Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism
This is part two of my reactions to the internet discussions about Dr Zev Farber’s essay “Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism” on thetorah.com. In the first part, I tried to lay out how I view the topic of what is Orthodoxy and what is an Orthodoxy Jew, just to set the scene.
Very quick summary review:
- I personally believe that we in practice use the standards of Ani Maamin or Yigdal to decide which beliefs could remove a Jew’s good standing.
- I am willing for the sake of this discussion (which would otherwise be quite short) also consider a more loose definition, and ask who is a shomer Shabbos. The term is an idiom for a reason. Meaning, rather than looking at the beliefs as a law in themselves, we will require those beliefs that justify living according to halakhah (including Shabbos in particular).
- There is a gap between judging beliefs and judging the people that have them. There could be more to being a heretic than believing in heresy, there is the element of why they believe and culpability. We really didn’t have the material to answer the question, and pragmatically answers differ between contemporary posqim anyway. But it’s important to know the question is there.
So, here we are not discussing the status of Dr Zev Farber, but the status of his beliefs. I still think it’s self evident that if we find his beliefs problematic, we as a community need to say so, and not give him a forum to teach them. Therefore, I am more uncomfortable with the subsequent statements from key people in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, who are keeping him in his post, then with Dr Farber himself. (Although you’ll note I’m uncomfortable using the titles “rabbi” or “dayan” to refer to him.)
Besides, anyone who can’t help quoting Zaphod Breeblebox the Zeroth (a character in the British satire Science Fiction book series The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy) in the middle of a serious paper spelling out some of his most cherished beliefs sounds like someone whose company I would really enjoy.
I – Key Quotes
But now, I want to address Farber’s specific claims. He writes:
To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form theTorat Hashem! (God’s Torah).
THE WAVE THEORY
Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.
I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud…
Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century).
So he accepts the theories of Bible Criticism and schools of Biblical Archeology as having shown that the Torah’s traditional foundation is mythical. So how does Dr Farber maintain his own relationship to the Torah and halakhah?
In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. …
The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, certainly function this way….
The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way.
To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form the Torat Hashem! (God’s Torah).
In this installment I hope to discuss the question: Can this edifice actually stand or is it self-contradictory?
II – Does it Work?
Dr. Farber lists a number of examples of the kinds of things that make up a compelling argument for concluding the Torah was redacted together from multiple documents by different authors. As these are only illustrative examples, I won’t address each one. The point isn’t the examples, but the kind of thought they demonstrate. Since our focus here is whether his philosophy does indeed support halakhah, I will take his first example of alleged “Contradictions in Law”: “Do slaves go free on the seventh year (Exod. 21:1-6, Deut. 15:12-18), or do they go free in the Jubilee (50th) year (Lev. 25:39-55)?”
Chazal, of course, note the same contradiction. We can be sure that Farber is aware of the Yerushalmi Qiddushin 6b (probably directly if not via the Rambam) which says that a Jewish slave is freed at shemittah, if they sold themselves or if court sold them (e.g. to repay a debt incurred stealing an item) and they wish to leave. If someone sold by court chooses not to, they go through an ear piecing ceremony (mentioned in the quoted portion of Shemos) and remain slaves until no later than yovel. And this is as the Rambam codifies it as well (Avadim ch. 3).
In general, Bible Criticism is based on different assumptions about the nature of the text than Jewish Tradition does. We believe that the Torah, and Tanakh in general, describes events that were not typical. In fact, that the events themselves were as much part of how Hashem “wrote” His message to mankind as the books. We believe that the written Torah is Cliff Notes to a fuller body of wisdom, “merely” the seed to a Tree of Life planted among us, a process we were given and instructed how to work. So, yes, Hashem orchestrated similar but different events, wanted Yaaqov to have 7 children in 12 years, tells the same story in different ways or calls the same person by different names, and presented the term limits of a Jewish slave in terms that engender halachic discourse.
If someone believes that Hashem planned the Oral Torah and halachic process as part of His Intent when He composed the text, there is no question for the Bible Critic to address. That is not to dismiss the need to understand the peshat, the plain meaning of the verse. But there is no “why?”, we know the Author’s motivation to at times make that peshat less than obvious — there are other layers that we can only find through those indicators. They are not imperfections to be attributed to a human element in authorship or inconsistencies to be attributed to redaction.
There is something paradoxical about Farber’s belief in a text that evolved from the voices of prophets into Hashem’s word. If you accept it’s Hashem’s Word, and that Word is of the sort that supports Jewish Tradition and the halachic process, there is no longer motivation to speak of multiple “voices of prophets”.
Underlying the whole exercise was the presumption that Oral Torah and halakhah are an afterthought, and not part of the original texts. Thus Chazal’s answers come across as weak apologetics, rather than reflecting the true body of the full corpus of the Torah in which the Oral and Written are a single entity. And I do not believe that traditional Shabbos observance can stand on that foundation.
(In contrast, Chazal teach that the Oral Torah actually was given first! The ideas of the Torah were given at Mt Sinai, but the text was given either piecemeal over the next 40 years, or all at once at the end of Moshe’s life.)
And I could have taken a short-cut and noted that Dr Farber also realized that the halachic process would not stand unchanged. To resume my first quote from his essay:
In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.
The Jewish community already tried that experiment, combining bible criticism and historical and sociological analysis of halakhah to justify a different legal process, one which balances Tradition and Change. It’s simply not Orthodox halakhah. (And in fact that system devolved to the point where Conservative observance of kashrus full-time is at 3% and the movement’s leadership has been working on pulling out of a nosedive for the past decade. Which is not a good thing, but that’s a topic for a different post.)
Dr Farber’s belief system stands up neither to the Ani Maamin test nor the Shomer Shabbos one.
And last, is there serious reason for others to feel the challenges posed by Biblical Criticism and Archeology are insurmountable, such that the Torah needs to be understood in a new light? Are those of us who insist on maintaining classical Orthodox beliefs intentionally blinding ourselves to the truth? Stay tuned for part 3!