzvah which specifically required a randomizer.  In addition, these two goats from which one is chosen to be a sacrifice and the other, which in a truly strange seemingly un-Jewish act of wanton destruction is thrown off a cliff, had to be identical, in a way -twins.  One no different that the other, no more deserving, no more holy, no more attractive; exactly the same but with diametrically opposite ends.  As the Mishna in Yoma 62a states:

משנה. שני שעירי יום הכפורים מצותן שיהיו שניהן שוין במראה ובקומה ובדמים ובלקיחתן כאחד.

“The two goats of Yom Kippur had to be the same in appearance, height, and value, and they had to be purchased at the exactly the same time.”

Not only the two goats but the lots used to choose them had to be exactly the same, save the consequences engraved upon them.  As the Talmud, Yoma 37a says:

 וקלפי היתה שם ובה שני גורלות. – תלמוד לומר גורל אחד לה’ וגורל אחד לעזאזל, אין כאן לשם אלא גורל אחד ואין כאן לעזאזל אלא אחד. יכול יתן של שם ושל עזאזל על זה, ושל שם ושל עזאזל על זה – תלמוד לומר גורל אחד [לה’ – אין כאן לה’ אלא אחד, ואין כאן לעזאזל אלא אחד]. אם כן מה תלמוד לומר גורלות? שיהיו שוין, שלא יעשה אחד של זהב ואחד של כסף, אחד גדול ואחד קטן. גורלות של כל דבר, פשיטא! – לא צריכא לכדתניא לפי שמצינו בציץ שהשם כתוב עליו והוא של זהב, יכול אף זה כן – תלמוד לומר גורל גורל ריבה. ריבה של זית, ריבה של אגוז, ריבה של אשכרוע.

The lots must be the same.  Not one of gold and one of silver, one large and one small.  The lots may be made from anything but they must be identical.

The central service of the holiest day, the day of judgment and atonement, of G-d being most present, revolved around two completely identical goats, costing the same, looking the same, chosen by identical lots, yet with opposite, truly random destinies.  One for G-d the other for Azazel, for wanton, seemingly purposeless destruction.

This service almost seems as if, G-d forbid, it were engineered by a cynic, a tongue in cheek Dadaist, mocking G-d and us and the world G-d created, by attempting to highlight, though an eccentric act of performance art, the seemingly banal randomness of good and evil, the arbitrary meaninglessness of life, human will, choice, destiny and purpose.  Though exactly the same, one is randomly chosen for G-d, for holiness, for a sacrifice in the holiest place, and one to be thrown off a cliff in a barren place, alone, witnessed by no one, not even its executioner who had to turn his back to push it off the cliff to its death, torn limb from limb.

Why is such a thing performed?  How in the world does such a ceremony so seemingly cruel in its randomness bring total atonement for the Jewish people?  Indeed it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe in and hold sacred.Image

Imagine for a moment that you are one of these two goats in holy Temple, destined for, you assume, a sacrifice.  Now a random lottery chooses one over the other.  Very much like life.  One goat is chosen for G-d, for the alter, the other goat watches as his “twin” is led to the ritual slaughter.  Imagine you are the goat watching.  Your twin has been chosen for a Temple offering.  You are relieved; you are led out of the Temple, you imagine to freedom.   You are calm, smug, only to be thrown from a cliff in the wilderness, in a Jewish ritual act unprecedented throughout the year.

Both goats die.  In fact all goats die, and all of us will die.  The question that matters of course is which has lived the nobler life?  This is the lesson of the tishuvah process.  Not to escape death for another year, not to pray for a physically good year, live what we have for G-d and not for Azazel.

Often we wish to escape from responsibility into an imagined freedom.  But in this world in which we have no control, our freedom from life, from death, is an illusion.  What we can do is aim, within all this randomness of our universe, to live a life of holiness and meaning.  A life La’Hashem-for G-d, and not La’azazel-for naught.   Yom Kippur and the process of tishuvah can not help us to control the coming year, but it can help our life and our inevitable death, be on the Jewish alter, in the temple, not in some forsaken spiritual desert.

If we the Jewish people understand the message of the two goats, then indeed they can serve as atonement for us.  If not, then it is just another Yom Kippur spent to assuage our guilt, and whose temporary inspiration will erode by Chanukah.

Studying the Torah Seriously: A TABS Response to Rabbi Blau – by Rabbi David Steinberg

August 14, 2013


Watching the debate around Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber’s essay has been frustrating. Most of his detractors kept their comments very general and focused on dogma. For this reason, when I started reading Rabbi Yitzchak Blau’s response, “The Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism”, my heart gave a shout of joy. Finally someone cares less about dogma and more about what the Torah actually says and has made the effort to address the details of the challenges!

Furthermore, I was glad to see that Rabbi Blau realizes that the issues involved go beyond R. Farber., the website of Project TABS (of which I am co-founder) has many more essays from other authors discussing the same types of difficulties, and offering a variety of perspectives. Finally, I noted with appreciation that Rabbi Blau was honest enough to acknowledge upfront that he chose the weaker arguments, to show that the challenge of critical scholarship is less overwhelming than portrayed and to provide some categories for addressing their points.  So with an open heart I started to read his arguments.

Example 1: Pesach Sheni

The first example that R. Blau tackles is Pesach Sheni. He counters Prof. Garfinkel’s observation that the discussion of people “on a long journey” appears to be a later interpolation into a text dealing with the desert period by arguing that it is not illogical to posit that the Torah anticipates the not too distant future of when they come to the land of Israel. In fact, R. Blau adds, “several Bemidbar passages explicitly address laws that turn relevant upon entering the land.” At first glance this seemed like a reasonable argument; so I opened up my Chumash to look at the verses Rabbi Blau mentions that explicitly address laws that turn relevant upon entering the land.

Here are the verses:

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in… (Num. 15:2)

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land to which I am taking you… (Num. 15:18)

Both these verses share a common formula that explicitly describes them as being applicable upon entering the land. What about the verse regarding Pesach Sheni?

Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord… (Num. 19:10)

No mention of “when the Israelites enter the land.”

Furthermore, we do actually find this formulation when it comes to the Pesach, but in Exodus and in reference to the primary Pesach sacrifice (not the make-up sacrifice), the eating of matzah, and the offering of the first born animals.

