Guest Post by Dr. Ben Elton: “Walter Wurzberger on the Boundaries of Orthodoxy”

November 20, 2013

The Jewish internet has been alive over recent months with attempts to draw denominational boundaries. In particular there has been much discussion about whether Open Orthodoxy, the cluster of ideas coming from Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is an expression of Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. This is a problematic question. It implies there are Platonic forms of Orthodoxy and Conservatism which can be measured against the facts on the ground and an adjudication made. In fact, all Jewish denominations are creations of particular times and places and can only be understood in those contexts. Another approach is to ask whether specified views and methodologies are valid expressions of authentic Judaism, or whether they constitute a break with the Mesorah, the chain of tradition beginning at Sinai. However, that is not a historical but a religious question. We each have our own view on what is ‘valid’ and ‘authentic’ and those commitments do not derive from scholarship but from faith. I am a historian, so I am drawn to a third approach, which is to ask whether Open Orthodoxy adopts the same principles as earlier religious expressions, which were generally regarded as Orthodox.

I want to use an important review essay by Rabbi Dr Walter S. Wurzberger, ‘The Oral Law and the Conservative Dilemma’, which appeared in Tradition in 1960.[1] This article is pertinent for our purposes because it attempts to explain exactly what differentiates Modern Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism, even in the latter’s most traditionalist form. It does not concentrate on practices among members of the two movements, or even on different halakhic rulings emanating from each. Rather it examines the theological and philosophical underpinnings of each denomination. If Open Orthodoxy shares the principles set out by Wurzberger and accepted by the then Modern Orthodox community as a valid definition of its position, it follows that while the spokespeople for Open Orthodoxy might be mistaken in some regards, and their halakhic positions might be considered wrong, even reckless, they remain within accepted definitions of Orthodoxy, because of the understanding of the Mesorah which guides them.

Wurzberger’s article was a review of Boaz Cohen’s Law and Tradition in Judaism (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary 1959), which attempted to explain the Conservative approach to halakhah. Cohen’s halakhic conclusions were extremely traditionalist in this work. He rejected important decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly as against halakhah, for example riding in a car to the synagogue on Shabbat and mixed seating in services. He therefore could not be criticised for undue leniency in practice. Wurzberger therefore critiqued the very foundations of Cohen’s approach. In Wurzberger’s reading, Cohen believed that as the Rabbis developed the Oral Law they modified the original law, either deliberately to adapt to the needs of the time, or inadvertently because they did not understand the texts they were dealing with. In other words, the Sages effectively created the halakhah as we have it today. They were innovators, even if they appeared to themselves or others to be merely expounding and applying. Ultimately Jewish Law as we have it did not grow out of an original revelation but was the invention of the Rabbis.

Whether this is an accurate description of Cohen’s position is not important for our purposes. What matters for this discussion is the Orthodox position which Wurzberger placed in contrast, an approach which represented the mainstream Modern Orthodoxy of his day.

Long before the advent of the Historical school, the traditionalists fully recognized that they were entrusted with a Torat Chayyim – a living Law…Because the halakhic process is characterized by a continuous interaction between subjective and objective components, it is natural that changes in historical conditions will lead to far reaching repercussions in the realm of Halakhah. This is not at all a question of “adapting” or “adjusting” the law to meet novel conditions, but of interpreting and applying it within the frame of reference of new circumstances…It must be borne in mind that this dynamic character of the law is an integral part of the Massorah, the chain of tradition dating back to Sinai , not something that was grafted upon the Torah later on to prevent its obsolescence and decay…It is the function of the Halakhah scholar, employing creative halakhic processes, to unravel the specific meaning which the timeless message of Sinai holds for his own time.

Rabbi Wurzberger wrote so clearly that a gloss would be redundant. Rather, we can turn immediately and compare this understanding of the Mesorah with Rabbi Weiss’s, which he put forward in his article on the graduation from Yeshivat Maharat of students ordained as clergy:

Mesorah is not solely rooted in the past. Rather our mesorah is, that within proper parameters, we ought to innovate to address the issues of our time and continue the work. This innovation is not straying from mesorah, it is demanded by it. This involves two steps.  

 

The first step is to assess the law and evaluate whether it is in conflict with other central principles of Torah. Consider, for example, the Torah’s position on polygamy, slavery or yefat to’ar, the laws of a female war-captive. These laws seem in conflict with other values of Torah, values like tzelem Elohim – every human being created in the image of God or kavod ha-bryiot – human dignity or kedoshim ti’hiyu – and you shall be holy.  

