Monthly Archives: May 2013

Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response

By Ben Elton

Ben Elton’s guest post is the 6th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two talks and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available herehere, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here, while our last post, a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter, can be found here.

Yitzchak Sprung is in the middle of a series of posts on this blog exploring whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. We have seen perspectives from Menachem Leibtag, James Kugel, Nahum Sarna and a digest of Hazal and Rishonim who did not believe that the entire Torah was either given at Sinai or given to Moses. All of this discussion and analysis is interesting and much of it is valuable, but there are also problematic elements to his enterprise, which this post is designed to highlight.

We should always attempt to reveal the nuance and complexity of our tradition. Yitzchak has brought to our attention once more, sources in the Talmud which understand that the Torah (by which I mean the Pentateuch) was given not in one fell swoop but over the course of the wanderings in the desert, and that the last few pasukim were dictated not to Moses but to Joshua. We have been reminded that significant medieval scholars held that there may have been some amendments to the text even later than that. Abraham Ibn Ezra has long been known for holding that view; more recently we have learnt that Yehuda HeHassid held similar views. All this is to the good, and we should not be perturbed that the Rambam disagreed and his Principles of Faith reflect his different position. Rishonim do not always agree, indeed that is the foundation for much traditional learning.

However, we should not delude ourselves. There is a vast chasm between these traditional (if sometimes marginal) views and the contemporary approach. Although the academy is perhaps rowing back from the high point of biblical minimalism, the consensus of modern scholars does not accept there was an Egyptian slavery of the entire Hebrew nation, nor an Exodus, a Moses, the Revelation at Sinai, nor the conquest of the Land.1 We cannot reconcile modern scholarship and traditional faith by referring to the sources that Yitzchak discussed. Indeed, as Marc Shapiro has shown (for some reason the radicalism of Shapiro is often overstated), all authorities agree that these events took place and all regard the belief in a direct Divine Revelation as essential.2 This is true of figures as separated by time and culture as Joseph Albo and Moses Mendelssohn.3

So let us be clear. Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship would represent a complete departure from traditional Jewish thought. It means far more than viewing the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles as just one voice in a complex conversation; it means rejecting the attitude towards the Torah held by every Jew until Spinoza and every traditional Jew since. This point too has been acknowledged by scholars and thinkers on both sides of the question, from Joseph Hertz to Louis Jacobs.4 The Documentary Hypothesis shatters the traditional view. The idea that the Torah was written by many hands over many centuries and redacted in the Persian period or later is totally absent from traditional accounts. Even David Weiss Halivni cannot stomach this view, and argues for a Revelation at Sinai followed by a reconstruction of something approaching an original text, which would account for the features which academics ascribe to multiple authorship and editing.5

Further, this change in our view of the Torah would require the construction of an entirely new theology of halakhah, which brings me to my second point. Many have tried to create a new justification for the observance of mitzvot absent direct Divine Revelation. In America, Solomon Schechter took the first steps, followed by Louis Ginzberg and Louis Finklestein. In Britain the same was attempted by a group of figures I discussed in a recent article in Conservative Judaism, culminating in Louis Jacobs in a series of books, pamphlets and lectures.6 Most recently Joel Roth has restated much the same arguments.7 They all suggest that while the Torah may be the result of many years and many authors and editors it has nevertheless received Divine sanction through history, specifically its acceptance by the Jewish People and therefore can still be the basis for a binding halakhah.

There are three fatal problems with this approach. First, it breaks down even for its advocates at some point. Louis Jacobs repeatedly advanced the view that halakhah remained binding whatever our conclusions might be on the authorship of the Torah, but became queasy when it can to institutions such as mamzer, which he attributed to a human, as opposed to Divine element in the biblical text, and wanted to eliminate. The problem being, that in his view the Torah should be regarded as both entirely human and entirely Divine. Gordon Tucker took a similar approach to the prohibition of homosexuality and argued vigorously that he could not exclude his views on the Bible from his thinking about the position of gay Jews and his desire to enable them to find personal fulfilment with a partner, and his belief that God wanted that too.8

The second problem is that this view actually inhibits halakhic change. The traditional view that a Divinely revealed law was given into human hands, allows for reconsideration of its meaning in every generation in the light of its needs. The train of thought that comes from attempting to reconcile modern thought on the Bible with a commitment to halakhah, concludes with the idea that whatever has been accepted is binding. This logically precludes further development because the status quo always has the Divine imprimatur. Of course, this point has long since been put to one side in practice.

The third problem is sociological. The attempts by the early leaders of the Conservative Movement to justify a binding halakhah without direct Divine Revelation comprehensively failed. The Conservative laity has never been halakhic and now the Conservative rabbinate is not halakhic either. David Wiess Halivni and Alan Yuter made this point in the 1980s, Ismar Schorsch and Joel Roth more recently. It is an irrefutable fact that the abandonment of the doctrine of direct Divine Revelation leads inexorably to the collapse of traditional Jewish life, with all its meaning, beauty and power.

