Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism

This is part two of my reactions to the internet discussions about Dr Zev Farber’s essay “Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism” on thetorah.com. In the first part, I tried to lay out how I view the topic of what is Orthodoxy and what is an Orthodoxy Jew, just to set the scene.

Very quick summary review:

  1. I personally believe that we in practice use the standards of Ani Maamin or Yigdal to decide which beliefs could remove a Jew’s good standing.
  2. I am willing for the sake of this discussion (which would otherwise be quite short) also consider a more loose definition, and ask who is a shomer Shabbos. The term is an idiom for a reason. Meaning, rather than looking at the beliefs as a law in themselves, we will require those beliefs that justify living according to halakhah (including Shabbos in particular).
  3. There is a gap between judging beliefs and judging the people that have them. There could be more to being a heretic than believing in heresy, there is the element of why they believe and culpability. We really didn’t have the material to answer the question, and pragmatically answers differ between contemporary posqim anyway. But it’s important to know the question is there.

So, here we are not discussing the status of Dr Zev Farber, but the status of his beliefs. I still think it’s self evident that if we find his beliefs problematic, we as a community need to say so, and not give him a forum to teach them. Therefore, I am more uncomfortable with the subsequent statements from key people in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, who are keeping him in his post, then with Dr Farber himself. (Although you’ll note I’m uncomfortable using the titles “rabbi” or “dayan” to refer to him.)

Besides, anyone who can’t help quoting Zaphod Breeblebox the Zeroth (a character in the British satire Science Fiction book series The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy) in the middle of a serious paper spelling out some of his most cherished beliefs sounds like someone whose company I would really enjoy.

I – Key Quotes

But now, I want to address Farber’s specific claims. He writes:

To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form theTorat Hashem! (God’s Torah).


Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.

I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud…


Given the data to which modern historians have access, 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. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century).

So he accepts the theories of Bible Criticism and schools of Biblical Archeology as having shown that the Torah’s traditional foundation is mythical. So how does Dr Farber maintain his own relationship to the Torah and halakhah?

In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. …

The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, certainly function this way….

The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way.

To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form the Torat Hashem!  (God’s Torah).

In this installment I hope to discuss the question: Can this edifice actually stand or is it self-contradictory?

II – Does it Work?

Dr. Farber lists a number of examples of the kinds of things that make up a compelling argument for concluding the Torah was redacted together from multiple documents by different authors. As these are only illustrative examples, I won’t address each one. The point isn’t the examples, but the kind of thought they demonstrate. Since our focus here is whether his philosophy does indeed support halakhah, I will take his first example of alleged “Contradictions in Law”: “Do slaves go free on the seventh year (Exod. 21:1-6, Deut. 15:12-18), or do they go free in the Jubilee (50th) year (Lev. 25:39-55)?”

Chazal, of course, note the same contradiction. We can be sure that Farber is aware of the Yerushalmi Qiddushin 6b (probably directly if not via the Rambam) which says that a Jewish slave is freed at shemittah, if they sold themselves or if court sold them (e.g. to repay a debt incurred stealing an item) and they wish to leave. If someone sold by court chooses not to, they go through an ear piecing ceremony (mentioned in the quoted portion of Shemos) and remain slaves until no later than yovel. And this is as the Rambam codifies it as well (Avadim ch. 3).

In general, Bible Criticism is based on different assumptions about the nature of the text than Jewish Tradition does. We believe that the Torah, and Tanakh in general, describes events that were not typical. In fact, that the events themselves were as much part of how Hashem “wrote” His message to mankind as the books. We believe that the written Torah is Cliff Notes to a fuller body of wisdom, “merely” the seed to a Tree of Life planted among us, a process we were given and instructed how to work.  So, yes, Hashem orchestrated similar but different events, wanted Yaaqov to have 7 children in 12 years, tells the same story in different ways or calls the same person by different names, and presented the term limits of a Jewish slave in terms that engender halachic discourse.

