Category Archives: Tanakh/Bible

When Pinchas attacks, God Listens

Immediately after Bil’am returned home, the Torah vilifies the Israelites for acting licentiously with the native Moabite women. God becomes infuriated with them and commands Moses to “take the heads of all the nation and hang them in the presence of the sun, and then God’s wrath will recede.” Either at this point, or some time near in the narrative, a plague engulfs the people, eventually dispatching 24,000 lives. While God might be really emotionally angry, it seems clear from this verse that ‘God’s wrath’ is synonymous with the plague’s assault. And the implication of the verse’s end is that when God’s wrath would be quelled, the plague would cease.

Yet, when Moses fulfills God’s command, the plague does not stop. In fact, not until Pinḥas – vigilante style – executes Zimri (the Israelite) and Cozbi (the Midianite) does the plague end. Truth be told, Moses should not have been surprised that the plague raged on even after he directed the Israelite judges to carry out God’s instruction. This is because God tells Moses to hang the leaders publicly, but what does Moses do? “Moses commands the Israelite judges: let each man kill those people that are attached to Ba’al Pe’or.” How Moses chooses to execute God’s command is bewildering. God says hang. Moses says kill.[1] God says execute the “heads of all the people.” Moses says execute those people attached to idolatry. God says execute publicly.[2] Moses omits any mentioned of this point. Even though the verse with God’s command to Moses immediately precedes the verse that details how Moses carried out the order, it is hard to believe that Moses even heard God’s command based on how he subsequently acts!

There is no doubt that Moses interpreted God’s command as he assumed God wanted it carried out. Apparently, Moses found it difficult to believe that God wanted to publicly execute the heads[3] of the people. They may not all have even been involved in the crime, he could have reasoned, so why should they all be killed?  Rather, Moses interpreted God to imply that the Israelite judges should judge which people were attached to idolatry, and therefore already committed some heinous sins, and only those people should be executed.[4] Yet, it appears that that is not what God wanted. God wanted to give the people a powerful message by executing those “heads.” In fact, it was God – through the plague – that would execute those that He deemed fit to die. Moses’ job was simply to publicly hang the leaders for allowing the people to be led astray towards the Moabite women and idolatry. This is why the leaders need be hanged. This is why it should be done publicly (neged ha-ṣhemeṣh). This is why it only applied to the leaders. And this is why the plague did not end with the judges executing the people attached to ba’al pe’or. (if that in fact happened before Pinḥas jumped in).

Instead the plague was halted with the spontaneous execution of Zimri and Cozbi. When the slaying takes place, it is not clear why the plague stops. But at the beginning of the next chapter of the Torah, we learn that the “Israelite man” whom Pinḥas had executed was none other than Zimri ben Salu, leader of one of the ancestral families of Ṣim’on, AKA, a prince. And the “Midianite woman” Pinḥas executed was none other than Cozbi the daughter Ẓur, leader of one of the ancestral peoples of the Midianites, AKA, a princess. Once we learn those two interesting facts, it is clear why the plague stopped. God needed a lesson to be taught; he needed the leaders to be punished in order for the nation to learn to not follow their example when they lead the nation towards idolatry. Moses was not carrying out God’s command by appointing judges to adjudicate the sinners. But, when Pinḥas gathered the gumption to javelin style slay the inter-faith pair, the message that the leaders have led the Israelites astray was clear, and the command to Moses no longer had to be carried out. Indeed, it was carried out. So, the plague stopped.

Nonetheless, it has to strike us as a bit strange that Zimri was strolling around with his non-Jewish girlfriend after Moses commanded the Israelite judges to execute those people attached to Ba’al Pe’or.[5] In general, it is noteworthy that Jews are taught from their youth that Zimri was the perennial jerk: a ḥuẓpenyak! Moses commands that people like him need to be killed, and what Zimri do: he goes and flaunts, with unabashed audacity, his ṣiqẓa in front of the masses: what a jerk! But, this is not what took place.

