On Wings of Camels

So, how long till the heresy-hunters come for my rebbe?

The controversy over Open Orthodoxy; its flagship institution, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; and its most controversial graduate, Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber has not yielded much in the arena of Jewish law. Opponents to its right continue to push OO out of the observant community, but the halakhic arguments always seem to fall short. That’s why the strategy of hashkafic (philosophical) attack has been embraced. Forget orthopraxy, the correct practice; it’s called orthodoxy, right thinking! (You know, by 19th-century Germans, the arbiters of all things Jewish.)

The play goes like this:

  1. Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles are universally and axiomatically accepted. There is no need to prove this, because, y’know, axiomatic. (But the text most people refer to is a poem written three centuries laterSHH!)
  2. Anyone who challenges one of these principles in any way is, by definition, a heretic and to be banished from the observant community. There is no need to prove this, because, y’know, by definition. (But many medieval authorities, including Maimonides himselfSHA!)
  3. Any institution whose graduates or movement whose adherents express such challenges without being immediately defrocked and disowned by said body is therefore itself heretical. There is no need to prove this, because, y’ know, therefore. (But every yeshiva has had graduates who–ZAY SHTIL!)

You might think that my rebbe, HaRav Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, who passed away less than ten months ago, would be safe from such accusations, but consider what was published 15 years ago by one of his foremost students, Rav Haim Navon:

According to the position presented here, there is no conflict between Torah and science, for the Torah does not pretend to provide us with scientific information. This position is relevant not only to the apparent contradictions between the Torah and the natural sciences, but also to the contradictions between the plain sense of Scripture and our knowledge of history, in the spirit of what Chazal said: “Iyyov never existed and had never been created.” Much ink has been spilled over the camels that are mentioned in Scripture. The book of Bereshit describes our patriarchs riding camels. Scholars and Rabbis have been arguing for decades whether or not camels had already been domesticated in the patriarchal period. According to the position presented here, the question is totally irrelevant. Perhaps the patriarchs never really rode on camels, but on donkeys or on oxen or on winged horses, or perhaps they traveled on foot. Who cares? God, for various reasons connected to the Torah’s influence upon the generation in which it had been given and upon later generations, preferred to write that the patriarchs rode on camels. Within Scripture’s internal historical system, this is not an anachronistic failing. The comparison with real history is out of place, for we are talking about two entirely different systems, which do not presume to parallel each other.

That’s the English version of the article which he published in the Summer 2001 edition of Alon Shevut (159).
Now consider this line from the Hebrew original:

It is clear that we, as believing Jews, must stake out some boundaries for this position. As servants of God, our faith demands that we believe in certain historical events. The most minimalistic definition would include the Convocation at Mt. Sinai, which is a concrete historical event, without which our bedrock faith in Torah from heaven has no standing. But aside from a few critical junctures such as this, there is no great significance to the question of historical details in Scripture. This approach has tremendously significant ramifications for the study of Scripture.

Rav Navon was not banned, banished or excommunicated. He co-edited many of Rav Aharon’s books. He remains one of Yeshivat Har Etzion’s most prominent graduates and continues to teach there. Yes, there was a furor in the yeshiva when it was published; Rav Yaakov Medan wrote a fiery response. But that was the end of it.

What got everyone mad at Rabbi Dr. Farber was saying “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s” in a passage entitled “Avraham Avinu Is My Father,” which they attack because it undermines “a letter in the Torah.” So what’s the difference? Believing the camels are folkloristic, not the the people? Even if Rabbi Navon were saying that, it would not resolve their objections–that is, assuming they are principled objections.

So what is the distinction here? Hate the camel, not the rider? Because if we apply the YCT/ OO standard as conceived by so many of its critics, I know who’s next.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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