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.


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.


The Scotch Counter Boycott is Moral and Just: It Is about Drinking Responsibly! By Rabbi Lopatin

June 23, 2011

I love Scotch, and I paskin like the London Beth Din that every single Scotch is kosher.  But I love Israel as well, and I particularly don’t like people picking on Israel. So, I support fully counter-boycotting against Scotch’s made in the area where their local council is boycotting Israel.   From the best analysis I have seen, Auchentoshen is the Scotch to boycott.  Now, Auchentoshan is not my favorite Scotch, so I’m kind of happy that it is really the only Scotch, readily available in America,  that is clearly  produced and distilled  in the West Dunbartonshire (WDS) part of Scotland, where a majority of the local council has voted various boycotts of Israel – including not allowing Israeli books in the local library.  The most precise report of what is and is not produced in this shire comes from Joshua E. London, of the Jewish Single Malt Whiskey Society, who is critical of the boycott.  But even he admits the viciousness of  the WDS local council toward Israel, and that Auchentoshen, while owned  by a Japanese conglomerate, is distilled and produced in WDS.  

I don’t like boycotts because of policy differences, but when someone boycotts Israel, we must send them a clear message that not only will they suffer, but all their supporters suffer.  People in WDS need to understand that if their elected officials pick on Israel,  it is their responsibility to remove them from office.  I want the world to know that there are millions of consumers and advocates who will fight against any boycott of Israel.  These boycotts are not only ignorant and vicious, they are immoral as well.  The distillers and producers of Scotch, have to tell that to elected and unelected officials: if you live in a place that discriminates against Israel, or if you are a school which allows students to harm pro-Israel students and speakers, your competitors will benefit and you will lose.  That’s the new order.  Maybe these crazy socialist/communist/Marxist councils will pick on someone else.

I’m not impressed that Auchentoshen is working to get KLBD hashgacha for their drinks; Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, refused to give hashgacha for any Scotch in his days, because he believed all of it was kosher.  I still hold of the London Beth Din’s rule that it is all kosher.  In fact, I would suggest that the KLBD, the hashgacha of the London Beth Din, raise the issue of the WDS boycott of Israel in their discussions regarding the kashrut of Auchentashen.  The Scotch companies claim that it is not their fault that the local council has voted to boycott Israel; they are just a company and cannot influence elections.   I ask then, that these companies who feel they can’t speak up, and universities who claim that they have to allow free speech to students that disrupt Israeli speakers, make a donation to the Friends of the IDF to show that they have nothing against Israel.  Or, make a donation to Zaka or Hatzala or even Magen David Adom, any Israeli program that helps victims of Arab terrorism. If they make those donations, and are open about those donations, then I would accept that as a demonstration of their good will.

We in the Diaspora are generally not sending our kids to fight for Israel, nor are we living in Israel and subjecting ourselves to all the risks that Israelis face every day.  We are enjoying the bounty of America or some other foreign land.  The least we can do is send a message of support for Israel with everything with partake of – whether it is Scotch, higher education, or anything else that God has blessed us with the means of purchasing.  Let those who support Israel be blessed and let those who would want to harm Israel face the consequences. God has given us the means of making this world a little more just – let us not shirk our responsibility.  Yes, let us drink responsibly!

 

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Jews and the Dream Act: Weren’t we just there? Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 11, 2011

The Dream Act is being introduced in Congress.    All Jews who immigrated to the United States – that’s all of us! – need to support it if we have any gratitude to God for allowing us and those who came before us enter this country, or other countries of refuge.  The Dream Act would enable tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who entered this country as children and who are either serving in the U.S. Army or going to college to gain legal residency and eventually citizenship.  The Dream Act failed in its first round, mostly because Republicans in congress demanded that the government deal with securing the boarder before certifying any formerly illegal immigrants.  But this issue has to be a priority for America and for the Jewish Community.  It is a moral matter for Americans, who know that our country is the right place for these people who have lived almost their whole lives here, and who have achieved the American dream – of serving our country and getting an education to enable our country to continue its leadership of the Free World.

Just over a week after we commemorated the Holocaust, where millions of our people died because England and the United States refused entry to our people, and just a day after Israel independence day, our beloved Jewish state which was established to Never Again allow Jews to be refused entry to escape persecution.  Yes, these undocumented children are not refugees; their parents came illegally to our country and brought them in illegally.  But our mothers and fathers came to America for a better life as well, and how can we not be sympathetic to people desperately trying to enter our country to better their lives?  Yes, we did not enter illegally, probably.  But these children are innocent of any crime as well.  They were brought in by their parents or others and had no choice.  They are not responsible for being here illegally.  And now they are part of the United States; they have adopted the best values and visions of our country.  If we Jews do not have sympathy for “geirim” – for strangers – if we do not have sympathy for children, who will?  Didn’t the British at least let in the children to England through the Kinder Transports?  That was in 1939.  If Britain of the thirties could take pity on Jewish children, cannot we Jews take pity on Mexican children who only know life in America and are doing their best to be good Americans.