Where does this leave us? We have to stop pretending. We have to acknowledge that our traditional sources do not bring us closer in any real sense to modern biblical scholarship, although its observations may be useful in prompting our own thoughts, and that was certainly true of Mordecai Breuer (Menachem Leibtag’s teacher) who saw many perspectives in a unitary text.9 We can continue to delve into our own tradition, but in its own terms and not to try to find a way to reconcile with contemporary scholarship. If we want to continue as traditional Jews either in thought or deed then, in the words of Alexander Kohut, higher criticism of the Pentateuch is ‘noli me tangere – hands off!’10

Ben Elton is a second year semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

1 Israel Finkelstein, Amihay Mazar, Brian B. Schmidt, The Quest for the Historical Israel (Society of Biblical Literature 2007)

2 Marc S. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 2004), chapter 7

3 Joseph Albo, Ikkarim and Moses Mendelssohn Jerusalem. See Alexander Altmann’s discussion of the relationship between Albo and Mendelssohn’s dogmatic views in his Moses Mendelssohn: a Biographical Study (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1998), 544

4 J.H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorah’s (Second Edition, Soncino Press 1961), 402; Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation 1999), 56

5 David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored (Westview Press 1998)

6 Benjamin J. Eton, ‘Conservative Judaism’s British Trailblazers’ (Conservative Judaism 63:4, Summer 2012); Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe (Vallentine Mitchell 1957); The Sanction of the Mitzwoth (Society for the Study of Jewish Theology 1963); Principles of the Jewish Faith (Vallentine Mitchell 1964) A Jewish Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd 1973)

7 Joel Roth, ‘Musings Towards a Personal Theory of Revelation’ (Conservative Judaism 64.1 Fall 2012)

8 Gordon Tucker, Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality (2006) available here: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/jewish-law/committee-jewish-law-and-standards/even-haezer#interpersonal

9 See Meir Ekstein, ‘Rabbi Mordechai Breuer and Modern Orthodox Biblical Commentary’ (Tradition, 33:3, 1999)

10 Alexander Kohut, ‘Secular and Theological Studies The Menorah (July 13, 1892), 49. See BAva Batra 111b

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 5): Dr. Nahum Sarna

This is the 5th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two speeches and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available here, here, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here. Additionally, since we are, after all, discussing traditional Jewish belief, it might be worth taking a look at our short summary of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and some of our other posts discussing Jewish belief such as Russ’ six part handbook to the Creation-Evolution Debate and Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?.

Since we’re taking a look at modern biblical scholarship and traditional faith, I thought it might be worthwhile to check out what Professor Nahum Sarna had to say on the matter. Dr. Sarna, who was a professor of Biblical Studies and Chairman of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandies University as well as an ordained rabbi from the Orthodox “Jew’s College“, kept Jewish law. While he is often not considered an Orthodox Jew, possibly due to his career as a biblical scholar and his association with the Conservative Jewish theological Seminary, I think many in the Orthodox community would want to hear from him if he were alive today.

In regards to his personal beliefs, I am given to understand that Dr. Sarna did not believe in labels at all. Rather, he tried to be a good Jew, and left it at that. As I understand, he sat on the Rabbinical Committee at an Orthodox synagogue and studied with several well known Orthodox rabbis, including Britain’s Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. The latter was interested in grooming him as a successor, which is no small praise.

A person who is often (rightly or wrongly) characterized as not being Orthodox, but who does share our commitment to Halakha (Jewish law) raises questions regarding what exactly it means to be a Jew, and an Orthodox one in particular. From reading 3 of his books, as well as much of his excellent running commentary on Bereshit and Shemot, he seems to have been very traditional, though how traditional can a Bible scholar be?

As we said, James Kugel would tell you “very”. I think Sarna would as well, but both of these eminent scholars may be biased on the matter.

On the one hand, reading Dr. Sarna’s books, it is unsurprising to find that they seem very traditionally Jewish in their themes, messages, and values; after all, they are books about the Bible. On the other hand, all of that is aside from the criticism part (“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”).

I can get to those themes another time, but I was just wondering if Rabbi Leibtag’s advice to sometimes reconstruct parts of the metaphorical bridge of Jewish faith  would lead to something like Dr. Sarna’s work.

Anyway, for those of us who want to know Professor Sarna’s views on traditional faith and modern criticism, he has left us a very illuminating introduction to his classic Understanding Genesis. We’ll look at a few of the points he makes there.

1) There were many, many books written by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. More than twenty books which we no longer have are mentioned in the Bible, and it seems likely that there would have been many more. In fact, in Dr. Sarna’s opinion, there were other holy books, even, that we no longer have. These books likely disappeared  for many reasons, including the difficulty of distributing books at that time in history, the high rate of illiteracy, the then harsh labor involved in writing and copying books, the weather in the Land of Israel, and the many conquerors who tramped through Israel throughout history, leaving destruction in their wake.

The Bible, however, did not disappear. Why not?

“There is one simple explanation. The books of the Hebrew Bible survived because men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God, sacred literature. We can no longer know the criteria of selectivity adopted by those who fixed the Cannon of Jewish Scriptures. Certainly, there must have been other books regarded by the people as being holy at one time or another, but why they did not enter the final Cannon cannot be determined. Yet it is beyond doubt that it was not the stamp of canonization that affirmed the holiness of a book; rather the reverse. Sanctity antedated and preconditioned the final act of canonization. The latter was in most cases a formality that accorded finality to a situation long existing….Ultimately, it was this conviction that preserved the Bible and gave it irresistable power.”

It seems to me that Sarna has described the traditional situation here. The Mishnah mentions the canonization of certain books, and it stands to reason that even those who opposed including the Song of Songs in the Bible thought it was divinely inspired, as Sarna says. Sadly, most of us no longer think the Bible is important at all, and the point seems moot.

2) According to Dr. Sarna, the intellectual movements which led to humanism and the rejection of religious authority naturally challenged faith and the theocentric (God centered, as opposed to man centered) nature of the Bible. The critical methods used in the 19th century when approaching the Bible of course posed their challenge as well, specifically in regards to the belief that the entire Torah was dictated word for word to Moses.

According to Sarna, the “fundamentalists” did not help this situation.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self -exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religions position than a judgement upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of the conscience.”

This approach, Sarna tells us, led to many people considering Bible study childish, since they were not encouraged to study it in a serious and challenging way in school. Naturally, having been taught it in a simplistic way, they began to consider Bible study inferior to other areas of study.

