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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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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.

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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