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Can One Be a Shomer Torah u’Mitzvos and Accept Bible Criticism?

Historians currently assume the Bible was written between 720 BCE and 587 BCE, between the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem.
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Another voice has entered the online discussion about Bible Criticism and orthodox Judaism. Professor Jacob L. Wright is an orthodox Jew who has studied, taught, and written extensively on Bible Criticism.

He made waves Pesach time when he published a provocative article on the Huffington Post where he talked about “The Myth of Moses.” In his article he explained that his view of the Bible is that it is a composite work with each layer added for a specific reason. In the Moses story, there was a need to justify the existence of an Egyptian prince named Moses who saved the Israelites and establish him as a bona fide Israelite. So the Bible tells the story of a boy who was cast off by his mother into the Nile. This story has very obscure references as the names of the major players in the story are not mentioned. Later, the story was viewed as salacious so new details were added as a prologue to the story.

If it weren’t the Bible and I weren’t orthodox, this would be a great theory to explain anomalies in the text. But it is the Bible and I am orthodox so it hardly sits well with me when the Bible is explained away as myth.

Professor Wright was interview by Professor Alan Brill on his Kavvanah website. The interview is worth your time and consideration if you don’t mind reading what is widely considered to be absolute kefira.

The first important thing in the interview is the introduction where Brill outlines the current status of Biblical Criticism. It’s required reading so I copy it in full here:

As background, the problems of the Bible go back to the tenth and eleventh century Islamic critiques of the Bible by Ibn Hazm and others. Second, modern figures such as Spinoza and Jean Astruc sought to understand the Bible as a human book using the same tools that we use to understand Greek and Roman books. And in the 19th century, Wellhausen popularized a theory that the Pentateuch had four authors. But the important part of his theory was that the ritual and priestly material was a priestly Pharisaic digression from the original pure faith of the prophets necessitating Christianity for a restoration. Hence, Solomon Schechter called it higher anti-Semitism, David Zvi Hoffman showed that Leviticus is not in contradiction to the rest of the story, Kaufman showed that the prophets assumed the priestly material, and Cassuto showed based on Sumerian and Akkadian sources that the divisions fail.

Well, Wellhausen was writing a century ago, with the aforementioned defenses all formulated in a post WWI climate. For at least forty years the field was already given to authors such as Gunkel who assumes the Bible is legend, the way Gilgamesh is legend. And Martin Noth who assumed most of the narrative was formulated originally as oral traditions- read here. Questions of redaction were not tied to Wellhausen, or even literary documents, but to oral traditions.

What do historians currently think about the context of the Bible? They assume that it was written between 720 BCE and 587 BCE, between the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem, with some editing until the end of Ezra’s life circa 440 BCE. (Minimalists make it more recent and Evangelicals defend the chronological dates.) They work from parallels to Assyrian texts, the nature of script, linguistics, and reconstructed context of author. Little of this has anything to do with literary doublets. If you want to reject historical criticism, then start learning ancient linguistics and texts contemporary to the Bible. No harmonization of passages changes this dating nor does anything from Cassutto or Hoffman affect it. (However, Prof. Josh Berman is seeking to shift the discussion from Assyrians to the Hittites in 1300 BCE, an effort that may be accepted by the Orthodox but does not promise to have much of an impact on the experts. But it is better than refuting Kugel, who is not a historian of ancient Israel or source critic so the critique does not help.)

This past May there was a major conference at Hebrew University on“Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory;” if you are interested in these topics, then that was the place to be. The conference opened up with a clear statement that there are three approaches: a Documentary approach (not based on Wellhausen but on Noth and others) where there are separate documents; a Supplementary approach,where a single document get more and more complex; and a Fragmentary approach, where we cannot separate out authors or layers anymore.

Finally returning to Cassuto, he may have rejected Wellhausen but he accepted historical context, showing that all the numbers and genealogies in Genesis do not correspond to ages and events, rather are stylized number, ten generations, twelve children. He does this by reading the ancient parallels to the Biblical story. Wright answers Brill’s various questions and hte discussion is fascinating and worth your time.

However I would like to focus on the end of the interview. Here, Brill asks the million dollar question:

How can one be a shomer Torah uMizvot and accept historical criticism?

Wright basically dodges the question by attacking those who attack Biblical Criticism without a background in the field. He also reassures the reader that there are plenty of scholars who are shomer Torah u’Mitzvos. Wright reiterates the question and fails to provide a sufficient answer. If anything his answer strengthens the question. He answers that he is in awe of the authors of the Bible. Their genius makes it a compelling work. In conclusion the Torah is authoritative but not divine.

I tried to follow up in the comments and ask why anyone would feel compelled to adhere to an ancient man made book of rules. Wright replied that the Torah as divine origins but is not divine. I was eventually directed to Gideon Slifkin’s Facebook page where Wright says he went into more detail. I followed instructions but the discussion there did not deliver.

This is the crux of the issue. In mainstream frum circles today, from Satmar and Lakewood to YU and Merkaz HaRav, the assumption is that if the Torah is not approximately 99.99% of what God gave Moses at Sinai then people would not keep the Torah. That is the basic assumption. The fear of Bible Criticism is that it assumes (or even purports to prove) that the Torah is not 100% divine. Some scholars say it’s 0% divine, but that is not a necessary assumption to Bible Criticism. The only way Bible Criticism will ever be accepted in mainstream frum circles is if this assumption about keeping the Torah changes. If this assumption is replaced with the assumption that people will keep the Torah even if the Torah we have today is a composite work based on an original divine revelation at Sinai then the fear of Bible Criticism disappears.

As an aside, I see no reason to think that this assumption (i.e. that even if God is not responsible for 100% of the Torah we would keep the Torah) could not work. We keep plenty of things that are not from God. We keep all the Rabbinic Mitzvos and many customs on top of those as well. So I think there is no reason that the current assumption is unimpeachable and unchangeable.

The challenge will be carving out a version of Biblical Criticism that doesn’t undermine our mandate that we keep the Torah but allows for subsequent emendations and additions. Is it possible? Not yet. It will only become a possibility once we as a collective group realize that the Torah need not be 100% from God in order for us to keep it. But once the current assumption is replaced with the new assumption I think we will see Bible Criticism seep into the frum community as an acceptable form of study. As a matter of comparison, Talmudic criticism was once considered taboo and is gaining slow acceptance in some frum circles.

For all the uproar over R’ Farber’s position, I feel that his is far more tenable than Wright’s position on this issue. R’ Farber holds that prophets made additions to the original text of the Torah. This is extremely controversial, but at least God is the one doing the writing, albeit through God’s prophets. Wright’s version has too much human interference to be taken seriously as a document that requires our attention. His basic approach is that if it’s meaningful we will do it no matter where it comes from. This is weak and I doubt it would survive more than a couple generations at most.

In conclusion, the assumption about what it takes for people to keep the Torah is far too limiting. Once it expands I think we will see an increase in Bible Criticism that is acceptable in frum circles. I hope we can get there before we lose too many people based on the wrong assumptions.

Visit Fink or Swim.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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12 Responses to “Can One Be a Shomer Torah u’Mitzvos and Accept Bible Criticism?”

  1. Nathan Katz says:

    This is a great question.

  2. Gil Gilman says:

    Bible criticism has as much authenticity as hollywood movie critics. Once in a rare while they get lucky, but more times than not you wonder if they saw the same movie you saw, or were critiquing a synopsis published before the film reached the cutting floor. Or we could liken them to those minutely examining the bark on a given tree and fail to observe the continuity of the surrounding forest. Meanwhile the sweat of their labors has begun to dry and they begin swatting away as if a bee was in their shorts. Once they have recovered from this initial experience, they feel it necessary to defend the bee theory against all comers so tgey don't lose face.

  3. Shemayah Shiloh Phillips says:

    Yes, they can. But sometimes the question is can biblical Criticism accept Criticism?

  4. Menachem Rephun says:

    Absolutely not

  5. Menachem Rephun says:

    How is this Rabbi Orthodox again?

  6. Menachem Rephun says:

    This article is creepy. Why is this supposedly Orthodox Rabbi so enthusiastic about getting Orthodox Jews to embrace secular bible criticism which undermines the authority of the Torah?

  7. Menachem Rephun says:

    This article is simply wrong, and I am very surprised that the Jewish Press would print it. Rejection of the Divine Authorship of the Torah does indeed corrupt Torah observance. It only takes one look at the movements that have rejected this fundamental principle of Judaism, like Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist, to see that this true. Their Torah observance is incredibly lax compared to Orthodox Jews. Once you reject the Torah’s commandments as being G-d given, the decline in observance is inevitable

  8. Menachem Rephun says:

    The Torah was given to us by Hashem. Period.

  9. Roy Neal Grissom says:

    At least he doesn't believe that the universe was created by GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD.

  10. Menachem Rephun says:

    Roy Neal Grissom Nice family guy reference. I'm pretty sure the rabbi does believe the universe was created by G-d or he needs to rethink his career path

  11. Menachem Rephun says:

    Roy Neal Grissom Nice family guy reference. I'm pretty sure the rabbi does believe the universe was created by G-d or he needs to rethink his career path

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