Authority with Autonomy- R. Emanuel Rackman

“…Moses prayed that the entire congregation might consist of prophets. In periods of overwhelming Jewish illiteracy -as when the Hasidic movement emerged and today- there was and is an undue amount of unquestioning reliance upon “Rebbes” or so called Gedolim (great men). I regard this phenomenon as unfortunate. When Jews become more knowledgeable in their Jewishness, I hope they will recapture in their personal lives a great amount of autonomy, interpreting and applying cherished source materials even as they continue to rely on centralized authority in most matters affecting persons other than themselves.”- Rabbi Emanuel Rackman in his One Man’s Judaism page 19-20 (Philosophical Library, NY 1970)


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by | August 18, 2013 · 5:09 pm

How Does Halakha Work? (R. J.D. Bleich)

Rabbi J. David Bleich is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, an expert in Jewish law and medical ethics, and the author or editor of some 15 books.

I thought I might write a little bit about the theories behind Halakha as a system according to Rabbi J. David Bleich, who is the author of the Contemporary Halakhic Problems series, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, and the head of its advanced Kollel Le-Hora’ah. Less known are his short book on Ralbag’s theory of providence and his work on Jewish belief entitled With Perfect Faith, of which I have only read the first. At any rate, he’s a genius and expert in Judaism, so he’s a person in a good position to tell us not just how Halakha might be applied in specific situations (or general theoretical ones), but also what the theoretical underpinnings of Halakha are. The reason I mention his knowledge of Jewish philosophy is because this indicates we can rely on him to be expert in Jewish belief, which cannot be separated from Jewish Law.

Anyway, in his introduction to the fourth volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Rabbi Bleich writes a little bit about the nature of Jewish Law, and I thought I might summarize a few of his points from there. If I recall correctly, this introduction describes Halakha in a way which is quite similar or the same as the introduction to the first volume of the series, and I think we can assume R. Bleich is consistent. However, I encourage you not to take my word for it, which is really something you can only do on a blog, since there’s basically no accountability. This, of course, is one of the reasons no one respects blogs.

On to some important points from Rabbi Bleich:


 “Halakhah is an intellectual discipline, but its pursuit is accompanied by awesome moral and religious responsibility…halakhic error or laxity is as dangerous to the soul as other forms of error may be to the body.” (p.xi)

This demonstrates, as we noted, that Jewish Law and belief are tied to each other. Our values have to accompany our legal pronouncements. Additionally, Halakha is not just a cultural treasure or expression. Rather, the “mitzvot…are a matter of spiritual life…”


“There is nothing in these volumes…that is innovative in the true sense of that terms, just as there is nothing innovative in a treatise on physics. Both disciplines have as their subject a closed, immutable system of law-physical in the case of the latter, regulative in the case of the former.” (p.xii)

Here Rabbi Bleich describes Halakha as a closed system, with internal and set rules which guide it as a process. New rules aren’t invented, and what looks like new is really something old being exposed in a new way. Like physics, the world hasn’t changed just because we now know that the world isn’t flat. Rather, our understanding of the old immutable laws has expanded. So too in Jewish law, old rules are understood in a new way, though they have never actually changed.

This being the case, we should now note Rabbi Bleich’s position that Halakha is a totally objective system “in its pristine form”. Thus, subjectivity may creep in, but this is not ideal. Rather, it should be treated as math is, with set rules to be followed.

So too, like science, the Halakhist acts “on the basis of the canons of his discipline as understood by his quite fallible intellect, not on the bassis of subjective predilections.” (p.xiii)

If we put this idea together with the notion that Jewish Law and belief should not be separated from one another, perhaps we might come to the conclusion that Jewish Belief is objective, at least in some ways, and within certain limits. For instance, we might say that it is an objective Jewish belief that the Torah is Divine, but that there is no objective position regarding rationalism or mysticism. This is just an example, but if Jewish law is to remain objective, and it cannot be separated from the fear of Heaven (p. xi), then the fear of Heaven must have an objective understanding in some way.