The truth is, I have had a few teachers myself who indeed taught us that our conscience and thoughts were a disruption to the service of God, and not a part of it. These teachers weren’t fools, but were smart, charismatic  and effective communicators, some of whom I learned a lot from. Additionally, I have met many, many similarly intelligent and wonderful people who think that is is important for our religion that we find God inscrutable, and that we ought to ignore what may seem to us to be a clear fact.

This of course reminds us of Rambam’s statement:

“My endeavor, and that of the select keen-minded people, differs from the quest of the masses. They like nothing better, and, in their silliness, enjoy nothing more, than to set the Law and reason at opposite ends, and to move everything far from the explicable….But I try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order….” (Essay on Resurrection p. 223, available here.)

3) Finally, commenting directly on our problem, Dr. Sarna says the following:

“Of course, the fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to “tradition”, by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them.”

Dr. Sarna, then, assumes that some of the Medieval authorities (Rishonim) may have engaged in modern criticism themselves, if they were alive today. In light of what we have seen in our last post, this doesn’t seem impossible, but I don’t know.

Finally, Dr. Sarna says the following, which perhaps best summarizes his position on modern scholarship and traditional faith:

“Another misapprehension, shared alike by the followers of “pietism” and “scientism”, was that the recognition of the non-unitary origin of the Pentateuch must be destructive of faith and inimical to religion. But is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four? Surely God can as well unfold His revelation in successive stages as in a single moment of time.”

Continuing on, Dr. Sarna notes the many shortcomings of modern criticism, including a “bias against the people of Israel” and “unsupported or insufficiently supported conjecture”. None the less, in his opinion, the Torah has come from more than one document, and “this is a fact that has to be reckoned with.”

With all of this in mind, we see that Dr. Sarna takes biblical criticism very seriously, but doesn’t see it as a real challenge to faith. Rather, it:

“provide(s) the means to a keener understanding…and may prove to be the key to a deeper appreciation of their religious message. Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.”

I think, if we may compare Dr. Sarna’s opinions to Rabbi Leibtag’s and Dr. Kugel’s, that we may say in short that he seems to agree with Rabbi Leibtag that modern tools can be used to strengthen faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re in complete agreement on all important issues, but in the basic question of reading the Bible anew with modern tools, it seems they agree. Dr. Kugel, on the other hand, disagrees and emphasizes the need to read the Bible in the traditional way, while making use of the full breadth and depth our tradition. I have been told he does not think highly of Dr. Sarna’s approach, and since they so strongly disagree on this important question, we can see why.

At any rate, this provides another voice dedicated to keeping Jewish law to our discussion. I think next time we’ll check out Umberto Cassuto, who was a Chief Rabbi in his home town in Italy, before he fled to Israel to become a celebrated Bible professor.

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Was the Whole Torah Given to Moses at Sinai?: Rabbinic Sources That Say No

This if the fourth part in a series examining if modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, based on two speeches and a questions and answer session by and with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel are available herehere, and here.

I think it is pretty well established that the most traditional perspective on how the Torah was given is that it was given in its entirety to Moses on Sinai. We see this in the most famous expression of basic Jewish belief, Maimonides’ 13 principles, which we quickly summarized in our last post.

However, Rambam’s principles should not be seen as the end of the story when it comes to Jewish belief, because so many traditional sources did not accept them in one way or another. That doesn’t mean they were right, but I do think these arguments are worth discussing, and the way we resolve these issues should have practical consequences.

For instance, as we said, one who doubts the 13 principles is to be hated and destroyed. Now, even if we say that it would be impractical to murder every heretic, it would still seem we could not do business with such a person, or have them over for a shabbat meal. Needless to say, this is very far from our practice, but we should be honest about how we got here. Would Rambam accept our openness to our brethren who don’t accept his principles? Maybe. We won’t solve that question now.

Anyway, since we’re focusing on whether or not modern biblical scholarship threatens traditional belief, I want to list some possibilities that traditional belief is a little more varied than we often expect. It might seem that modern scholarship is an anathema to our belief system, but if we dig around a little we might reveal some surprising things.

The examples I’ll list here all come from Marc B. Shapiro’s book The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. It’s a great book, if you’re into this sort of thing. I’m very much into this sort of thing, so I’m a big fan of the book.

We’ll list some of the more exciting examples, but I urge you to go through the book and check out some of these sources for yourself.

1) There is an opinion in the Gemara that the last 8 verses of the Torah were not written by Moses, but Joshua. (BT BB 15a, Mak. 11a, Men. 30a, Sifrei Devarim, piska 357.) In fact, Shapiro reports some opinions who hold these verses are less important or holy than the rest of the Torah. Ibn Ezra goes a little further, and actually holds that the last 12 were not written by Moses (Deut. 34:1). It appears he also held that there were other verses not authored by Moses, and Shapiro lists about 25 RishonimAcharonim, and recent rabbis who believed he held this way.

2) Ramban held that Joshua had a part in writing Ha’azinu (commentary to Deut. 31:19), while R. Nissim Ga’on held that Moses wrote the poem together with 77(!) of the elders of Israel. Most shockingly, Maharam Shick holds that Moses wrote the Torah up to but not including Ha’azinu, and Joshua finished the rest of the Torah (Mahram shik al taryag mitsvot, no. 613).

3) Shapiro tells us that R. Moses Ibn Tibbon, R. Eleazar ben Mattathias (13th century), and R. Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils (14th century), all hold that while it is forbidden to add commandments to the Torah, it is permitted to add narratives (Shapiro 107-109, notes 110, 113, and 116)!

If your mind isn’t blown yet, then I’ll tell you that according to the latter, one does not even need to be a prophet to add a narrative! In fact, in R. Eleazar’s opinion, it is not just adding to the Torah which is permitted, but Ezra even deleted a verse from the Torah!

I’m told Dr. Shneor Leiman discusses a similar opinion in a talk on YU Torah, but I haven’t had the chance to listen to it yet. Jumping through it, it seems the audio quality isn’t that amazing, but it seems very interesting.

