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.