If someone believes that Hashem planned the Oral Torah and halachic process as part of His Intent when He composed the text, there is no question for the Bible Critic to address. That is not to dismiss the need to understand the peshat, the plain meaning of the verse. But there is no “why?”, we know the Author’s motivation to at times make that peshat less than obvious — there are other layers that we can only find through those indicators. They are not imperfections to be attributed to a human element in authorship or inconsistencies to be attributed to redaction.

There is something paradoxical about Farber’s belief in a text that evolved from the voices of prophets into Hashem’s word. If you accept it’s Hashem’s Word, and that Word is of the sort that supports Jewish Tradition and the halachic process, there is no longer motivation to speak of multiple “voices of prophets”.

Underlying the whole exercise was the presumption that Oral Torah and halakhah are an afterthought, and not part of the original texts. Thus Chazal’s answers come across as weak apologetics, rather than reflecting the true body of the full corpus of the Torah in which the Oral and Written are a single entity. And I do not believe that traditional Shabbos observance can stand on that foundation.

(In contrast, Chazal teach that the Oral Torah actually was given first!  The ideas of the Torah were given at Mt Sinai, but the text was given either piecemeal over the next 40 years, or all at once at the end of Moshe’s life.)

And I could have taken a short-cut and noted that Dr Farber also realized that the halachic process would not stand unchanged. To resume my first quote from his essay:

In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.

The Jewish community already tried that experiment, combining bible criticism and historical and sociological analysis of halakhah to justify a different legal process, one which balances Tradition and Change. It’s simply not Orthodox halakhah. (And in fact that system devolved to the point where Conservative observance of kashrus full-time is at 3% and the movement’s leadership has been working on pulling out of a nosedive for the past decade. Which is not a good thing, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

Dr Farber’s belief system stands up neither to the Ani Maamin test nor the Shomer Shabbos one.

And last, is there serious reason for others to feel the challenges posed by Biblical Criticism and Archeology are insurmountable, such that the Torah needs to be understood in a new light? Are those of us who insist on maintaining classical Orthodox beliefs intentionally blinding ourselves to the truth? Stay tuned for part 3!

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  1. The fundamental problem that Rabbi Farber has, along with the YCT crew, is where he places secular liberal ethics and where he places Torah ethics.
    For a believing Jew Torah ethics come first. If secular liberalism comes up with something good we can look at it, maybe even adopt it (like cutlery and napkins) but it is always secular liberalism in the service of Torah. A contradiction between the two must be resolved in favour of Torah.
    For YCT it seems to be the opposite. I don’t doubt for a moment that Rabbi Farber keeps perfectly kosher and is shemiras Shabbos. After all, there is no reason from a secular libeal perspective not to. But when there’s conflict: Torah MinHaShamayim, women’s roles in Judaism, homosexuality, etc. then he defaults to the secular liberal perspective. Orthodoxy in that case starts holding him back. He would like to make homosexual marriage legal, for example, but halacha forbids him from it. But since he views Torah ethics from a secularl liberal perspective the Torah must be wrong. But how can the Torah be wrong if it’s the word of God?
    Ah, now he’s reached the same conclusion the Conservatives did decades ago. It’s a man-made document reflective of the general ethics of its day. Therefore to truly observe Torah we have to ditch the whole “Eternal word of God” idea and remake halacha to reflect the secular ethics of our day. So the Documentary Hypothesis has to be the truth for him or he is placed in a situation where he has to choose openly between being Orthodox or a good liberal.

  2. O G says:

    After I wrote a few paragraphs, I realized I want to preface my remarks by saying that I actually really want to hear and understand your opinion about my comments – I am not writing this to make a point or try to convince you of anything.

    You wrote:
    “I personally believe that we in practice use the standards of Ani Maamin or Yigdal to decide which beliefs could remove a Jew’s good standing.”

