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Reconciling Modern Biblical Scholarship With Traditional Orthodox Belief

Who wrote the Torah? An unlikely group of Orthodox scholars has launched a website that gets to the heart of Jewish tenets.

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“Virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical,” declares a manifesto posted in July on TheTorah.com. “Given the data to which modern historians have access,” the essay explains, “it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift, and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.” Not only did the events in the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah never transpire, readers are informed, but “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”

Such sweeping sentiments might be expected from an academic scholar, or perhaps a critic of fundamentalist religion. But the author of this manifesto is an Orthodox rabbi named Zev Farber. The essay, and much of the work of TheTorah.com, is an attempt by dissident Orthodox rabbis and professors to reconcile the findings of modern biblical scholarship with traditional Jewish belief.

This project is not new, but it has bedeviled American Jewry in different ways. Within liberal denominations, while some intellectuals and theologians have grappled with the questions posed by the field of biblical criticism—which sees the Torah as a man-made, composite work produced over time, rather than simply revealed to Moses by God at Sinai—the results have rarely filtered down to synagogue congregants and day-school pupils. Within Orthodoxy, meanwhile, the findings of academia have often met with outright rejection.

By launching TheTorah.com, Rabbi David Steinberg—a former outreach rabbi for the ultra-Orthodox organization Aish HaTorah—and Brandeis Bible professor Marc Brettler, also an Orthodox Jew, set out to challenge this state of affairs, provoking significant controversy within their own community.

A furor over a website might seem like a distinctly modern phenomenon. But in fact this dispute over the Bible is only the latest incarnation of a very old debate—one that traces back centuries in Jewish thought and goes to the heart of Jewish self-definition and belief.

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“The eighth fundamental principle [of faith] is that the Torah came from God,” wrote Maimonides over 800 years ago in his classic exposition of the 13 tenets of Jewish belief. “We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our teacher entirely from God.” In the next principle, he elaborated: “The ninth fundamental principle is the authenticity of the Torah, i.e., that this Torah was precisely transcribed from God and no one else.”

Few thinkers match Maimonides’ intellectual stature in Jewish tradition, and his principles of faith are generally considered canonical. But commentators long recognized numerous difficulties in the text of the Torah and parted ways from Maimonides in attempting to explain them. For instance, the Talmud itself records a dispute over whether Moses actually wrote the final verses of the Torah, which describe his death, or whether his successor Joshua did—and some biblical commentators side with the latter approach. Abraham ibn Ezra, the distinguished 12th-century biblical exegete, went further and argued that several Torah verses beyond the last ones had to be post-Mosaic additions. Because these verses seemed to be written from the vantage point of someone living long after the events they describe, ibn Ezra reasoned, they must have been added by a later prophet.

Even more radically, Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid, the leading 13th-century German-Jewish pietist, claimed that entire passages in the Pentateuch had been inserted by subsequent authors. The suggestion was so scandalous that some declared those portions of he-Hasid’s writings to be heretical forgeries. The controversy highlighted a tension between two exegetical impulses: the desire to preserve the Maimonidean notion of revelation, and the drive to explain the Torah’s textual anomalies.

Other conundrums also puzzled traditional commentators. For example, Genesis opens with two ostensibly conflicting stories of the world’s creation and then seems to offer two entangled accounts of Noah’s flood. The book of Deuteronomy retells the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness but often departs from the earlier biblical narrative. Cognizant of these and other problems, the midrash and medieval interpreters worked to resolve them within the traditional framework of unified Mosaic authorship, with only occasional deviations like those above.

But in the 19th-century German academy, these ancient questions got some startling new answers. Building off earlier work by Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and more recent contemporaries, Protestant scholars like Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen offered a radical reimagining of the origins of the Pentateuch. In their account, the reason the Torah seemed to contain retrospective insertions, internal contradictions, and duplicate narratives of key stories and laws was that it was the product of multiple authors over time. Rather than the record of a single revelation at Sinai, the five books of Moses, they asserted, were written long after their namesake’s lifetime—if, indeed, such an individual had even existed—and later woven into a whole from disparate documents.

The response from Jewish scholars to this “higher criticism” was largely rejectionist. “We believe that the whole Bible is true, holy, and of divine origin,” wrote Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, a leading Orthodox academic and head of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, in 1905. “We must not presume to set ourselves up as critics of the author of a biblical text or doubt the truth of his statements or question the correctness of his teaching.” To buttress his argument, Hoffmann penned a two-volume refutation of the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis drawing on his vast secular and religious learning, as well as an entire biblical commentary significantly devoted to demonstrating the unitary nature of the Torah.