And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. (Exod. 12:25)

So, when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites…you shall observe in this month the following practice… (Exod. 13:5)

And when the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and has given it to you. (Exod. 13:11)

These observations do not prove that it is illogical to understand the reference to the trip in the Pesach Sheni verse is a later interpolation. It is still possible that the verse meant that this rule would apply when the Israelites entered the land, even though it doesn’t say so. Nevertheless, the omission of the phrase “when you enter the land” is surprising enough that I would have hoped for a suggestion as to why it is left out. Why, indeed, does the Torah repeatedly inform us that certain laws apply “when they enter the land,” and yet with Pesach Sheni it does not. This is particularly troublesome since the laws of Pesach Sheni come in response to a question that was asked while they were in a desert—the questioners became impure and believed that they could not offer the Pesach on time and wished to know what to do—and we suddenly find this extra detail about traveling that has nothing to do with the question, and even so the Torah does not see fit to inform us that this was meant to apply “when they enter the land!”

The casual dismissal of Prof. Garfinkel’s observation disappoints. At the very least, for the sake of serious conversation about Torah, one must acknowledge the difference God put in the verses and either suggest a reason or admit that he does not know why. If one takes Torah seriously the inconsistency should be troubling.

Example 2: Moses or Yitro?

Turning my attention to R. Blau’s second example, Rabbi Farber notes, “According to Deuteronomy, the court system devised in the desert was Moses’ idea. However, according to Exodus, the idea was not Moses’ but that of his father-in-law Jethro.” Rabbi Blau dismisses this observation a little too easily, declaring that “retelling can be partial.” That sounds like reasonable statement, nevertheless, this does not mean that blanketly applying that rule without even offering an examination of the details suffices as a response. When reading the verses in Exodus (18:17-19, 21-24) we find:

…Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel… You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men… let them judge the people at all times…” Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.[1]

However, in Deuteronomy (1:9, 12-14), Moses says:

Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself… How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.” You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.”

Again, it is not impossible that Moses here was quoting his father-in-law, but not making this clear. Nevertheless, personally, I find it rather disturbing to hear Moses saying that he was the one who said these words. I would have expected Moses (and God who endorses Moses’ words) to mention that it was Jethro’s idea, giving credit where credit is due.

If it is a matter of conserving words, surely Moses could have said “And Jethro said to me (ויאמר אלי יתרו),” or something along those lines. This would add only a tiny amount of text and would offer us a very important lesson at the same time: how to express gratitude. Surely we could have expected Moshe to follow the words of Chazal in Pirkei Avot (6:6): “Anyone who says a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.”

Example 3: Shemini Atzeret

In his post on how he became a critical Torah scholar, Prof. Marc Brettler points out that there seems to be contradiction regarding how many days the festival of Sukkot has, between Vayikra 23:26 (eight days) and Devarim 16:15 (seven days). Rabbi Blau responds to this point by suggesting, “Since the Devarim passage is primarily interested in the three times a year we travel to the mikdash, there is no need to mention Shmini Azaret which does not call for another journey.”

As did his previous suggestions, this sounds like a reasonable approach. Yet when one looks at the verses starting from the beginning of chapter 16 with the holiday of Pesach, this approach fails to hold its ground.  Devarim dedicates eight verses to the laws of Pesach here, going beyond focusing only on the pilgrimage. One specific example of that that relates directly to Atzeret of Sukkot and that is Atzeret of Pesach. Verse 16:7 tells us that after performing the Pesach sacrifice everyone can return home from their pilgrimage to their tents. And yet, the very next verse informs us that the seventh day of Pesach is Atzeret, despite the fact that this has no relevance to the pilgrimage.

You shall cook and eat it at the place that the Lord your God will choose; and in the morning you may start back on your journey home. After eating unleavened bread six days, you shall hold a solemn gathering for the Lord your God on the seventh day: you shall do no work.

Following Rabbi Blau’s suggestion, why would this be mentioned?

Even worse, the fact that the Israelites were to stay near the Temple for the entire period of Sukkot necessitates their staying for the eight day Atzeret as well. One would think that if the Torah went out of its way to clarify that there is an Atzeret of Pesach, even though that holiday need not be celebrated at the Temple, it would certainly have mentioned that there is an Atzeret of Sukkot that must be celebrated at the Temple! (That Shemini Atzeret must be celebrated in the Temple is clear from rabbinic sources, like the Sifrei Bemidbar 151, which discusses whether people were permitted to leave the Jerusalem even to go to Beth Page, a suburb of Jerusalem, after the sacrifice was eaten.)[2]

That Deuteronomy is not exclusively about the pilgrimage is further illustrated by comparing it to the brief instructions about a pilgrimage in Shemot 23:14-17 (and repeated almost verbatim in Shemot 34:22-24).

Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed; and the Feast of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the Lord.

Had the Torah truly wanted avoid repetition of the laws and focus only on the pilgrimage, as Rabbi Blau suggests, it would not have needed  to repeat  for the third time (see Vayikra 23:33 and Bemidbar 29:12) the length of the holidays, the instructions for when they take place, or who is to celebrate the holiday.

Moreover, with the Torah repeating three separate times in these verses alone that each of these holidays should be celebrated in the place that God will choose, in addition to summarizing it for the fourth time in verse 16, one would think that God could have clarified the status of the Atzeret holiday in a handful of words and make the holiday lists jive with each other and avoid any confusion about whether there is an eighth day of Sukkot Temple holiday or not.

Finally, I would hope that any serious effort to answer the problems in regards to Shimini Atzeret in the Torah would include an explanation for the pesukim in Nach as well. In Sefer Melachim we find that Shlomo sends the people home on the eighth day of the Chag (Sukkot), which would be the 22nd of the month, with no mention of Shemini Atzeret!

So Solomon and all Israel with him—a great assemblage, [coming] from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt—observed the Feast at that time before the Lord our God, seven days and again seven days, fourteen days in all. On the eighth day he let the people go (1 Kings 8:65-66).

Yet when Divrei ha-Yamim retells this account of Sukkot celebrated by Shlomo upon dedicating the Temple, the details are adjusted and Shlomo sends the people home the day after Shemini Atzeret, on the 23rd.

At that time Solomon kept the Feast for seven days—all Israel with him—a great assemblage from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. On the eighth day they held a solemn gathering; they observed the dedication of the altar seven days, and the Feast seven days. On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he dismissed the people to their homes… (2 Chron. 7:8-10)

It is hard not to see this as strong evidence for the academic assertion regarding multiple traditions. If there are to be serious alternatives to the academic consensus, I hope to see them address these points earnestly, and in a meaningful way.

Example 4: Korah versus Datan and Aviram

The confusing nature of the rebellion narrative in Bemidbar 16, with the unclear relationship between Korah, the Levites and Datan and Aviram, and the inexplicable nature of Korah’s death, is baffling. In the short time that has been active, it has been referenced in at least four pieces. It is referenced in one of our parsha tabs, called How did Korah Die?, it is referenced by Rabbi Farber’s essay in his list of contradictions (6c), and it is the subject of two divrei Torah by Prof. Adele Berlin.