    Ani Maamin seems to be poorly formulated, especially the eighth principle. It’s really self-contradictory: If the “entire Torah that is *now* in our hands” is the exact same Torah that Moshe Rabbeinu gave us, then just about every sefer Torah in possession of the Rishonim and Chazal was *not*, since we find many different girsa’os. And conversely, those generations would have been obligated by Ani Maamin to believe that no – only *their* sifrei Torah were authentic, and ours are not. Otherwise, they would have been heretics, according to the wording of the Ani Maamin. This is especially brought into sharp relief when you believe the Ani Maamin is halacha pesukah, and then you come across the Gilyon haShas that lists 22 or more examples where our girsa in Tanakh (including verses in Chumash) differs from that of the Gemara or Rishonim.

    I think the nail in the coffin of Ani Maamin’s eighth principle is the gemara that talks about the 3 sifrei Torah that were found in the azara. When the chachomim went “basar rov” – the end product sefer Torah was not like *any* of the three that were found. And we’re talking about whole words, not just chaser and malei.

    My next question is: logically, when talking about historical facts – they either happened, or they didn’t. That is why, for example, I am confounded by the Rabbeinu Chananel (and one of the acharonim’s peirushim on Eyn Yaakov – I forget which) “paskening” like the opinion that the Torah was given in Ksav Ashuris and then it was forgotten later, as opposed to the opinion that Ezra was mechadesh it (al pi ruach hakodesh, let’s say). Well, either the Torah was or was not given in Ksav Ivri or Ksav Ashuris. Paskening won’t help change the past – that’s a logical impossibility. What if I decide – as did the Sefer haIkkarim – that the best evidence points to Ksav Ivri being the original?

    Now I return to the eighth principle. What if (and this is completely hypothetical) I decide that I am so totally convinced of the truth of the Ibn Ezra’s “sod ha-shneim asar” that I cannot ignore it, and I really really believe that it’s most likely that Yehoshua wrote those pesukim? Would the contemporary expression of halacha pasken me out of klal Yisroel? What about the Ibn Ezra? Also, it was historically one way or another, right?

    What about the Abarbanel, who wrote that some parts of the Torah are Moshe’s words via ruach hakodesh (which has a basis in a gemara), which seems to violate the Rambam’s maxim that all words of the Torah have equal status of mipi hagevurah? Now, treading onto even more dangerous ground, what if I *entertain the possibility* that R’ Yehuda haChassid is right, and the Hallel ha-Gadol was originally written in the Torah and then removed by David haMelech? Is that “machsheves apikorsus”? True, it doesn’t really make sense to “decide” that these possibilities have to be true as opposed to the formulation of the Rambam, but apikorsus is assur to even consider as possibly being true.

    Personally, I find the Ikkarim’s criteria for heresy much more attractive. A talmid chochom who, through honest analysis and trying to get to the emes, errs and believes something that is apikorsus, it doesn’t give him the status of an apikores. After all, he is not rebelling against Hashem or the Torah, which would seem to be the real crime of the heretic.

    I do understand the position that for chinuch and purposes of public discussion, fealty to the 13 ikkarim should be maintained. That seems to be the intent of the Ohr HaChaim haKadosh’s criticism of the Ibn Ezra, where he writes (IIRC) that even though the Ibn Ezra based his comment on the gemara that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 pesukim, “yishtaqa` ha-davar” – meaning – don’t talk about it. Let’s not write about or discuss this opinion, because it can lead to meenus.

    • micha says:

      You write, “Ani Maamin seems to be poorly formulated”. I would have said the poet made some choices that lose precision in order to fit his intended poetic structure. But in any case, when I said “Ani Maamin or Yigdal” I was trying not to tie us down to any one text. Rather, I was trying to say that we appear to hold lehalakhah that a convert candidate or someone handling my wine must believe in something in the basic territory of those iqarim; not defining what the iqarim are precisely. So, saying that Yehoshua wrote 8 or even 12 pesuqim (if that’s what you think the IE meant) or even added in other snippets later wouldn’t really change things. The iqar is about the system of thought; changes that don’t impact the system of thought aren’t included. But I should note that I translated the Meshekh Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61, who takes a different approach. The MC suggests that the seifer Torah is a larger text than the Torah, that the last 8 pesuqim are tacked on beyond the Torah itself to teach something about tradition, continuity, and the importance of teaching what you learn. Not to address this question, to deal with the grammar of the pasuq under discussion and the lesson about teaching. But along the way he says the whole machloqes about who wrote those pesuqim is bedavqa because this is an appendix to the Torah, not Torah itself. See there, or at least my blog post translating that part of the MC.

