Fixing Sinai: Purim and Jewish Conscience: Barry Gelman

March 8, 2017

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Shabbat 88a. Thanks to Sefaria for providing the translation – https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.88a.5?lang=bi)

This account of what happened at Sinai is very different from what we read in the Torah. Besides the question that the Rabbis raise themselves – “ From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah”, this account raises another question.

The great Na’aseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) moment, when Bnei Yisrael accepted the torah unconditionally, is undermined by the Rabbinic version.

Why would the Rabbis offer this alternate account that makes Bnei Yisrael out to be reluctant to accept the Torah? Additionally, how were matters actually remedied on Purim?  Read the rest of this entry »


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

August 14, 2013

Introduction

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. TheTorah.com, 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 TheTorah.com 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 – TheTorah.com, 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 TheTorah.com, 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 thetorah.com, struggle along with us and join the conversation.

Rabbi David Steinberg

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


[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.


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.


Revelation and the Education of Modern Orthodox Rabbis

July 26, 2013

Guest Post by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President YCT Rabbinical School

As an Orthodox Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is committed to the classic, Torah-true mesoret of Torah Min Hashamyim, a basic tenet of Jewish belief. That is what we teach. As Rav Nati Helfgot, Chair of our Philosophy Department (Machshavawrote, the yeshiva teaches in a classical and traditional way that both the oral and written Torah were revealed to Moshe at Sinai and in the wilderness.

At the same time, as Rav Ysoscher Katz wrote, since we are an Open Orthodox rabbinical school, we want our students to struggle openly throughout their lives as they integrate the mesoret into their own hearts and souls.

Our talmidim are exposed to a range of views on Torah Min Hashamayim from our classic commentaries and thinkers, and students will embrace different views along this traditional spectrum. Some talmidim are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest.  One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT.  He discusses his struggle in more detail here.  Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim that we at the Yeshiva believe in.
 
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School actively encourages diversity of thought—all anchored within our students’ passion for their Orthodoxy. I invite you to become part of the conversation, part of a dynamic Orthodoxy that is open and contemporary, but, most important, an integral part of the unfolding of Hashem’s holy Torah, given to us all so long ago at Sinai.
 
 
 

The Torah, TheTorah.com, and the Recent Tumult in Context – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 25, 2013

Background

I completed two educations as an adult, religious and academic. After spending four years in yeshiva studying gemara and chumash intensely (and teaching chumash and gemara in my early twenties), I spent one year working on peshat and literary readings of Tanakh, then attained my semikha, followed by dayanut. That was my religious education. I also have an academic education. After my B.A. (in psychology), I completed an M.A. in Biblical History, and following a 6 year break, earned my Ph.D. in Jewish studies with a focus on Bible.

Throughout this period I led a bifurcated intellectual life. I understood that both the religious and academic courses of study were meaningful, and believed both in Torah Mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim, and academic bible studies. To live with this tension, I followed a version of the David Ben Gurion philosophy: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” In other words, I kept my academics academic and my halakha halakhic. This is still my philosophy, in essence, but over the past few years I have given serious thought as to whether I can make the two sides meet at any point, or, at least, put them in serious conversation. Thoughts were percolating in my head but nothing clear had as yet emerged.

 

Project TABS / TheTorah.com

The opportunity to begin to resolve a meeting point between academic Bible studies and classical religious faith emerged when Rabbi David Steinberg hired me to research and write for Project TABS’ website, TheTorah.com. Project TABS was founded by David Steinberg, a former kiruv professional, together with Marc Brettler, an observant Jewish Bible professor. According to the about page,

Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) is an educational organization founded to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of modern biblical scholarship.

When David and I first spoke, it turned out that we had had many of the same experiences even though we came from very different communities and backgrounds. Each of us had been contacted by people who were grappling with difficult questions. Some dropped out of the religion entirely; others stayed because they had children and spouses who wanted to, or because they enjoyed the social scene, but the fire had gone out. On top of this, it was becoming clear to me that a disturbing number of people in the Modern Orthodox world who were, ostensibly, doing well were, in fact, intellectually and emotionally checked out of Torah study. For some, the study of Torah lacked the intellectual intensity, rigor, and openness of their secular and professional pursuits. It was almost as if they “knew” that they couldn’t possibly really believe what they were being told, so they preferred not to invest too much emotional energy in it and risk disappointment, or worse.

