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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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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.

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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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