“Leniencies and permissive rulings exist in abundance. The point is to seek neither the stringent nor the lenient, but the view that is most authoritative. Moreover, there usually is a view which has been accepted in practice by the majority of poskim as the accepted standard. Thereupon, such a ruling becomes normative and deviation cannot be considered other than by virtue of  compelling reasons.” (p.xiii)

R. Bleich tells us that his above point is obvious to anyone with a complete instruction in Jewish Law, but that some need to be reminded. These people try to reconcile Halakha with the outside world or outside norms, when, as R. Bleich has already told us, Halakha is a closed and independent system. Therefore nothing new can be brought into it, even though there lenient positions available to be relied upon if we do in fact allow ourselves to influenced by the outside world.

An example of this might be the question of women who wish to be called up to the Torah. This is permitted according to the strict law (in Rabbi Yehuda Henkin’s opinion1), and we might wish to call for equality and institute this practice. Should we do it? No Halakha will be broken. R. Bleich tells us that the answer to this sort of question should be sought by turning to the authoritative positions in Jewish law, and measured according to its own norms.

4: While Halakha is objective, there is disagreement, since no two minds are the same, and even the same formal rules can be interpreted differently or given different weights by competing authorities (p.xiv). These authorities must be more than computers who can spit back relevant sources, and their understanding of the “art” of Halakhic decision making entails the ability to identify relevant issues and questions, and apply the principles they’ve learned. Additionally, there are policy calls, even though policy cannot judge between competing theories or precedents (p.xv). I’m not exactly sure where the line is drawn in Rabbi Bleich’s opinion. He does tell us public guidance may need policy considerations, even though the law may be clear. For instance, if a rabbi is afraid that a group will misapply a permissive ruling, he may tell them it is not permitted.

However, Rabbi Bleich makes the following important point:

“Unfortunately or otherwise, it has become the practice in some highly erudite and respected rabbinic circles for halakhic authorities to issue pronouncements decrying certain practiced without indicating that those statements are prompted by policy concerns rather than by immutable halakhic standards. This has given rise, in the eyes of some, to the entirely erroneous perception that Halakhah itself is policy driven and hence, in the final analysis, subjective in nature.” (p.xvii)

Suffice it to say that this problem is widespread, and it creates a terrible ignorance of actual Halakhot, beyond convincing people that Halakha is whatever rabbis want it to be, according to their own policy considerations. If Rabbis can do whatever they want to push what they see as Jewish values, then there is no end to how they can change our religion, whether by adding to the law or getting rid of it entirely. Even more informal interpretations of Halakha therefore must admit the strong objective elements that are present in it which guide it.

5: Lastly, this may be clear already, but I’ll note it anyway. Halakha deals with new modern questions, in Rabbi Bleich’s opinion, but it has clearly formulated rules as to how to deal with these questions. It does not pay attention to modernity or modern philosophies on their own merit then, but merely examines the new situations which arise due to them, and then independently asserts what the rule is (p.xvii).

I think I summarized the gist of Rabbi Bleich’s approach as portrayed in his introduction to his fourth volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems. I hope I haven’t misled you in regards to his opinions, but I recommend you check out the book and his essays in Tradition anyway, so you can make the call then. At any rate, Rabbi Bleich is a tremendous Talmid Chakham, but suffice it to say that his opinion is not the only one around. It is however,  fairly clear, though I’m still left with questions regarding policy and subjectivity in making judgement calls. If Halakha is supposed to be totally objective, what exactly is the missing piece which keeps Halakha from being like math? Why is the fear of Heaven required, so long as as the clear and formal guiding rules of Jewish law are followed? And if the fear of Heaven is required, what exactly does it mean to be a qualified ya’re shamayim?

R. Bleich answers the latter that “In its most fundamental sense yir’at shamayim, fear of Heaven, is the reflection of a conviction that halakhic error or laxity is as dangerous to the soul as other forms of error may be to the body” (p. xi), but I’d like to read more about this point. What are the non-fundamental elements to the fear of Heaven? And why does “fear of Heaven” seem to mean a fear for one’s soul when Rabbi Bleich knows that yir’at shamayim is best translated as “awe of Heaven”, which would most likely be more akin to recognizing God’s greatness and then desiring to serve him because He is God, not because our souls may be damaged if we do not? How important are the answers to these questions, and what if someone gives the “wrong” answer? Perhaps Rav Bleich addresses this elsewhere; I don’t know. If you do, please send me the reference or a link.

1Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, page 101-105 (UrimPublications, 2008)


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An Animal’s Right to the Pursuit of Happiness…. in Poland

shmu-gha    This month Poland’s parliament rejected a government-backed bill that would permit slaughterhouses to ritualistically slaughter (shechitah) livestock. Lawmakers who opposed the bill said that shechitah is cruel to animals. This stance proved interesting for the wider Jewish world for several reasons: first, it singles out Jews (and other co-religionist minorities) who will only eat meat that is killed in a specific way, and second, as the stance ostensibly was made in the name of morality, indirectly the Polish government was rejecting Jewish morality.  Of course, governments limiting the rights of Jews to practice their own religion are commonplace; but, one of the reasons that this headline was so special is because of its location: Poland. Since the Holocaust, world Jewry, rightfully so, has been extra sensitive to anything that can even be construed as anti-Semitic from the former largest hub in the world of Jews. Many feel that Poland has lost the right to single out Jews, even if said hounding fits within the country’s present moral compass. Putting aside the feelings of anti-Semitism Jews experience throughout Europe by their European brethren (according to many recent polls), the Polish Parliament insists it is acting out of a sense of moral responsibility. They believe one ought inflict as little pain upon the animal victim as possible. To an outsider, this viewpoint sounds down right righteous. It could even lead ethically minded Jews to assert that Jews should also ban shechitah if it is deemed immoral. ‘Morality over choice of food’ has to be a mantra somewhere. In fact, even according to Jewish law, there is a proscription to unnecessarily pain an animal (Tza’ar Ba’al Chaim), so for the traditional community, there is also reason to fret. Israel even proposed a ban on the import of foie gras because of the force-feedings geese endure to produce these large livers. Similarly, one can may make the argument that shechitah should be banned even according to Jewish law and that the Polish government are acting righteously (as in fact they believe).

Several years ago, I watched a video of some Philippine locals, who happened to live in a forest, killing a cow at a festival. As I watched, I realized how hard it is to kill a cow. This is something that most Westerners do not appreciate. Cows are big and don’t want to die. The aborigines group repeatedly stabbed at the cow with spears, but only after piercing it several dozen times did it finally die (or at least fall to the ground). When Jews started slicing at a cow’s jugular and letting it bleed out several thousand years ago, I promise that was an improvement from what many other Ancient peoples were doing to kill their dinner (or their children). By far, it was the most humane, and safest way (for humans) to kill the cow. Today, the world believes that it has found the next stage of evolution in the most ethical method of killing animals, namely stunning. Just as Jews all switched to shechitah several thousand years ago, perhaps Jews should get with the times and, at least add stunning to the shechitah process.

There are several types of stunning that, depending on the type and size of the animal are used throughout slaughterhouses today. A) The pneumatic stunner delivers a blow to the animal’s head. B) The captive bolt pistol shatters the brain of the animal. C) The electric water trough delivers an electric shock to poultry. D) The electric brain stunner is generally used on sheep. The actual act of killing the animal usually takes place after one of these actions has been carried out on the animal. The animal may be passed out, or on the verge of death anyways when it is killed. Accordingly, it will not feel the pain of death.


Unfortunately, stunning has been met with halachic concern from rabbis worldwide. For the purposes of shechitah, one of the key factors that must be taken into consideration is whether the stunning process is reversible; in other words, if we were to leave the animal alone after it has been stunned, would it recoup from the blow/shock or would it eventually succumb. When the process is irreversible, the animal becomes a treifa, and even if the neck is slit subsequently according to Jewish Law, it still remains un-kosher. As many stunning processes are irreversible, it has proved a sticky moral area for Jews living in countries that mandate stunning. While we are not here to question the moral center of these countries with stunning legislation, let’s take a step back and figure out why stunning became the political norm for livestock and poultry.