      The Iqarim’s definition of heresy differs from the Rambam’s only in his not requiring belief in the messiah. He does require techiyas hameisim though. Perhaps as a nad to Rav Hillel, I don’t know. Rav Albo’s language differs, and that throws people off. To him, an iqar is a postulate, but there are also mandatory shorashim. Add up the iqarim and shorashim, and 12 out of the 13 are covered. The R Yosef Albo would have as much problem with that line from R’ Yehudah haChasid as the Rambam would.

      I didn’t find the distinction between heretic and others who come upon heresy honestly in the Iqarim. I did see it in the Radbaz. The Rambam is nearly unique in the Jewish world in tying personal redemption to knowledge. This is a big part of why his critics considered him overly Hellenized. See R’ Hirsch’s 19 Letters, Letter 18. If you follow the Rambam, hen the reason why one doesn’t know the right things isn’t as relevant; someone who doesn’t know G-d can’t participate in His Eternity — no olam. But for the mainstream, the Radvaz’s distinction makes sense, life is all about relationships, middos and ethics and so being a kofeir is about rebellion more than the content of belief. But still, the iqarim themselves would still define heresy, even if a person getting the label “heretic” has to meet more criteria in addition. A kofeir is a rebel, but the iqarim define how far one must rebel to so qualify.

      And yes, I think I can’t drink the uncooked wine of someone who rebels against the Judaism he was taught in school by taking a position outside the iqarim even if it was once the opinion of someone we respect.

      Last, the 8th and 9th iqarim are about the ideas of the Torah. It includes Oral Torah being a continuous (albeit growing) system of thought from Sinai to today. See the Rambam’s list of examples: It’s not about changes in spelling that don’t impact meaning.

      • O G says:

        “I didn’t find the distinction between heretic and others who come upon heresy honestly in the Iqarim.”

        Unless I’m misunderstanding it, it’s laid down unambiguously in Iqarim 1:2 (sorry for the poor formatting):

        או הטהו העיון להכחיש העקר ההוא להיותו
        חושב שאיננו דעת ברי תכריח התורה להאמינו

        אין זה כופר , אבל הוא בכלל חכמי ישראל וחסידיהם אעפ״י שהוא טועה בעיונו
        ( http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=34496&st=&pgnum=18 ayyen sham )

        “And yes, I think I can’t drink the uncooked wine of someone who rebels against the Judaism he was taught in school by taking a position outside the iqarim even if it was once the opinion of someone we respect.”
        By “the iqarim” here I assume you mean the same thing as above, meaning, “something in the basic territory of those iqarim,” even if his version of them within the “basic area” is different than exactly what he was taught in school (not for the sake of rebelling, of course, but because he thinks he now knows more than his teachers did).

        “It’s not about changes in spelling that don’t impact meaning.”
        Perhaps again I am taking you too literally, but it seems like some of these changes would impact meaning, at least to a small degree. Like Dr. Leiman’s example where if I recall correctly, according to the LXX the vorlage of Dvarim 32:8 is “lemispar benei E-l” rather than “benei Yisrael”. Dr. Leiman seemed to indicate, on a publicly available lecture, that according to RDZ Hoffman it’s permissible to consider that this may have been the original girsa, as long as it is recognized that the halachic text may not be altered.

  3. O G says:

    My sin in writing the previous comment was that I had not yet read your next post, which does address some of my points. Still, if you have a minute, I wouldn’t mind a short response to some of my specific examples, since they are issues that kind of keep floating around in my head.

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