Rabbi Blau focuses on one part of Berlin’s analysis, where she mentions that when Moses references the rebellion in Deuteronomy 11:6 he only mentions Datan and Aviram and not Korah.

…and what He did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel…

Looking only at the response to this proof, Rabbi Blau argues that, given the context, there is no attempt to give an exhaustive account of the rebellion. In fact, he states, there may be good reason to highlight Datan and Aviram more than Korah. For example, “Datan and Aviram are the most brazen and verbally aggressive members of the rebellion in Bemidbar 16.” One could have also suggested, as does the Ramban Rabbi Blau references, that the miracle of having the earth swallow them was more unique than fire coming from the sky—the “standard” divine punishment (in Ramban’s words) for forbidden incense burning in the Temple.

Nevertheless, Ramban’s suggestion is selective, as it does not take into account the entire story and all the verses. Furthermore, any cursory reading of Bemidbar 16 will demonstrate that Korah is given the prominent role in the story.

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reubento rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute (16:1-2).

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company… (16:4-5)

In fact, Korah is even mentioned first in the passage in Bemidbar describing the punishment of the earth swallowing up the rebels with their tents and families—the very punishment Moses is referencing in Devarim!

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” …So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (16:23-24, 27).

…and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions (16:32).

These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah’s band when they agitated against the Lord. Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah… (Num. 26:9-10)

In Bemidbar 27:3, when the daughters of Zelophehad reference the rebellion, the only mention Korah, skipping over Datan and Aviram entirely. There seems to be little doubt that in Bemidbar Korah is the main villain and the focus of the story. Despite R. Blau’s observation that Datan and Aviram are the most “verbally aggressive,” the account of the rebellion itself does not seem to see Datan and Aviram as the leaders, or even as the main focus of the miraculous swallowing-earth punishment.

Additionally, Rabbi Blau’s suggestion seems tailored for the rather limited historical overview in Devarim 11, but how does it explain the absence of Korah in the much more extensive historical overview in Tehillim 106 (vv. 16-18)?

There was envy of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord. The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan, closed over the party of Abiram. A fire blazed among their party, a flame that consumed the wicked.

Again, none of this proves that the stories were once separate, or that Korah was later added in to the Datan and Aviram story to combine the rebellion narratives better, however, a careful reading of the verses strongly suggests that this type of analysis will bear fruit. Now, I didn’t expect Rabbi Blau to answer all these questions in one short essay but I think as rabbis we must seriously take into account the many problems pointed to by biblical scholars who have dedicated their lives to the judicious study of the biblical texts.

Example 5: Hebrew Slaves

In Rabbi Farber’s list of contradictions (first example in the legal section), he notes that according to Shemot and Devarim Hebrew slaves go free in the seventh year whereas in the Vayikra they go free in the Jubilee year (Yovel). Rabbi Blau responds by positing that “A second passage can add components.” Hence, he states, “in the context of the yovel discussion, we discover a new halakhic detail about slaves.”

Again, without closely reading the verses in the Torah this sounds reasonable. Nevertheless, before anyone chooses to write off this problem, open up a chumash to the verses mentioned and let the full context and words speak for themselves.

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free… But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life (Shemot 21:2, 5-6).

If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free… But should he say to you, “I do not want to leave you”—for he loves you and your household and is happy with you—you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity (Devarim 16:12, 16-17).

If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude (Vayikra 25:39-42).

Ignoring the serious problem of the Torah being so repetitive and the other contradictions present between the three texts not referenced here (e.g., what happens to female slaves? Should the slave be paid upon being freed?) it is hard to ignore the glaring fact that Shemot/Devarim are speaking about an entirely different timetable than Vayikra! The former have a six year slave term but an option for the slave to stay for life. Vayikra has an up-to-forty nine year term (depending on when in the jubilee cycle the person becomes a slave) with no option to stay for life. The Torah in Shemot could have written, “and he shall serve him until the jubilee (וַעֲבָדו עַד הַיֹּבֵל)” instead of “and he shall serve him forever (וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם)”; it could have added in two words Vayikra 25 and written, “he shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer for six years, (כְּשָׂכִיר כְּתוֹשָׁב יִהְיֶה עִמָּך שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים).”

Now it is possible to make these sections work together. Rashi (Shemot 21:6), for instance, following Chazal, interprets “forever” as until the jubilee. Rashi’s grandson Rashbam (Shemot 21:6) disputes this interpretation (it certainly does not seem like peshat!) and suggests (Shemot 21:2) that Shemot/Devarim are speaking about a person sold into slavery by the court to repay a theft whereas Vayikra is speaking about a person who sold him- or herself into slavery due to debt.

Whether one considers the Rashbam’s solution (or even Rashi’s for that matter) to have solved the contradiction between Shemot/Devarim and Vayikra—and I am not even mentioning the contradictions between Shemot and Devarim which would both be dealing with a thief in Rashbam’s system—these problems require serious attention. We cannot merely wave them all off with a stroke of the pen.

Instruct a Wise Man and He Will Grow Wiser (Mishlei 9:9)

I could continue with the rest of Rabbi Blau’s examples, but I believe that as rabbis we have an obligation to study the Torah seriously and offer am Yisrael answers that are more than just defensive postures. Reading Rabbi Blau’s far from satisfying response only reinforces my conviction for the need of Project TABS –, if only to force a more serious conversation about Torah.

If we truly are going to relate to the Torah as being of divine origin, irrespective of the exact medium with which it was given to us, we cannot satisfy ourselves with half-baked answers, sweeping the details of the pesukim under the proverbial carpet. From my perspective, having the courage to explore the Torah honestly demonstrates real emunah; the need to quickly dismiss any problem through either dogmatic assertions or dochek terutzim (weak answers) demonstrates the opposite, a lack of faith that the Torah can survive the perceived onslaught by the academy.

For the Sake of Am Yisrael

Rabbi Blau ends his piece with a call to YCT and the IRF to officially pronounce Rabbi Farber’s piece—perhaps even Rabbi Farber himself and all of Project TABS—to be outside of Orthodoxy. This very much surprised me. I can respect why someone may feel academic biblical studies to be beyond their purview. Nevertheless, with many in am Yisrael in and out of the Orthodox community struggling to relate to God and Torah, why anyone would want to attack a nuanced approach to the divinity of Torah and mitzvos, so much needed in the modern world, is beyond my comprehension. Personally, I strongly believe in what Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish wrote in his recent post, that our detractors should “please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you… not what you think it needs to mean for others.”

For the record, on behalf of myself and well over 10,000 visitors on, including many private emails from individuals, lay and rabbi alike, I would like to thank Rabbi Farber publicly for having the courage to write on these issues and for taking the time to craft a thoughtful and compelling synthesis of traditional and academic approaches to Torah min ha-Shamayim.

