Guest Post by Rabbi Herzl Hefter, “The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith”

September 16, 2013

 

The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith

Rabbi Herzl Hefter

In recent weeks we have been witnessing a vibrant debate within the modern Orthodox community concerning the authorship and historicity of the Torah triggered by a thought provoking piece by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has revolved around what one is “allowed” to believe rather than striving to understand what one should believe -אליבא דאמת- authentically. What we believe should be driven not by fear and submission to authority but by passion for truth and trust in God and the Torah. If we believe in the Torah, we cannot live in fear or denial of scientific inquiry (whether in the natural sciences or the humanities).

As a community, the first step of freeing ourselves from this fear is to understand from where it derives. The general tone of modern society is pluralistic. Truth (with an upper case T) has been replaced by subjective “narratives.” Consequently asserting allegiance to a particular tradition and maintaining a distinct identity is very difficult.  In this challenging environment we naturally seek an anchor in certainty which can justify our commitment and construct our particular identity.  For many years that anchor has been our belief that the Torah in its present form was communicated by God directly to Moshe. If that belief is undermined, how can we maintain our religious commitment to Torah and mitzvot and our particular identity as Jews?

Our religious beliefs, convictions, commitments and adherence to practice cannot be held hostage by rigid dogma which asserts historical truths yet demands immunity from inquiry.  By accessing our own Kabbalistic and Hassidic traditions which are rooted in Chazal, we can free ourselves from the necessity of asserting historical truths while maintaining and actually fortifying our belief in God and the Torah.  Our tradition affords us the instruments with which to encounter biblical criticism without bias and apologetics and come away  more committed as Jews. The encounter with modern biblical scholarship actually affords us an opportunity to clarify and refine two crucial and inter-related faith issues: 1) The nature of the Torah and 2) the nature of Divine revelation.

The Nature of the Torah

It is safe to say that the basic assumption of “Torat HaSod” is that the Torah needs to be read symbolically. That means that the elements in the stories of the Torah and the stories themselves point to a Divine reality and that their value does not rest in their literal truth.  Thus, for example the Zohar (Bereishit 7b) divides the word “Bereishit” to read “Bet” (=two) “Reishit,” namely two beginnings, one revealed and one hidden. On one level the biblical narrative in  sefer Bereishit tells of the creation of the cosmos by God. Yet, according to the Zohar, this narrative is an outer manifestation of a deeper story, the story of how God is revealed to us.  The “pshat” narrative is a garment (levush) which paradoxically both obscures and facilitates the revelation of this spiritual reality. The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.

Rav Kook shared this assumption when, back in 1908, he responded to the “biblical criticism question” of his day, namely how to relate to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. His response is so important and relevant that I wish to quote part of it here. (Igrot HaRaayah no. 134. The translation is my own).

Concerning opinions which are derived from recent scientific investigations which on the whole contradict the straight forward meaning (pshat) of the words of the Torah:

“In my opinion … even though these theories are not necessarily true, we are not at all obligated to deny them and stand against them. This is because it is not at all (stress mine-HH) the point of the Torah to inform us of simple facts and occurrences of the past.  The main point (‘ikar) is the inner content (tokh). … For us it is of no consequence whether in fact there ever existed in this world a golden age (i.e. the Garden of Eden – HH) in which mankind lived in spiritual and physical bliss  or [not]… and thus when we have no vested interest we can judge [these new theories ] fairly.”

The intellectual integrity displayed by Rav Kook in this last sentence should not be lost upon us and should serve as a model for emulation for those engaged in this discussion.

The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality.  It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation.

The Nature of Divine Revelation

In order to assert this, of course, we need to refine our understanding of Divine revelation.  And so we come to our second point. Though this short essay is not the platform to properly flesh out differing views concerning Divine revelation, I will bring one or two Hassidic sources which are representative of a school of thought.  Rather than thinking about revelation as something which originates “out there”, the great Hassidic masters turned the focus inwards and spoke of the heart as the seat of revelation. R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkat HaTzadik 261) writes that the burning palace (birah doleket) which gives birth to the faith of Avraham is the burning of his very own heart. Faith in God (as well as the Torah) is produced by the encounter with God which transpires in the heart and not necessarily through history or nature “out there”.  R. Ya’akov Leiner of Radzyn goes even further than R. Zadok when he writes that if one was to be conscious of the mystery of one’s own spirit which rests in the heart, that would be tantamount to knowledge of God. (Beit Ya’akov, Mishpatim no.4). This doctrine is held to be true not only (or even primarily) for the individual but for the nation of Israel as an organic whole. R. Zadok HaKohen repeats many times the midrash from Shir HaShirim Rabbah (5:2) “The Holy One Blessed Be He is the heart of Israel.” This means that the will and presence of God in creation is manifest through the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.

The instrument of Divine revelation is the human heart; it is in the heart that He dwells and through the heart that (to the extent that it is at all possible) He may be known.  To be sure, the heart of which we are speaking needs to be refined and sensitized through rigorous involvement in the study of Torah and avodah. None the less the ultimate platform for the revelation remains the emotive and intuitive faculty symbolized by the heart.

Thus, our God is not only a hidden God (El mistater) but a subtle God as well. God stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation. As a matter of faith, I believe that in the ancient history of our people we experienced such a stirring of our communal heart. God, fashioning our collective consciousness launched our tradition and civilization in the course of which our Torah came to be. Is the Torah then human or divine? The answer is paradoxically, yes.

There is a tremendous tactical advantage to this approach. Because of the minimal truth claims that it makes, it is unassailable by any scholarship. Yet the real advantage here is spiritual. The friction generated by the encounter between biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism and the consequent undermining of long-held truth statements can actually strengthen our commitment and identity. Considered faith is far more meaningful religiously than adherence to dogma. A religiosity which affirms the immediacy of the Divine in the human heart feeds a sense of urgency to make that presence manifest. This urgency can serve as the catalyst which ultimately invigorates our commitment to avodat HaShem as Jews and as human beings created in the image of God.

Rav Herzl Hefter is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rav Yerucham Gorelikזצ”ל and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל. For the next ten years, Rav Hefter continued his Torah studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Most recently, Rav Hefter taught advanced Talmud to the Kollel fellows at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat. Prior to that Rav Hefter taught Yoreh De’ah to smicha students at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University for 17 years and served as the head of the prestigious Bruriah Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the Torah M’Zion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. Rav Hefter combines a passion for Lithuanian style Talmudic analysis with the study of Hassidut

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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 Rav Yitzchak Blau: The Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism

August 5, 2013

The Documentary Hypothesis and Orthodox Judaism

by Yitzchak Blau

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.