What the verse actually says is that an Israelite escorted (brought near) a non-Jewish woman to his brothers in front of everybody. On the one hand, he might have done this to flout his relationship in their faces, but on the other hand, the verse continues and says: “they were crying in front of the Meeting Tent.” Rashi explains that everyone (the Israelites) cried because Moses forgot the law. Is this to imply that everyone was crying because they noticed that Moses did not remember the law? How did they know that he did not remember the law? Was it that clear? Did they know the law, and therefore it was obvious Moses did not know the law? It seems more reasonable for Rashi to opine that Moses himself and the Israelites were crying when they witnessed this aberration carried out by Zimri. Nonetheless, as opposed to Moses or the whole of the Israelite people, it seems more plausible that Zimri and Cozbi in fact were the ones crying. Why would they weep? Let us not forget that Moses just issued a ruling that all the judges of Israel need to identify, judge and execute those attached to foreign women and idolatry. If this is the case, wouldn’t it make sense for “Zimri to come and escort the Midianite woman to his brothers, Moses and all the Israelites”? Would it not be appropriate for them to both cry, in “front of the Meeting Tent”, where Moses and the other leaders  would regularly judge, and plead his case, plead for the woman he loves, plead for the woman he is attached to?  Especially if we take the Torah’s diction seriously when it says they became “attached” to this idolatry, to this people, to their gods, to their offerings!

pinchas

Cozbi and Zimri cried in a sincere plea for their relationship to last. Pinḥas responds by executing them both.[6] Ḥazal ascribe more miracles to Pinḥas’ actions than to almost any other occurrence in the Bible. I believe this is the case because they were worried. Worried that Pinḥas would be perceived as an unjustified, uncaring hothead, even with the Divine blessing vindicating his action described in the Torah’s next chapter. Pinḥas’ action was not special because Moses forgot the law; it was not special because he stood up to two tribal leaders; it was special because he stood against true love, and the pain and anguish of two people who begged the people and cried for pity, and he executed them.  And, because two leaders were killed, God stopped the plague. With mercy and pity for the other way of life, the plague would continue. As long as Moses took pity on the leaders and only executed those directly connected to idolatry, and as long as the nation did not see, first hand, that the Moabite and Midianite lifestyle was a cancer for the nascent Israelite people, the plague needed to continue, because one way or another, that way of life was death to the Jews.

 

[1] ‘Kill’ is also used by the sin of the Golden Calf and there it is clear that punishment was meted out by the edge of the sword.

[2] When the verse says “across from the sun” (neged ha-ṣhemeṣh), the best interpretation is probably “publicly.”

[3] When the text says “take heads of the whole nation,” there are two options what this can mean: on the one hand, this might refer to the heads of those people that are attached to idolatry. In other words, Moses was commanded to execute the Israelite leaders that led the nation to attach to ba’al pe’or. These people were not inherently leaders of the nation. There were leaders in this one area, namely, leaders in the area of making Israelites feel connected to idolatry. Similarly, when the Israelites choose to rebel and suggest forming a group to head back to Egypt, they say “let us appoint a head (Rosh).” So, a ‘Rosh’ is not a judge, or a navi, or tribal head. A “Rosh’ is someone who just happens to be the leader of a group. On the other hand, when the text says “take heads of the whole nation,” God might be commanding Moses to execute the tribal heads. Moses does not take interpret God’s command in either of these two aforementioned ways.

[4] Rashi even explains how Moshe could have construed God’s message: “Take the heads of the nation” means “collect the Israelite judges to pass judgment on the idolaters.” Hang them “across from the sun” means investigate the matter (as clearly as the sun shines).

[5] Either Zimri was a leader of the people and should have been executed (from God’s perspective), or he was one of those who became attached to idolatry, and should have been killed (from Moses perspective).

[6] Many people interpret the verse that Pinchas slew the two by stabbing them both through the belly. Indeed, Rashi connect the words ‘Qubah’ to stomach (Qeivah). Yet, in one verse, Rashi interprets the same word as both ‘tent’ and ‘stomach.’ This seems unlikely. While it is a tough verse to translate, I think a better translation is: “he went after the man of Israel to the tent. He pierced both of them: the man of Israel, and the woman, to her tent. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.” In other words, after they all met at Tent of Meeting, Cozbi returned to her tent. Pinchas went there and killed her.

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Is Kayin the Son of the Angel of Death?

בראשית פרק
ד
: (א) וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה
אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת־קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ
אֶת־יְקֹוָק
:

And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she
became pregnant and she bore Kayin. And she said “I have acquired a
man with God”.

Picking up on the odd formulation that Chava has “acquired a man with God”, Targum (pseudo) Jonathan1 reinterprets the beginning of the pasuk as well. It is not that Adam knew Chava in the classical sense- rather, he knew (or found out) something about her.

(א) ואדם ידע ית חוה איתתיה דהוה חמידת
למלאכא ואעדיאת וילידת ית קין ואמרת קניתי לגברא ית מלאכא
דיי
:

And Adam knew about Eve his wife that she was desired by an angel, and he [the angel] knew her, and she bore Kayin, and she said “I have acquired a man with an angel of God”.