Even Jews know the best way to cook a lobster is to drop it live into boiling water. In fact, crustaceans can develop bacteria that would be dangerous for human consumption soon after its death. So, for health reasons (and in the name of freshness), this has long been the desired method of killing lobsters and crabs. Many of us have heard rumors (or possibly high pitch whispers) that lobsters scream when they are lowered into the boiling pot, but as they have no vocal cords, this appears reasonably impossible (even if we do hear something). On the other hand, some have tried to show that lobsters do not feel pain when put directly into boiling water. Indeed, a 2005 study financed by the Norwegian government concluded as much. Others have concludes that they do feel pain (see ). Interestingly however, it appears that the only area of debate for most political institutions is whether these animals feel pain. But when we speak of treating animals justly, I believe we can list several additional issues that we might take into consideration, aside from causing unnecessary pain.

  1. Freedom: Impinging on the animal’s right to life, to be happy, to prosper.
  2. Fear: Scaring the bujeezes out of the animal by allowing it to watch other members of its species executed right before its own death.
  3. Egalitarianism: why do cows have special rules for a fun execution that lobsters, fish and millions of other species do not. Ought we not take the same care and consideration when we kill a small animal with that when we kill a large animal? Does size (or pain receptors) dictate how we treat others. If a human had no pain receptors, would that direct us in the way that we deal with that person, or execute that person?
  4. Heroism: some would prefer to look death in the face; live those extra last seconds with pride and contemplation of the present reality; stunning the animal pilfer this right.
  5. Dignity: Stunning an animal is not a dignified death. Defending its own life as a leopard or lion tries to rip out its jugular: that’s a dignified death. Some would rather take their chances on nature’s circle of life instead of mankind’s ego of commercialism.
  6. Individuality: a specific reason (aside from freshness) why one animal is killed instead of another
  7. Respect: should we not regulate the way that the carcass is dealt much in the same way that do for humans; it is unbecoming to just toss or disregard certain parts of the carcass; maybe, if a piece of the carcass is not used, it ought to be buried.
  8. Unnatural: the cow is not naturally part of the human’s food chainsdfdsffds

Was this exercise ridiculous? Did you feel I should’ve stopped already by #2? Did you feel that you’re wasting your time as you read about caring for animals a bit more than usual? Indeed, some may feel I’m anthropomorphizing the animal victims’ situation; after all, animals don’t have the same exact feelings as humans! They don’t complain about rights or demand justice. Well that’s myopic of you, to care only about your perspective. Nonetheless, this biased starting point – that animals feel pain like humans, and therefore they should die in the way that a human would want to die if s/he was going to be eaten by someone higher on the food chain – is the reason, and the sole reason for the Polish legislation and much of the animal legislation worldwide. Simply put, according to most governments, animals have no rights. Humans have rights, and when animals remind us of humans, then those animals have rights as extensions of human rights. Animal pain reminds us of human pain; therefore, we must care about it. But, a pack of wolves roaming a forest freely do not remind us of a group’s right to self-determination, so that pack lacks the ability to determine its own sovereignty. Or, to speak of an animal’s rights of equality or pursuit of happiness, in and of itself, appears silly. But, when we speak about the way that an animal ought to experience death, politicians immediately assume a parallel to humanity: humans would prefer being stunned before death (or at least politicians would); humans would prefer pain-free deaths; therefore, that consideration is what we must take into account when slaughtering animals. Similarly, humans don’t like small houses, or limiting our range of motion. Hence, California’s 2008 proposition 2 legislated the minimum cage size for chickens. Nonetheless, regarding the basic underlying issues, we remain silent and uncaring for any other rights animals might be thought to enjoy.

Judaism never endorsed this ‘most pain-free’ model. In no Rabbinic text is it ever claimed that ritualistic slaughter is the most pain-free method of killing an animal. Recently, many Rabbis and Imams have spilled way too much ink trying to justify Judaism or Islam in the eyes of Western values on this topic. In fact, there’s a surprising, little known rule in Judaism that demonstrates Judaism’s unique perspective. If a calf fetus is found in an already slaughtered cow, the fetus has the status of ‘already slaughter.’ It does not need to be ritualistically killed again to be eaten and can be killed however one chooses, even though that calf is technically 100% alive, just not halachicly alive. In such a case, the Rabbis added that one must kill the animal in a spectacular way so that onlookers know that this is a special case, a case in that shechitah is unnecessary. The Talmud recounts that, in such a situation, a Rabbi once decapitated two cows (who had ‘already slaughtered status’) in one fell swoop of his arms. Apparently, this Rabbi (still bound by the proscription of not unnecessarily paining animals) deemed decapitation a fine way to end livestock’s life. Indeed, given the option to kill the animal however he wanted, he chose decapitation over countless other ways of killing the cows. From this account, we can conclude that shechitah is not necessarily the best way to kill an animal. Shechitah was chosen, I believe, because it is the method that kills the animal in a safe way for the human, in a reasonably pain-free way for the animal that appears dignified and shows respect for the victim and its blood.