At a certain point I realized that I had a choice: I could allow myself to avoid these questions, keeping whatever personal synthesis I had thought of to myself, or alternatively, I could offer my thoughts publicly and start a real conversation about the challenges academic biblical studies poses to the Orthodox Jew and brainstorm about how best to deal with it. It was beshert that David Steinberg and I were put in contact with each other at this time by another observant Bible scholar, since we both believed that the latter was the better course. In fact, it is part of my emunah that if otamo shel ha-Qadosh barukh Hu emet (the seal of the Holy One is truth) that an honest search would yield a way through.

The Manifesto

In my programmatic essay on Torah, History, and Judaism, recently posted on TheTorah.com, I offer my preliminary thoughts on a range of issues. No single point of my piece is novel in itself, but the overall presentation is meant to guide the reader through the full spectrum of my struggle to make sense of the divinity of Torah without denying aspects of academic biblical study that seemed to me to be correct.[1] Certainly, as some have pointed out, some or many of the conclusions of academic Bible study or archaeology could, in theory, shift over time in a very different direction and be disproven, but that point does not help the religious person stuck in a quandary today. We need to understand the world, including the Bible, according to the best tools we currently have.

Do the worlds of tradition and academic biblical study need to contradict? Does it have to be one or the other? Can a person feel like he or she can engage in honest inquiry about the Torah and still keep his or her faith intact?

I will note that, throughout this process, my own faith has remained intact, albeit its hue has altered as my understanding of the issues matured. To be clear: I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people. These are more than just words to me. My life is about studying, teaching and living Torah. The divinity of the Torah and the Sinaitic moment pulses through my veins – it’s who I am. Nothing I have said or written should fool the reader into thinking that I have abandoned my deep belief in God’s Torah and the mission of the Jewish people.

My own experience has taught me that it is possible to look at the issues honestly, to struggle with them, and to strive for synthesis, all the while maintaining a deep connection to Torah and Jewish observance. In fact, I strongly believe that if I had taken the opposite approach and denied myself the study and the struggle, my religiosity would have suffered. It is for this reason that I felt it necessary to take on these critical issues, and offer a possible synthesis in the hope that this will inspire others to do the same.

A Note about the Future

In my work for TABS I will be publishing my ideas and tentative theories to engender this conversation. Sometimes ideas might not be as fully nuanced as they should be or might be misunderstood;[2] I will make mistakes, state things too forcefully or not forcefully enough, we will rethink and revisit constantly—this is the nature of the type of endeavor upon which Project TABS is embarking. I look forward to the pushback, critique, and give-and-take our website will hopefully foster. The key is to be in conversation and to be exploring possibilities and struggling together.

To be clear, my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t. Hopefully other people will share their suggestions, but we can’t just leave these issues as “a kasha”, “an interesting question” and end with that. The issues are too pressing, the problems are too large and too numerous, the consequences are too dire.

Our community desperately needs to have a candid conversation about Torah and faith, and the conversation must be held in a safe and open-minded environment, where there is no bullying, no threats, no name-calling, and where each person’s intellectual and religious integrity can remain intact. It is my hope that Project TABS, and its website, TheTorah.com, will contribute to a greater engagement with Torah study. I look forward to continuing this conversation with the community as we all work together to find the right path in this challenging but crucially necessary endeavor.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Ph.D.

Fellow, Project TABS / TheTorah.com


[1] In this sense I see myself as following in the footsteps of modern Torah thinkers such as Mordechai Breuer, Amit Kula, Tamar Ross, and Yuval Cherlow, not to mention the great medievalists such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Rambam, Yehudah ha-Chassid, and many statements of Chazal. Certainly the particular synthesis is my own, but many others before me have attempted to reconcile traditional belief with science and philosophy, as they understood these disciplines in their time-periods.

