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.

 


Living by the Word of God – Guest Post by Dr. Ben Elton

July 26, 2013

Introduction

This coming Shabbat morning Jews around the world will listen to the verse (Devarim 8:3): ‘So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.’

An unbroken chain links the Jews who heard those words from Moshe and those who will hear them in the synagogue this week. Orthodox Jews, of whatever stripe, hold fast to the belief that God spoke to Moshe and gave him the Torah. We believe that we were founded as a people by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that we went down to Egypt and were enslaved there, that God took us out and brought us to Mount Sinai. There, a truly mysterious event took place, which we shall never understand and none of our ancestors understood. The Infinite met the finite, Heaven and earth touched and God transmitted His words and His will to the Jewish People.

That is the source and origin of Hamisha Humshei Torah.[1] They are not a product of inspiration or ‘channelling the Divine,’ in a way that later biblical books or even the rabbinic literature might be described. We believe that ‘this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel, by the mouth of the Lord, by the hand of Moshe’.[2]

That is my faith as an Orthodox Jew and it is what took me to the Orthodox beit midrash of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT). It is the belief I will teach as an Orthodox rabbi, just as I have been taught it by my rebbeimin the yeshiva. If some graduates of the yeshiva take a different view, that is a matter for them, though we should respect the integrity of an honest struggle. Like any yeshiva, YCT can only be held responsible for what it teaches and the beliefs and conduct of its current students – just ask Gateshead Kollel about Louis Jacobs.

The Place of Torah Min Hashmayim in Traditional Jewish Thought

This is not the place to rehearse the rabbinic literature on Torah Min Hashamayim. Suffice it to say that Hazal took it as given that there was a Revelation on Sinai. Their main concern was that people might argue that while Moshe went up the mountain he brought down a forgery, and they declared that anyone who claimed that Moshe wrote the Humashof his own account would have no place in the World to Come. This is a very serious statement considering that in general every Jew has a portion of the Afterlife. It certainly never entered the heads of Hazal that Moshe is a fictional character and that the whole text, both its sources and its current form, dates from much later than his supposed lifetime.

Indeed, until relatively recently no-one at all thought that. From Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century to Moses Mendelssohn in the seventeenth, there was unanimity that the Torah’s status as the product of unmediated revelation was the basis of the whole of Jewish life and belief. Even some early proponents of the academic study of Jewish literature, for example Nachman Krochmal and Zacharias Frankel who were otherwise fairly radical, drew the line at Higher Criticism of the Humash itself.[3] In recent times, even David Weiss Halivni, whose view of the composition of the Humash as we have it is novel, would not abandon the commitment to the revelation at Sinai.

Must We Accept the Documentary Hypothesis?

Of course that is not a good argument for Torah Min Hashamayim. An idea is either true or it is not. However, the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis have been thoroughly dealt with by traditionalists like Rabbi David Tsevi Hoffman, moderate traditionalists like Umberto Cassuto and radicals like Benno Jacob. The Documentary Hypothesis proceeds from the premise that the text is human, and then concludes how it could have been assembled as a human text. It is driven by its starting assumptions. Furthermore, it is the product of hyper-modernity, in which everything can be dissected, including literature, using methods that were described as ‘scientific.’ Scholars of literature and of history would be embarrassed to use such a term today. Literary theory and historical practice have both come a long way since then, but simply accepting the Documentary Hypothesis takes none of that development into account. It is odd that sometimes we are more concerned about the Documentary Hypothesis than the academy, many parts of which concentrate on more interesting and fruitful literary questions.

As we well know, the problems that bible critics have identified have been dealt with by traditional scholars for millennia. The explanations of Hazal, the Rishonim and Aharonim have all addressed the same questions of different accounts of events or expressions of laws. There has been no diminution in the brilliance or insight of these explanations in recent years. Two examples of this approach are Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s explanation of the two accounts of the creation of man in Lonely Man of Faith and Rabbi Mordecai Breuer’s entire approach. More recently, the work coming from the journal Megadim, Aviva Zornberg, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or Rabbi Shalom Carmy all assumes the unity and Divine nature of the text of the Humash.

The Breadthand Boundaries of Orthodox Opinion

As these scholars, and their predecessors, have shown, the Humash is a far from simple text. There are also many questions to be asked about which parts of the Humash are to be taken literally, which are allegorical or might be dreams, although we should note that those question go to its meaning not its authorship or its authority. The Talmud discusses how it was communicated to Moshe and compiled by him. Did it come in one revelation or was it given piece by piece and then collated at the end of forty years? Is Devarim different in some respects from the earlier four books? Did Moshe write the account of his own death or did Joshua? Were there some small sections added later, as Rabbi Yehuda HeHassid and the Ibn Ezra thought? It is possible to say that about some other parts, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and others have suggested? Has the text been corrupted over time or must we believe that it was transmitted entirely without scribal error, as Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg thought? These are all ideas to explore and they have a place in Orthodoxy because they are authentic elements of our Mesorah. We have to resist any attempts to narrow our intellectual vision by expelling them or their advocates.

All of these positions have the support of traditional authorities, or at least traditional roots, and they are a world away from JEPD or any variation on it. To accept the Documentary Hypothesis and still claim to believe in ‘Torah Min Hashamayim’, or ‘Torah MiSinai’, is no more than playing with words. I can claim to believe in any term I like if I change its meaning enough. However, words and phrases have integrity; they communicate meaning based on their usage across space and time. To appropriate them for new positions, simply because of a desire to hold onto traditional language, is untenable. Only in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There does a word means just what the speaker chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. On any non-tendentious reading, I find it hard to see how a rejection of the classic formulation of Torah Min Hashamayim can be consistent with Orthodox theology

Does It Matter?

Acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis is therefore unnecessary and a radical break with Jewish tradition. But does it matter? Classical Torah Min Hashamayim may have become one of the recognized boundaries between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, but should it be? Surely if we come to the conclusion that the text is Divine, the mechanics of its writing and editing are immaterial.  I think that is an error. This is a dogma we should care about andhalakhic Jews should not delude themselves that they can abandon Torah Min Hashamayim and maintain the Judaism they cherish. Their attempts to do so fail even on their own terms, both in theory and practice.

The rejection of Torah Min Hashamayim makes a nonsense of both parshanut and the Gemara. The varied explanations of the traditional commentators might be inspiring but they do not give us an insight into what the words were meant to convey.  We can only hope to uncover their meaning through the study of authorship and context, like any other text. Traditional and modern exegesis cannot exist alongside each other. It would make no more sense to devise a devar Torah based on Vayikra than on the Code of Hammurabi. In the realm of Talmud, for one who accepts the Documentary Hypothesis, when Hazal seeks sources in the Humash for halakhot, they are on a wild goose chase, because to a modern critic the words of the Torah never meant what the Rabbis took them to mean. The entire halakhicliterature becomes an elaborate intellectual folly. It might be interesting or valuable in the study of a particular people in order to understand how they constructed their spiritual life, but it cannot be taken as a real explanation of the biblical text.

This has profound implications for halakhah. Judaism stands on its belief in heteronymous law, the idea that we are commanded by Another (God) and His law is unconditionally binding. He communicated His will to Moshe in the form of the Torah shebikhtav (Humash) and the Torah shebal peh (oral explanation) that accompanied it.[4] Once we come to the view that the Humash is, as a matter of history, a human work, it might well be an attempt by a series of writers in the ancient near east to reach out to God, but how do we know He reached back? Some parts are very challenging but we keep faith because we believe it represents the direct Divine will. If we cease to believe that we are mandated by the Divine Will how is Humash any different than  the Koran, the Gospels or the Baghavad Gita, all of which contain parts we like and parts we don’t?

The founders of the Conservative Movement claimed that although critical scholars were correct about the composition of the Humash, the authority of the mitsvot was unaffected. They argued that a human text could receive the Divine imprimatur through its survival and acceptance. history legislates. However, they failed to persuade their followers to lead halakhic lives, because while an individual might feel that, they cannot transmit that belief. Furthermore, that total commitment sooner or later gives way even in its advocates.[5] Louis Jacobs who at first claimed that under ‘halakhic non-fundamentalism’ all mitsvot were Divine and binding, later found he could not justify institutions such as themamzer. All who have rejected Torah Min Hashamayim have come to the view that the Humash contains higher as lower parts, and have therefore broken its binding nature. It is not a chance of history that Reconstructionism came out of the Conservative Movement and lived for a long time within it. It is the logical outcome of the process which begins with rejecting Torah Min Hashamayim.

Finally, supporters of progressive Orthodoxy should also be extremely wary of accepting the Documentary Hypothesis. If God did not speak directly to us, but has rather endorsed whatever we happen to construct for ourselves, then we create a Panglossian world in which ‘whatever is, is right.’ If I have heteronymous, authoritative texts and traditions which I can study, investigate and probe there is room for development on issues as diverse as relations with non-Jews and non-observant Jews, the role of women and family law. If history is the voice of God, if the status quo is always what God wants us to live by, where is the capacity for change, which has always been a feature of the Mesorah? We come to pick and choose based on whatever feels right at any particular time, or the halakhic process is frozen. Neither is the way of traditional Judaism.

In Sum

I am Open Orthodox. I do not want to throw anyone out of Orthodox communities. We have to provide a home for people of varying levels of observance as well as those wrestling with difficult theological questions. Nevertheless, I am clear that accepting the Documentary Hypothesis, or any similar theory, is not only a breach with tradition, it is also unnecessary and harmful. There is a great deal to discuss and debate and the study of Mikra is becoming richer every day. I am lucky to have access to master teachers of Tanakh, whose insights are innovative and compelling, all within the bounds of tradition. We must continue to live in the knowledge that when we pick up a Humash we hold in our hands the word of God. It contains a sacred gift He gave us 3,000 years ago, and because that revelation is pure and direct, it contains infinite wisdom, beauty and goodness. That is the way for modern and open Orthodoxy to flourish, and any alternative would be a tragic error.

Ben Elton is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School


[1] I will address later in this essay which parts of the Torah were given, and when. I acknowledge it is not necessary, or even sensible, to believe that the entire Torah was given on Sinai.

[2] I am aware that this verse does not have that expansive meaning in its original context. However, that is the way the verse is used in our liturgy. It expresses our belief in the nature of the entire Torah, as it is lifted up and we look at it.

[3] Leopold Zunz and of course Abraham Geiger did accept the Documentary Hypothesis.

[4] If one holds that the Humash is a single text then it follows that there must have been an oral accompaniment, because otherwise it makes no sense. There is a great deal of debate among the classical authorities about how expansive that original Oral Law was, but that is not a question for now.

[5] Louis Finklestein may be an exception.