At the function, given the status of the two cows (that need not shechitah), the Rabbis legislated that respect is not the most important function of killing these animals. Instead, making people aware that the animals have a special halachic status was paramount. The fact that the Sages chose to redefine the parameters of the how to halachicly kill an animal given some situation itself shows the subjective nature of these laws and that Judaism was not specifically overly preoccupied with the most pain free death. (And we should note that the Rabbis had no problem positing lo ploogs – that we do not differentiate a case even though some of the variables are different – thereby they could have madated that shechitah is still necessary on these two calves.)

Where Poland goes wrong, where the world goes wrong is in not dignifying the animals’ death. Everyone must die: every animal, every plant, every living thing. All we ought to wish for those deaths is a dignified death, one that shows respect for the sacrifice that living organism has made towards the circle of life. But, when we speak of rights, we simply speak of the way that humans would want other humans to deal with him. There is no reason that this should be the litmus test for the treatment of animals. It is certainly not how other animals treat each other, yet the Polish government sees no reason to infringe upon the way that one animal mutilates another.


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Solving the Tuition Crisis: a Proposal

Problem: As with most ills in the universe, one is hard-pressed to care or put forth the mental effort to ameliorate an issue before the problem personally impacts one’s own life. Looking down the barrel of a $30,000+ bill for my three children’s Jewish Day school tuition has swiftly led me to look at the crisis under new light. I stand ready to propose an answer. I have laid out this proposal to many friends, parents, educators, and professionals, and have received mixed reactions. Like most issues that affect the Jewish community as a whole, my proposal will not solve the whole kit and caboodle, but it should lead us on the right track towards lowering Day School tuitions, lessen the need for financial assistance, and further concretize the realization that only an integrated and systematic communal approach to this issue will resolve the problem.

Proposal: Upon the completion of Day School (generally either 8th grade or 12th grade depending upon the Day school), the parent agrees to offer a small annual gift, say $100, towards the school indefinitely.  The parent would agree to this donation before his/her child is accepted to the school, and it would be a pre-condition of the child’s acceptance to the Jewish institution. If the parent refuses to accept this additional philanthropic stipulation, then the child will not be accepted to the school.

Reasoning: When a parent sends his/her child to a Day school, the parent is actively rejecting public school education (and possibly many private schools as well). In effect, the parent is claiming that I believe that the Day school is better for my child, or fits in better with my values (or has some ulterior motive). Regardless of the reason, the person is buying into the philosophy of the school, directly or indirectly. The parent may be choosing the lesser of the two evils in choosing the school, and may not fully agree with many of the school’s educational, political or philosophical decisions; nonetheless, the parent is still choosing the school, for better or worse.

While it makes sense to support an institution that will eventually benefit your family, it is harder to compel parents to start paying a percentage of tuition, or donating some nominal amount to the high school they intend to send their kids, even if they know they will send them there, before their kids come of age. On the other hand, after the fact, once their children graduated from the school, the fact that the parents entrusted their most valuable possessions in the world to this institution to teach them how to be a person, prepare them for life or even simply babysit the child all day, is reason enough to continually support the school. In truth, this is the argument that development officers makes towards alumni and parents of alumni all the time. Sometimes their arguments work; sometimes it falls on deaf ears.


