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 here, here, 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 Rishonim, Acharonim, 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.