“Beliefs, Boundaries, and the Need for Theology” Guest Post by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

PART I:  A Response to Rabbi Kadish

1)     All concepts have boundaries; otherwise, they lose any meaning.   Atheists or Buddhists can also declare themselves Orthodox Jews but I need not agree with their self – assessment.   If everything coheres with the identity of “Orthodox Jew” then there is no such entity.  Feminists would justifiably object to a fellow who thinks that women should just cook dinner and rear children declaring himself a feminist.  Believers in democracy would object to a communist referring to his regime as democratic.   Every group has standards and qualifications.  Otherwise, one does not stand for anything.

See the evaluation of Avi Sagi’s article in my book review in the September 2008 edition of Meorot.

2)     Neutralizing the significance of belief and making Jewish identity purely behavioral does not prevent exclusion.   If someone lacking any commitment to halakha cannot declare his approach to be Orthodox, we still maintain a communal discourse that excludes other positions.  David Berger makes this point in his Tradition Summer 1999 review of Menachem Kellner.

3)     This point becomes even stronger if the opinions come from a rabbi or communal leader of some kind.   If our group stands for certain ideas and ideals and we are concerned about a voice influencing others away from our ideals, it seems that we would have every right to protest.

4)     Religion lacks coherence without a belief structure that explains why we adhere to religious practices; otherwise, mizvot turn into mindless behaviorism.   See my review of Marc Shapiro in The Torah u”Madda Journal Volume 12.

5)     Beliefs matter both intrinsically and because they influence practice.  If a child of mine told me he thought that African Americans were an inferior race, I would be very upset even if it turned out he did not treat them any differently than other people.  I view the mere holding of such a belief as wrong.  In addition, I would be nervous that it will ultimately affect how he treats people.

6)     Furthermore, beliefs affect the value of what I do.  If I keep mizvot because I believe a supremely wise and benevolent deity commanded them, that is quite different from observing Jewish law because a malicious and powerful tyrant will send me to hell if I do not.

7)     Sanhedrin 10:1 makes it difficult to argue that Hazal were indifferent to belief or did not think it criterion of exclusion.   I am curious why R. Kadish thinks citing rishonim who believed in dogma helps his position.  R. Yosef Albo did include a category in which people who honestly arrive at erroneous theological beliefs should not be treated as koferim and I happily endorse that position.  However, his entire discussion assumes that there is a set of erroneous beliefs beyond the pale of normative Judaism.

Now the arguments above do not prove me right in our particular situation.  One can concede that concepts have boundaries worth fighting about and that beliefs matter and still say that I misapplied these principles.  However, these points do change the nature of the conversation.   We should not rush to exclude but, in principle, there is nothing problematic with saying a particular viewpoint is beyond Orthodoxy.

8)     Finally, I am not judging people but arguing about the world of ideas.  I explicitly wrote that those convinced by the DH are not evil and that I am not interested in saying anything derogatory about them.  I fully disagree with the pseudonymous commentator on my post who accused adherents of the DH of using bad arguments to maintain secular liberal values.  There are certainly people genuinely convinced of the DH for authentic reasons but that does not mean I have to agree with them or cannot contest their stand.

I do not know Rabbi Farber and think that he may be a wonderful human being.  However, I also think that concepts have boundaries, that beliefs matter, and that one can strongly disagree with another’s ideas without rejecting them as people.

One final question for those who think beliefs are a free for all.  I recall reading once that a talented mid – twentieth century musmakh from JTS was offered a prominent pulpit but he turned it down since he no longer believed in God (he later became a well – known philosophy professor).    Several people involved urged him to take the position anyway but he refused.  In your view, was this an act of great integrity or should he have simply taken the job and perhaps written a manifesto explaining that belief in God does not matter for Conservative Judaism?

PART II:  A Response to Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi David Steinberg’s critique of my approach to Shemini Azeret ignores half of my answer.  He asks why Devarim 16 includes mention of the seventh day of Pesach and not of Shemini Azeret.  In my original post, I noted that Shemini Azeret is a separate holiday; indeed, Vayikra 23 also knows of a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   Likewise, Bemidbar 29 depicts the seventh day of Pesach differently than Shemini Azeret and it describes a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   This dissolves his question.  Since the seventh day of Pesach is an integral part of Pesach, it receives mention.

R. Steinberg’s counter example of Shemot 23 actually supports my approach.   He seems to agree that the short account there is primarily interested in the pilgrimage aspect of the holidays.  Yet the pesukim there mention the commandment to eat matza while leaving out all other ritual requirements.   Apparently, even a more focused presentation adds some other elements.  Devarim 16 adds more Pesach requirements without giving an exhaustive list of all the mizvot of the hagim.

