Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Painting Themselves Into A Corner

(Hat tip: DovBear)
One of the dangers of making blanket statements is having to deal with important exceptions to those statements.  It's a lot easier to say "Most people think..." or "The majority of people say..." than "Everyone thinks..." or "Everyone says..."  The latter statements might land you in an indefensible position and then your argument is lost.
Of course just because that's true it doesn't stop people from doing just that, especially some frum folks who really should know better.
For example, a recent controversy in Toronto illustrates this exact point.  The whole thing started with the publication of yet another Kugel-style book, Torah From Heaven.  Like others that have come before the author has decided to put greater faith in academics than tradition and has written a book to reconcile his desire to believe in the divinity of the Torah with his intellectual inability to do so.  Billed as a book for the skeptical Orthodox it's more another tome for the Orthoprax - those amongst us who talk the talk but don't believe a word of what they're saying.  For those who understand the incredible limitations of the Documentary Hypothesis and the weak positions academics based themselves on it's yet another cry of lack of faith hidden as desire for intellectual truth.  In other words: yawn.
That hasn't stopped those who share this (lack of) belief in the truth of Torah from gushing over it.  Dr. Rabbi Martin Lockshin of Toronto, for example, wrote a glowing review of the book.  He goes over the general contents and, in an open concession to the Orthoprax, announces:
Rabbi Solomon argues further that historical scholarship makes it impossible to believe that Moses was the author of Genesis to Deuteronomy, or that our text of the Torah today is identical to the original one. The Talmud often quotes biblical verses whose wording or spelling differs from our own (as do Rashi and basically every other Bible commentator who lived before the days of the printing press).

Really?  It's impossible to believe that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, was the author of the Torah?  Impossible?  Or would the author and his followers just like to believe that so they can pursue their erroneous thesis?  Further, the word "often" in "The Talmud often quotes biblical verses" is also erroneous.  It does occur, true, and on a couple of cases this misquotes have halachic implications but it is not often by any serious definition of the word.  Rashi's misquotes also number less than a dozen.  Hardly a resounding basis of support.
The logic the author of the book uses is quite simple: it's a principle of faith that we believe that the Torah we have today is pretty much the one Moshe Rabeinu finished up before his death (with a few notable exceptions).  The Orthoprax can't accept this and so declare it to be impossible because modern secular academics say so.  And since it's impossible it can't still be a principle of faith.  Presto!  You don't have to believe in Torah miSinai to be a good Jew!
As far as that goes it's yet another tempest in a teapot.  Dr. Rabbi Lockshin, for example, is the leader of a small-time partnership minyan slowly moving towards right wing Conservatism.  His views are hardly going to be bandied about mainstream Jewish institutions in Toronto with any seriousness.  Like all the other hard-care Orthopraxers out there who would like to believe that they aren't a small minority he is not a threat to mainstream genuine Orthodoxy.
So what does the Toronto Board of Rabbis do?  It's leading lights, Ravs Shochet, Ochs and Miller, issue a blanket condemnation stating: "Halacha rules unequivocally that the denial of the G-dly origin of "even a single word" in the Torah... contravenes this principle (that our Torah is 100% identical to Moshe Rabeinu's) and constitutes kefirah b'Torah".
There are two problems with this response.  The first is that it's overkill.  Dr. Rabbi Lockshin wasn't suggesting a small part of the Torah, a few verses here and there, have been added, substracted or altered over time.  He is endorsing that the document itself isn't min haShamayim at all!  Why take such an ideological position when it would have been far simpler to say "Jews must believe in matan Torah in order to be considered Orthodox" and leave it at that?
But the second problem is far more difficult.  As Prof. Marc Shapiro shows in his work, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, there is plenty of legitimate evidence that small changes have occured to the text of the Torah over time.  Starting with a baraisa in maseches Sofrim which openly discusses Ezra editing the Torah after the return from Babylon in order to produce a reliable text, moving on to the rare times the Talmud misquotes a verse from the Torah and through various Rishonim and Acharonim who openly discuss the problem and its implication for fulfilling the mitzvah of listening to krias haTorah there is enough talk in the mesorah literature about the issue.  To state that 98% of the Torah we have today was what was handed to Moshe Rabeinu is doable.  To state it's 100% denies Chazal and the subsequent poskim who examined the facts.  Yet this is exactly what the Toronto Board of Rabbis does in its proclamation.  For them you're either 100% in or you're 100% out.
So here's the problem: their position is vulnerable.  Start at a position of 98% and you take away all your opponent's arguments.  Through a defense of the integrity of the text through its explanations in the Talmud and Midrash along with genuine scholarship that proves the antiquity and indivisibilty of the Torah the Orthodox position can be maintained.  Start at 100% and you're easily disproved and once that happens there is no red line stopping critics from moving from a 98% position to a 0%.  What's more, there can be no Orthodox counterargument since the original position was so unworkable.
The mishnah in Avos at the end of chapter 1 tells us there's nothing better than silence.  Another mishnah tells the sages to be exceedingly careful with their words lest bad consequences result.  Perhaps these mishnayos should have guided the proclamation.