Anyway, these are just 3 examples, but Shapiro’s book contains shocking opinion after shocking opinion.

As I said earlier, the point of listing these opinions is to help clarify the discussion regarding modern biblical criticism and traditional belief. We generally see modern criticism and immediately think that it must be heresy. In fact, it seems that many of our great rabbis, leaders, and scholars took similarly shocking views of the Torah.

With this in mind, I certainly don’t intend to say “now anything can be a traditional belief”. However, I do think we must exercise restraint when we come across surprising views about our religion, and should refrain from immediately labeling them as heretical.

I don’t quite know why, but it seems like calling each other heretics has become very popular recently, and even someone like MK Dov Lipman has had his reputation as a God fearing Halakhic Jew dragged through the mud. At the very least, I think we owe it to God, each other, and ourselves to act with more restraint.

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What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

As I said in my last post, I want to continue writing about modern scholarship and traditional faith with a post listing some of the traditional rabbinic sources that deny a complete Mosaic authorship to the Torah. I’m not sure how many places you might look for such sources, but Marc B. Shapiro wrote a fascinating book which is mostly a compendium of these sources.

At any rate, before I post about some of the sources listed in Shapiro’s book (which I’ll do next time), I thought I’d post what Rambam’s 13 principles actually are. Even though as a community we seem to pay a lot of lip service to the principles, and certainly in the Orthodox community, the Yigdal poem (a version of the principles) is recited daily or weekly, it still seems like a lot of people don’t exactly know what each of the principles are.

Before we get to the actual list, I want to emphasize again how important the principles are. In Rambam’s opinion:

1) One who accepts the principles of faith will certainly have a place in Olam HaBa (The World to Come/Paradise). If someone accepts the principles, but sins in pretty much all other regards in Judaism, this person is treated with love and compassion as a member of the Jewish people.

2) One who even doubts the principles has removed himself from the Jewish people. Jews are obligated to hate and destroy this person, even if such a person is exact in keeping of the mitzvot (commandments).

These aren’t small points to make. You may argue that there is no 14th principle that Rambam is always right (as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag pithily remarked in his fascinating talk at LSS) or that Rambam changed his mind later on, wrote his true views esoterically, etc. For these reasons, and others, it is really hard to view the 13 principles as the end of the discussion when it comes to Jewish dogma. Menachem Kellner’s Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought is essential reading on this topic, and can’t be recommended enough. Like other Littman books, you might find it a little pricey, and prefer to go to the library. Littman is a non-profit publisher, so I don’t really hold it against them for charging a little more than I’d ideally like to pay. Not to mention that every single book I have read from their publishing house has been superb. That is kind of amazing, actually.

So, then. On to the principles.

1) God exists in a unique and self sufficient manner. If God stopped existing, so would everything else, since the totality of existence relies on God, who is the cause of everything in existence. However, if all of the existence were to stop existing, God would not be affected, as he is not caused by the universe. Yahu Skaist reminded me I should have been clear, as Rambam is there and in MT Yesodei HaTorah 1:3, that it is not possible for God to cease to exist. Rather, this is a theory discussed to make a point.

2) God is one, and His unity is entirely unique1.

3) God has no body, nor any physical attributes at all2.

4) God is beyond time.

5) Only God may be worshiped3.

6) God communicates with man, in what is known as prophecy4.

7) Moses was the greatest prophet, and God spoke to him directly while Moses was awake, as opposed to through an angel, while asleep. This is how all other prophets receive prophecy. Moses was not weakened by prophecy, like other prophets. Additionally, he was able to choose when to receive a prophecy, as opposed to all other prophets, who had no idea when they would have another revelation.

8) The entire Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

9) The Torah cannot be replaced or changed in any way. It has therefore not been changed since Moses received it in its entirety on Sinai.

10) God knows of, and cares about, the actions of mankind.

11) God rewards good and punishes evil.

12) There will be a Messiah/Messianic age.

13) God will resurrect (at least some of) the dead at some point.

Many have been noted that the principles can be put into 3 classes: 1-5 are about God, 6-9 are about revelation, and 10-13 are about reward and punishment. Additionally  Abravanel writes in his Rosh Amanah that really all beliefs in the Torah are equally important. This being the case, it is worth discussing why Rambam would write his principles in the first place, but that’s for another post.

Now that we’ve gone through the principles themselves, I feel we can discuss some of the traditional opinions which differ from them, specifically, in regards to the principles about Mosaic prophecy.

Footnotes:

1When we describe unity we might refer to several things which are unified, such as the several players on a baseball team. Cars have parts, books have pages, the universe has perhaps infinite pieces. However, God’s unity precludes any “other” whatsoever, and He is not subject to the division of parts. His oneness is dis-similar to all other unities.

2This is really implied by the second principle, and L. Jabocs (Principles of the Jewish Faith) quotes Friedlander as saying that Rambam includes this principle because it was a prevalent belief that God has a body, even among Jewish scholars.

3As we have already ruled out the possibility of other deities (since God is the cause of the everything else, is One, so that nothing else is similar to Him, and is not affected by anything else so that we might think He has a partner or equal), this principles comes to preclude the worship of God’s works and messengers. Angels, the sun, the deceased, etc. Obviously, the sun is a gift from God, and we ought to appreciate it. But to worship it as a form of appreciation to God would still be forbidden. The same goes for everything else in life.

4Before you get clever and question whether Rambam’s principles should be considered incorrect because he relies on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics for his principles, I’ll note that Rambam did not rely 100% on Aristotle’s metaphysics. Rather, he regarded it as the best theories available. However, all theories of what goes on beyond the moon were considered uncertain by him. This means that if Rambam included the active intellect in his 13 principles, it is not that you should accept the active intellect as dogma. Rather, we should accept the bottom line, which is prophecy, and examine for ourselves what might be the best metaphysical theory today. Rambam includes his theory because that is the best they had at the time.