If conflict exists, mesorah includes a second step: a systematic means by which halakha can evolve. The Torah makes this very point when it declares that in every generation, when challenging issues arise, one is to go to the judge of his or her generation. (Deuteronomy 17:8-9) Mesorah includes a sophisticated network of rabbinic law, some interpretive (dinin she-ho’tzi’u al darkei hasevara) and some legislative (takanot u’gezeirot). After an extensive, in-depth analysis of the law, new applications may be possible.

This is classic Wurzbergian analysis. The Mesorah draws its strength from the Torah itself, it allows timeless principles to be applied to the needs of the day, it enables the full realization, through careful thought, of the original wishes of the Torah, which will reveal themselves differently in each generation, sometimes leading to ‘far reaching repercussions in the realm of halakhah’. One can argue whether Rabbi Weiss has made the right judgement about women’s roles, but it is difficult to claim that his basic approach to change within Judaism and the role of the Mesorah is substantively different to approaches which were not only accepted but promoted in Modern Orthodox circles half a century ago.

Not all self-identified Modern Orthodox rabbis maintain this understanding of the Mesorah and the way it works. That may explain a difference of view between the most distinguished representative of the old school and a representative of the new.

In 2009 Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm was reported as follows in the Jerusalem Post:

Regarding the ordination of female rabbis, Lamm said his opposition was “social, not religious…Change has to come to religion when feasible, but it should not be rushed. Women have just come into their own from an educational perspective. I would prefer not to have this innovation right now. It is simply too early. What will happen later…I am not a prophet.”

He clarified his remarks shortly afterwards to the YU Commentator:

“I was criticized, of course. People asked, ‘You mean that al pi din [by law] they’re allowed to become rabbis?’ My response: ‘I don’t know. Are you sure they’re not allowed to?”

Rabbi Lamm went on to say, however, “It is too early to tell where this is all headed and I think they are moving much too quickly. Do I think having women rabbis is a good thing? I do not know. I am, however, concerned that, before long, we will find ourselves overly feminized, and I would not want to see that happen.”

Rabbi Lamm’s words were recently characterized as a mis-speak due to failing powers. In fact they seem to match entirely the approach of his old colleague Walter Wurzberger. The Mesorah has the capacity to make far reaching halakhic changes, all of them rooted in the revelation at Sinai. Whether they should be made, or should be made now, is a different matter. This is a very different point of view to the one implied by this statement, also reported in the Commentator:

The RCA’s Rabbi Kletenik, however, was unequivocal. “To ordain a woman as a rabbi,” he told The Jewish Press, “is a breach of our mesorah and not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue.”

It is entirely reasonable to take a different view of the boundary between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy and on the workings of the Mesorah. People always did. Wurzberger described his section of Orthodoxy as a ‘tiny but articulate minority’. However, it is not fair to claim that the understanding held by Rabbi Weiss and others associated with Open Orthodoxy has no precedent. The application might be wrong, and that is something to debate as part of an internal Orthodox conversation, but to call it neo-Conservative would come as a great surprise to one of Conservative Judaism’s great critics, Walter Wurzberger.

 

Dr. Ben Elton is a student at YCT Rabbinical School


[1] Tradition in 1960 (3:1), just before Wurzberger became editor of the journal, and was reprinted in A Treasury of “Tradition” (ed. Norman Lamm and Walter S. Wurzberger, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company 1967, pp. 436-443). I am not the first person to identify Wurzberger and this article. See Alan Brill, ‘A Tiny but Articulate Minority’ (Tradition 41:2, 2008)

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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


Guest Post by Rabbi Dr. Avi Kadish: Orthodoxy and the Humanities, a Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

August 6, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Humanities: A Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

by Rabbi Dr. Seth Avi Kadish

Rav Yitzchak, without getting into the specifics of how the examples in the first part of your article were chosen, nor the kinds of methodologies needed to deal with them, I think that part of your essay is making a single basic point (with which I agree): Biblical scholarship is ultimately part of the humanities.

In the humanities, the pendulum swings back and forth as the generations go by (in a way unlike the hard sciences): There is always room for an alternative approach, so long as a persuasive argument can be made to justify it, which is then subject to the criticism of peers. Though methodologies are improved, and new evidence may come to light, the currently accepted approach may still have no greater claim on the truth than do its alternatives from the past and in the future. This is the beauty of the humanities, and the source of their value and power, because the ever swinging pendulum is also an essential aspect of humanity.

One need not accept the regnant view in any area of the humanities, neither in biblical scholarship nor for Homer. Furthermore, to enter the humanities with an uncommon outlook or a different set of assumptions, far from being a hindrance, is actually a boon. It can open new doors and uncover new truths, provided that it is honestly acknowledged.