  1. Parents will not agree to this indefinite arrangement.      Answer: They could send their kids elsewhere. There’s a public school somewhere that will be happy to accept that student. Unless a parent buys into the philosophy, financial stability and longevity of the school, why ought a school accept that kid? Let the parents find another school.
  2. Parents need to see immediate benefit to this arrangement or they will be angry and despise the school. We should not cause the parent to hate the school even before their child starts.     Answer: They will see an immediate benefit after the first graduating class. Let us imagine that half of this supplementary donation goes to the school and half towards tuition assistance. At the beginning of the year, parents will receive a letter that tuition is, in the first year possibly $2 less because of this program, and each subsequent year, the tuition will be lessened more and more. Over time, parents will see the substantial benefit that they reap from this program.  Of course, it might be a bit demoralizing to receive such a small decrease at the start, but every program has to start somewhere.
  3. Some people will agree to this arrangement and never fulfill the annual pledge upon the child’s graduation. Are we to sue them?        Answer: People are people. There are always people who will not fulfill their pledge to a Jewish organization. That is not a reason not to accept pledges or to compel people to make them.
  4. When a child graduates, the parent will still experience the hardship of High School, or even college. It is unfair to impose an additional financial burden upon the parent in this instant.     Answer: In this case, it makes sense to allow the parent to postpone the gift by four years. There are probably thousands of other examples of financial hardships that a parent may claim. First, this is why the gift is such a small amount. It shouldn’t push anyone over the edge. Second, delays in the payment in extenuating circumstances are obviously completely fine.
  5. If one is compelled to give charity, then it is not charity. In truth, it is simply an additional bill. We should call a spade a spade. Answer: First, most traditional Jews donate ten percent of their salary to charity. According to many commentaries, this is at least a Rabbinic prescription. Nonetheless, even though G-d or the religion mandates this donation (AKA it is obligatory), no one claims that it is not charity anymore. Charity can, in fact, be obligatory and still remain under the definition of charity.
  6. Schools will continually raise tuition prices, off-setting any benefit this proposal may have.    Answer: it is true that most schools raise the tuition annually, but that does not mean that supplementing the tuition would be meaningless. The financial committee who sets the annual tution price would be expected to act in good faith and set the tuition independent of this auxilary fund.

Conclusion: My three siblings and I graduated from the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Florida. My mother was never truly excited about our education there and always harbored several complaints and/or reservations regarding our education. Nonetheless, she continued to send all of her children through its system. In fact, my family has Hakares HaTov (goodwill) towards Hillel and for the good that it generated in our lives. It is our family’s alma mater after all. Nonetheless, I promise that my family has never given another penny to Hillel after my youngest sibling graduated. This is because we felt that our contractual arrangement with the school had finished. We might even reason, “Hillel got as much as it could out of us while we there with its high tuition, so why should we continue supporting Hillel subsequently? That is its current students’ parents’ job now, not ours!” As long as we do not currently gain some form of gratification from the school, they will not receive our dollars. This myopic, juvenile, self-centered approach truly destroys the financial stability of schools, and shows a lack of care for the well-being of the Jewish community as a whole. Let us contractually agree to donate! My proposal seeks to change the way that we view the institutions in that we choose to educate our children. Let us be partners with our school.

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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 at

At present, the Modern Orthodox intellectual world is engaging academic Bible study with renewed vigor.  In addition to this website, there is also 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  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]

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Why Is There Evil in the World?

“It is the function of the righteous, the saintly ones in the world, to recognize that the pure light is too strong for the world to endure. Yet it must somehow illuminate the world. Therefore it is necessary for there to be many veils to soften the light, and these veils are what we know as evil and its causes….we who possess a limited perception of the light, do not have the ability to see that all evil is but a veil needed in order to adjust the flow of light.”

-from Lights of Return (Orot HaTeshuva) by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook showed the above passage, taken from his father’s Lights of Return, to Rabbi Herbert Weiner, when the latter asked him about evil in the world.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British controlled Mandatory Palestine. Sadly, he never lived to see the foundation of the State of Israel. In Religious Zionist circles in Israel, he is commonly referred to as HaRav, or simply, “the Rabbi”. A passionate genius, he was expert in Talmud, Halakha, Jewish mysticism and philosophy, and was well versed in many areas of secular culture and thought. Unusually, his writings on all of these topics are often in poetry, as opposed to prose.

How can we reconcile apparent evil with an all-powerful and all-good God?

This is one suggested answer.

Notice, as Rabbi Weiner points out in his fascinating 9 1/2 Mystics, that according to this understanding, evil is not really bad. Rather, what seems to be evil is really a veil which allows good into the world. It is an integral part of the divine plan, and it accomplishes a good thing.