An Invitation

I was brought up in Bnei Brak. I learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva and the Mir. I spent years as an outreach rabbi. Throughout these years it began to dawn on me that we aren’t really studying the Torah; we are hiding it and protecting it, perhaps even worshiping it, but we are hardly learning it. When I came into contact with academic biblical studies, nafal ha-asimon, something clicked. We are living in a new era, with unprecedented knowledge of the past and we are poised in a way our ancestors could only dream about to really understand the Torah, and yet some are fighting against this tooth and nail.

Thus I founded project TABS, together with Prof. Marc Brettler, to bring knowledge of academic biblical studies to the broader community and to show how much we have to learn and how little we have to lose. I know that it is frightening and challenging to rethink big questions like authorship of the Torah, the nature of prophecy, and the history of Israel. Nevertheless, the payoff in our ability to understand the Torah and receive a glimpse of God’s manifestation in history is well worth the price. I invite you all to come to the website, struggle along with us and join the conversation.

Rabbi David Steinberg

Co-Founder, Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) –

[1] All translations come from the New JPS.

[2]  ‘ביום השמיני עצרת תהיה לכם’ – עצרו הכתוב מלצאת הרי שהביא קדשיו מבית פגי לירושלם שומע אני יאכלם בירושלם וילך וילן בבית פאגי ת”ל ביום השמיני עצרת תהיה לכם עצרו הכתוב מלצאת.

Treating Orthodox Women as Equals, Guest Post by Ronn Torossian

August 11, 2013

As the father of young daughters who are blessed to attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Manhattan, my girls are taught that their potential is unlimited. At home and at school, they are constantly reminded that they can do anything, and succeed at whatever they choose to do in life. As girls living in the year 2013, we tell them that there are no doors closed to them. Doesn’t every good Jewish parent teach their kids similar values?

Today, Jewish girls go to day school, then Jewish high school, and then universities. Indeed, women – in Jewish life and elsewhere – can do it all. They are able to learn, study, and (gasp) even master materials that many men cannot.  And once they get there, should they then rely upon men for guidance on Jewish issues? NO.

With all due respect, is a woman special because of who she is – or who she marries? A Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) may indeed be a special woman – but shouldn’t we also have female Jewish communal leaders who are learned and well versed in Jewish issues? Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?

For these and many other reasons, I have been inspired after recently spending time with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox institution which ordains women as spiritual leaders. The women who learn at Yeshivat Maharat study high level curriculum – and are ordained as leaders of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. For many years, while countless Orthodox women have learned Torah, there hasn’t been a path for them to follow to lead communities. How can our community be served when half of our community is being ignored?

How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?  Whether on issues of “taharas hamishpacha” (family purity), marriage counseling, bat mitzvahs, or simply understanding a women’s mind, shouldn’t female Jewish leaders who are learned and educated consult – and lead – on these issues? Shouldn’t female spiritual leaders help women? Can’t women spiritual leaders bring a perspective that men don’t see?

Many Orthodox Jewish leaders stand firm on this issue – and indeed form a silent consensus. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote, “women can be the gedolim (the greats) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.”  And supporters of this view continue to emerge.

It is high time, in 2013, that women are encouraged to stand on their own. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets. Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.

Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel). This is about the future of our people.

My mother, Penny Waga, was a single mother who raised us alone. She was indeed the toughest, strongest, most spiritual person I ever met. She was a member of a woman’s tefiillah (prayer) group and taught us we could do anything and everything. Those of us with mothers or daughters need to teach Jewish girls (and women) that they can do everything and anything.

Today, women are equal to men. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Ramaz Jewish school, the graduating women were reminded:  “As you walk, remember that you are not alone. Ruth, Rachel, and Abby. Know that as you march forward, we– all of us—this entire community, walks with you.” Indeed, more members of our community need to celebrate and support this great blessing for the Jewish people that is Yeshivat Maharat.

For more information on Yeshivat Maharat email or call (718)796-0590.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He is a self-described Type A personality – who believes women and men are different – yet both holy, and both capable of leading.

“I Have Not Been Troubled by Them”: Another Angle on the Question du Jour, by Yosef Kanefsky

August 9, 2013

I love my wife. And this love shapes my daily routine, and defines the contours of the way I live. I am aware of the scientific position that what we call love is in reality a complex set of bio-chemical reactions, refined over the millennium by a process of natural selection that favored those homo sapiens who were able to sustain faithful, long-term mating relationships, and that love is therefore a delusion, a deception performed by our genes. I am aware of this position. But it doesn’t in any way affect my belief that I am truly loving my wife. Nor does it alter in any way the set of rituals and behaviors through which I respond to this love’s call. I recognize the validity of the position and of the questions that it raises, but I am not troubled by them.

I of course cannot know what Rabbi Soloveitchik meant when (in The Lonely Man of Faith) he acknowledged his awareness of “the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest,” yet asserted that he was not “troubled” by them. Perhaps he was not troubled because he knew how to effectively refute the arguments of the Biblical critics, or because he had uncovered the flaws in their scholarship. Or, as is suggested by the fact that he never published further on the topic of biblical criticism, perhaps there was a different reason that he was not troubled. Perhaps he likened believing in the traditional view of the Scriptures to believing in the truth of love.

I am blessed (or lucky) to possess a strong experientially-based belief in the truth of  Divinely-given Torah.  It is an experientially- based belief that in no way addresses the weighty questions of Biblical authorship and historicity, questions whose existence I am acutely aware of. Yet, it largely shields me from their effects.  When, for example, I act honestly even when this honesty comes at a personal cost, and I do so because it is written in the Torah that I should, I feel – truly and deeply – that I am responding to God’s voice, to the voice we all heard at Sinai. Or when I succeed in “doing the upright and the good,” my experience is that of responding to the words that are calling out from the Sefer Torah – the Sefer Torah to which we point as we say, “and this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.”  Equally, on the occasions when I ignore the pasuk in Vayikra, and fail to guard my tongue from speaking lashon hara, my experience is that of having defied the word that God spoke to Moshe upon the mountain.  This is what it feels like to me. The belief that I am in fact living in relationship with God’s word is no less real than the belief that I am in fact loving my wife.

I know that we are all different, and that there are many Orthodox Jews for whom this doesn’t work as well, for whom this kind of “compartmentalization” evinces a lack of intellectual and spiritual integrity. But I also know that I am far from alone in feeling and living the way I do. And so I write this short essay in the effort to describe this way of being – of knowing the questions and even finding them worthwhile and important, but not being “troubled” by them.  I write, to ratify the viability of being intellectually aware and at the same time genuinely pious. For it is, I believe, no less viable than both recognizing the biological realities of hormones and neurological hard-wiring, and at the same time, being unquestionably in love.

