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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