[2] I would like to take this opportunity to clarify one matter. Another piece of mine, an introduction to the opening section of Deuteronomy, caused quite a stir. One of the reasons for this was the abrupt end of the original posting. This was pointed out to me by a number of friends and colleagues—well before the Rabbi Gordimer’s Cross-Currents article attacking mine was posted—and I quickly reworked the ending to further clarify and add nuance. The reason the ending was so abrupt is because this post was originally part of a longer essay, which was divided into part 1 (the post in question) and part 2, which offered a modern midrashic understanding of the differences between Deuteronomy 1-3 and the other parts of the Torah. When the two were divided, the first was left, essentially, without an ending. This was a sloppy but serious mistake, and I apologize and will strive to be more careful and precise in the future.


Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

July 24, 2013

As a Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah embraces the classical view of Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim in the way the multitude of accepted commentaries and thinkers of our Mesoret have passed down to us through the ages. We also teach our Torah in a way which allows our talmidim to speak freely and openly, without fear, as they seek to grasp in their own ways the very basic theological foundations of Judaism.

In the article below, written by our esteemed Ram and head of the Talmud department, Rav Ysoscher Katz, the Yeshiva presents a glimpse into the way we teach our holy and divine Torah – in a way designed to continue the passing of the Mesorah – and second, a view of how our talmidim are thriving in our open, non-judgmental approach, to be the future rabbonim who will carry on our tradition.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
President

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean

 

Guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך: שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך

It happened again. For several years now the Chareidi newspaper Yated Ne’eman has attacked our Yeshivah, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, on average once every couple of months.  This time the attack came from another quarter.  R. Avrohom Gordimer, identifying himself as a member of the executive committee of the RCA, in a recent CrossCurrents posting, wrote a scathing critique of one of our graduates, R.  Zev Farber. The common denominator in these attacks is the shared format: after a brief, often skewed review of some recent activity by one of our Rebbeim or graduates, we are inevitably tagged with some synonym for apikores: heretics, Reformers, neo-Reformers, etc.

Like R. Akiva in the story told in Makot (24B), I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.

In the yeshivot I studied in my youth I was repeatedly told that R. Kook Z”l was an apikores. I, of course, was horrified at the time. Only later did I realize that, frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising. (It is hard not to make a comparison with what is currently happening in the elections for the Israeli Rabbinate where some of the participants refuse to engage the opposition on the issues and instead simply label their opponents Rasha or Amalek).

We are engaged in a serious debate about the future of klal Yisrael.  As in the times of Rav Kook, we too are at a crucial juncture. Our students, congregants, and followers are turning to us less for help in halakhic matters. Increasingly they look to us for guidance on questions of faith, ethics and social mores.  They are struggling with doubt and confusion that is an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world. The experience at the shul where I daven is pretty typical. Inevitably, at least once a month, and often more, a fellow congregant pulls me aside to share with me his or her doubts about the efficacy of prayer, accepting the traditional view of Torah min ha’shemayim, or conventional approaches to theodicy.

Doubts about the fundamental tenets of our Tradition however are not unique to the Modern Orthodox community. I cannot speak for the specifics of R. Gordimer’s community, but I do have first-hand experience with the average Yated reader. (I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Satmar and Brisk Yeshivot.) Their community, in Israel and abroad, is having serious difficulties, trying to stem the high level of attrition they are currently experiencing. A significant number of those who leave that community do so because they are confronted with serious questions and debilitating doubts about Judaism. Ideological confusion is a universal-across the denominations-crisis.

Let it be clear.  YCT believes in Torah miSinai as it has been traditionally understood.  At the same time, we see that it is our responsibility to graduate rabbis who can engage our community’s doubts, and to do so by opening up, rather than closing down, conversation.

As a member of the YCT admissions committee I meet each and every student before they are accepted to the Yeshivah.  While אהבת תורה and יראת שמים are prerequisites for someone to be accepted to our semicha program, we also have an additional requirement, one of equal importance. A Chovevei student needs to be someone who is willing to grapple with the fundamental challenges modernity presents to the contemporary Jewish believer.