Anonymous said...

There has been enough work done to show that the Torah appears to speak in roughly four voices, and that if you separate it back into those four documents, each reads crisply as a stand alone narrative. I believe even an orthodox academic using the latest computer research at Bar Ilan says it does separate nicely and neatly into four narratives.

I am less clear on the idea that the four narratives are written at different times, based on differences in the Hebrew that put the writing in different eras. But I’ve read that this is the case.

I think that if you were to take the biggest believer in Torah from Heaven, and let him take a few years of serious classes into what the Doc Hypothesis says, and what the evidence is for it, and what the problems are with it, he would come away understanding why academics see it the way they do, and he would find their arguments solid.

Probably this is why you will NEVER see a scholar of biblical criticism give a lecture at an orthodox yeshiva – or be invited to a substantive debate on the topic, or share a lectern with a rabbi for a semester long course for yeshiva students where they would discuss their respective positions and why they hold them.

What it speaks to is abject fear, and a need to cut off orthodox Jews from seeing the other side and rationally evaluating it. Instead, rabbis debate with themselves – summing up the DH in two minutes (and wrongly) and then smashing it with a ten minute talk on why tradition is the only correct way to see the Torah.

It’s not education – it’s indoctrination. And it is the only thing acceptable to orthodoxy. “The Torah is obviously true” they will say – but you are not permitted to test this statement. It reminds me of the Soviet Communists – Communism is obviously superior and the West is decadent and classist – but you cannot ever travel abroad to see for yourself.

It’s an obvious weakness in their argument that you cannot hear the other side – is this acceptable to you?


elemir said...


First, allow me be a bit petty and complain about some hypocrisy on your part.

You wrote:

“Really? It's impossible to believe that Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, was the author of the Torah? Impossible?”

And then:

“Further, the word "often" in "The Talmud often quotes biblical verses"”

Seems to me you are complaining about the author’s choice of words (i.e. impossible and often) being too exaggerating.

But, you just did the same, a few lines higher.

You wrote:
“Orthoprax - those amongst us who talk the talk but don't believe a word of what they're saying.”

Really “don’t believe a word”, not a single word.

In any case, let me tell you very simply why most open-minded people (i.e. not constraint by forced beliefs) think that the Torah is a composite document.

It’s very simple.

Say an intelligent person is presented with dozens and dozens of problems in a certain text. On one hand he is offered a very simple, nearly faultless suggestion on how to explain the problems and on the other, a litany of, some clever, some lame and some “I don’t knows” to try to resolve the problems.

Which would he choose?

Oh, and its people like this trio of Rabbanim that help put our vaunted mesora in doubt

Chaim B. said...

>>>Halacha rules unequivocally that the denial of the G-dly origin of "even a single word" in the Torah...

This is no more and no less than a quote of one of the 13 Ikkarim. The Chasam Sofer paskens l'halacha that not accepting one of the Ikakrim makes one a kofer (hey, the Rambam paskened that way too, right?). So what exactly is bothering you?

Do you think the Rambam was not aware of the Masechet Sofrim source, or of variant readings? Of course he was. And still he wrote what he did. So you have 3 choices: 1) figure out how to reconcile the Masechet Sofrim with the Rambam; 2) live with the question; 3) throw out the Rambam. I don't see how choice #3 is something that would be palatable to anyone who subscribes to Orthodox belief, but that's just my opinion. Do you throw out every gemara that R' Akiva Eiger asks a question on and leaves b'tzarich iyun? Surely R' Akiva Eiger didn't. Nor would he throw out the Rambam just because he has a list of places where the text of our Tanach is different than what is recorded in the gemara. Bottom line: find a serious posek a who will tell you that the 13 Ikkarim are meant to be taken seriously (and no, Marc Shapiro is not a posek.) Once you have that down, then maybe you can criticize Rabbanim who are doing no more than quoting ikkarei emunah.

Full disclosure: I have not seem the proclamation you are referring to, but I know personally that Rav Shochet is quite a talmid chacham.

SJ said...

Daniel said...

Chaim B: You seem to be attributing the forumla of the "Ani Ma'amin" to the Rambam. If you read the Rambam's own wording in his commentary to the Mishna, Perek Chelek, you will see that it is much more ambiguous. I would argue that the straightforward reading of the Rambam's formulation (as I recall, it has been I while) is stating that every word of the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu by HKB"H, but sidesteps the issue of what happened to the text after that. This would be consistent with the fact that Rambam discusses checking the Aleppo Codex to make sure his own Sefer was correct. This implies he was aware that textual drift was potentially an issue.