Undoubtedly there were those in Britain who said that if you let  in Jewish children it would cause all sorts of social ills.  Thank God the voices of morality overcame those foolish utilitarians.  Today there may be voices against the Dream Act: American Jews of all political persuasions need to step in and say, Even though this act will only help our country, it is first and foremost a moral act, and we who understand what it means to go from servitude to freedom, know what it means to go from the poverty of Mexico or so many other countries to the freedom of the United States of America.

Because our parents and grandparents got lucky and worked hard to get into this country, we Jews of America are in a position to influence American policy.  Let us not show a lack of gratitude to our predecessors or to God for giving us a position of privilege to be American citizens.  Thank God for America, and thank God their are children who grow up, unrecognized and undocumented, who love our country and are willing to serve it with their lives and with their minds. Let us learn from the tragedy of a world so panicked that it did not let Jews into the bastion of freedom – the USA – nor into our own homeland – Palestine at the time.  Let us commit that it never happen again, not just to us, who suffered so egregiously from that panic, but to any people, and, especially, to the innocent children of this world.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


A Plea for True Respect for Arabs and Muslims by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 17, 2011

Rav Yosef, my good friend and a rabbi I respect deeply, misunderstands my motivation in holding off on a prayer for Egypt.  I certainly am frustrated with the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.  However, my main point is that we need to stop pandering and patronizing the Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, and actually show some respect to them.  They can face the challenges of their past just as well as Jews and Christians can: the anti-Semitic elements of their religion, which need to be re-understood just as Judaism and Christianity evolved in their understanding of the “other”; the discriminatory treatment of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands throughout  history; the abominable attitude of the Arab leadership, trade unions and professional organizations toward the State of Israel – even in Jordan and Egypt; the leaders and mobs who pressured Great Britain not to allow Jews to enter Palestine when faced with murder and destruction in Europe – and even after the Holocaust before the rise of the State of Israel.  I respect the Arabs and Muslims, and I think they are capable of rising to the challenge of becoming an enlightened people, a part of the developed world.  Yes, they need democracy,  and that means a different attitude towards women – we in the West need to work on that as well – and toward homosexuals and other “others” in their midst.  Yes, I think the Palestinians can advance to the point where selling land to a Jew is not a capital offense, nor is a gay person forced to hide their identity.

People from developed countries throughout the world come to Israel to learn agriculture, science and to share in Israel’s rich culture.  I do expect Arabs to learn from Israel as well.  It is their loss, their sad loss, and certainly the Palestinians loss, that they have spent nearly 63 years fighting Israel instead of teaming up with Israel. The protesters in Tienanmen Square erected a model of the Statue of Liberty; they understood that America stands for freedom and liberty.  In Egypt, protesters put Jewish stars on Mubarak to show how much they hated him – how sad that they did not understand that Israel represents their ticket to freedom, democracy and a thriving, open economy, rather than the evil they need to eternally fight.

No, I am not angry, I am waiting: I am waiting for the Egyptians to rise to the challenge and to be the human beings they can be.  The prophets understood that they can be a great people.  But unless we challenge them to pursue truth, not just populism, and unless we ourselves admit to that truth, we are not respecting them and treating them as our equals.    They are God’s children just like we in the West are God’s children, and I have every expectation that I place on myself and my own religion.

I pray that we stop pandering and patronizing and start respecting our Arab and Muslims brothers in a way that allows them to enter a new era of truth and good.  When that happens, I will be the first to say a Shehechiyanu.  Until then, I pray for us to be strong, and never to compromise or ask others to compromise the values that have given us our freedom and our liberty.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Rabbi Marc Angel, Firebrand of Modern Orthodox, Comes To Your Shabbat Table, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

January 3, 2011

Angel for Shabbat, by Rabbi Marc B. Angel

($18 online at Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, www.jewishideas.org )

Reviewed by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Marc Angel has just come out with a unique book entitled “Angel for Shabbat.”   It is a semi-autobiographical, Modern Orthodox manifesto and Bill of Rights, using the back-drop of the parshiot and chagim to illustrate the key points of Rabbi Angel’s thought.  This book is Old World and New Age: it quotes classic Hassidic and Sefardic masters – from Levi Yitzchak of Bardichov to the Kotzker Rebbe to Rav Chaim David Halevi, Chacham Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Benzion Uziel – and classic secular thinkers such as Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, Eric Fromm, Paul Johnson, and a half-dozen former presidents of the United States.  You just don’t see books written today which cite Rabbi J. H. Hertz who quotes Marcus Jastrow or which spell mitzvos, “mitzvoth”.  The book will bring you back to a different era in Jewish thought, where it was OK to entertain the idea of the world being several billion years old or the idea that superstitions are actually bad and not integral to Judaism.