(I hope I have translated the above exactly correctly. Please let me know if I have
not!)

Explaining this, (and you can also find this in Hebrew in your standard edition of Mikraot Gedolot), the Perush Al Yonatan2 says the following:

ואדם ידע את חוה וכו‘: על פי המדרש, פירוש ידע הבין, ממה שלא הייתה דמותו מתחתונים אלא מעליונים, לכך ידע שהמלאך סמאל נתאוה לה ובא עליה, וזהו איש את הפירוש עם המלאך

And Adam knew his wife Eve, etc.”: According to the Midrash, the meaning of “he knew” is that “he understood”, from this that his [Kayin’s] appearance was not from those below, but was from those above, therefore he knew that the angel Samael desired her [Chava] and came upon her 3.

So in this explanation, the angel who impregnates Chava was not just some angel. Rather, this was Samael, who may be identified with the Angel of Death, or the Yetzer Hara/Satan4. He could be citing Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, chapter 21, since his phrasing is similar to it5.

At any rate, I think this is a fascinating interpretation. In it, of course, Shet is the second son of Adam, not the third, and he and the murdered Hevel are only half brothers with Kayin, who is only half human, and may even be the son of the Satan himself (quite logical then, that he is the first to shed blood).

Further, things become even more interesting when we note that this midrash, which says Kayin is the son of Samael, also says that he is the first to do teshuva (see also Psikta DeRav Kahana Shuba 11 and Ramban and Ibn Ezra to Gen. 4:16).

Additionally, in chapter 22, the Midrash notes that all wicked generations descend from Kayin, which is easy to take in a non-literal sense (ie. they follow in his ways, though his descendants were killed out in the flood), or in a literal sense, that those who are evil are acting on the genetics passed on from Kayin (in which case, some of his descendants survived the flood6). If the latter is the true intent, then much of the world (all of it, perhaps?) is descended from Samael.

Notes:

1This commentary was apparently certainly not written by Jonathan Ben Uziel, who only wrote a commentary on Nach, or so says the Hebrew wikipedia:
2I’m not sure who the author is. I think it may have been written in the 16th century by David ben Jacob of Szcebrzeszyn, but please let me know/ comment
if you know otherwise. I won’t be looking into it at this time. See
here on this particular author:
http://books.google.com/books?id=n7w5AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=who+wrote+the+commentary+on+pseudo+jonathan&source=bl&ots=jFVy8FwZ-e&sig=aUIlkzdxsXQ5Lt39AmM-RB2J878&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mJaDUurVNoLMsQS4sICQDw&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=who%20wrote%20the%20commentary%20on%20pseudo%20jonathan&f=false
3The best that I can tell from a short Bar Ilan search is that “Ba aleha” in the Mishnah appears to be consensual, though in contexts where the behavior is not approved of, or is a sin for some other reason. In Tanakh, the term appears to have to do with battle or land, so that it doesn’t appear in a context which seems to me to be directly relevant. Please let me know if I have misinterpreted, however.
4 See Abot dR. Natan hosafa b to nusach Alef, chapter 4, Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera 56, Shemot
Rabbah Beshalach, 21, Devarim Rabbah,
V’zot HaBrakhah, 21.
5 The same idea appears in chapter 22 there as well.
6 eg. through Naama, as in Midrash Rabbah, cited by Rashi on Gen. 4:22.

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How Many Biblical Authors?: Rabbi Emanuel Rackman

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman received smikha from Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik, and an LLB and doctorate of philosophy from Columbia University. He was the rabbi of the 5th Avenue Synagogue, the provost at Yeshiva University, and the chancellor of Bar Ilan University for many years.

I’ve started reading Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s very interesting and well written One Man’s Judaism (Philosophical Library, NY 1970) with the goal of summarizing some of his fundamental views of Halakha, and I want to share a fascinating point he makes at the beginning of the book. The book begins with two short essays, one a general overview of how he understands Judaism, and the second a short description of some more personal stances, including the following:

“In my commitment, what matters is the fact that God did actually contact man- patriarchs and prophets- and covenant with them. How he did it will continue to be the subject of both conjecture and interpretation, but that He did it in history is the crucial point for me. As creation is a fact for me, though I cannot describe the how, so is revelation a fact, though its precise manner eludes me.” (p. 18)

In this short expression of faith, Rabbi Rackman tells us that revelation is a historical fact, its historical reality is crucial to his faith, and that he’s not sure how it took place. This presumably means that like most of us, he does not know how prophecy works.

