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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?
Bible1

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.

But most thinking people know that the maximalist orthodox Jewish position is untenable. No one really thinks that. The people who do are “mesorah maximalists” who will hide from the truth to support their position. The Talmud discusses the last few verses of Devarim. Chazal had a different midpoint to their Torah scrolls. Ezra reconciled the texts of several versions of Torah scrolls. Maimonides reconciled errors he found in Torah scrolls using the Aleppo Codex. Rashi had at least one discrepancy in his Torah scroll. Ibn Ezra famously said that there are twelve places in the Chumash that speak in present tense and those were not written by Moses.

In other words, we know that some parts of the Chumash were not spoken by God to Moses. That’s certainly acceptable in orthodox Judaism.

We also know that there is a dispute about the very nature of the book of Devarim. The Ramban says it was given word for word from God to Moses at Sinai. Others say Moses spoke these words as prophecy. Contrasted with the rest of the Chumash, it is more similar to the books of the prophets than Sefer Vayikra in this respect. The Avnei Nezer says that Devarim is a bridge between the Written Law and the Oral Law as it is Moshe’s discourse where he darshens the first four books of the Chumash.

The point is obvious. Devarim is treated differently by the Medieval commentators. The maximalist orthodox Jewish answer is not a reasonable position. Legitimate sources recognize this and we must recognize this as well. The question I wish to address is why. Why do we find these sort of opinions about Devarim and other scattered examples throughout the Chumash?

There are two possible answers. I think here we find a difference of opinion loosely based on affiliation. Charedim subscribe to one view and non-charedim subscribe to another.

Charedim are more apt to say that God included all aforementioned items when God gave the Torah to Moses. God told Moses to make the book of Devarim sound different. It was part of God’s plan that errors rf anachronisms creep into the text for the sake of the answers that would be given later. They were latent in the text the entire time but were waiting for the right people to reveal them.

Non-Charedim are more likely to take a different approach. This alternative approach holds that things may have happened after revelation and great Torah authorities used their wisdom and Torah knowledge to answer the questions in the best way they know how. This means that the issues that forced the hand of the great sages were the result of history, scribal errors, or any other circumstance that could have caused the problems. The answers are true to Torah because of the people who said them and their universal acceptance by the greater Jewish people.

We could say the same thing about the drashos we find in Chazal whether they be Halachic or Aggadic. One way of looking at it is that these drashos were latent in the text, they were always there, they were always kept, they were just “revealed” by the various tanaim and amoraim. The other view is that these drashos were Chazal’s way of dealing with textual and perhaps social or religious issues. They could have learned differently, but they chose to learn this way. The drashos that gained consensus became Torah. This approach certainly rings true when studying the Talmud.

Why did one opinion in the Talmud say that the last verses in Devarim were not written by Moses? Because he had a mesorah? Or was it simply the easiest solution to a very obvious problem? I think it is more elegant to say that he saw a problem and this was his solution. To say otherwise means that at some point the mesorah was lost and a disagreement developed and the rabbis were merely reporters of their tradition as opposed to Torah giants with ideas of their own.

It is possible that the version I ascribe to more charedi orthodox Jews is correct. But I don’t think it is correct. It’s hard to believe that Chazal came along and just explained what was already known to everyone. But even if the charedi version is correct with regard to Chazal, it is almost certainly not correct with regard to the rishonim.

I’ve heard people say that Rashi on Chumash is a semi-prophetic work. Rashi was Divinely inspired to comment on each verse and his commentary reflects God’s intended interpretation of the verses. This is a disservice to Rashi. It seems to me that Rashi saw inconsistencies or anomalies in the text and he chose his preferred interpretations from his vast knowledge of Chazal’s teachings. Rashi saw a problem and Rashi provided the solution.

I think it’s easier to see where this is taking us by looking at Ibn Ezra and Rambam. Why did the Ibn Ezra say that there are 7 places in the Chumash that are not original to the text? Was it something handed down to him from his teachers? I don’t think so. I am fairly certain that Ibn Ezra saw a problem in the text, there was evidence that contravened the accepted (or maybe it wasn’t accepted at that time) wisdom that every word of the Torah was given to Moses by God and those were the exact same words they had in the 11th century Torah scrolls. His solution was to accept the evidence and change the dogma. Religion cannot contradict truth so Ibn Ezra adjusted the religion accordingly.

Rambam managed to make the Torah consistent with Greek and Arabic philosophy. Do we think that Rambam thought that Greek and Arabic philosophy were handed to Moses from God at Sinai? That’s preposterous. Rather, Rambam held that the maxims he accepted in those non-Jewish sources were the truth. If they are true, then the Torah must work with Greek and Arabic philosophy. Rambam made it work. It’s the same idea. Rambam accepted external evidence and then conformed the Torah to make sense in the context of his truth. Truth cannot be changed. But sometimes religious dogma can be changed. Even more surprising is that Rambam did not say “prove Greek and Arabic philosophy to me and then I will work out the Torah but until then I accept the Torah as truth and all this secular stuff is obviously wrong.” He simply accepted the secular wisdom as true and conformed Torah to that truth.

This is how the rishonim and Chazal dealt with Torah vs. evidence.

Similarly, when both Chazal and rishonim encountered a verse or section that seemed too unlikely to be literal, they interpreted it metaphorically. We don’t circumcise our hearts because that verse was deemed allegorical. Rishonim, like Ralbag and Rambam went even further by turning sections that contradicted their common sense into dream-sequences or metaphors. Many rishonim and even some achronim have done the same thing with difficult passages in the Talmud. If it can’t be explained literally because of evidence then it could be allegorized. (Granted, some achronim felt no pangs of guilt by simply saying that Chazal were incorrect.)