It only seems bad from a limited human perspective.

What do you think of this?

I’ve often heard students of R. Soloveitchik say that their attraction to his teachings came from the fact that he considered evil real.

On the other hand, it’s very difficult to account for evil in the world when it comes from a good God. Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav’s  famous essay on the value of contemporary Zionism, emphasizes that we should react to evil and try and repair the damage from it. However, in his opinion, we should not focus on the “why” of evil, since it is beyond us. He therefore doesn’t really deal with the question that Rav Kook seeks to answer. This being the case, perhaps he would ultimately agree.


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

Related Posts: Does God Protect Us? The Boy Who Fell from the Tree



by | June 10, 2013 · 8:35 am

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

This is a picture of the 13, -no sorry- FIFTEEN principles of the Biala rebbe. Joshua Harrison sent it to me.

Comment if you want a translation. Otherwise, see if you can spot what doesn’t look quite right…


by | June 4, 2013 · 3:55 pm

Is Listening to Non-Jewish Music OK? (A Non-Halakhic Discussion)

Joshe Homme, lead song writer and frontman for QOTSA, is one of my favorite musical artists. No one else I know likes his music.

Before we get back to biblical criticism (and I hope we’ll have some more guest posts before I get to  Rabbi Umberto Cassuto and some others), I want to talk about non-Jewish music for a moment. Why? Because Queens of the Stone Age are back, and I love their music. In my excitement, I’d like to point out a few theological issues with non-Jewish music. As I listen to non-Jewish music almost daily, you may conclude that I am either hypocritical on this matter, or that I think there is no problem. You’ll decide for yourself. As to the bottom line halakha le’ma’aseh (practical Jewish legal) aspect, I suggest you ask someone qualified to answer.

1) Avoiding Non-Jewish Music (A Mystical Perspective):

I’ll first outline why some mystical thinking would lead to the rejection of non-Jewish music. I won’t quote sources here, so please feel free to take me to task for this. Ask someone who is well versed in Kuzari, Tanya, Zohar, etc., regarding the points I’ll make here, and feel free to check out Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism as well as Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, both by Menachem Kellner, regarding Rambam and these views.

If one assumes that the Jewish soul is inherently superior to the non-Jewish soul, and also that the soul’s positive or negative qualities become a part of anything created by a person, then we have reason to reject non-Jewish music. This is because of the assumption that a non-Jewish soul is impure (if only because non-Jews eat non-Kosher food), and that it can only create something similarly impure. Non-Jewish music being impure, it will affect our souls negatively if we listen to it. In this view, spiritual forces, good and bad, work in a way which we might consider analogous to physical cause and affect. A good spiritual thing causes purity, while a bad thing (such as evil speech) causes spiritual impurity1.

So, if you believe these things, I suggest you try and phase out non-Jewish music, as well as the traditional Hasidic songs which really come from non-Jewish authors. This is by far more common than we think. It happens to be that my favorite tune for a Shabbat Song is Dror Yikra when sung according to the tune of “Sloop John B.”, the song most famously sung by the Beach Boys. My second favorite happens to be Dror Yikra according to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. That’s a really fun one, so I suggest you try it this week.

A rationalist may reject all of the points we have made here, however. Such a person will not assume that one’s soul is inherently good or bad, or that a person’s soul automatically affects their creation.Generally speaking, rationalists do not think that there are spiritual forces akin to physical cause and affect in play when we eat Kosher food, thus improving our souls, or harming them when we eat non-Kosher (the same goes for other mitzvot, such as the performance of sending away the mother bird, say). Rather, as we have explained elsewhere, keeping the mitzvot improves our souls in an entirely different way, which we will not get into here. In sum, keeping the mitzvot leads to the betterment of society and the soul, in Rambam’s opinion, and this is a natural process. . Now then, other points must be dealt with.

2) The lyrics:

I do not listen to lyrics, but I am weird in this regard. Most people do, and this being the case, it is harmful to listen to music which praises bad qualities such as excessive partying, materialism, etc., or even worse. Some songs praise rape or other unspeakable things, and even if you don’t listen to lyrics, we shouldn’t support people who praise these crimes.