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3)

Why is King Shapiro the picture in this post? Keep reading to find out!

Just in time for Shavuot, I’ll post some notes from the question and answer session with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel on modern biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief. The first posts, notes on the presentations from Leibtag and Kugel, are available here and here.

I don’t remember all of the questions, but they can be partially inferred from my notes. The first had to do with the historical accuracy of the Torah.

In regards to this, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized what he had pretty much told us already: The Torah is not a history book. The goal of the Prophets is not to teach us history. Rather, we study Torah for the message in it. Archaeology has the goal of teaching us history, and obviously Rabbi Leibtag thinks this can be important. None the less, to focus on what happened historically seems to be to miss the point in his opinion.

Kugel added to this that it’s hard to argue with archaeologists, but as Rabbi Leibtag said, the texts are out to teach us something other than history. We all know that the Creation narrative bumps up against science. But the point of Bereshit isn’t to teach us science. The lesson there is that we must keep Shabbat, which is separated from the first six days.

Kugel also described an idea at that point which he has described elsewhere, and which we have eluded to before. This is the idea that the Torah is like an old family photo album, which has captions on the photos. The modern scholar tells us to ignore the captions. A picture doesn’t lie, so we should only pay attention to the photographs if we want to know the history of the people in the photos.

We, however, look at the photos in another way. We received not just those photos, but “all those words”, that came with them. We interpret the photos according to the captions, our Oral Torah. “What we care about is what the words mean”, not what took place in history.

On this note, I want to emphasize it is not only that the Torah is not a history book. It is also not a science book. Science is important, but the Torah focuses on what many call “the ought”, that is, what one ought to do. Science tells us how we might do it, but doesn’t provide a reasoning for us to choose one action over another. Without some goal, direction, or philosophy, there’s simply no reason why one “how” should be chosen over another. So why would the Torah be a science book?

There are other reasons to argue against the Torah being a science text book, but this isn’t the place. Back to biblical scholarship.

2) The next question was in regards to the authorship of the Biblical books. Modern scholarship seems to have challenged our traditional beliefs about who wrote the books, so should we still believe in the divine authorship of the Bible?

I think Kugel was the one to answer this. According to what I wrote down, his response was again something he had already said to us: Who cares who the prophets are? If it is divinely given, that’s good enough for us.

We don’t know the rules of prophecy, and contradiction may not be a problem in it, so that shouldn’t necessarily cause us to look for more authors anyway. There’s really no way to prove authorship one way or another.

In regards to the similarities between our religion and others (for instance, the Mesopotamian Sabbath), Kugel noted that we focus on the differences between our religions, presumably because those are the things that will tip us off to the messages in the Torah. Additionally, he noted that if Judaism had no similarities to other religions, it would have had to start from scratch.

This might confuse people as a rationale for the creation of religion; if God is communicating with man, why doesn’t He just communicate a pure divine work that has nothing to do with the rest of the world, let alone other religions?  Won’t people think our religion is just copying others, and that we made it up?

However, the truth is, there are many good reasons for Judaism to look like other religions. The basic reason is that the Torah is the meeting between the divine and man. If you want to see more, I posted about it recently here.

3) The next question had to do with the Sages, and their knowledge of the back-histories of the Bible. If the Sages didn’t know that some parts of the Bible were similar to Pagan writings and religion, why should we trust them? Additionally, would they have cared if they did know?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first, flatly telling the crowd that the question doesn’t matter at all. Again, in his opinion, perhaps the Torah has a history most of us are unaware of or not, but in the bottom line, it is divinely authored (or edited!) and we look for the messages in the Bible. This is what’s important, and we don’t really care about this kind of question.

Kugel chose to elaborate a little more on the question. In his opinion, the Sages were in fact aware of the (now) surprising history of much of Judaism (I suppose we might find it similar to Rambam’s long description of idolatrous histories of the mitzvot in MN starting 3:30-ish), but they did not focus on it. Rather, like Rabbi Leibtag said, they focused on the divine message in the Bible, as opposed to the history of the text. The divine messages and lessons are what they focused on and tried to pass on to us.

Interestingly, Kugel told us at this point that in his opinion, his work and perspectives are a continuation of the tradition of the Sages. Most of us would have thought that a professor of biblical criticism would not consider himself to be so traditional. However, tradition for Kugel is what guides us in reading the Bible. He just seems to think that the Rabbinic tradition is a little different than what most of us think (for instance, in his opinion, many of the Sages probably thought God has a body, despite Rambam’s protestations otherwise in his principles and elsewhere).

4) Finally, one questioner asked about what he termed “the elephant in the room”. It seemed many times during the night that Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel were advocating a position which contradicted our belief in Mosaic authorship of the Torah. This is of course one of Rambam’s principles of faith, and as I like to remind people, Rambam wrote that we should hate and destroy someone who does not believe in his 13 principles. So this is an important question. Should the crowd have lynched Dr. Kugel, before turning to kill Rabbi Leibtag?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first. First, he told us (for the second time that night) that in an argument between Rambam and him, you should follow Rambam.

Next, he recommended that we read Marc B. Shapiro’s amazing (my description) book on the 13 principles, where he lists many traditional authorities who disagreed with the Rambam’s formulated dogmas. These great rabbis and sages throughout Jewish history disagreed with Rambam, and (it seems) it was OK.

Additionally, Rabbi Leibtag conjectured that Rambam may have written the belief in complete Mosaic authorship for the masses. However, his own opinion may have been that it was not heresy to believe the Torah was not entirely authored by Moses (and we’ll remind readers of the opinion in the Talmud that Moses did not write the last 8 verses in the Torah).

