What to believe?

Reflections on Ani Maamin, Joshua Berman’s new book on Orthodoxy and biblical criticism

Let me start with my bottom line, if you are not an expert on the claims of biblical criticism and are looking for a way to feel more confident about the rabbinic precept Torah M’Shamayim (Torah from Heaven), then I highly recommend Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman’s new book Ani Maamin (literally “I believe”) (Maggid, 2020).

Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith Hardcover – Maggid, 2020. (Koren Publishing)

It is no coincidence that Rabbi Berman (full disclosure, he is a neighbor and friend) dedicates this book to his gemara Rebbe through high school at Ramaz, in New York City. In his own words “challenging topics were never avoided and complexity was embraced.” Berman is not providing an easy prescription for how to solve the complicated matters of the divinity or the divine revelation of our Torah or of what is required of us to believe in order to be faithful Jews. Instead, he is offering academically rigorous alternatives to the many (young and old) that have questions and dilemmas or sense tension between belief on the one hand and academic study and scientific certainty on the other. If you will, he creates a healthy middle ground between what is, essentially a false choice: that you must either accept a specific academic narrative of the Torah’s origins, in which case you are a heretic, or you must accept a specific, fundamentalist account of the Torah’s origins, in which case you are a Jew of good standing.

It is my (somewhat Israeli) experience that in many of our religious educational institutions and in particular schools, there is little attention to the matters that Professor Berman approaches in this book. At the same time we are exposed to the academic world of bible scholarship via the internet, etc. The driving force for this work is an attempt not so much fill the vacuum left by Orthodox rabbis and educators, for the void is large, but to offer resources for the non-scholarly reader concerning questions of bible criticism. In the second part of the book, Berman charts how a series of dogmas have become (or not become) the defining yardstick for one’s inclusion within the mainstream Orthodox community.

I chose to read the book in reverse order, Part II first. I found of primary interest the intriguing idea that the Thirteen Principles of Faith of the Rambam (Maimonides) was not a universally accepted set of dogmas that defined who was or not counted within the Jewish fold, until the late nineteenth century. Berman fully accepts that mainstream Orthodox thought today attaches supreme importance to the principles as the defining feature of “proper” Jewish belief. What he lays bare is the definition of “acceptance” of those beliefs; how that has changed over time, and how our acceptance of the principles and our acceptance of halacha function according to different sets of rules.

The First Set of Principles

Until the time of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (just over one thousand years ago and several centuries following the finalisation of the Talmud) no rabbinic figure had laid down a series of prescriptive beliefs as the definitive list of fundamental tenets. As Berman reminds us, what is remarkable about this list is not that that Saadia Gaon compiled it, but “the very fact that he is the first major Jewish figure to compose such a list.” It seems that Jews managed quite well beforehand without it. Jews prior to the Gaonic period indeed held beliefs about God and the divinity of the Torah (indeed as mandated already by the Mishna). Strikingly, though, they did so with no word for “dogma.”  As per Berman, “The nouns employed to convey this idea – emunot, de’ot, yesodot, and ikkarim – are all post-talmudic.” Although Berman does not make the point, it may be that the Jewish creed receives formulation only once the transmission of the Oral Law itself became defined in written word. More explicitly, Berman says that Islam’s effective use of such lists of creed inspired Rabbi Saadiah Gaon to formulate his creed of Jewish beliefs. While Rabbi Saadia Gaon used the formulated creed as an educational tool, future versions would later be used as a litmus measure determining who would merit salvation and the World to Come, or, heaven forbid, would not.

The First Bible Critic

A second crucial development Berman traces, concerns the Jewish response to the vicious attack on the integrity of the Torah by an eleventh century Muslim theologian Ibn Hazm, in Islamic Spain. Some have referred to him as the father of modern biblical criticism, but by doing so they are making a very pejorative comment with respect to the field of bible scholarship. Ibn Hazm’s attack was as anti-Semitic as it was scholarly. Berman quotes the unflattering description of the Jews by Ibn Hazm from his treatise The Book on Opinions on Religions, Sects and Heresies. The Jews are “the foulest in their appearance, the ugliest in their faces, the most revolting in their general foulness, the most complete in their depravity…” In addition to his diatribes against Jews in general his primary claim is the Muslim doctrine of taḥrif: that the Torah was not a divine document, but a falsification.

This attack had a profound effect on Jewish thought. The true meaning of Torah M’Shamayim has been the subject of debate and a plurality of opinion (at least at the margins) within classical rabbinic sources. However, the wholesale questioning of the authenticity of the Torah necessitated a theological response, a need to bolster from within the dogma of the specific divinity of the Torah.