Lisa said...

Anonymous, one reason the documentary hypothesis is so silly is the Samaritan Torah. You need to think in terms of history.

When was this supposed patchwork put together? Used to be that people pointed to the time of Ezra. Now, people like Neal Silberstein are touting the time of Josiah.

What do those times have in common? They were both times of major conflict, not to say war, between Jews and Samaritans. Josiah campaigned into the north, destroying altars and other places of worship wherever he found them.

So you're saying that in the middle of this, or in the middle of the Judean/Samaritan conflicts at the time of Ezra, the Samaritans thought to themselves, "Hmm... those Jews have put together a pretty nifty Torah thingie. Let's adopt it ourselves!"

I've written stories myself in multiple voices when it suits the subject matter. To assume from that something as stupid as the documentary hypothesis is only possible if you've already, a priori, determined that the Torah must be false, and are looking for something to back up that opinion.

Micha Berger said...

"There has been enough work done to show that the Torah appears to speak in roughly four voices, and that if you separate it back into those four documents, each reads crisply as a stand alone narrative."

Actually, this story didn't keep up with reality. At this point document theories include numerous stitched-together verses.

The idea of multiple voices dates back at least as far as Chazal distinguishing between sections that use the name Y-HV-H and those that use E-lokim, the former being those that describe Hashem doing things we would normally interpret as merciful and the latter, when the actions appear to be the product of strict justice.

As for the Rambam vs Ani Maamin... Which is more authoritative? It would seem that what gives the 13 Iqarim their halachic authority isn't the Rambam's authority, but their acceptance as defining the limits of Jewish Thought by communities around the world. Thus, some loose version that includes the Rambam's, Yigdal and Ani Maamin formulations would be more definitive than the Rambam's original.

Also, it's unclear if the 8th iqar refers to preserving the text as much as preserving the meaning of the text. This principle includes the Oral Torah after all; if it were about preserving 305,810 specific letters, the process of halakhah would have required being listed separately. (Aside from being provably wrong.) Spelling differences that don't change the meaning -- we weren't sure of those even back in R' Meir's day. And the Y-mi tells us Ezra's Torah was the product of taking the majority on each difference found among three older scrolls. A single correct spelling didn't even survive the Babylonian Exile. Proposing that halakhah insists on believing otherwise is simply creating a strawman.

Anonymous said...


It is likely that you got your challenge from a rabbi who gave a lecture on what the DH is and why it is wrong. How come a DH scholar can never present their side? Because the rabbis cannot afford to hear the DH argument. They don’t want to hear it. They only let the rabbis give the DH side – and then smash it.

Do you really believe the DH they are telling you is the DH an academic scholar would tell you?

I am not an expert on the DH. But I have heard enough, and read enough, from experts. Some of whom wear kippahs.

The questions you raise are fine – I am sure there are responses to them in the academic world. If you were to really spend time in that world, I am sure you would find that others have considered your questions from many angles.

Probably dozens of academics from centers all over the US, Europe, and Israel have paid attention to your questions, and many others.


Micha Berger said...

Tuvia... You descended to ad hominem, which kind of implies you don't have a response for Lisa. Actually, you do not know her history and her background. And taking refuge in assuming she is a know-nothing brainwashed by her religion says more about you than the topic.

I won't speak for her, but I spent YEARS debating a C Rabbi on the subject on scjm, and read several books by Bible Critics on his recommendation to have material to rebut him. (Lisa was involved as well, which is how I know enough to know how wrong you are.)

The only reason why Bible Critics assume that Moshe and G-d couldn't have been R, working during the Sinai period, is their disbelief that the Torah could get so much future history right. There is absolutely no evidence separating DH from R' Mordechai Breuer's approach.

Someone's willingness to embrace DH rather than stick with a orthodox interpretation based on accepting the reality of the same data (and I don't accept all of it) is going to be motivated by which religious stance the person wants to end up with.

Anonymous said...

I didn’t really mean to make an ad hominem attack. I am also not an expert on the DH. I do know that over time the DH has proven more sturdy, not less. I know that an orthodox Bar Ilan academic recently concluded four voices are present.

I also know that other academics see evidence of those (roughly) four voices coming from different eras.

There is evidence also of other works from that time that are composite.

The idea of an author is also a later idea in human history. Probable that the idea of one author of the Torah was a later addition to suit the style/needs of a later time. This part I’ve read very little about.

Torah community is a closed community – no open inquiry permitted. You will find mostly orthodox rabbis doing a poor job of “explaining” the DH to orthodox Jews and then smashing it easily. Even the goyim understand this is a show trial proceeding.

