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Can You Cry ‘Heresy’ in a Crowded Beit Midrash?

Why does a opinion in the Talmud say the last verses in Devarim were not written by Moses? Was it the easiest solution to a very obvious problem?
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The most important discussion in orthodox Judaism right now is the pair of articles written by R’ Zev Farber. The articles have been deemed heresy by R’ Gordimer on Cross-Currents. If you are averse to reading anything that might touch on issues and ideas that are possibly heretical please stop reading and pick up a Nesivos Shalom or something.

Still here? Okay. The two articles say different things so I’d like to briefly address the Cross-Currents post as it relates to the “short article.” This article went through two versions. R’ Gordimer’s article used the first version which was more objectionable. R’ Farber’s article was edited a full week before the article on Cross-Currents was published. I find this to be egregious. If you are going to call someone a heretic, possibly the worst thing to call an orthodox Jew, you best be sure that every detail of your case is accurate.

The original version said this:

The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.

and this:

Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there is no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. Whether it be the description of the scout story, the reaction of the Edomites and Moabites to Israel’s request, or the legitimacy of dwelling in the Transjordan, the two versions work with contradictory assumptions.

I can see why R’ Gordimer thinks this is heresy. I don’t think it has to be as will be discussed later. But the second version is almost certainly not heresy. This is the revised version:

Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there appears to be no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. The simplest literary approach is the academic one which posits multiple authors with multiple traditions. How such an approach meshes with traditionalist belief requires serious thought but it is necessary to start by recognizing the simplicity and straightforwardness of the academic approach.

There is nothing remarkable about this statement. It simply states that the academic approach is simpler. Simpler is not necessarily more truthful. Thus, there is no value judgment on whether the academic approach is preferable. I hope that if this was the only thing R’ Farber said, it would not have created a controversy. I hope. For this reason, I am disappointed in the Cross-Currents article.

However, whenever I raise this point I am reminded of the other “long article” where the heresy is stronger and harder to wiggle out of.

On to the second article.

This is R’ Farber’s worldview. It is his Grand Theory of Everything. His goal is clear. R’ Farber wants very badly to harmonize all the things he has taken for granted as an orthodox Jew, his adherence to halacha and social orthodoxy, with modern Biblical Criticism. This is his goal and it is important to begin with an appreciation of his assumptions.

R’ Farber takes the challenges presented by Bible critics very seriously. It’s hard not to take them seriously. They are asking good questions. It’s true that we have “frum” answers for most of these questions and some of the questions are not so bothersome. Yet, the challenges exist.

The maximalist Bible critic answer is the text is not Divine. It is a text that comes from people and therefore any anomaly is understood as poor editing by a later redactor. The various writers have different agendas and their works reflect their personal biases.

The maximalist orthodox Jewish answer is that the text is Divine. It is a text that comes from God and therefore any anomaly is understood as part of the infinite wisdom of the Author of the Torah. The different versions of stories and laws reflect Divine intent to teach us everything we need to know.

There is a huge chasm between these two approaches. They share nothing other than the questions that they ask.

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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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5 Responses to “Can You Cry ‘Heresy’ in a Crowded Beit Midrash?”

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    Farber also denies that Abraham and Sarah existed, or that the tribes of Israel were descended from a common ancestor.

    As for "Chazal had a different midpoint to their Torah scrolls", this is not true. See http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_pamphlet9.html, and the section "The Middle of the Torah".

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Torah clearly states that Moshe's statements in Devarim were as per the command of G-d as per the following at the beginning of Devarim " It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded him regarding them;" The lats few statements after Moshe passed away is discussed- but that also was written by dictation.

    The Torah also makes it clear that the Whole Torah was written as per the dictation of G-d to Moshe- that means G-d told Moshe to write down whichever conversations and events that G-d chose to record as per the wording that G-d decided. That is by dictation. That's why the Torah is eternal and full of so many secrets linked precisely to the G-d's choice of word use and order of wording.

  3. Charlie Hall says:

    Chazal admitted that they had lost the accurate original text of the Torah. Some rishonim identified passages that they believed to be later additions. These folks were not heretics.

  4. Charlie Hall And there is the problem. Because, once you say that Chazal "lost the accurate original text" without any qualification as to what percent was lost, or how they decided what was proper to edit, and what was not proper to edit, you make it a "free for all".

    Especially in the USA, where the idea "what makes your opinion better than mine, just because you had years of study" has been radicalized, to the point where the Reform movement encourages people to make up their own Judaism, so that it is "meaningful to them".

    Americans have notoriously short attention spans, and will hear "Chazal made it up" and "God Speaking to Israel from Mt. Sinai is allegory" instead of the nuanced point R' Fink is trying to make.

    Far safer to start from the position that R’ Farber crossed a line, and force the walk back, than just accepting it as part of "Public Debate".

  5. Charlie Hall And there is the problem. Because, once you say that Chazal "lost the accurate original text" without any qualification as to what percent was lost, or how they decided what was proper to edit, and what was not proper to edit, you make it a "free for all".

    Especially in the USA, where the idea "what makes your opinion better than mine, just because you had years of study" has been radicalized, to the point where the Reform movement encourages people to make up their own Judaism, so that it is "meaningful to them".

    Americans have notoriously short attention spans, and will hear "Chazal made it up" and "God Speaking to Israel from Mt. Sinai is allegory" instead of the nuanced point R' Fink is trying to make.

    Far safer to start from the position that R’ Farber crossed a line, and force the walk back, than just accepting it as part of "Public Debate".

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