On the other hand, Rabbi Marc Angel does not hold back on expressing his views on every contemporary flashpoint in Orthodoxy, from the Gedolim, to discrimination against Sefaradim in Emanuel, to Postville and the Rubashkins to parking lots and protests in Jerusalem.  Whether you agree with Rabbi Angel or not, it is fascinating to see how a pulpit rabbi of a 17th century colonial New York congregation can use the language of the Rambam to leap from the text of the parsha to blast charlatans who would espouse an irrational Judaism or teachers who would demand a literal interpretation of Midrashim.  Was Rivka really three when she decided to marry Yitzchak? Can we view Mordechai and Esther as assimilated Jews?  This book will get you off your comfy chair to shout out either “How can Rabbi Angel say this!” or “Lead the way Rabbi Angel!  We are right behind you!”

This is parsha book like no other – in a sense it is a gorgeous and tender polemic, where Rabbi Angel’s father, wife and congregants come into the picture as being part of the story of a former president of the RCA and leading Orthodox rabbi (he is now Emeritus at the Historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) who has only gotten more passionate and self-confident to try to make a difference in the world.  Parsha after parsha, in pithy two-page essays, I found  myself saying, “Don’t hold back Rabbi Angel!  Tell us what you really think!”  Tell us how you think it might be morally dubious to reject Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday!  This book is a must read because it recreates  a time in Orthodoxy where doing Thanksgiving and reading the Hertz chumash and quoting Harry Truman were all very much part of the “frum” Jewish experience.  But at the same time the ideas in this book, and Rabbi Angel’s uncompromising style, bridges the generation gap and addresses issues that the Modern, Centrist and Chareidi world are struggling with today.  Nostalgia is just the start; this book wants to take you to a world of independent thinking, bold questioning  and strong “inner calm” that will wake you up.  It’s not a book to read just every week – it’s a book to go through in one setting, and then to ponder it again as our Jewish year, and our Torah, unravels before us.  Good luck putting it down!


Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 12, 2010

Over Rosh Hashanah I thought a lot about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, since the story is so central to Rosh Hashanah. The most important questions that are asked about  the Akedah are what gave Abraham the right to offer his child without asking Sara,  since Isaac is her child also? As the Talmud tells us there are 3 partners in everyone’s creation –  a father, a mother and God.

Second,  why did Abraham not speak up to protect the innocent as he did in the case of Sodom, where God made clear that he expects it of Avrohom as He says, “Avrohom is the one who will teach justice and mercy to his children”.

And third,  what are we to do with the depiction of God at the Akedah that so contrasts with the God of the Torah who does not want us to hurt the innocent but protect them?  Why is Abraham praised for his willingness to obey God instead of protecting the innocent and weak?   Wouldn’t that be a better way of showing one’s love and fear of God?

Many classic answers are given but none that do not generate many more questions.   For instance, some sages claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Isaac would be his seed and that he would also have to offer him up.  Or in another version,  that God did not tell Abraham to kill his child,  only to bring him up as an offering, but of course in either case, it is no test.  Or,  that God’s word trumps all, but then we are left with the questions we asked above and indeed we know (from the story of  Sodom earlier in the parsha) that Abraham is not someone who believes that God can
not be questioned.

Every 5 or 10 years it is reported in the news papers that someone sacrifices their child because of a command from God.  Usually we chalk these up to insanity, but every few years one runs across such a story in which the father indeed is not crazy and never was, yet kills the child at  what he believes is God’s command.   For Jews, after the giving of the torah, halacha trumps God’s command, so an observant Jew would not be permitted to sacrifice their child or commit any other sin even if they were sure it was the command of God. However, it does beg the question of Abraham who knew from the story of Cain and Abel that killing was forbidden.

In addition as some of the anthropological writers ask, what does it mean to live in a world in which a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, both see a story of sacrificing one’s child for God as foundational?

I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at  Sodom, thus teaching his children “righteousness and justice”  and ultimately to say “no” to God.  Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah,  Abraham failed the test.   I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham after commanding him to take Isaac as a burnt offering.  In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham  – but where is God?  Why  doesn’t God  just speak directly to Abraham?

Indeed midrash after midrash depicts just such a counter narrative, Abraham crying, the angles crying and arguing with God and ultimately,  Sara’s cries when she hears of the Akedah that according to the midrash are the source of the shofar’s sound.

Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.