The point to all this is to demonstrate how things have changed. The achronim lived in a time where science and other evidence was used to counter religion, not bolster it. In turn, they began the trend of lifting religion above the fray and arguing that the science or other evidence must be reinterpreted to fit religion. If it could not reinterpreted, it was wrong. This is the paradigm of almost all religions since the Renaissance and Enlightenment. There were exceptions to this rule, but for the most part this rule has held firm for several hundred years. Evolution doesn’t seem to fit in with Biblical narratives? Despite much more evidence than there is for the erroneous astronomy Rambam used in the Mishneh Torah, religious people all over the world are fighting against evolution. The Bible seems to be a composite work? Religious people reply that it’s impossible. Chazal seemed to be mistaken about medicine or science or math? Our modern thinking must be wrong, or alternatively the Talmud meant something else, or alternatively nature has changed.

It’s such a different attitude from the way Torah scholars approached evidence for almost 2000 years.

We don’t learn Chumash the same way the rishonim learned Chumash. Instead we learn what the rishonim said about the Chumash. This handicaps us from being too innovative on the one hand and has a way of maintaining tradition on the other hand.

I believe, what R’ Farber is trying to do is to relaunch the ancient way of studying Chumash. How would Chazal or some of the rishonim reacted to the evidence presented by Biblical Criticism? If they were consistent, I believe they would have done something like R’ Farber has done in his long article. I am not commenting on R’ Farber’s academically leaning conclusions. There are other conclusions that could be reached by the questions raised. But his version is certainly a valid conclusion, especially when one only takes the academic data and for the sake of argument ignores the religious approach.

In his long article R’ Farber allegorizes some things. Other things are seen as products of editing over time. We have seen that allegorization is an acceptable form of interpretation. We have also seen that it was obvious that to Chazal and rishonim that the text of the Torah had been edited. R’ Gordimer and others take issue with both of these devices.

Allegorizing too much of the text could create a problem for people. It might be seen as cannibalizing the Torah. If the narratives are not literal then are they meaningful? R’ Farber says yes. Others seem to say no. I don’t see a reason to say no. I only see a fear of what might happen if we say no. R’ Farber is trying to lay the groundwork for allegorization not to be a problem.

As to the issue of subsequent editing of the Torah I don’t see how it’s a huge problem. R’ Farber is not saying that random people came around and edited the Torah. I think R’ Farber is saying that the edits were made by prophets. The same way we take the works of the prophets seriously and we take them as divine books, we can take edits to the Bible. Our Tanach is filled with various voices that sound very different. Sometimes these books contradict one another. But it’s okay because we know that they all came from God and God speaks through each prophet in a different way. If prophets did the same thing to the Torah, it’s true that this would be a very different way of looking at Torah, but in the end, it’s just as binding on us. It’s equally the word of God. There is a rishon who says something like this with regard to the stories in the Torah.

R’ Farber’s approach completely changes what we mean by Torah M’Sinai as well. But is the belief in our version of Torah M’Sinai a necessary belief for orthodox Judaism to work? Perhaps not.

The most difficult part of R’ Farber’s worldview is the articulation of how Revelation and Torah M’Sinai works. Professor Tamar Ross makes an attempt at this, and I don’t think it satisfactory (see: Torah M’Sinai According to Professor Tamar Ross ) R’ Farber articulates his beliefs at the end of the article:

  • I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah is from heaven, and that the entirety of the book is nevua (prophecy) and represents the encounter between God and the people of Israel.
  • I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, meaning the uniqueness of the Torah as being of a higher order than any other work in its level of divine encounter. The story of the revelation at Sinai in the Torah I understand as a narrative depiction of a deeper truth—the Torah is God’s book and the divine blueprint for Israel and Jewish life.
  • I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses, from “Timnah was a concubine” (Gen. 36:12) to “I am the Lord your God,” are holy.
  • I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal’s interpretation.

They sound pretty safe and pretty reasonable. But I also think that this kind of Torah M’Sinai is too nuanced to catch on and it sounds too heretical to gain traction.

It seems to me that R’ Farber is trying to use orthodox principles to push orthodox Judaism into a discussion about our sacred texts.

If this is what R’ Farber is doing, and I am pretty sure it is, we can say that he has good intentions. We can also say that it deserves a conversation and not to be shot down as heretical immediately. I was particularly upset that the article on Cross-Currents did not articulate the objections to R’ Farber’s statements. Instead quotes were mined and the audience was expected to simply conclude that the statements were heretical. It is symptomatic of a larger problem in orthodox Judaism where reason and debate are stifled. Dogmatic proclamations are very much in style. Well argued responsa died with R’ Moshe Feinstein.

Purely for the sake of honest religious debate, I think that R’ Farber’s approach demands a discussion and not condemnation. But for the social reasons I think there is even more benefit to an inclusive approach. We should not be rooting for a breakaway from orthodoxy by the Left, nor should we even give the appearance of rooting for it. One thing that Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and its community do well, is inclusivity. The times we live in are dark in some ways, but people are more capable than ever before to think on their own and formulate their judgments. I see no benefit to jettisoning an entire group of people and the people who are sympathetic to them because of controversial statements. I am aware that this is a time-honored custom of Jews and religious people everywhere. I just don’t see the utility in it anymore. Our best defense against losing the battle vs. complete secularism is not insularity and narrowing the playing field. Our best defense is the exact opposite.

If we want to have a small narrow-minded cult that ignores the outside world and in turn is ignored by the outisde world we should continue the trend of ousting people and movements from orthodox Judaism. If we want to keep a foothold in the outside world and carry weight and influence in a world that could certainly use some of our wisdom, we need to keep the broadest base possible.

I hope that R’ Farber’s article and the entire theTorah.com website can become a springboard for education and discussion. Inclusivity to the maximum should be our goal.

Visit Fink or Swim.

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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