If they really believe the Torah is written at one time by one person, let the academics into the debate. Bring them onto campus and have a semester long course. Each side can present, cross examine, show evidence, and counter-evidence.

Do the same thing with evolution. Do the same thing with age of the universe. Do the same thing with whether our masorah has integrity or is compromised.

I have no problem at all with traditional living (very much admire it.) I have a strong connection to Jews who live an observant/orthodox life. I believe in the divine.

I strongly believe the orthodox community is afraid of having an encounter with academic findings on Torah.

I think evidence for a composite document comes from different academic realms and is “converging.” That is, mutually reinforcing.

If you value reason above all else you will find this stuff both interesting and worth exploring. The orthodox community cannot afford to do this.

If the Torah is so obviously true, what is the problem?

Outside information in the Torah world is suppressed, omitted, distorted. Even the stuff they want -- the secular parenting guides, the marriage and relationship guides -- it is filtered and processed -- and rebranded as "eternal Jewish values based on Torah." Why?

But I do appreciate your taking the time to respond -- ravs generally just kind of invite me to leave.


Micha Berger said...

Again: There are Orthodox answers that are based on accepting the accuracy of the alleged evidence for Document Hypothesis.

Placing redaction in Sinai or R' Dr Breur's multiple aspects approaches both acknowledge what you (but not I) find convinving. If you were happy with the rest of Orthodoxy, this data wouldn't compel you to leave.

Just as my knowing that other resolutions of the data exist divorces my Orthodoxy from my objection to DH.

Anonymous said...

Well, I’ll just say that in the past ten years the evidence has been pointing further towards the DH than against it. That’s the direction in which the evidence has moved. I think you are looking at some of the more classical objections – but they are not necessarily addressing the current DH. The DH evolves as new evidence comes to light.

I have conversed with academics who study this and the evidence is stronger today than it was a decade or two ago.

That doesn’t mean it is conclusive. We are talking about the distant past.

I think OJ is a kind of cage, the way you present it. It’s meant to keep everyone in, and find ways to cut off their exploration of other paradigms.

This is a part of orthodox thought that has as its goal controlling people, cutting them off from exploration that might lead them to thoughts forbidden by --- those who fear losing control.

I don’t think being happy or unhappy with orthodox Judaism is really the point. The point is if you are an obedient son you don’t look outside the tradition. You stay mentally chained. And further, if you look you are going to lose your place in the world to come.

I hope you don’t support supernatural fear mongering. That is another classic way of exerting control over people and making them compliant. Of course, Judaism did not invent that – but they use it. Do you find it shameful and weak? I do.

Basically Reb Berger, you sound like a lot of Russian Communist Party members probably sounded in the heyday of Soviet communism:

If you liked communism, if you believed in it, you wouldn’t ask questions. You wouldn’t wonder why we say “communism is obviously true and superior,” but you can’t ever travel abroad to see for yourself. You wouldn’t wonder why, if it is all obviously true what we say, that the only tv permitted is state-owned. The only radio and newspapers are state-run. You wouldn’t wonder why those who don’t agree with us are put in forced labor camps. Or why we have strung barbed wire around our borders, in order to keep you in.

Why is indoctrination needed if OJ is so much better? Why can’t kids learn about the scientific view of a worldwide flood, or the origins of the Torah?

Doesn’t the omitting, suppressing and distorting of the knowledge of the outside world kind of make you sad?

These are fair questions.


david a. said...

rabbi berger,

discussing the validity of The DH in the context of the divinity of the Torah is a bit of a red herring, because, even if had never surfaced, the knowledge of mankind (sciences, archaeology, etc.) strongly points to the impossibility that a perfect, just, and beneficent Being would have written such a flawed document.
And once one concludes that humans wrote it then it it totally irrelevant if Moses wrote or dozens of people over centuries.

Joebug said...

Garnel where are you on this? Its your post after all. The argument is that DH plus ANE studies plus archaeology plus comparative religion converge and point away from TMS - Occam's razor logic indicates that a flawed composite human authorship explains the text far better OR DH is constructed in a secular discourse which a priori excludes possibility of the divine, all these forensic historical sciences can't really support definitive conclusions at all about the ancient past, secularism and the scienticism of modern scholarship is a fanatical religion that fails to explain consciousness, free will and ignores its own incoherence, religious experience can only be understood in a lived authentic way within a community of tradition. I'm 1 of those who is torn, which is probably a better conception actually of orthoprax individuals than your rather dismissive take in your post.But as previous comments indicate 99% of people with a modern education who exist in any way in the modern non-obscurantist world are at least going to be confronted by the dichotomy I outline unless they are indeed shielded from modernity (and in the web age, in the tablet age, is this really a long term viable option??), the dichotomy which orthopraxy more properly reflects is not going away. Garnel - where do you stand?