Jonathan Muskat

Rabbi Breuer’s Response to Biblical Criticism: A Model for Human Behavior

As we begin yet another cycle of public Torah reading, we cannot help but be amazed by the multitude of seeming duplications and contradictions that we find in our holy Torah. Chapter one of Sefer Bereishit suggests that plants were created before man, whereas Chapter two suggests that man was created before vegetation.  Twice we are told that God decides to destroy mankind, twice God commands Noah to bring animals to the ark, and there is a seeming contradiction as to whether he was commanded to bring two of every species or two of every impure species.  There seems to be a contradiction in the text as to whether Terach led his family from Ur Kasdim to Canaan or whether Avraham led his family.  Are the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael from the River of Egypt to the Euprhrates or from Dan to Be’er Sheva?  Twice God tells Avraham that his wife will have a child shortly.  There are many contradictions between the text of the Ten Commandments as they are recorded in Parshat Yitro and as they are recorded in Parshat Va’Etchanan and, in fact, much of what is written in Sefer Devarim duplicates and at times contradicts what is written in earlier sefarim.  How do we understand all of these duplications and contradictions?

Some Biblical critics have hypothesized that multiple authors provided different accounts to Biblical events, and that someone then put all of these accounts together in what is called the Torah.  Perhaps the most famous hypothesis is Julius Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis, which asserted that four different Biblical accounts comprise the Torah.  Some traditional Jews attacked his particular hypothesis by finding various flaws in his logic.  For example, Rav David Zvi Hoffman, an orthodox Rabbi who lived in Germany in the 19th century and eventually headed the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, argued that the dating of the various sections of the Torah according to the Documentary Hypothesis must be incorrect.  After all, in Sefer Devarim, the Torah states that now that the Bnei Yisrael are about to enter Eretz Yisrael, slaughtered meat may be eaten for pleasure even if it is not offered as a sacrifice.  This verse implies that at some point beforehand the Torah forbade the consumption of meat unless it is offered as a sacrifice.  In fact, the Torah does state that prohibition in Sefer Vayikra, but according to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Sefer Vayikra was written after and not before Sefer Devarim, so, Rabbi Hoffman asserts that this hypothesis must be incorrect.

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, one of the world’s leading experts in Tanach who died about ten years ago, dealt with this question of Biblical contradictions and duplications in a different manner.   He accepted the conclusions of Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis – to a point.  He believed that the Torah does contain multiple and frequently contradictory texts, but that these texts were nevertheless Divinely authored and intended.  He asserts that the Torah intentionally and systematically provides multiple and even contradictory perspectives on how to view a Biblical story or mitzvah, because only by reading it according to multiple accounts can we appreciate the complex nature of that story or mitzvah.

According to Rabbi Breuer’s understanding, the existence of multiple accounts in the text illustrates for us the complex and nuanced nature of our holy Torah. But perhaps this rich literary tool is meant to teach us about more than just the content of the Torah text.  If God saw fit to write the Torah in this nuanced and multifaceted way, what does that tell us about how each of us should be approaching the stories in our own lives?  If in God’s book we read multiple perspectives of a singular event or a singular halachic construct, then certainly when we debate the issues of the day, we must recognize that there are multiple angles in analyzing those as well.  If God found room in His holiest text for multiple experiences and perspectives, mustn’t we find a way to do the same?

Let’s not be quick to shy away from things that confuse us, or call into question what we thought we knew.  Let’s find a way to tolerate and respect those who see things differently, and in that way, emulate the ways of God.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
Related Topics
Related Posts