Guest Post by Rabbi Dov Fischer: Responses to Biblical Criticism from Everyday Life

August 8, 2013


Against the backdrop of Morethodoxy’s recent discussion of Biblical truths and Bible Criticism, often some of our own real-time life observations can prove to be among the most potent responses to those who question the veracity of Torah narrative. Indeed, many of the “piercing” criticisms of Torah text that speak of perceived “contradictions” and “inconsistencies” within the Chumash do not require a Rashi, a Rashbam, or a Kli Yakar to harmonize.  Rather, simple observations from everyday life can point the way. As an exemplar, these thoughts respond to some of the comments in Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber’s “Part 3 – Crack in the Edifice: A Personal Reflection” ( ):


1.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “2. Jacob has 12 children (11 sons and at least one daughter) in seven years (Gen. 29:32-30:25). Although admittedly possible, even with four wives this is a serious stretch. Leah has seven just in this period, and even has time to worry about how she stopped having children (Gen. 30:9)! Something is not quite right about this timeline. To my mind, it is best explained as an attempt to fit two traditions into one narrative framework: Jacob’s many children and the account of Jacob in Aram.”   

RESPONSIVE THOUGHTIdi Amin had 30-45 children.  My first wife had three kids in three years and, but for reasons that are outside the purview of Morethodoxy, had every capability of continuing at that pace.  Several frum families and Catholics have had such numbers as seven children in seven years.  One man can father 12 children with four women over seven years.  It is the woman who needs nine months and more between births, not the man.  The Torah text acknowledges that Rachel had trouble bearing, while Leah had great facility but eventually slowed down.  The Torah even supplies a perfectly rational reason that a G-d of Mercy would have given Leah an opportunity towards leveling her marital playing field.


2.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “3. There are a number of name inconsistencies in the biblical text. For example: Who was Moshe’s father-in-law, Reuel (Exod. 2:18), Jethro (Exod. 3:1), or Chovav (Num. 10:29)? Additionally, was his father-in-law a Midianite (Exodus and Numbers above) or was he a Kenite (Judg. 1:16 and 4:11)? What is the name of the mountain of God? Is it Sinai (Exod. 19:20, 24:16, Lev. 7:38, 25:1, Num. 3:1, Neh. 9:13, etc.) or Horeb (Exod. 33:6, Deut. 5:6, 18:16, 1 Kings 19:8, etc.)? It appears that the Torah records competing traditions in all of these cases”

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: What is the name of the fifth New York City borough — Richmond or Staten Island?  If Queens County is called “Queens,” why is Kings County not called “Kings” but “Brooklyn”?  Are they different places? Is this country called the “United States” or is it “America”?  Was the former communist world power called the “Soviet Union” or “Russia”?  Is the European country called Deutschland or Germany or Allemagne?  Was the Civil War battle, where more Americans died in a single day than at any other battle in American history, fought at Sharpsburg or at Antietam?  Is it two narratives being merged?  Was it Bull Run orManassas, and was there really a First Manassas and a Second Manassas?  Was the great Confederate general who was included on the carving on Stone Mountain, Georgia, named Thomas J. Jackson or Stonewall Jackson? Is Avigdor someone different from Moshe? Were Yasser Arafat and Abu Ammar two different people? Mahmoud Abbas and Abu Mazen? Muhammad Zaidan and Abu Abbas? Prince and #$%&?  George Ruth and Babe Ruth? Simon Persky and Shimon Peres?  Ariel Sharon and Ariel Scheinermann? David Green and David Ben-Gurion?  Golda Meir and Goldie Meyerson? Icchak Jeziernicky and Yitzhak Shamir? And what about the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences: Lincoln’s secretary, named Kennedy, told him not to go to the play, and Kennedy’s secretary, named Lincoln, told him not to go to Dallas.  Lincoln was killed in Ford’s Theatre, and Kennedy was killed in a Lincolnmanufactured by Ford Motor Company.  Lincoln was killed at a theater, and Kennedy’s assassin was arrested in a theater.  Each had a Vice President named Johnson from a Southern state.  The merger of two narratives?


3.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “4. Who sold Joseph? The brothers (Gen. 37:27) or the Midianites (Gen. 37:28)? Who brought Joseph to Egypt? The Madanites (Gen. 37:36) or the Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1)? Again it appears that the Torah records competing traditions or stories.”  

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: Rav Avigdor Miller explains it very simply.  It was lucrative, and there were middlemen.  Occam’s Razor.  Others have equally simple alternative understandings.


4.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “a. Noah: Is the flood caused by rain (Gen. 7:12) or is it the unplugging of the heavens and depths (Gen. 7:11)?

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: Are they different?  When the Heavens and depths are unplugged, don’t rain and surges of water come out?  


5.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “Is Noah supposed to take seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals (Gen. 7:2-3) or one pair of each animal (Gen. 6:19-20)?”

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: I tell my child: “Look, it’s cold outside, put on a sweater.”  As he starts walking out, I say, “Y’know what?  Go back in and put on a jacket and grab a cap.”  As we get into the car, I get a bit embarrassed and say to him, “I hate to do this, but please go inside a get a raincoat.” Three different narratives, or does one amplify the previous?


6.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “Does the rain / flood last 40 days (Gen. 7:17) or 150 days (Gen. 7:24)?” 

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: Why is it problematic to say that it rained for 40 days, but it took 150 for the waters to subside?  After Katrina, was New Orleans dry the next day, with all waters returned to subterranean heights?  After the East Coast hurricane, did the waters recede the next day, or did people have to continue waiting before they could move back into certain places in New Jersey, Staten Island, and elsewhere?  Is this not the simplest understanding?


7.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “b. Scouts: Are the loyal scouts Caleb (Num. 13:30, 14:24) or Caleb and Joshua (Num. 14:6-9, 14:30)? Is it Moshe (Num. 13:27, 14:9) or Moshe and Aaron (Num. 13:26, 14:2, 14:26) with whom God and the people speak? Why does God punish Israel twice (Num. 14:20-25, 14:26-35)? Do they go all the way to the north and Hamat (Num. 13:21) or just through the Negev until Hebron (Num. 13:22)?”

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: Occam’s Razor. Where is the crisis in faith or the fatal contradiction?  Calev bears extra mention, while Yehoshua is taken for granted, having already been noted.  Hebron is a special stopping point so that the good spies can pray at M’arat HaMachpelah, so it bears extra mention, even as it lays a foundation for understanding why Calev is giving Hebron as an inheritance, further demonstrating a coherence and consistency of text between Sifrei Yehoshua and D’varim.  What’s the problem?  Why turn it into two authors?  Columbus thought he had arrived at India; he called the people “Indians.”  He recorded that he arrived in India.  Others report that he arrived in the Western hemisphere. Two separate narratives?  Two separate explorers?  Did the Nina and Pinta go toIndia, while the Santa Maria went to Cleveland? 