So classical music is obviously on the table. There’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll talk about the positive qualities good music has later on. It should be noted that there are certain artists whose lyrics can’t be ignored. Bob Dylan is the best example, but check out the “Reload” album by Metallica for some really impressive writing (or so I thought when I was 14). However, when it comes to artistic poetry, most of us will recognize the immediate value in this, so we won’t get into that here. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein fans will tout this, I imagine, though I find it hard to picture R. Lichtenstein listening to contemporary music.

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

Even worse is the danger that we’ll look up to artists as role models. Even when they are fine, normal people, it’s not like they’re moral philosophers or anything. They’re just guys who are good at one amazing thing. So no one should confuse a good musician for a role model. And of course, this is in regards to the good ones.I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but they are not role models for Halakhic Jews by any stretch of the imagination.

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

I’ll risk stating the obvious here: Music can be an amazing and positive thing. It can be expressive, therapeutic, inspiring, and all of these things mean that we’ll be able to serve God better. We should be emotionally healthy (v’chai bahem), use the world to praise God (like King David did with his harp), and appreciate the marvelous wisdom in the world (ma rabu ma’asekha HaShem). When we hear great music from Josh Homme, about whom I know next to nothing, we should appreciate the wisdom God has given to man. Now that we have seen that non-Jewish music can be a good thing, we should ask if there is a  Halakhic reason to avoid it. I’m not qualified, so I won’t get involved, but everyone should be aware of the possibility that going to concerts and non-mitzva related parties with live music is forbidden. I’ll get back to this at the end. Obviously, in weddings and other religious celebrations we should have music, and we enhance our celebrations with it. But what about Jewish Music?

5) Jewish Music:

“There are two types of Jewish music: The kind that is mekarev (brings one closer) to God, and the kind that is merachek (brings one away from) God.”- Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Sadly, most modern Jewish music is terrible. Listeners might get the feeling that writers aren’t even trying. Besides for the overwhelmingly simplistic nature of most modern Jewish music, the style of music and melodies are almost always taken from a non-Jewish source. I’m really not sure what completely original Jewish music would sound like anyway. Klezmer, Carlbach, Miami Boys Chior, etc., all belong to non-Jewish musical cultures. Perhaps that should be considered an issue for some. This being the case, Jewish music should really be judged by the same criteria as non-Jewish music, though of course when it comes to lyrics, people taking from Tehilim, etc., are obviously giving us music with lyrics that can help us along spiritually. So then, I think we’ve touched on most of the major issues. For a superb summary of Halakhic and Jewish theological perspectives on music, check out what Rabbi Howard (Chaim) Jachter wrote here. If you want to know about the prohibitions involved with listening to music today, and especially with going to concerts or a bar with live music, then I suggest you read his post before discussing the problem with someone who is qualified2. I’ll finish off my own post with the last lines of Rabbi Jachter’s article.

“What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.”

Before we actually get back to biblical criticism, I hope we can aslo discuss what the sin of Korach is. I have an idea, and I’d love some feedback.


1-Are you thinking of Plato’s ideals here? Me too. Check out 9 and 1/2 Mystics by Herbert Weiner for some interesting points about this. I’m in the middle of it now. Also, Gerschom Scholem’s Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism is a must for interested laymen.

2- Also, don’t forget to read Rambam in the 5th chapter of his “Shmoneh Perakim” as well as his commentary on Avot, 1:16. Further recommended reading is Siach Nachum R. Nachum E. Rabinovitch, OH (alt. OC) 35. He says there that 1) Even before the Temple was destroyed, music which was lustful, led to inappropriate desires, or had inappropriate language was forbidden, and 2) After the Temple was destroyed, celebration with live music or purely vocal music sung over wine was forbidden as well. Number one likely covers a lot of music today. A much more limited point is made by R. Kagan in his MB on a note Rama makes. In OC 53:25, Rama writes that a Shaliach Zibbur who enjoys non-Jewish music should be removed if, after protest, he does not stop listening to it. MB says this is in regards to music used for Avoda Zara, and not just any music. He quotes Bach as saying it must be music which is designated for the purpose of  AZ.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

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:

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


Filed under Tanakh/Bible

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.


Filed under Tanakh/Bible