However, one may also interpret the Rambam away from what he seems to be saying, in Leibtag’s opinion. It is not so much that Moses wrote every word of the Torah, that is important to Rambam to emphasize. Rather, Rambam wants to emphasize that every word came from God, and that it is all true. To focus on the authorship misses the point.

(I have to note here that on its face, this seems like quite a stretch as an interpretation.)

At any rate, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized that the Bible has a message for us, and to focus on who wrote Isaih and how many authors it had simply misses the point. There is a call to us, and we must listen.

Finally, Rabbi Leibtag told us that there is no fourteenth principle of faith that Rambam is always right. Perhaps he got this one wrong. This was one of the highlights of the night in my opinion.

Happily, we have now reached the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag. Leibtag speculated that Dr. Kugel would tell us only to study the Bible with our present traditions (the “captions” which Dr. Kugel mentioned earlier). In Leibtag’s opinion, however, we created new traditions, and we survive challenges through our Torah study.

Dr. Kugel then stood to also answer this question, and also began by recommending Dr. Shapiro’s book. He also recommended Dr. Menachem Kelner’s “Must A Jew Believe Anything?”. These are two of my favorite authors, so I will happily tell you here that I felt quite validated hearing this.

Dr. Kugel also raised the possibility that Rambam was writing for his time when he posited a pure Mosaic authorship for the Torah. At the time, it was a common Muslim attack on Judaism that Ezra had falisified the Torah, and that our Jewish tradition was in fact false. In response to this, Rambam wrote that not one word had been changed since Sinai, when Moses received the entire Torah. This would have aussuaged doubts in the Torah.

The last thing I’ll note before closing up over here is that Dr. Kugel told us that in his opinion, to read the Torah by focusing on the words without our tradition (as many Orthodox Jews, including Rabbi Leibtag at times, do today) is an exercise that must end with biblical criticism. In his opinion, there is no realistic line that can be drawn.

Dr. Kugel lingered for some time after the question and answer session, and he said many more interesting things to the group of people who pestered him, including being very gracious to the weirdo who asked him for a photo. Additionally, he remembered my wife from his class a couple of years ago, which was completely awesome. Finally, I asked him to sign his book “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief”, which is a superb book which I highly recommend. Having said that, I really recommend all of his books that I have read.

I think, if there is anyone left who is interested, that I’ll continue this little series with a follow up or two. In my next post I might include some of the things Dr. Shapiro wrote in his book about great rabbis in our history who did not accept a complete Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is really interesting. Additionally, he wrote recently on the Seforim Blog about divine authorship, and it’s worth checking out. Just to be clear, I recommend actually buying this book so you can have it around.

After the Shapiro post, I think I might post about Sarna or Cassuto, or maybe Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman. We’ll see. I have a feeling I might be the only interested person by the time we get to that.

Have a Chag Sameach!

PS. I feel that after the first two posts, I should include another great quote from the night. Besides for Rabbi Leibtag’s remark that there’s no fourteenth principle that the Rambam is always right, the winner is probably Dr. Kugel’s statement that “I’m not schizophrenic”. People seem to think that to teach biblical criticism and believe in divine authorship is only possible for a split personality. Based on the things he said to us, I believe him; what do you think?

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

Me with James Kugel!

Me with James Kugel!

Picking up where my last post left off, I’m going to write down some of the notes I took on Dr. James Kugel’s talk at Lincoln Square Synagogue the other night. Dr. Kugel, beyond being an eminent scholar in the Bible and its early ancient interpretations, is a charming speaker with a subtle sense of humor (the same goes for his writing). He clearly enjoys the topics he writes about, and as a reader and listener, I find his attitude infectious.

Entertainingly, he began with a “PG13” warning. Biblical scholarship is not for everyone in his opinion. In fact, when asked to speak more loudly after he had listed some of the challenges that modern scholarship poses to traditional faith (he must have listed somewhere between 6 to 9 examples in quick succession), he joked that we were better off for not being able to hear him.

Some of the challenges arising from biblical criticism strike right at the heart of Jewish belief; the Torah implies (and later tradition asserts outright) that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, but the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivations argue there were many authors, who lived in different time periods. They also make this claim about several other books in TaNaKH (the Bible), and question whether or not King Solomon really wrote proverbs or the Song of Songs, and whether or not many stories in the Torah are historically accurate, including the Exodus, the conquest of Israel, and King David’s dynasty. (He mentioned that while some elements of the Exodus story have been affirmed by archeology, the evidence doesn’t seem to point to the Israelites having been there when the Torah implies.) And so on, and so forth.

In Dr. Kugel’s opinion, there are 4 ways for the faithful to approach modern biblical scholarship.

1) Dismissal of archeological evidence: Kugel thinks this is too hard to do, and he also mentioned that most Bible scholars are not out to disprove the Bible. The exception, he quipped, was in regards to the children of ministers who later become scholars. I think he really meant this though.

2) Some choose to accept what goes well with faith, and to ignore the difficult parts. Thus, we might say Isaiah has 2 authors (Ibn Ezra says this, after all!) but to say this about the Chumash itself is too hard, and we draw a line. Kugel doesn’t think this is a good idea, and he thinks if you accept the basic approach of the critics, then it is very hard to draw a line denoting when you no longer accept their conclusions.

3) To say “it’s right, but I don’t want to know”. It seems obvious to me why such an approach really doesn’t work. Kugel confessed that he is unable to live like this, and that he couldn’t hold himself back from studying research which is vital to the things he believes. In fact, he told us, it was the things that bothered him which brought him to the road he’s on now, and led to his career.

4) The fourth option isn’t hard if you think about it, or so Dr. Kugel told us. Or at least, it didn’t seem hard to him, since he’s adhered to this option for some 40 odd years.

