Orthodoxy salutes Darwin Day

If you were to come at the Torah simply as a literary work, what could you infer from the way it’s written? This isn’t a new question: it’s the basis of the 19th-century’s Documentary Hypothesis, now mostly discredited, which posited multiple origins for the holy writings, and various other scholarly efforts at explaining the Torah’s disunity.

It’s a new question, however, within Orthodoxy. For a century and a half, there was a presumption aganst engaging with any textual criticism that might challenge the usual (and faulty) reading of Maimonides’s eighth Principle of Faith—“I believe with perfect faith that the whole Torah, now in our possession, is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be unto him.”

But many Orthodox Jews now spend more time in the secular world than the Jewish world, and the secular principle—that of open, and open-ended, questioning—is starting to become irresistible.

“Torah-true” websites like hashkafah.com allow observant users to discuss issues that black-hat yeshivot would not tolerate, and Orthodox lecturers at feistier religious establishments are starting to put religious qualms to one side in order to examine issues still ring-fenced by others as heretical.

The reasons for this trend are clear. First, computer analysis has brought a new sophistication and range to biblical scholarship and reasoning: we know more and can access more. And second, we’re less cowed by authority: deference is no longer automatic. Even the Union of Traditional Judaism comments, “Intellectual honesty requires that we seriously consider new discoveries in any field of knowledge in our search for new meanings (chiddushim) in Torah.”

As a result, the double standard that once allowed the well informed to hide awkward facts from the innocent has been breached.

We now admit that Rambam’s eighth principle is untenable, even if we have pretended otherwise until recently. The Torah of Moses is not the Torah of Moses. The Jerusalem Talmud (in Taanit) says there were three different Torah scrolls kept in the Temple; different generations of rabbonim went on to conflate them right through to the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries. The Midrash Tanhuma cites cases of tikkun soferim, where the scribes of the Great Assembly corrected and revised the Bible—including the Torah—in apparent contravention of Rambam’s ninth principle about the Torah’s perfection and our not adding to it.

In addition, the Talmud’s Torah—which we no longer possess—was not our Torah, nor was Rashi’s. Nor was the Septuagint, which seems to have been based on the Dead Sea version used by the Essenes. The upshot is that we can now say openly that the divine Torah has, at the very least, been redacted by human agency, and redacted over a long period.

What stopped Orthodoxy saying this was not fear of the rabbonim but of Wellhausen, Gunkel and Noth—the Christian gurus of Higher Criticism. To be a critic might endanger Judaism—but here we still are, a century and a half later. Time to take the plunge, then.

Once we’ve accepted that our text has been worked on by human hands, we can start to ask further questions of it—notably, how it came to be the way it is now. This is essentially a question about textual evolution—literary Darwinism, in short—and the right way to approach it is by working backwards in time (which Higher Criticism did not do, positing instead an alternative ancient history with four original sources rather than one).

By contrast, rabbinic tradition explained away anomalies as signs of divine wisdom—coded messages, legible only to the pious. That work has now been done and we don’t need to keep repeating it. Orthodox scholars can now direct their speculative energies elsewhere, as indeed the illustrious Bible critic Abraham Ibn Ezra said we were free to do 900 years ago (as long as we nonetheless remained true to halacha) and as Rabbi Alan Yuter has argued we are obliged to do in our own time.

Ibn Ezra stated, gnomically, that the true nature of the Torah was apparent to anyone who recognised the significance of five of its anachronisms. Among these was the impossibility that Moses wrote all the Torah. The Gemarah—in Baba Batra 14b-15a and Makot 11a—relates that Joshua wrote the last eight verses of the Torah; Ibn Ezra, born about 50 years before Rambam, thought Joshua wrote the last 12.

This is common sense, and common sense says that if a Torah text looks anomalous, we should take it at face value and not wish the anomaly away. Our obligation is therefore to investigate by what human process anomalies might have occurred. We need to account for inconsistencies, unnecessary duplications, and misspellings. At last, Orthodox scholars are trying to do just that—not within the starker yeshivot, admittedly, but independently, and across the gender divide.

Beyond the halachic precedents for investigating the evolution of the Torah’s transcriptions, it is halachically right that we do so. To see the text as literally handed to us by God, as Michelangelo might have depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is essentially pagan and un-Jewish. Orthodoxy is finally waking up to this.

The motivation is obvious. It is perverse to have to harbour the idea that God couldn’t write as well as the best of our own flesh-and-blood authors and essayists, or that his prose was hampered by 2nd millennium BCE literary habits, or that he consciously made some parts of his text as dramatic as a filmscript and others as tedious as a balance sheet.

To see signs of human processing in the Torah text doesn’t damage our view of God, it brings clarity to our view of our ancestors. It makes us rethink what we attribute to divinity and what we attribute to human agency. It makes God look good, when insisting on literal divine authorship can have the opposite effect. Happy Darwin Day.

About the Author
Dr Stephen Games is a designer, edfitor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time currently editing various volumes of the Tenach.
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