8.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “2. The Torah describes some of Israel’s neighbors—Ishmael, Midian, Edom—as being descendants of Abraham, and others of Abraham’s nephew Lot—Moab, Ammon. Firstly, it seems rather improbable to assume that the entire surrounding culture of the area were all descendants of one person, especially if that person arrived in the area when it was already populated.”

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: All of South America already was populated when the Spaniards arrived: Cortez to the Aztecs in Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas in Peru.  Is it believable that they all ended up speaking the same Spanish so soon?  What happened to the languages of the Aztecs and the Incas?  Just because a few conquerors came on ships to deeply entrenched peoples who had spoken their languages for centuries before the Spanish?  After Joseph Smith was murdered, Brigham Young moved his small religious group to the state of Utah.  Is it believable that such a small religious group of outcasts effectively could have turned Utah, a bonafide state within mainlandAmerica, into a state so dominated by Mormonism?  Does it make sense that Jonas Bronck, a Dutch immigrant who lived there only four years in the aftermath of the 1637 Tulip Mania, ended up having the entire borough named for him?  Is it believable that one man led several different countries to independence, as Simon Bolivar did forVenezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia?


9.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “More problematic is the fact that stories that occur very soon after Abraham’s lifetime already assume that his son’s have become a nationality.” 

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: Until May 1964, there was virtually no such thing as an Arab nationality of “Palestinians.”  They simply were “Arabs,” while most of the world deemed the Jews of Israel to be the “Palestinians.”  (The Israeli Jews’ Anglophonic newspaper was the “Palestine Post.”  They raised funds through the “Jewish National Fund for Palestine” and the “United Jewish Appeal for Palestine.” The pro-Irgun organization inAmerica headed by Peter Bergson/Hillel Kook and by Shmuel Merlin was the “American League for a Free Palestine.”  Even the movie “Exodus” was replete with Paul Newman’s fictional Ari Ben Canaan leading the effort to transport Jews from Cyprus to Palestine.).  A month later, after Ahmed Shukairy convened the First Palestinian National Council that met from May 28-June 2, 1964, he declared his minions to be “Palestinians,” and the “nationality” of “Palestinians” took form virtually overnight.


10.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM: “3. There is no evidence of a massive collapse in Egypt during the Ramasside period, or other periods close to it, and there is no record of any slave revolt or escape in Egyptian texts.”

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT: What do Egyptian history books write about the 1956 War?  The 1967 War?  If Messiah has not yet arrived, what will they write in 3,300 years about those wars?  Will there be evidence and proof in the historical record?


11.  THE BIBLE CRITICISM:  As a general matter, there are Bible Critics who comment that a book that repeats many prior teachings, as does the Book of D’varim, must have been authored by an alternative teaching source, even as the Critics point to omissions from the Repetition to bolster their claims of competing traditions and narratives.

RESPONSIVE THOUGHT:  I am an Adjunct Professor of Law.  Through 14 two-hour lectures each term, I teach my advanced students, respectively, the Law of Advanced Torts and the Law of California Civil Procedure.  As the term progresses, more and more laws, facts and opinions, aggregate upon each other in my students’ notes.  By term’s end, I always try to make some time to offer them an end-of-term Review session, aiming to put all the pieces together into a really coherent and elegantly crafted final edifice. However, each term’s Review session will different from a previous term’s.  This year, for example, the procedural issue of “standing” dominated much legal discussion as the United Supreme Court moved towards ruling on the Constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 that would have refused to recognize same-sex marriages.   Knowing as I anticipated that an important segment of the case appeal would turn on “standing,” I emphasized “standing” more during my Spring 2013 review than I did in prior terms.  In Advanced Torts, some terms I feel that I want to use a review session to help some students better master the concept of securities fraud, while other terms I may feel that an extra word on invasion-of-privacy will be helpful. No two Reviews are identical.  Moreover, given the limits on the human capacity to absorb — and, more practically, reined in by the inexorable ticking of the clock — I may have to leave some things out in order to  be sure to get other things in.  No “repetition” or review of material can be or should be verbatim and identical.  Depending on the listeners’ needs, capacities, and proven actions after having been taught the first time, the focus of the “end-of-term review” has to be modeled differently in some areas while being identical in others.  Where people demonstrably need greater clarity, there is good reason to add detail.  Where people find themselves about to enter a new practical phase of life, those heightened areas about to confront them need greater emphasis.  Where a new generation has come to life, some things need to be spoken “all over again” while other things that already have “taken hold” do not need repetition.  It is like that in every subject, in every legal system.  It just is the natural way of reviewing and repeating a large corpus of information. For Moshe Rabbeinu, having taught a Nation of millions for nearly forty years and now on the precipice of leaving them, the Book of D’varim makes the most perfectly logical sense.  He had taught their parents’ generation, all of whose men and many of whose women now have died during four decades’ peregrination through the Wilderness, and this new Generation is about to be without him.  He is talking to them, teaching them, emphasizing what needs to be emphasized and necessarily omitting what cannot also be fit in within the clock’s ticking of the final moments.  He is reminding them what they have seen and telling them what their parents saw, reminding them of the cause-and-effect experiences that their parents’ mistakes brought about, hoping they will learn from others’ mistakes instead of having to make those mistakes themselves.  As he ascends Mount Nevo, they are prepared for the Final exam: to enter a Promised Land and to create a culture and civilization faithful to his teachings, overseen by his disciple Joshua, but without his personal presence.  It makes perfect sense.


Dov Fischer, an Adjunct Professor of Law and former Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County in Irvine, California and a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Guest Post by Rabbi Dr. Avi Kadish: Orthodoxy and the Humanities, a Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

August 6, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Humanities: A Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

by Rabbi Dr. Seth Avi Kadish

Rav Yitzchak, without getting into the specifics of how the examples in the first part of your article were chosen, nor the kinds of methodologies needed to deal with them, I think that part of your essay is making a single basic point (with which I agree): Biblical scholarship is ultimately part of the humanities.

In the humanities, the pendulum swings back and forth as the generations go by (in a way unlike the hard sciences): There is always room for an alternative approach, so long as a persuasive argument can be made to justify it, which is then subject to the criticism of peers. Though methodologies are improved, and new evidence may come to light, the currently accepted approach may still have no greater claim on the truth than do its alternatives from the past and in the future. This is the beauty of the humanities, and the source of their value and power, because the ever swinging pendulum is also an essential aspect of humanity.

