It’s that time of year again, the conclusion of our high holidays, when we celebrate the beginning of the new cycle of the reading of the Torah. It is the same Torah we received at Sinai. It is also during this time of year, that I go back and recall an incident that challenged me to contend with this sacred tradition.
It took place several years ago, when I registered for a course in Jewish History at the JTS. I expected it to follow along the milestones of our long history, about which I wanted to learn in greater depth. I am a Modern Orthodox Jew, yet I’ve enjoyed many events at the JTS campus, and I always appreciated its rich history; thus, I didn’t expect to face the depth of controversy with which I’d have to contend during our weekly meetings.
Let me first clarify, as I’d expected, the teachers were competent and the classes interesting, but from the very beginning our instructors made it clear that they’d be following the doctrine that the Torah was not a divine document, which became an underlying theme throughout the course.
Don’t get me wrong, I was familiar with the JEDP theory that ascribes the different books of the Pentateuch to different authors, claiming a redactor to have assembled them all into what we now call the Five Books of Moses. What did surprise me, however, was the passion with which this theory was used in class and around which all instructions were based.
Richard Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible? highlights the Documentary Hypothesis, the leading theory among scholars in the field of Biblical Criticism, which argues that the Torah was edited and redacted somewhere during the 4-5th century BCE, most likely by Ezrah, during the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile.
The Documentary Hypothesis originated sometime around the mid-18th century, where the critical study of doublets (parallel accounts of the same incident), and changes in style and vocabulary of the Biblical stories, gave rise to the belief that there must have been more than one author. Not surprisingly, and despite it having been started initially by Spinoza, a Jew who was excommunicated by his own people, it was subsequently used as part of an anti-Semitic dogma. Yet, it is surprising to discover how many Jews have subscribed to this doctrine along the way, and more importantly, how the JTS has used it to reform Jewish Halacha to suit its theology.
To argue the case against their claims of Biblical critics will take a while, but we can easily debunk many of the claims. After all, the Bible is not a history book, and the use of doublets and different syntax comes to give us different messages. Just as parents give instructions to their children, and repeat them often, sometime in anger and sometimes in joy, so too the Bible mentions different events in different contexts to deliver different messages. It’s that simple. The fact that one would choose to ignore this as a legitimate interpretation, is troubling.
More troubling is that rarely has any Orthodox Jewish authority been willing to debate this topic, for fear of lending it legitimacy, and thereby, allowing it to be the only game in town. As such, some form of explanation needs to be prepared as a valuable educational strategy.
An excellent starting point in discussing the different approaches of Orthodoxy to Biblical criticism are the publications of Rav Dr. Mordechai Breuer, Rav Hoffman and Rav Hirsch. They are classic examples of approaches of the boundaries that should be used when studying Chumash, while remaining faithful to the doctrine of Torah Min Hashamayim – the Divinity of the Torah.
My personal preference is to look at it less academically, which brought me to David Klinghoffer’s book, ‘The Discovery of God,’ where he writes, “The Bible had to be divine, for if it was not, what would ever be?” By itself this may not be a finite argument, but in understanding the gravity of the matter, this proverbial angle helps us to see the idea of Gd and the Bible, less as a question and more as a quest. Otherwise, we leave it in the hands of experts in philology, history, ancient religions, archeology, artifacts, etc., when, in fact, the Torah is greater than the sum total of its parts.
In the scientific and academic worlds, research is always constructed around a concept of isolating parts of the universe in order to focus on each of their unique and individual parts; hence, the disconnect between the creationists, the scholars, and everybody in between. One of the major acts of limiting legitimate Biblical research is in separating the Bible text from the oral tradition. However, despite their insistence against it, the Bible is inseparable from the oral tradition in the same way a movie cannot go without a soundtrack.
Notwithstanding my respect to their commitment to Judaism, in listening to these teachers and in following their claims of our prejudice, I found them to, perhaps inadvertently, have prejudices of their own, which we encounter only when we begin to confront their dogma head-on.
When I read the text, in the Biblical Hebrew which many Jews and I have grown to appreciate, I have no doubt as to the Torah’s divine origins. I am further supported by the fact that Jews have never been without their Torah, and that there has never been a force on earth that could have separated us from its text just to confuse us with what is real and what is not. More importantly, the Torah doesn’t favor anybody, thus it is unlikely for it to have been written by either the priests, when they could not own property, by the Kings, when they too were limited by the Torah’s edicts, or by the prophets, who were hated and often persecuted.
Lastly, as we read at the beginning of Pirkey-Avot – Ethics of our Fathers – “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and he gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders gave it to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly,” and so on, down to my grandfather – the Alter Adler, a gabai of a shul in Chernovitz and he gave it to my father who, despite being a socialist, passed it on to down to me. I know that none of these men in this long chain of dedicated Jews, have ever lived disconnected from the Torah, nor would they ever mislead me, thus I am still a believer. On this Simchat Torah I rejoice in dancing with our sacred Torah, and I will in turn pass it on down to my sons and so the chain continues…
Sources for this topic can be found on the Lookstein Center of Jewish Education.