Grappling is the key point.  There is a segment in the observant community for whom אמונה פשוטה, simple faith, works. They are, however, not the majority.  Large numbers of our community struggle with questions of faith, belief, authority, autonomy, ethics, morality and the like. The old methods of response are insufficient; they do not provide the solutions contemporary men and women are looking for. Often times they are counter-productive, feeling trite and superficial. They end up turning people away from our tradition, exacerbating the situation. A successful rabbinic leader is one who is able to honor the struggle and engage these questions seriously. Along with his piety and commitment to the teachings of the Sages, he also must have the courage and intellectual ability to be innovative and creative in these matters.

Creatively addressing these difficult questions takes time, energy and deliberation. We at YCT are committed to helping guide our audience through these murky waters.  In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

YCT is a yeshivah like any other yeshivah. Like any other serious semicha programs, we too teach punctiliousness in Jewish law, optimal observance of Mitzvot, and a commitment to learning Torah. There is one key difference though.  Training towards expertise in Psak halakhah, built on a foundation of punctilious observance, is not the only thing we teach our graduates. We expect them to grow in areas of Jewish thought as well.

There are spiritual risks in such an approach, but given the challenges our generation faces, we do not have an alternative. We owe it to klal Yisrael to guide them in these precarious religious times. (As does Yated and R. Gordimer owe it to their respective communities. It is just a matter of time before they will no longer be able to avoid this reality in their own backyard).

To properly serve our generation, today’s rabbis need to be able to model how an observant Jew wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. That is what we try to do at our yeshivah. In that sense, our critics are right; we indeed expose our student to a cacophony of voices. We want them to hear them, engage with them, and, most importantly struggle with them-regardless of how extreme those views are. Our belief is this: If the general community is exposed to those opinions in university, in the larger society, then our graduates need to be exposed to them as well. This will enable them to engage those questions in an honest and sophisticated way. Exposing our students to the larger world of ideas, no matter how extreme they are, is the modern manifestation of David Ha’melech’s adage: ידי מלוכלכת בדם שפיר ושליא כדי להתיר אשה לבעלה (Berachot 4A).

The Gemara says (Niddah 73A) הליכות עולם לו, אל תיקרי הליכות אלא הלכות. By conflating Halakhah (observance) with halicha, (walking) the Rabbis convey an important lesson. Observance is a journey. We strive to grow and ultimately arrive at an ideal set of behaviors and beliefs. Nevertheless, the divine encounter that halakhah tries to mediate happens during the journey as well, not just after one has arrived at one’s ultimate destination.

When blessing the new month, we implore God to give us a life of אהבת תורה ויראת שמים. We do not, however, ask for ideological certainty. That is a goal but its attainability is incredibly difficult.  R. Chaim Brisker famously explained that faith begins where logic ends. If a set of beliefs makes sense, it is no longer a belief, it is a conviction. Faith requires one to transcend logic and accept dogma. Such a requirement is a hard-sell for our generation. We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge. And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly.  We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people.   Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School 


God, Consciousness and the Problem of Anthropopathism: Theological Musings of the Late R. Shmully Moskowitz z”l – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 27, 2012

An old friend of mine was buried last week. I haven’t seen him for a few years and did not call to say goodbye. I had heard he was sick but didn’t think he was going to die; pneumonia doesn’t generally kill 50 year old men, but, I guess, sometimes it does.

I am not going to use this post to eulogize him; many have done this and some of the eulogies are even available online. (I will throw in, however, that Shmully was one of the smartest and funniest men I ever knew.) Instead, I will take the opportunity to describe one of our last conversations and the important theological insight that he taught me. As the post is written in my words, and I will not have the opportunity to run it by him, I hope that the post accurately reflects his thinking.

A few years ago, when I was in Israel interviewing Israelis for the Torah Mitzion kollel I ran in Atlanta at the time, I spent Shabbat in my old neighborhood in Ma’aleh Mikhmas. Shmully was renting a house there at the time, and we got together for a seudah shlishit at a mutual friend’s house. The topic of God and religion came up, it often did with Shmully, and somehow we got to speaking about anthropomorphism. (I will explain how we got onto that subject at the end of the post.)