One need not accept the regnant view in any area of the humanities, neither in biblical scholarship nor for Homer. Furthermore, to enter the humanities with an uncommon outlook or a different set of assumptions, far from being a hindrance, is actually a boon. It can open new doors and uncover new truths, provided that it is honestly acknowledged.

A deep subjective faith, grounded in the national memory of Israel about our core experiences, is as healthy and valid as any other perspective. I stand with you on this, not with Rav Zev. And like you I think those experiences matter for our relationship with God. The essential validity of this subjective approach is, in my opinion, the rich inheritance bequeathed by Rav Hasdai Crescas to thinking Torah Jews in the modern world. (I hope to write about that soon in a different forum, as well as address your point that “sometimes quantity is quality” which is true as far as it goes, but in my opinion fails to take medieval assumptions fully into account). So acknowledge your loyalties openly, and go on with that to participate honestly and respectfully in the humanities and in biblical scholarship.

At the same time, as a Torah Jew, there is no need to debate the “Orthodoxy” of people whose intellectual quests take them where you don’t see a need to go. Despite all the current verbiage to the contrary, there is no mitzvah nor any halakhic need to do so.

To engage in this is the עצת יצר הרע, [counsel of the “evil inclination”], its greatest tool today for creating hatred and stifling thought and discussion in Am Yisrael. The yetzer works to cause evil specifically through Torah scholars and committed Jews, whom it has convinced that doing this is both necessary and right. Of course they sound convincing, and many of them like yourself are not at all malicious, but the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah.

The constant effort to define “Orthodoxy” and make decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” has nothing to do with living our covenant with God in today’s reality. The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions. So instead please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you (and to me), not what you think it needs to mean for others.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish earned his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied at Yeshiva University were he received his rabbinic ordination and master’s degrees in Bible and Jewish Education. He currently teaches medieval Jewish philosophy and history at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He has also taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education corps and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University’s Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children, where he is involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are meant to be open and welcoming to the entire public. Rabbi Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.

Guest Post by Rav Yitzchak Blau: The Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism

August 5, 2013

The Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism

by Yitzchak Blau

The recently launched website, , includes writings of several professors and rabbis.  I think it can be fairly said that at least some of the point of the website is to argue that logic forces us to accept some version of the documentary hypothesis and that religiously committed Jews should endorse such acceptance.  I do not think that reason compels us to accept the DH nor do I think Orthodoxy can be reconciled with it.

The following brief reactions make no claim of solving all the issues raised by Bible critics but merely to show how their evidence is less overwhelming than portrayed and to provide some categories for addressing their points.  In particular, I note potential resolutions differing from that of R. Mordechai Breuer and his school.  R. Breuer affirms that different biblical passages conflict and that the conflict can only be overcome if each passage conveys an aspect of the divine message.  The categories below represent reasons for denying conflicts to begin with.

All the examples addressed here come from  I admit that I have sometimes selected from the critics’ weaker arguments because these examples will encourage readers to think more critically about definitive statements emerging from the academy.  After outlining the categories, I will turn to the theological issues at hand.


1)    Anticipation is reasonable:  Professor Stephen Garfinkel argues that Bemidbar 9 clearly includes a later editorial addition since there would be no need to discuss someone too distant to bring the Paschal offering in the desert.  Why couldn’t there be an anticipation of entering the land where some would be too far away to bring the offering?  There is nothing illogical about that.  Furthermore, several Bemidbar passages explicitly address laws that turn relevant upon entering the land (Bemidbar 15:2, 15:17).

2)    Retelling can be partial: When a work tells a story for the second time, there is no need to repeat every detail.  In other words, a shortened version is not a contradiction.  Rabbi Zev Farber writes that according to the account in Devarim 1, Moshe initiates the addition of judges whereas in Shemot 18, Yitro suggests the idea.  This is not accurate.  Devarim does not say whose idea it was; it only focuses on implementation.  A retelling leaving out a discussion of who came up with the idea is quite understandable

3)    Context affects which details appear:  Professor Marc Brettler says that Vayikra 23 portrays Sukkot as an eight day festival whereas Devarim 16 only has a seven day celebration.  Actually, Vayikra 23 knows of a seven day Sukkot festival (see Vayikra 23:34) but also adds another celebration on day eight.  Since the Devarim passage is primarily interested in the three times a year we travel to the mikdash, there is no need to mention Shmini Azaret which does not call for another journey.

Prof. Adele Berlin writes that the Korah rebellion merges two different accounts.  One of her proofs is that Devarim 11:6 only mentions Datan and Aviram and not Korah.  However, the context there is not a full recounting of the rebellion but the affirmation that a generation that saw God’s wonders and punishing hand should adhere to the divine command.   Given the context, there is no attempt to give an exhaustive account of the rebellion and there may be good reason to highlight Datan and Aviram more than Korah (see the suggestions of Ramban, Rabbenu Bahya, Abravanel and Neziv).  For one, Datan and Aviram are the most brazen and verbally aggressive members of the rebellion in Bemidbar 16.

It should also be noted that the mere presence in Bemidbar of different factions with varying motivations in a rebellion certainly does not show a combination of different accounts.  Almost all complex political conflict involves groups with distinct motivations banding together.

4)    A second passage can add components:   R. Farber argues that in Shmeot 21, a slave goes free after six years whereas in Vayikra 25, he goes free at yovel.  In response, I note that Shemot addresses the regular laws of avdut while Vayikra discusses the laws of yovel.   In the context of the yovel discussion, we discover a new halakhic detail about slaves. This is not a contradiction.  Regarding this issue, R. Breuer provides a cogent explanation for the distinct themes of slavery in Shemot and in Vayikra.  See also R. Shalom’ Carmy’s analysis in Hebraic Political Studies Fall 2009.

5)    Contradictions that do not contradict:  Prof. Deena Grant writes that the account of the golden calf in Devarim 9 leaves out the punishment of Am Yisrael since this account understands the making of a golden calf as part of an attempt to worship God; thus, the people were not guilty of a serious transgression. This would then differ from the version in Shemot.   However, Devarim 9:19 states that God wanted to wipe out the people if not for Moshe’s pleading.  Clearly, Devarim also views the calf episode as a major transgression.