According to R. Steinberg’s methodology, the perspective in Devarim also does not believe in the four species, the omer offering, shtei halehem on Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur.  Furthermore, Vayikra 23 does not think one need rejoice on the festivals.  Along the same lines, Devarim 22:12 does not know about tekhelet strings whereas Bemidbar 15 thinks the commandment of tzitzit applies even to all garments and not just those with four corners.  I suggest that it is more reasonable to say that the Torah includes different details in varying contexts.

R. Steinberg thinks gratitude should mandate Moshe’s mentioning that Yitro came up with the idea of judges.  Everything has its time, place, and context.  In Devarim 1, Moshe is admonishing the people for their quarreling forcing the need for additional judges.  In that context, whose idea it was to institute judges is not of great relevance.

I wrote that the Pesach Sheni passage anticipates their entering the land and therefore it addresses those too distant to bring the offering.   R. Steinberg asks why the Torah does not explicitly say “when you enter the land.”  Once the Torah clearly does anticipate halakhot that would only be practiced later, I think we have a more reasonable explanation for discussing those far away than positing a later interpolation.  This remains true even if I could not answer why the Torah does not add the phrase “when you enter the land.”  However, I have explanations.  The two verses in Bemidbar 15 address commandments that have no bearing at all until they enter the land.  Pesach Sheni, by contrast, is relevant immediately; it is only that one particular detail kicks in later.  Therefore, the Torah does not introduce the Pesach Sheni passage with “when you enter the land.”  Furthermore, in Bemidbar 15, God wanted to reassure Am Yisrael after the punishment for the sin of the spies (Bemidbar 14) that they will ultimately enter the land.  Therefore, He explicitly speaks of their future entry.

I fully agree that Korah was the ringleader of the rebellion.  Not surprisingly, when Zelofhad’s daughters want to say that their father was not part of the rebellious band, they refer to him.  Devarim 11 is about the rest of Am Yisrael learning from punishments they witnessed and in that context, the Torah focuses more on the verbal aggression of Datan and Aviram as exemplars of the degradation and destruction engendered by sinful behavior.

This example also points to a broader methodological issue.  According to the critics, Bemidbar 16 reflects a redactor splicing two stories together while Bemidbar 27 and Devarim 11 reflect the two stories in their distinct format.  For adherents of the DH, the redactor sometimes integrated conflicting traditions (the flood), sometimes left them distinct (wife-sister stories), and sometimes did both (Korah).   Thus, integration plus distinctiveness plus a mixture of the two all cohere with the work of the redactor. This sets up an approach which allows almost any evidence to fit with the work of the redactor.

A similar problem comes when one notes that an E or J passage includes a theme that should not be there according to the critical approach.  The critics often answer that this is a later interpolation.  Again, this allows almost any evidence to fit the critical perspective, an allowance which makes the entire endeavor less scientific.

Let us examine one expression of the critical approach to solving the Korah problem more carefully. As James Kugel explains it: “The Korah element, scholars say, was added later by a priestly writer; it was another salvo in the “Who is a priest” battle that we have already seen….the purported priestly author of this revised version of the episode did not hold that view; he believed that only Aaronids could be priests.  Indeed, this is the great lesson, according to scholars, that the Korah episode in its final form was designed to impart” (How to Read the Bible, p. 334.)  In other words, one political faction made up a story to try to discredit the opposition.  Does such an approach indicate that academic bible study has much to add to our appreciation for the sanctity and divinity of Torah?

Defenders of the traditional position should sometimes address specifics and I have attempted to do a bit of this in my two posts.  At the same time, I think there is something to be said for arguments working off a global perspective.  Treating the Torah as a unified document has worked for centuries and has produced glorious results full of ethical and religious wisdom.  Scholars such as Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who have treated the Torah as a unified whole (even if they personally accept multiple authorship) have added profound contributions and located meaningful ideas in the text.  To some degree, this in and of itself adds support for the unified theory.  I understand that one could attribute all of this to a redactor (and to the ingenuity of human interpretation) but this redactor seems to have been a remarkably talented fellow.  It is hard to find a parallel achievement of redaction in human history.

Finally, we come to the question of theology.  My original post mentioned several theological problems with Rabbi Farber’s approach.  Rabbi Steinberg does not address any of them.  Instead, Rabbi Steinberg contrasts those with “half baked answers,” “lack of faith,” ideas that are “far from satisfying” and apparently not “serious” with those who have “real emunah,” a “nuanced approach to Torah and mitzvoth,” and “a thoughtful and compelling synthesis of traditional and academic approaches.”  If you will excuse a blunt formulation, rhetoric is no substitute for working out a theology.