A deep subjective faith, grounded in the national memory of Israel about our core experiences, is as healthy and valid as any other perspective. I stand with you on this, not with Rav Zev. And like you I think those experiences matter for our relationship with God. The essential validity of this subjective approach is, in my opinion, the rich inheritance bequeathed by Rav Hasdai Crescas to thinking Torah Jews in the modern world. (I hope to write about that soon in a different forum, as well as address your point that “sometimes quantity is quality” which is true as far as it goes, but in my opinion fails to take medieval assumptions fully into account). So acknowledge your loyalties openly, and go on with that to participate honestly and respectfully in the humanities and in biblical scholarship.

At the same time, as a Torah Jew, there is no need to debate the “Orthodoxy” of people whose intellectual quests take them where you don’t see a need to go. Despite all the current verbiage to the contrary, there is no mitzvah nor any halakhic need to do so.

To engage in this is the עצת יצר הרע, [counsel of the “evil inclination”], its greatest tool today for creating hatred and stifling thought and discussion in Am Yisrael. The yetzer works to cause evil specifically through Torah scholars and committed Jews, whom it has convinced that doing this is both necessary and right. Of course they sound convincing, and many of them like yourself are not at all malicious, but the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah.

The constant effort to define “Orthodoxy” and make decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” has nothing to do with living our covenant with God in today’s reality. The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions. So instead please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you (and to me), not what you think it needs to mean for others.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish earned his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied at Yeshiva University were he received his rabbinic ordination and master’s degrees in Bible and Jewish Education. He currently teaches medieval Jewish philosophy and history at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He has also taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education corps and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University’s Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children, where he is involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are meant to be open and welcoming to the entire public. Rabbi Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.


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.


Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 10, 2009

On Prayer and Meditation

My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.

I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words.   Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”

The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?;  to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.

This prayer system does not sound like ours.  We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish.   It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down.  I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own.  I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer.  But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.

I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative.  Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law.  Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words.  Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.

Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice.   There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism.  Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost.  Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation.  That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).

I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools.   In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.

Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign.  I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.


Is the Torah Moral? Parshat Chukat and Ta’amey Hamitzvot (Reasons for the Commandments) and an Answer to Rick -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 3, 2009

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, the Torah presents the chok (mitzvah who’s reason we can not know) par excellence, the Parah Adumah, the ashes of the red heifer as a procedure for removing the ritual impurity caused by being in contact with a dead body.  Is this classic chok, (or for that matter all chukim, or according to some, all mitzvoth), one whose reason (1) we do not know; (2) a mitzvah whose reason can not be known except by the Divine; or (3)a mitzvah with no reason at all?

I will explore this classic question of Taamey Hamitzvot (whether there are reasons for mitzvoth) and I then hope to link the answer to Rick’s comment on my post from last week regarding gay Jews.  His question was, once we see people in homosexual relationships with more love and less rejection don’t we run the risk of accepting other forbidden relationships such as incest?

Summary: This is a long post so let me summarize first.  Having a Kiddush to celebrate the commitment of two homosexuals to raising a family together (which is not forbidden)  would not lead us to having a Kiddush for a brother and sister raising a family together as partners because homosexuality is not immoral in our society and incest is.  The torah forbids both but that says nothing about morality, only about halacha.  Both sexual acts are forbidden, neither Kiddush is, but we should not celebrate an incestual union since it is morally depraved and will affect other’s moral compass, whereas a homosexual union, while forbidden, does not effect our moral compass and our ability to imitate God which is only based on mitzvoth which have as their reasons mercy, compassion and morality.

Post: Rick’s is a classic argument against tolerating homosexuality.  From a secular point of view people can make distinctions between one kind of relationship and another (many states permit homosexual weddings but not the other kinds Rick mentioned) but from a religious point of view it is more difficult.  If the Torah is our measure of what is moral and what is forbidden then aren’t all forbidden relationships equally immoral?  If we see in a less harsh light something the Torah forbids then why not permit everything the Torah forbids?   What will stop us from having a Kiddush for an incestual couple if we have one for a homosexual one?  It’s a good question that deserves a serious answer.

The Mishnah (Megilah 25a) states: “One who is leading the prayer service and prays, “Even unto a mother bird does your mercy extend”…we quiet him.””  The Talmud records two opinions as to why this is so (each is an opinion of a different Rabbi named Yosi); either, (1) because we will create jealousy among the creatures (since God is singling out the bird for special treatment), or (2) because this prayer leader is depicting the Torah’s commandments as motivated by mercy and they are nothing more than decrees of the King (with no moral motivation such as mercy behind them).  This Gemara is presenting both sides of the argument -the opinion that mitzvot have no reasons (even those miztvot which seem to reflect moral intentions) and the opinion which holds that the purpose of all Mitzvot are to teach us to be just, merciful and moral.

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