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.

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

July 24, 2013

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

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

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
President

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is God in the Tsunami? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 23, 2011

…After the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake… -I Kings 19:11

“Where is God now? Where is He?…He is hanging here on this gallows” -Night by Eli Wiesel

“The cruelty and the killing raise the question whether even those who believe after such an event dare to talk about God who loves and cares without making a mockery of those who suffered.” -Rabbi Irving Greenberg

The Japanese, I am told, living on one of the most active tectonic faults, feel always that the “big one” can come tomorrow.   I guess all humans, if we are not completely jaded, wait for the big one, though perhaps not actively. Indeed humans have a unique ability to ignore the tragic realities and statistics predicting the disasters that may come. But we all have some deep sense, when we are honest, that life is as transient as things get. Beyond helping the Japanese people by sending funds and supplies, how do we assimilate the tragedy?

 

 

Perhaps we can not.  Only survivors of tragic events can know what it is to be they; for us to make assumptions about such tragedy would be audacious.   So what can we, 10,000 miles from the epicenter think, say, and reflect upon, other than crying for fellow humans, made in God’s image who are suffering so much?  For us as religious people and religious leaders, how do we understand the ago old question which asks “Where is the merciful God we talk about and pray to, now?”

 

 

In the face of tragedy, unfortunately, religious leaders seems to make the news when they take either of two extreme positions.  That God brought about a tragedy to punish us, -Rabbis, Priests and Imams all were quoted after the floods in New Orleans and the Tsunami in Thailand as saying that God brought about these modern day floods for the same reason as those in the Bible, to punish humans for their sins.

 

 

But, as the biblical book of Job instructs, we must not suggest reasons for, or try to make sense of, the suffering of others.  Though we want to make sense of our world and the seeming injustice of it, if we do we make a mockery of humans and God.  In the end God seems to rebuke Job’s friends who suggest reasons for his torment with the words, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”

 

 

The other extreme was heard also, that tragedy of such proportion should lead us to question the existence of God, as if the death of one child is less horrific and more explainable.   So what are religionists who believe in a merciful God on one hand and read a Bible of reward and punishment on the other, to say about calamity of such huge proportion?

 

 

In Judaism there is expansive writing about such questions.  In ancient times in the Talmud and in more recent years a vast Holocaust literature and theology has tried to grapple with modern day tragedies of biblical proportion in which often the righteous suffer and the wicked are spared

 

 

One helpful idea, much discussed in modern holocaust literature, is the idea of God’s hiddenness.   That while believing in an infinite God, this does not mean that God is always present, -God’s face as it were, can be hidden from us.  The Bible, following a list of curses and punishments that will befall the Jews if they do not obey the Torah, states, “…and I will hide my face from you on that day.”  To be hidden does not mean to be gone, nor does it mean to be understood, but it does mean that the promise of Divine presence and possibility still exists.

 

Recently Jewish people all over the world celebrated the holiday of Purim.  On this day 2500 years ago a wicked man attempted to genocide all the Jews and almost succeeded, if not for a courageous queen named Esther.   Esther’s name, the Talmud tells us, is hinted at in the Hebrew bible in the words “vaani hister astir panai bayom hahoo”, “And I will hide my face from you on that day (Deut. 31:18)” Esther=Hister-meaning “to hide.”

 

 

The very name Esther, the queen who saves the Jewish people, also refers to God’s hiddenness, and indeed in the entire book of Esther God’s name is not mentioned even once.  And so the scroll of Esther offers the hope that though we live in a world of tragedy, pain, suffering, and injustice, perhaps it is not a world in which God is absent or dead, but hidden.

 

 

In the words of the great 20th century Rabbi, Joseph Solovetchik in his profound book, Lonley Man of Faith: “Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome and mysterious ‘He’?”

 

 

Though God is indeed hidden in our world, even more so at this moment, perhaps it is up to us to reveal the Divine through our actions and response.