Reading the posts on thetorah.com seems to set up the following set of assumptions.  The Torah was written by flawed human beings and is full of human errors.  It contains contradictory approaches that cannot truly be reconciled.  Some of the contradictions are there because warring political factions were trying to score points for their teams.  The exodus and the revelation at Sinai did not occur.  Much of the Torah simply copies laws and myths from the Ancient Near East.  To add one more point fairly common in academic studies, the Torah is full of etiological tales not intended to teach any religious or ethical wisdom.  For example, Bereishit 26 is not meant to teach us anything about proper character or behavior but simply an explanation for how Be’er Sheva received its name. Yet none of this is a problem since we assert that the Torah is divine or that is has been sanctified by the collective wisdom of Am Yisrael.

Divinity and sanctity are words with meaning; they are not magic formulations that solve all problems as long as I include them in a sentence.  What does the “divinity” of the Torah mean for those who accept the assumptions above? Those who think that academic biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are compatible have a lot more work to do before they talk of a “thoughtful and compelling synthesis.”

Even those who think beliefs insignificant should realize the seriousness of the matter.  We have experience with modern Jewish ideologies that rooted halakhic observance in the decision making of “Catholic Israel” or in vague notions of the divinity of scripture and their track record in inspiring ongoing observance and commitment is quite poor.  If so, Rabbi Steinberg is incorrect when he writes that we have little to lose.  While those fully convinced by the DH will likely find this point irrelevant, those of us unconvinced have every reason to fight.

This will be my last post on this topic in this forum. I realize that my critics may get the last word but someone has to and I hope that I have already made a contribution.  Those interested in a few examples in which the artistry of the unified text is missed by source critics insistent on finding multiple authors may enjoy the first chapter of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and the fifth chapter of Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation.   Finally, my comment about “magic formulations” owes something to Alan Brill’s (second) point number 5 in the following blog post.

Appendix

My original post only commented on examples from the website http://www.thetorah.com.   In order to underscore examples of other methodological flaws prevalent in academic bible study, I now turn to other sources.  These examples do not constitute a refutation of the DH since every approach has weak manifestations and poor practitioners.  However, cases of flawed use of a methodology sometimes help highlight problems in the entire endeavor.

1)     Bias towards finding conflicts.  The well – known bible scholar Claus Westermann writes that Yeshayahu 56:3-5 cancels the regulation of Devarim 23:2 (see his Isaiah 40-66, p. 313).  Many prominent scholars endorse this position (see the list in footnote 5 of Jacob Wright’s article in JBL 2012).  As Prof. Wright ably points out, there is no conflict between the two verses whatsoever.  Devarim speaks of someone with crushed genitals whereas Yeshayahu speaks of a eunuch. They do not address the same group of people. Furthermore, the passage in Yeshayahu says nothing about the eunuch joining the assembly of God (traditionally understood as relating to marriage) but only about God granting him a legacy better than children.  Even if we posit that both verses describe the identical group of people, Devarim instructs us that they cannot marry in to the community while Yeshayahu says that they can still leave a lasting monument as productive individuals in the house of God.

Prof. Wright contributed a blog entry for the Huffington Post which exemplifies particular flaws in academic bible study.  He discerns several historical stages based on analysis of the first two chapters of Shemot.  According to Wright, the second chapter was first an independent story originating as a response to the question of why Moshe, the great Jewish leader, had an Egyptian name.  The account clarifies his Jewish lineage.  In the original story, Moshe was abandoned by his mother not as a life – saving measure but because there was something illicit about his birth. Since many found the idea that the savior of Am Yisrael was the offspring of an illegitimate union disconcerting, chapter one was added to offer a different reason for placing Moshe in the Nile.

2)     Speculative ideas stated as scholarly conclusions: This kind of historical reconstruction is a highly speculative endeavor and should not be said with assurance.  Just based on the biblical account, it seems improbable that Prof. Wright could confidently tell us about different literary stages and the motivation for each one.

3)     Circular reasoning:  Some DH analysis posits what it wants to establish.  In his argument against the sequential reading, Wright says regarding chapter two: “Nothing is said here about Pharaoh’s decree to slay all Hebrew male children.”  That argument already assumes a break between chapter one and chapter two.  If we read the text as a unity, then chapter two assumes we know why Moshe’s mother wants to hide her baby; Pharoah has decreed the death of all male children.