He continues:

“The most definitive record of God’s encounters with man is contained in the Pentateuch. Much of it may have been written by people in different times, but at one point in history God not only made the people of Israel aware of His immediacy but caused Moses to write the eternal evidence of the covenant between Him and His people. Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

I’m not sure what Rabbi Rackman’s intent is in this comment. Does he mean that God encountered man, who wrote down or preserved pieces of prophecy, before Moses rewrote it from scratch through his own prophecy? Or when he suggests that “much of it may have been written by people in different times”, does he simply mean that indeed, the Bible may have multiple authors, because the patriarchs wrote down their prophetic experiences which were supplemented and perhaps edited by Moses, who wrote the “eternal evidence of the covenant between” God and the Jewish people?

The latter understanding, controversial as it is, seems to better explain his note that “Even the rabbis in the Talmud did not agree on the how.”

Crucial to our understanding of this point is another quote from Rabbi Rackman, which I saw in a guest post by Rabbi Michael Broyde on Hirhurim:

“The sanctity of the Pentateuch does not derive from God’s authorship of all of it, but rather from the fact that God’s is the final version. The final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity-the kiss of immortality.” (Judaism, Spring 1969, page 153)

As R. Broyde explains it, This is a sort of “Orthodox version of the documentary hypothesis”, allowing for “claims that there might have been a J, P, E or D, but the R (who the secularist call “the redactor”) really is Moshe Rabbenu mipi haGevura.”

This view seems to imply something which our first quote did not: perhaps when God, through prophecy, instructed Moses to write and edit the Torah, the instruction was to include materials which were not originally prophetic at all!

At any rate, Rabbi Rackman writes that while the mode and details of prophecy are subject to some disagreement, there is something the Rabbis all agreed on:

“But all agreed that the record was divine and they cherished it beyond description, even as they cherished a manner of exegesis which Moses simultaneously transmitted to his colleagues and disciples. In their ongoing relationship with God they sought to fathom the meanings- apparent and concealed- of every word and letter of His revelation. And that quest has not yet ended.”

This being the case, Rabbi Rackman seems to emphasize in two short paragraphs that the importance of revelation is that it occurred in history, but not how exactly it occurred in history, which may seem to fly in the face of Rambam’s seventh and eighth principles, which we have summarized elsewhere. However, Rabbi Michael Broyde, in the article noted above, writes explicitly that he does not consider Rabbi Rackman’s views to be in violation of the 13 principles. In his opinion, Rabbi Rackman doesn’t contradict the Jewish dogma that “each and every word” was given to Moses at Sinai; “He just speculates as to where God got the original material for the Torah from.”

Returning to Rabbi Rackman, it is also important to note that in his opinion,  the “definitive record” of God’s meetings with man (ie: the Written Torah) was accompanied by an Oral Torah, which included rules to understand every word of its written counterpart.

Does Rabbi Rackman’s overall position, if I understand it correctly, open up the possibility for the kind of vision Rabbi Zev Farber shared in his controversial essay on TheTorah.com?

I don’t know, and as I continue to read the book, I’ll revise this post if I find important supplementary points or something which contradicts what I’ve said here.

To close, we’ll allow Rabbi Rackman to finish his thought as he does in the book:

“Even as He willed that man be His partner in the conquest of the earth, so He willed that man proclaim His holiness and help history ultimately to vanquish nature. For this purpose the Law was given.”

Related:

What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship a Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 1): Rabbi Menachem Leibtag

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship a Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2): Dr. James Kugel

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship a Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3): Q&A session with the two authors above

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

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

Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response (Guest post by Ben Elton)

Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Bible Study (Guest post by Ben Zion Katz)

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Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Bible Study

by Ben Zion Katz

Dr. Ben Zion Katz’s  guest post is the 7th 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, and a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter can be found here. Our last post, a thought provoking guest post by rabbinic student Ben Elton, is called Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response. It is available here.

The Torah is the basis of all Judaism. In traditional Jewish thought, the Torah is considered to have been dictated by God to Moses, and the text of the Torah that we possess is considered to be a record of that revelation. It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter.