The way Kugel phrased it, modern scholarship is NOT the truth about the Bible. Rather, it is the truth about a certain kind of way of looking at the Bible. As he explains it, modern scholarship is born in the Protestant Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholic readings of the Bible, which consisted of many oral traditions. This tactic served to undermine Catholic power and influence. The argument between the Catholics and the Protestants could be rephrased as follows: do the words of the Bible tell you the whole story? If yes, as the Protestants believed, then traditions which deviated from it should be ignored. If no, as the Catholics believed, then extra-biblical traditions were a vital part to understanding the words of the Bible. The Protestant motto was sola scriptura, “just the words (on the page) of the Bible”.

Of course, even with just the words on the page, interpretation was hard to pin down, and some people were being sentenced to death by Protestants for not keeping the Sabbath! Pinning down the objective meaning of the text being the goal, they sought to learn more about the text from just the words themselves.

What do they tell us?

If we just look at the words themselves, we’ll naturally have many questions about historical accuracy, since verification (as well as many details) is not included in the word economical Bible.This serves as the basis for modern scholarship, which to this day seeks to learn about the text from itself.

Jewish tradition, however, has a different perspective. Jews have never thought the Bible was just the words on the page, and we have always had an Oral Torah, with commentary and meaning clinging to every word. “An eye for an eye” now means money, and there are 39 categories of prohibited creative labor on the Sabbath, etc. Our Torah is incomplete without the oral traditions which came down with them.

But how old are these traditions?

Quite old, in Kugel’s opinion. Jubilees (c. 200 BCE) talks about Abraham’s 10 tests 400 years before the Mishnah does, and the Dead Sea Scrolls similarly contain many traditions which weren’t written down in Rabbinic writings until later on.

“This is no minor disagreement” in Kugel’s opinion. Modern scholarship is not interested in these traditions, but Judaism doesn’t think the Bible can be read without them. Because modern scholarship doesn’t focus on the Bible with its traditions, it should not be considered the objective truth about the Bible. Rather, when the scholarship is good, it is the truth about a certain conception, the “just the words on the page” conception, of the Bible.

As for us, we’re obsessed with the Oral traditions, which basically tell us how to fulfill the most basic idea of the Bible: How do we serve God?

If it seems the literal text of the Bible contradicts this goal, then the Sages informed us how to reread the verse. Why? Because the Oral tradition and the goal of serving God come before the literal text of the Torah. This may seem like a radical idea, but in truth, those of us who study Talmud know that the phrase “Don’t read it this way; rather understand it to mean…” is quite common.

The Torah serves as the first word in how to serve God, but this mission is continued and embodied in the Oral tradition, later written down in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. Our oral tradition continues, and in Kugel’s opinion, now includes the prohibition of using electricity on the Sabbath. All of this in order to better serve God, in the most exact way possible.

When we stop to think about Kugel’s conception, Rabbinic Jews will probably find it easy to understand. Abraham is not the first monotheist in the Torah. Esau doesn’t really seem so bad. But the Sages read the literal words in light of Rabbinic theology, and we don’t read the Torah without the captions written in by the Sages.

In regards to the divine origin of the Torah, Dr. Kugel echoed Rabbi Leibtag’s point that modern scholarship simply cannot shine any light on this issue. We don’t know the rules of how God communicates with man, and the Torah doesn’t contain markings that tell us exactly how prophecy works. While scholars can help us understand the historical context of the Torah, in the end divine origin is beyond their purview.

However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? A rabbi once told Kugel that he thought the Torah is man’s response to the ineffable (too great to be expressed in words) God. In Kugel’s opinion, this approach is far from the truth. In fact, “ineffable” is the opposite of God’s policy. God is “extremely effable” in Kugel’s words.

What this means is that Judaism believes it is God’s policy to talk to man, and a lot. He comes into our world, and He interferes in it. A man made Torah is impossible in Judaism. Rather, God, who constantly speaks to man, comes down and gives it to us.

While we hold that God comes into our world, and that the Torah came from heaven, it is important to note that God has given it to us. There was a “hand off” (his phrase) from God to us, and now we’re in charge, and we’re responsible for interpreting the Bible.

Kugel concluded his speech by telling us that his words were basically plagiarized from his forthcoming book “The King in the Sacntuary”. I cannot wait to read it.

I’ll finish this section with Dr. Kugel’s quote of the night. He told us that a teacher in an Orthodox high school remarked to him that they were using his book, “How To Read The Bible”, to teach seniors about biblical criticism. “Don’t do that!” he responded. “It wasn’t written for people in 12th grade!”

The teacher,however, retorted that Kugel is fooling himself if he thinks seniors don’t know what biblical criticism is, and if they don’t know in high school, they’ll be in for a real shock when they get to college. At least with proper instruction, they will not find it so threatening.

I’ll finish off part 3 with some of the questions the crowd asked to Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel, and the answers they gave to them. I’ll also just mention here that after he was done speaking, Kugel twice said that he really had a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn’t have time. Some of what he wanted to say will be in his forthcoming book, and if I recall correctly, he told us at least one point he wanted to discuss is in his book on Jubilees, “A Walk Through Jubilees“. If you’re interested in it, go to a library, because it is prohibitively expensive.

Part 3 will also make explicit the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag that I mentioned in the last post, but if you’ve read both of them, you’ll be able to figure out what it is before I tell you.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

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Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 1)

LSS scholarsip and belief

Most of us never stop to think about modern biblical scholarship, and in the Orthodox community my impression is that it’s generally viewed as either a danger to be avoided, or a seriously misguided approach to the Torah and the rest of the Bible.

But is this really true? Lincoln Square Synogogue’s Community Scholar Elana Stein Hain just organized a forum on the topic, with two presentations and a question and answer session from two of the most prominent Orthodox Bible scholars today, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel. Rabbi Leibtag is a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, as well a prominent teacher, lecturer, and writer on TaNaKh (Bible). He regularly lectures in both Israel and North America. Dr. Kugel,  a world renowned expert on Biblical scholarship and author of  “How To Read the Bible” (among other fascinating works), was a professor at Harvard before retiring to Israel and Bar Ilan University. 