In fact, only the unified reading makes sense of chapter two which does not explain why she would want to hide her baby.  The baby being “beautiful” or “good” (Shemot 2: 2) might give a mother added resolve to try a desperate measure but it is not a reason per se to hide a child.  Prof. Wright’s idea about the hiding and abandonment of an illicit child appears nowhere in the text.  Ultimately, he prefers breaking up the two chapters and adding a reason for hiding not founded in the text to reading the two chapters as a unified whole where the reason for hiding explicitly appears.

4)     Good questions do not support bad answers.  Prof. Wright supports his theory about the illicit union from the Torah not telling us the name of the father.  Why the Torah does not explicitly name Moshe’s parents is a good question but this does nothing to suggest that their relations were problematic. The Torah is not reticent about recounting flawed behavior including that of Jewish heroes and their relatives.  Why should it suddenly go silent on the names of Moshe’s parents?

 

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.

10 Responses to “Beliefs, Boundaries, and the Need for Theology” Guest Post by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

  1. IH says:

    Since R. Blau has referenced Prof. David Berger in his response, I would be interested in why R. Blau, specifically, thinks that a belief in the second coming of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson is within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, but a non-literal reading of Rambam’s 8th Ikkar is outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

    Also, does he think that Prof. Schiffman’s view that “we now know that many textual variants [of the Bible] result not only from transmission, but from interpretation and linguistic updating, phenomena that, before the discovery of the [Dead Sea] scrolls, could not have been understood” puts him outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy?

    After all “all concepts have boundaries; otherwise, they lose any meaning”.

    • shaul shapira says:

      IH-

      I Just discovered your comments.

      “Since R. Blau has referenced Prof. David Berger in his response, I would be interested in why R. Blau, specifically, thinks that a belief in the second coming of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson is within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, but a non-literal reading of Rambam’s 8th Ikkar is outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy?”

      I can see why believing a dead person will be ressurected and become the messiah (or believing that he never died) is a lot less consequential than believing that “The Torah was written by flawed human beings and is full of human errors. It contains contradictory approaches that cannot truly be reconciled. Some of the contradictions are there because warring political factions were trying to score points for their teams. The exodus and the revelation at Sinai did not occur. Much of the Torah simply copies laws and myths from the Ancient Near East”.

      “Also, does he think that Prof. Schiffman’s view that “we now know that many textual variants [of the Bible] result not only from transmission, but from interpretation and linguistic updating, phenomena that, before the discovery of the [Dead Sea] scrolls, could not have been understood” puts him outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy?”

      Seriously??! Did you even read this post? To quote R Blau:

      “Scholars such as Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who have treated the Torah as a unified whole (even if they personally accept multiple authorship) have added profound contributions and located meaningful ideas in the text. ”

      After all “all concepts have boundaries; otherwise, they lose any meaning”.

      I’m glad you agree🙂 Again I will link to R Avi Weiss’s three points of differentiation between O and C http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_Orthodox_Judaism#Conservative_Judaism

  2. IH says:

    I was pleased to see R. Blau mention Robert Alter favorably. As I have commented here and elsewhere, I find his approach more compelling myself. That said, I note that in the past two parshiot, Alter prefers the DSS/Septuagint textual variant over our Masoretic text on three occasions:

    1. Deut 31:1: “And Moses finished speaking these words” (Va’yechal Le’Daber instead of Va’yelech Va’Yedaber).
    2. Deut 32:8 “by the number of the sundry gods” (Le’Mispar Beney Elohim instead of Le’Mispar Beney Yisrael).
    3. Deut 32:43 where it is helpful to excerpt his commentary to get more of a sense of his shita:
    “The Qumran text again approximately confirming the Septuagint, has a partly divergent reading: “Gladden, 0 heavens, His people, / and let all divine beings bow before Him. // For His sons’ blood He will avenge / and vengeance turn back on His foes. // And His enemies He will requite / and purge His people’s soil.” There are grounds for thinking this reading might be more authentic than the Masoretic Text. The invocation of the heavens at the end of the poem would correspond neatly to the apostrophe to the heavens at the beginning, whereas turning to the nations at the end is a little odd. As in the probable substitution of “sons of Israel” for “sundry gods” in verse 8, later editors for reasons of monotheistic rigor might have been impelled to delete the reference that follows to all divine beings (kol ‘elohim) bowing before the triumphant LORD. Finally, “His people’s soil” ( ‘admat ‘amo, in the construct state) makes better idiomatic sense than “His soil, His people” ( ‘admato “amo in seeming apposition).”