While some Reform thinkers like Abraham Geiger and Leopold Zunz accepted the conclusions of the German academy, leading forerunners of Conservative Judaism like Zechariah Frankel did not. Thus, Louis Ginzberg, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s premier Talmudist, wrote glowingly of Hoffmann’s critique of German biblical scholarship. “Hoffmann was prepared to receive and welcome the fullest light of the new learning,” Ginzberg recounted in his 1928 memoir, “but he refused to be dragged at the wheels of those who would make of the work of God a book partly myth, partly dishonest legend, deliberate fabrications, containing history which is not history, and a code of laws made a thousand years after the time of Moses.”

Most famously, Solomon Schechter, the founding father of Conservative Judaism in America, delivered an impassioned 1903 address titled “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism.” He did not mince words. “The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future,” he declared. “Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess … we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world?”

Schechter had a point about prejudice. Many German critics were not disinterested academics, seeking a purely historical reconstruction of Jewish history and its central text. On the contrary, the biblical scholarship of Hoffmann and Schechter’s day was shot through with anti-Semitic conceptions of Jews and Judaism. Ancient Israelites were often portrayed as illiterate, legalistic, and backward, in pointed contrast to enlightened Christians. The “Old Testament” was viewed as a necessary but outmoded precursor to Christianity at best, and as a primitive artifact to be scorned and discarded at worst. As Schechter observed, by denigrating the Jewish past, such scholarship served to justify the denigration of Jews in the present. (Tellingly, scholars have found affinities between this scholarship and later Nazi biblical exegesis.)

Much of the Jewish scholarly elite rallied around Hoffmann and Schechter, rejecting the claims of the German academy. But over time, the Bible critics corrected their theories in response to Hoffmann’s critique of their substance and Schechter’s critique of their ideological underpinnings. Slowly but surely, over the course of decades, Jews themselves entered the field and began shaping it on their own. The question then became: How should modern Judaism respond to this fundamental reconception of its origin story?

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For most Orthodox Jews, the answer was clear: Higher biblical criticism remained high heresy. The notion that the Bible was not the direct word of God to Moses at Sinai contradicted centuries of Jewish self-understanding. “Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship would represent a complete departure from traditional Jewish thought,” wrote Ben Elton, a visiting scholar at New York University, in response to Farber’s manifesto at TheTorah.com. “It means rejecting the attitude towards the Torah held by every Jew until Spinoza and every traditional Jew since.” Judaism, in this construction, is like a wall—attempting to replace the crucial bricks at its base risks toppling the entire edifice that has been built upon it by generations of biblical commentators, Talmudists, and halakhists. After all, if the Torah did not actually come directly from God, why would its precepts be binding?

For this reason, much of modern biblical scholarship is not taught in Orthodox institutions. Though textual criticism and comparative ancient Near Eastern history are sometimes incorporated into the Bible curriculum, higher criticism remains verboten. “It’s been a closed book,” said Shalom Holtz, an associate professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. Thus, while modern theories of biblical authorship are sometimes covered in coursework, classes are taught under the assumption that the Torah’s text is a unified whole. And when rare engagement with higher criticism does take place, it is typically in the form of learned refutation or selective accommodation.

But not all Orthodox scholars have accepted this stance. A persistent group of distinguished dissidents has sought to reconcile a more naturalistic account of revelation with traditional Jewish theology. Some, like Italian rabbi and Hebrew University professor Umberto Cassuto and Israel Prize-winner David Weiss HaLivni, rejected certain conclusions of the academy and formulated alternative notions of the Torah’s historical origins. Chaim Tchernowitz, a noted Russian-born rabbi and Talmud professor, confided to Mordechai Kaplan that he “denies … any belief in Torah min ha-shamayim [the traditional divine origin of the Torah].” More recently, feminist scholar Tamar Ross has posited her own theory of “unfolding revelation.” Likewise, two of Harvard’s foremost biblical scholars of the past decades, James Kugel and Jon Levenson, are also Orthodox Jews. In many ways, TheTorah.com is the outgrowth of this particular Orthodox counterculture.

Among non-Orthodox denominations, on the other hand, the conventional wisdom is that the findings of higher criticism have already been accepted and incorporated into movement theology. And indeed, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and various pluralistic schools all train their aspiring rabbis in the rudiments of modern biblical scholarship. But this is not the entire story.

While some intellectuals and theologians have written on these topics, their complex academic tracts have not filtered down to the laity. “It’s an unfortunate cop-out,” said Rabbi Ron Stern of the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, who teaches homiletics at Hebrew Union College. “We’re creating a very strange discordance, in that when we teach our rabbinical students in the Conservative and Reform seminaries, and other progressive seminaries, we certainly teach them the latest trends in biblical scholarship. But for some reason, the connection that’s not made is how to use those insights to create meaningful and inspirational takes on the Torah.” While the Reform movement’s chumash, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, incorporates the insights of higher criticism, its rabbis seldom do. “Rabbis believe they have to live in this bifurcated worldview,” Stern continued, “where when we’re on the bimah, we present a traditional interpretation of the text, and while we’re in our classrooms, we learn a contemporary perspective on the text.”

