Over the last month or so, there’s been a lot of discussion in the Jewish world about biblical criticism sparked, initially, by an article posted at TheTorah.com by Rabbi Zev Farber, in which he questions the authorship of the Torah. This led to accusations of heresy and calls from some quarters for the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and its sister rabbinic school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to be seen as beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. In response the IRF issued statements reaffirming their belief in the Divine authorship of the Torah.
This debate has a personal connection for me. I joined the IRF about 6 months ago and it came up as I was assessing whether or not to renew my membership. In the end, I have decided to remain a member. Here’s why.
There are many people who are not bothered by the questions modern science, current biblical criticism, and archaeological findings pose to our traditional understanding of many religious dogmas. This is either because they haven’t studied these issues, or because it is simply not in their nature to be interested these types of matters.
There have, however, always been people within our tradition who were drawn to deal with the challenges posed by the tensions between religion and other forms of intellectual pursuits. There is and always has been a tension between belief and rationality, just like there is always a tension between the ideal concept of the self, and the actual self. There are many people who care little for that tension. They don’t strive for self improvement — they are comfortable with where they’re at. Similarly, there are people who don’t strive for deeper and greater knowledge and understanding. These people are happy to accept without question and search no further.
Yet, I believe that it is in this tension that the manifestation of the Divine is especially intense.
We are currently in the month of Elul, when Jews believe it is proper to review the previous year and repent for misdeeds. It is impossible to repent if we are unable to sense the tension between the reality of who we have been and are, and the ideal of who and where we want to be. Jewish mystics have always seen this time of year, when we live in that tension, as representative of a special and more intense revelation of the Divine.
Clearly, in Judaism we believe that God is manifested in that space of tension. What attracted me to the IRF in the first place was the fact that amongst its membership, is a disproportionate amount of people who are living within that space of tension, as compared to any other group of rabbis I’ve ever been a part of. In this sense, from my perspective at least, the IRF is an especially holy group.
I admit that living in the tension is never perfect, and that it is often messy. Witness the sounds of the Shofar: they are made up of disparate notes put together in a number of different formulations. The sound of the Shofar represents the tension. The cry of wanting to become better, closer and more authentic. It is the expression of the imperfect yearning for something more complete. These sounds represent a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the desire for a more wholesome union with the Divine.
When you get a group of people together, many of whom are living in the tension between the ideal religious conceptualization of the Divine, and the realities of science, archaeology, history, textual criticism, and other forms of philosophical endeavor, the results will never be be a group that is uniform in its appearance or thinking. It will inevitably be diverse, and it might even seem unkempt to the outsider, but make no mistake about it, it is in that tension where Divinity can be found most.