    The issue, then, coming back to R. Blau’s boundary setting agenda is whether even this kind of scholarship – which violates a literal reading of Rambam’s 7th and 8th Ikarrim – can be incorporated within the boundaries of Orthodoxy as he defines them.

  3. Rabbi Blau,

    I agree with nearly everything you write in principle, I just don’t think that the way you apply those principles is correct regarding either myself or Orthodox reality.

    Like you, I do not like what is called “Orthopraxy” and I think that mitzvot must have meaning. However, unlike you I don’t think such meaning needs to derive from the Rambam’s system of ikkarim. Rather than deriving from a list of “belief that”, they should derive from non-intellectual personal loyalties: Loyalty to God, loyalty to Israel. This approach is far more traditional and meaningful than that of the Rambam’s Ikkarim. And it is much healthier both for personal avodat Hashem and the national unity of Am Yisrael.

    Regarding the medieval systems of Ikkarim (including Albo), I will argue soon in a separate forum that the Rambam’s critics undermined his system at its very core, and that they are misunderstood when taken as just questioning the details of his list.

    You write: “We should not rush to exclude but, in principle, there is nothing problematic with saying a particular viewpoint is beyond Orthodoxy.” I agree in principle, but not in practice. Rather, I think that here we should listen to the Rambam as he writes in his ethical works: Sometimes when a person is sick he needs to take bitter medicine, which would be poison for a healthy person. And any imbalance needs to be rectified by going to the opposite extreme.

    I think that in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Orthodox Jews were literally fighting for the very survival of the Torah, it is arguable that drawing lines for “Orthodoxy” was an important and necessary tactic. But that painful tactic has turned into a very dangerous disease: In our day, when Torah is flourishing, we are drawing more lines than ever before, in extreme ways that have become literally insane. The bitter medicine of past generations have made the Torah world quite sick. So it may be legitimate in principle to draw lines, but doing so today is neither necessary nor healthy.

    In other words, it’s high time for Orthodox Judaism to go on major crash diet when it comes to the urge to draw lines. To regain its health, it needs to refocus on what Torah is rather than what it’s not.

    Bivrakhah,
    Seth (Avi) Kadish

  4. Also see my comment here:
    http://torahmusings.com/2013/09/kippah-and-gown-i/

    Whatever positions we take on these issues, I think it is very healthy that “thetorah.com” has started such a wide-ranging discussion in so many parallel forums. These issues used to be hidden within the English speaking Orthodox community, and only a few privileged people were able to acquire the resources for grappling with them. Now, the relevant ideas and resources are being made available to all.

  5. Yitzchak Blau says:

    I would like to clarify one section of the appendix so as to avoid an inadvertent insult of Prof. Wright.

    I wrote:”These examples do not constitute a refutation of the DH since every approach has weak manifestations and poor practitioners. However, cases of flawed use of a methodology sometimes help highlight problems in the entire endeavor.”

    The point of this section was to honestly admit that finding flawed examples from your opponents does not inherently invalidate their theories in total and, at the same time, to explain why it was worthwhile to note the flaws. In describing such examples, I used one term focusing on the examples (“weak manifestations”) and another emphasizing the authors (“poor practitioners”).
    There was no attempt here to broadly categorize the literary output of Prof. Wright. Having only read two of his scholarly articles, I make no evaluative judgment of his many publications. The rest of the appendix focused particularly on his analysis of Moshe because I thought it deserves serious criticism and that it helps highlight certain widespread problems in academic bible studies.

  6. Thanks. But these two are not scholarly articles that you responded to. The one is a short journalistic piece in Huffington Post. What’s even more bewildering is that the HuffPo piece and the Alan Brill interview defends the Supplementary Approach–not the Documentary Hypothesis, as you assume.
    If you would like to see examples of academic article or even a whole book in which I go through every phrase and word of an extensive text base, you can find examples on my academia.edu page.

  7. Holy Hyrax says:

    >If everything coheres with the identity of “Orthodox Jew” then there is no such entity.

    Exactly. This simple, but profound concept is something that for some reason Zev Farber wishes to ignore. Nobody is stopping him from believing in the DH, but please just stop trying to pass it off as orthodoxy just because you, Rabbi Farber are emotionally connected to orthodoxy. It’s not orthodoxy. Time to move on.

    And since Reform and Conservative Judaism have basically been the Jewish “Lab experiment” that tryng to pass the traditions to the next generation basically fail without the belief backing it up, we would really like his opinion (after so many requests) on why his approach will be different.

  8. My first public essay on fundamentals of the Torah has just appeared here (link to the first half):
    http://thetorah.com/discovering-god-rationalistic-1/

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