Such sidestepping of scholarship has left many non-Orthodox Jews unprepared for its findings, as Rabbi David Wolpe discovered on Passover in 2001. Wolpe is ranked as America’s most popular rabbi by Newsweek, but when he told his Conservative congregation that modern scholarship cast doubt on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt, it proved to be one of his most unpopular sermons. Though many congregants supported their rabbi, others were disturbed by his words. Dr. Laura Schlessinger condemned the sermon on her nationally syndicated radio show, and Wolpe’s Sinai Temple had to set up an extra phone line to deal with the response. As one columnist put it at the time, the incident revealed that “the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform movements must do a better job of explaining themselves, even to some of their members.”

“We suffer from a theological deficit,” Wolpe told me. “People may in every intellectual category have advanced since they were 10 years old, but nobody has given them a grown-up theological approach.” In other words, despite the conclusions of its own scholars, the Conservative movement has yet to exorcise what renowned biblical scholar Nahum Sarna called “Schechter’s Ghost.” Recognizing this problem, Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of JTS from 1986 to 2006, took the extraordinary step of condemning his movement’s own chumash, Etz Hayim, for its “ambivalence toward critical scholarship” in his valedictory address.

***

Into this vacuum stepped an unlikely group of mostly Orthodox scholars—headed by a Haredi rabbi and a Brandeis Bible professor—who launched TheTorah.com. With it, Steinberg and Brettler hoped to fill the void left by rejectionist traditionalists and agnostic modernists and offer popular approaches to reconciling biblical scholarship and Jewish belief.

“I would really love it if Jewish education became more tolerant,” Brettler told me, “and did not incorrectly say from an intellectual perspective that all of Jewish observance and being Jewish in a fundamental way depends on traditional views of the Bible.” Toward this end, the site posts divrei Torah that use modern scholarship to illuminate the weekly Torah portion. It offers nine approaches for reconciling higher criticism with traditional faith. And it publishes confessionals from religious Bible scholars about their own journeys. In addition, the site covers other areas of modern scholarship beyond biblical authorship, though that is clearly its central concern.

Steinberg is an improbable impresario for the effort. A British ultra-Orthodox rabbi educated at Manchester Yeshiva, Steinberg came to modern biblical scholarship on his own, after he grew dissatisfied with traditional solutions to its problems. At first, he went knocking on the doors of scholars and rabbis around the world, seeking answers. He found many unable or unwilling to address the questions—and not just in his own Orthodox community. “People think, ‘Oh, Reform and Conservative, they are open to it, they have no problems with it’—and it’s just not the case,” he said.

This lack of a broad-based popular effort to confront the findings of academia led to the formation of TheTorah.com. “Many other people who are Orthodox—who have studied the Bible closely and want to remain strong committed Jews—have discovered the same problems and need a resource to help them negotiate the issue,” said Brettler. “I would have loved it and [Steinberg] would have loved it if somebody else or a different Jewish community would have taken this up as an issue. They did not.”

Rabbis and educators are split on the prospects of the initiative. Unsurprisingly, many Orthodox intellectuals have rebutted the claims made by Steinberg, Brettler, and their collaborators, deeming them beyond the pale of tradition. Some have disagreed with their contentions but argued for the inclusion of their perspective within Orthodox thought. Others have been receptive and called for further discussion.

Some who are sympathetic to the site’s cause wonder if its popular approach might backfire. “What they may discover is that in an attempt to answer the arguments, they’re going to create more skeptics than they will answer,” said Wolpe.

Brettler is more optimistic. Having led adult-education classes in Boston for years on these topics, he’s found the material can often prove spiritually affirming. “After hearing me teach the Bible critically, more and more of those people go to shul more regularly, study Torah regularly, get there in time for the Torah reading, simply because they have the background to understand it in a way that they can relate to,” he said. “The notion that this is harmful to Jewish identity and observance may be true for some individuals but I think is not true as a generalization.”

Ultimately, said Holtz, no matter where one comes down on the question of the Torah’s origins, modern biblical scholarship is not going away and needs to be reckoned with by contemporary Jews—even if solutions to the problems it raises sometimes remain elusive. Holtz is no stranger to balancing the commitments of faith and scholarship, having studied Bible at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania before taking up his post at Yeshiva University. “I’m rather confident in people that they can live with questions,” he said. “That’s a big step for many people. But I think that, in my case at least, in my own personal experience, you live with the questions, and the question is there.”

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Reconciling Modern Biblical Scholarship With Traditional Orthodox Belief

Who wrote the Torah? An unlikely group of Orthodox scholars has launched a website that gets to the heart of Jewish tenets.