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism means imputing human physical characteristics to something not human, in this case God. For example, people who imagine God as an old man with a big grey beard would be describing God anthropomorphically.

Anthropomorphism was considered by Maimonides, among other Jewish philosophers, as a grave sin, as it reduced the Almighty to human form. For Shmully and I, these ideas were rather old-hat. We were both trained in YBT (Yeshiva Bnei Torah, popularly known as Rabbi Chait’s Yeshiva), a yeshiva strongly influenced by Maimonidean thought, and being “on the look-out” for anthropomorphism was in our blood; (as Shmully was the son of Rabbi Morton Moskowitz, one of Rabbi Chait’s early friends and colleagues, Maimonidean philosophy was probably in his mother’s milk.) Shmully, however, said to me that he believed that even most Maimonideans haven’t really wrapped their heads around the problem.

At first I thought he was referring to the related problem of anthropopathism. For the jargonly-uninitiated, anthropopathism refers to the imputing of human feelings to the non-human. I was surprised, I said, that he thought that this concept was so little understood. It had been drilled into us at YBT that all descriptions of God having feelings, whether it was love for Israel or anger at sinners, were metaphorical, so it would be hard to imagine that this was the nuance so many of his fellow were not grasping. “What is it,” I asked, “that you think we run-of-the-mill Maimonideans aren’t getting?”

Here is Shmully’s response: Imagining a body is the most obvious “gross” anthropomorphism. Emotions are the next step up, as it makes intuitive sense to assume that the creator of the universe does not have “feelings”. However, there is a more abstract kind of anthro-projection at work that is difficult to notice. When we discuss God creating, for instance, or God’s providence, we inevitably imagine an organized, purposeful mind making a conscious decision. The mind has a thought and a will and decides to do or not do something. Although it is inevitable for humans to imagine this, it is also a form of anthro-projection, as we imagine the organization and function of our minds in the “mind” of the Creator. “Imputing consciousness to God is also a form of anthropopathism,” Shmully argued.

This, he said, is the import of Maimonides’ claim that all knowledge of God is negative knowledge. We cannot really say that God has a “will”, or that God “runs” the world. All such statements are filtered through human mental projection. Although some language about God remains necessary for any philosophical or religious discussion on the subject, all claims must be understood to be poor approximations of the real idea.

The key example we were discussing was God as creator. Although one can say that God created the world, all a Maimonidean could mean by this is that the world is in existence due to God in some way inexplicable to us. God is the ultimate cause of the world; anything more than this inevitably muddles the picture.

Although this point should have been obvious to someone who has read Maimonides’ discussion of God upwards of a hundred times, I found (and still find) the idea almost too abstract to wrap my head around (as Shmully correctly claimed about me at the beginning of the conversation). What struck me more than just the abstractness of the concept, was the amazing way that it solved a particular intellectual problem faced in discussion of modern religions.

The way we got to the issue of anthropomorphism was by way of a point I was trying (unsuccessfully) to make about modern religions. Shmully had been recently studying up on some eastern religions (I don’t remember which) and I said that it seems to me that one major dividing line between western and eastern religions is the concept of God. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is the force behind the universe. For Hinduism and Buddhism, it is an unconscious unifying force (Brahman). I argued—pontificated—that Freud discussed this difference in Civilizations and its Discontents, claiming that the former religions project father-figures onto the world, whereas the latter religions project the womb-experience onto the world.

It was in response to this that Shmully stated that I was making too fine of a distinction between the two sets of theologies. Since even God-based religions must admit that their God cannot be “conscious” in the human sense, assuming they do not subscribe to anthropopathic thinking (some do, of course), the distinction between western theology and eastern theology is overdone.

Years later, I still think about Shmully’s principle of abstract anthropopathism and its many applications. How does one think about revelation and divine providence without imagining consciousness? It was a lot to digest over a couple of ḥallah rolls and hummus, and I still considering the implications.

This was only one of the many conversations I had with Shmully over the years. Shmully, my friend, you will be missed.