Both speakers were superb, and I want to share some interesting points I wrote down from their presentations and answers. I’m a long time Kugel fan, so getting to hear him was very exciting for me, and I actually (and probably very awkwardly) asked him to take a photo with me. Why not?

I’ve never heard Rabbi Leibtag before, but I’ve heard high praise lavished on him, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m definitely going to check out his writings now, and I’m excited to learn some new things.

One of the most interesting points that came out of the evening was a fundamental disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag, but I’ll get to that later.

Rabbi Liebtag spoke first. He was an entertaining speaker with some surprising views, but I think his perspectives would be considered a lot more mainstream in Israel.

If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Leibtag views modern biblical scholarship as a tool in studying Torah. This means that while we believe (unshakably) that God gave us the Torah, we don’t know exactly how this took place. Modern scholarship delves through history to find out what actually happened, and thus sheds light on this question.

This can be compared to modern science telling us how God created the world. It is our belief that He did so, but we don’t know how, exactly. Science and modern scholarship become tools to answer these questions, though in Leibtag’s opinion, archaeology is still in the baby stage.

This being the case, scholarship is not only not a danger, but a useful tool in our toolbox (this is his phrase).

The problem with modern scholarship really comes in when it comes to teaching it. In Rabbi Leibtag’s opinion, God created the world to have nations. He then chose one nation as His servants in order to bring Godliness to the world. This is the goal of the Torah, and the question is what role scholarship plays in this goal.

As we said, it is a tool in his opinion. The problem with scholarship is as follows:

The goal of Godliness may be likened to a bridge. When building the bridge, we need many parts. The cement, the pillars, etc. Sometimes we need to replace parts, and so too we sometimes replace parts in our belief system.

In his opinion, the parts we replace should not be viewed so much as traditional beliefs, but as traditional understandings of traditional beliefs. Thus, our understanding until this point in time did not include modern scholarship. Now it does, and our understanding has been somewhat adjusted.

However, the tool of modern scholarship is a “power tool”, and it’s not for kids. When we replace parts of the bridge, we need to do so carefully. If you’re ready, it’s a great tool. If you’re not, the bridge may fall apart.

That was really his main speil, I think. Importantly, he mentioned that he believes we should bring new understandings to the Torah. He quoted his teacher Rabbi Bruer as saying “You should read Torah like Rashi did: Without Rashi”. Therefore, while some understandably take the approach that a new interpretation must be wrong or one of our past interpreters would have thought of it already, the best approach is actually to read the Torah anew in every generation.

If we did not do this, no one would ever have written a commentary after Rashi, or Ramban, etc.

Tied into this point is the role of subjectivity in reading the Torah. While there are many objective tools (language and theme connections, contradictions, similar stories, etc.) in the end we make a subjective choice of how to understand the Torah, and this is our hiddush, novel understanding.

The Torah is not a book which makes simple clear points like a law book, which wants you to know exactly how to act. Rather, the Torah has many different voices, repetitions, contradictions, and styles, all of which invite the reader to delve into the text, rather than to skim it. To simply read the Torah like a book of directives is to miss how one should read Torah.

His quote of the night was in regards to this. In his pithy phrasing the Torah is “not an artscroll how to think book.” It takes effort to read it, and we have to engage in deep study and thought to use objective tools to come to a new subjective conclusion.

Part two will follow with some of Dr. Kugel’s remarks.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

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Why Does Judaism Look So Much Like Other Ancient Religions?

The ever prolific blogger Dov Bear posted a question on facebook, apparently on behalf of some other anonymous thinker/friend of his:

What would “authentic” judaism look like? Let me clarify the question: what would Judaism look like if you stripped out anything that was “borrowed” from other religions or pagan practice…

I’m not so bold as to try and figure out what “authentic” Judaism would look like, but I do want to pose the following question: Why is Judaism so similar to the religions and societies that were around at time the Torah was given (as well as to those from the time of Avraham)?

The answer, as usual, can be found in Rambam among others, but I’m posting this as a lazy sketch, not a real post, so bother me later for sources if you really want them.

One important explanation is really quite simple. I think I might just post what I commented on Dov Bear’s status on facebook, where I responded specifically to a commenter’s claim that Rambam would exclude sacrifices (korbanot) from Judaism if he could, because sacrifices exist only to wean us away from paganism in his opinion.

Just to put out a thought I think is important and relevant here.

First, Rambam wouldn’t exclude sacrifices. Just because it exists in his opinion to wean us away from paganism (like many, many, other mitzvot in his opinion) does not mean that if we would start again we would not have them. Rather, we should learn that God gave the Torah to man, to fit man as he basically still is, but more specifically was, at the time the Torah was given.

If the Torah resembles Hamurabi’s Code, it is because God wanted the Torah to be given in the most understandable way possible for people at that time. They would have understood that code, and even if it was reinterpreted and changed, they would respond to it with sympathy and understanding (“imagination” and rational thought being necessary in this case, see Faur’s homo mysticus on the MN).

Same goes for brit milah, and endless things. The Torah was given in the language of man, etc.

“Native Judaism” is a Judaism that is not just native to the Divine, but is also native to the people who were taken out of Egypt, as well as to the human psyche in general.

The Moreh Nevuchim will probably always be the best book for this point of view, but it pops up here and there, and seems implicit from TaNaKH (the Bible) itself.

As usual, it’s always good to recommend anything by Nachum Sarna, because he explains beautifully in many places how the Torah wanted to take a pagan world view and make it into a monotheistic one, with all of the implications that come with this.

Taking this understanding with us also allows us to understand many Aggadic (non legal statements) from Chazal (The Sages) in a new light.

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Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism