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October 25, 2014 / 1 Heshvan, 5775
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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.
bible critic

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.

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:

    Technically you can be shomer mitzvos while rejecting the divinity of the Torah, but Jewish history has shown that such movements inevitably fall apart. Many of the Torah's commandments are challenging and time-consuming. Would someone really go through the pain of davening three times a day, fasting for 25 hours on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av, staying in Shul for almost the entire day, keeping all the stringent rules of Shabbos and Kashrus, and all the other commandments of the Torah, if they didn't feel there was a divine mandate requiring them to do so?

  9. Menachem Rephun says:

    The Torah was given to us by Hashem. Period.

  10. Roy Neal Grissom says:

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

  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

  12. 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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