Prof. Norman Solomon writes that author of the Shemot version of the dibrot focuses on the mythic and the sacral so the reason for Shabbat is to commemorate God’s creation.  Devarim’s author is more interested in social concerns so the rationale for Shabbat becomes commemorating the exodus.  Along the same lines, shemitah takes an ethical and social turn only in Devarim 15.  Yet Shemot 20:10 already mentions the need to give slaves, animals and strangers the day off from work.  Therefore, the social component is arguably present in Shemot.   Indeed, Ibn Ezra (Shemot 20:1) views the account in Devarim as Moshe’s elucidation of Shemot.  Moshe picked up on the social theme implicit in the first version.  Moreover, while the dissolving of debt during the sabbatical year does not appear in Vayikra 25, the freeing of slaves and other ethical/social concerns run through the chapter.   Thus, Solomon’s neat split between different authors breaks down.                   

R. Farber writes that Bemidbar lists Kalev and Yehoshua as the heroes of the spies episode whereas Devarim only enumerates Kalev.  Yet as he himself notes, a verse in Bemidbar (14:24) also only mentions Kalev.  Furthermore, two verses after the singling out of Kalev in Devarim 1:36, verse 38 mentions that Yehoshua will lead the people into Israel.  Thus, there is no contradiction.

Though this essay focuses primarily on the question of contradictions, I will address one more issue.  R. Farber argues that Yaakov could not have had eleven children in seven years.   Give Yaakov’s four wives, the only possible difficulty relates to Leah having seven children during this time period.   A survey of contemporary haredi and hardali families will reveal that this can happen today even without the special connection that a patriarch and matriarch have with God.

As stated above, I am not claiming to have defeated the DH in this short presentation.  There are difficult challenges presented by biblical criticism not discussed above.  I do hope to have begun the process of showing how arguments in favor of multiple authorship are not nearly as conclusive as often stated and of providing some categories for addressing their claims.

The recent postings by Rabbi Farber have generated a significant amount of internet discussion.   Some defenders of R. Farber’s approach utilize Ibn Ezra and others as potential precedents for his views.  I believe that the problems his views carry for traditional Judaism are quite deep and cannot be minimized by citing Ibn Ezra.

1)    Sometimes quantity is quality.  If Ibn Ezra was wiling to attribute a very small group of verses to a later prophet, it does not follow that viewing the entire Torah as a hodgepodge of multiple authors is simply an extension of the same.   R. Farber’s approach challenges the notion of the Torah as the word of God in a way that Ibn Ezra does not.

2)    How does the Torah differ from other prophetic books?  Traditional Judaism views the Torah as the word of God.  Its divine message has an unmediated clarity not found in Shmuel or Yeshayahu.  That is why Jewish thought emphasizes the uniqueness of Mosaic prophecy.  How does R. Farber’s account maintain this distinction?

3)    Historical truth:  Our relationship with God is based on a covenant he made with our ancestors.  We are grateful for his providential acting in history and our bond with God was cemented in the two great events of the exodus and the covenant at Sinai.  Sinai reflects a grand revelation that will not be equaled and that assures the eternality of Torah.  Denying the historicity of the avot, the exodus, and Sinai challenges the entire edifice of our faith.

In his critique of those who take the bible as making historical truth claims, R. Farber writes that their approach “strikes me as an attempt to depict the Almighty as a news reporter.”  This is an unfair rhetorical gambit in order to knock the opposition.  Decisions we make in all walks of life, including religion, depend on what we think historically occurred.  There is no justification for criticizing those who think the reality of the exodus or Sinai matters as somehow cheapening the Torah.

4)    The Nature of Halakha: We traditionally view Halakha as a combination of a) the word of God setting up a framework and providing certain details with b) human involvement in interpreting the divine word.  In Rabbi Farber’s presentation, does the first category exist or is everything a product of human interpretation?  How will this affect our understanding of and commitment to Halakha?

For example, many Orthodox Jews struggle with halakhot we find morally troubling.   According to Rabbi Farber’s theology, we should simply attribute all such halakhot to the mistakes of human prophets and drop them.  Only those who believe in Humash as the divine word could justifiably struggle with implementing the concepts of agunot and mamzerim.  Those who see Humash as reflecting human limitations and errors would have no moral right to apply any of these halakhot.  Of course, one could view this as an advantage of R. Farber’s approach but it certainly is foreign to halakhic discourse of the last two thousand years.

5)    The DH is not just about multiple authorship:  Academic scholarship does not only differ from our tradition in that it posits multiple authors.  The dominant trend in the academic world is to portray those various authors as engaged in petty politics and trying to score points for their team.   Authors from the Aaronids are against authors representing the non-Aaronids; writers from the kingdom of Judea contest against the writers from the kingdom of Israel.  This attitude removes all sense of sanctity from the bible.   (I deal with this issue more in depth in my forthcoming critique of James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible).  R. Farber apparently does not endorse this attitude but he needs to clarify how he accepts academic arguments for multiple authorship without accepting other aspects of academic methodology.

Finally, one last ממה נפשך question about R. Farber’s approach.  We can differentiate between varying perspectives that complement each other and achieve integration and those that cannot.  An ethicist might argue that the best ethical system integrates deontological and consequentialist elements.  However, it would be harder to successfully integrate nihilism with the belief in objective morality.    If two biblical accounts in Humash reflect the understanding of different prophets, are the two accounts subject to integration?  If not, how will we maintain a sense of the divinity and truth of the Torah?  If yes, why adopt R. Farber’s approach rather than accepting R. Breuer’s claim that God wanted to teach a range of themes.  The only reason to prefer R. Farber’s approach would be the assertion that human misunderstandings permeate these biblical messages.  This returns us to the problems raised above

I would like to close with a couple of personal notes.  If someone is intellectually convinced of the DH, this does not make them evil and they are not necessarily involved in a sinister plot.  For all I know, the authors contributing to are very fine human beings and I have no interest in saying derogatory things about them.  Yet we can still strongly disagree with them and conclude that their views are incompatible with Orthodoxy.

Secondly, there are voices in our community obsessed with kicking left wing Modern Orthodox rabbis out of Orthodoxy.  I view this as an unhealthy and problematic obsession and I want no part of it.  However, this does not mean that those criticizing are always wrong.   In this case, I think the traditional critics of R. Farber are correct.

Finally, a word to my friends on the left.  It is the nature of things that those who feel persecuted and those who have experienced unfair criticism see all episodes in that light.  In the same way, some Jews cry anti – Semitism every time a Jew does not get a job or a Jew is censured.   Such a victim complex is extremely unhelpful and it prevents acknowledgment of real problems.   Whether or not your right wing critics are always correct or consistently fair now is the time to affirm that R. Farber’s views are incompatible with Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and the Orayta Yeshiva and has previously taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. He has published articles on many areas of Jewish thought as well as a book of aggadic interpretations, “Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada,” published by Ktav. Rabbi Blau has a BA in English Literature from YU, an MA in Medieval Jewish History from Revel, and semikha from RIETS. Rabbi Blau lives in Alon Shevut with his wife and four children.