It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter. (from Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Journey-Through-Torah-Documentary-Hypothesis/dp/9655240886)

At present, the Modern Orthodox intellectual world is engaging academic Bible study with renewed vigor.  In addition to this website, there is also thetorah.com and the recent comments by Professor Marc Shapiro on the Seforim blog, for example. Perhaps the plethora of books dealing with this topic on an accessible level by authors such as Richard Elliott Friedman, James Kugel, Marc Brettler and others, or the teachings of Rabbis Bin Nun, Leibtag, or Bazak in Israel to name a few, are a factor.  Whatever the reason, I am excited by the current intellectual activity, as I have been thinking about this issue for 40 years.

A scholar by temperament, I cannot shut off my academic brain when I study Jewish texts.  On the other hand, as a practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I require hard data to change my practice.  With this outlook, I believe that Orthodoxy today is less broad than the Rabbinic Judaism of centuries past, but also that modern, academic Bible scholarship is not the hard science its practitioners claim it to be.

As most people reading this blog are undoubtedly aware, the leading academic theory as to how the Bible came to be written is the documentary hypothesis (DH), often associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).  The DH claims that the Torah was preceded by 4 separate sources (or “documents”), each of which told the history of Israel in its own way.  These purported documents were later edited together, thus accounting for some of the apparent duplications and contradictions found in the Torah.  Of course, these discrepancies had been known for centuries, but were by and large dealt with by the rabbis on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a single, over-arching theory.

There have been attempts to deal with the DH by serious Orthodox Jewish thinkers for over a century.  David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) wrote Biblical commentaries that attacked the DH on its own terms, as well as an entire book Ra-ayot Machriot Neged Wellhausen (Convincing Proofs Against Wellhausen, Jerusalem, 1928; available at Hebrewbooks.org).  Professor Umberto Cassutto also attacked the DH on its own merits in his famous Eight Lectures (translated by Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem 1961).  Rabbi Dr JH Hertz in his monumental English commentary on the Pentateuch also attempted to deal with the DH, mainly in the Additional Notes at the end of each book of the Torah.  The late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer essentially accepted the conclusions of the DH but placed them in a religious context by claiming that they were all authored by God (see for example the chapters related to Rabbi Breuer’s approach in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. By S Carmi, Jason Aaronson, 1996).  David Weiss HaLivni, in his books Peshat and Derash (Oxford, 1991) and more fully in Revelation Restored (Westview Press, 1998) argues that the Torah was improperly preserved during the Babylonian exile and had to be restored as best as it could be by Ezra after the return to Judah in the mid 5th century BCE.

In the first 2 chapters of my recent book A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis (Urim, 2012), I critically examine the linguistic and literary evidence for the DH.  In chapters 3-8 I demonstrate that traditional Bible exegetes can be quite analytical.  In the concluding chapter I provide a synthesis that I believe to be both traditional and academically sound.

Since my book appeared, Dr. Joel Baden published The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale, 2012), which focuses solely on the literary aspect of the DH, arguing that the latter is primarily a literary solution to a literary problem.  Dr. Baden also assumes that there was a single, minimalist compiler who edited the disparate sources.  However, as I point out (Jewish Bible Quarterly, in press) there are literary difficulties with Dr Baden’s admittedly clever solutions.  The “documents” that Dr. Baden isolates are not as complete or consistent as claimed, nor is the compiler as consistent or minimalist as advertised.

On the other hand, it is not as if modern scholarship has nothing to teach even the most Orthodox of Bible students.  For example, the tragic story of Yiphtach and his daughter (Judges 11:29-40) cannot be understood without realizing that houses in ancient Israel were constructed on 3 sides of a courtyard, where the animals were kept; thus when Yiphtach rashly vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house after his battle with the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31), he undoubtedly thought the first thing that would come out to greet him would be an animal  from his courtyard, not his daughter.  Egyptologists explain that Joseph’s Egyptian name Tzaphnat Pa-aneah means “sustainer of life” an apt name for the one who saved Egypt from famine, and that Moses’ name means born of (water), just as Ramses’ name means born of Ra.

Academic Bible scholarship offers the same serious challenges to traditional Judaism as did evolution.  The latter, however, was backed by hard evidence (fossils, DNA, etc., etc.) and most of the intellectual Modern Orthodox world has accepted evolution in some manner and Torah as two different manifestations of truth.  Until such hard evidence becomes available to support the DH (eg finding an ancient scroll in the Judean desert resembling one of the purported Pentateuchal sources, for example), I do not believe we need to swing open “the gates of figurative interpretation” (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Book II, chapter 25) quite that far.

Ben Zion Katz M.D. is author of A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis [Urim, Jerusalem, 2012]

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

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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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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.

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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.

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