Photo credit: Yehoshua Derovan.

Berman more than suggests that this is the backdrop for the creation of the Rambam’s principles of faith as they pertain to prophecy and the origins of the Torah. And hence the notion of formulated principles of belief, which had its origins in early Christian thought finds its way for good reason into Judaism. What starts as a mechanism to defend the faith centuries later would become a yardstick by which to measure who may be considered in the fold or out.

However, the mere fact that Maimonides composed these principles did not mean that they immediately were accepted as the de facto standard of the Jewish creed. Indeed there were major rabbinic figures who objected to the very notion of specifying principles of faith. Berman traces the changing nature of the acceptance of the principles in the centuries that follow within the genres of prayer, poetry, homiletics and in halacha.

When is a Principle not a Principle?

Fast forwarding to the modern era we discover that the principles become somewhat political. Challenged by modernity, enlightenment and the abandonment of tradition, Orthodoxy steps up its defense against the outside world. Rabbi Berman tracks this for us in the new role assigned to the principles as boundary markers. I want to focus though on the specific reference to the great Rabbinic Leader of the twentieth century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but Rabbi Feinstein generally upholds the principles as a means by which to exclude someone from Orthodoxy, but on one occasion demonstrates great flexibility. This differentiated use of the principles revolves around the intent of those that deviate affirmation of the principles: are those breaking with the principles doing so as an act of defiance of rabbinic authority or not. Hence religious people that engage in “appeals to the dead to intercede with the Almighty” are given a pass. Instead of ruling equivocally, he takes the unusual stance of empowering rabbi to rule as they see fit in their own locale. Even though he recognizes that the behavior is in clear contravention of Maimonides’ fifth principle, prohibiting appeal to intermediaries, Rabbi Feinstein understood that Jews who do this, do so with no larger agenda of challenging rabbinic authority.

No such leniency is found when dealing with contravention of the principles by Conservative or Reform Jews, and as such Rabbi Feinstein was one of the fiercest campaigners against the competing movements.

Whilst I fully understand the context in the middle part of the twentieth century in the USA, when the Orthodox establishment felt under direct threat from the liberal movements, I think that Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling about appeals to the departed damages the integrity of the argument for the Principles as truly defining principles by which one can divine who has authentic Jewish belief, and who is a denier.

Reverting to the Principles as an Educational Tool

Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling presents a challenge and an opportunity. To some (admittedly the more open types) it undermines the principles by “using” them in an ostensibly none consistent fashion; but an opportunity to use his more relaxed enforcement of the fifth principal (proscribing appeals to the departed) as a guiding light for educators and Orthodox leaders, as they contend with well-meaning and well-intentioned individuals who are puzzled about what they read online about the possibility that parts of the Torah are post-Mosaic in origin.  Unlike the reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of those who raise these questions today, do so with no desire to challenge traditional practice or rabbinic authority. Many (including myself) have jumped too quickly to the conclusion that if we have a question that we cannot resolve around a specific and simplified understanding of the Thirteen Principles, then perhaps we are then ones with the problem.

Understanding their development and in particular the historical context of their creation and very gradual, and changing acceptance, might establish a wider room for maneuver. In my opinion, a broader religious debate about the grey areas of the notion of a divinely given Torah would be much better framed as an educational or even philosophical debate, rather than as a prescriptive set of dogmas with little or no room for negotiation. And ultimately this part of Ani Maamin assisted me greatly to consider where I can find myself along the spectrum of views and thoughts covered by the traditional texts and principles.

How many of us have considered that the Rambam was neither the first nor the last to define such a creed? How many of us have considered the process and history of its acceptance? How many of us have considered the fact that there is no one single version of these principles that has ever been deemed the sanctioned version? And how many of us feel comfortable voicing these concerns within an Orthodox context?

In an era where authority is no longer an assumed commodity, neither for sacred texts nor for educators and Rabbis, the challenge is to open the debate in order to meet students and adults alike, at the point at which they have the challenge and journey together to a resolution, which may not look identical for every person, just as the principles themselves have expressed themselves in different ways before and after Maimonides.

Between Academic and Divine Truth

Once I reached the end of the book I returned to the beginning for completeness. I have never followed the biblical criticism debate within Orthodoxy too closely and it has never deeply troubled my own belief that such a debate exists. In a way rather similar to the apparent contradictions between modern science and the Torah (written and oral), if the Torah is true and science is true, then we must find ways to harmonise between them. Perhaps requiring a better understanding of science, or the context and way that the Torah and Rabbis describe nature and the real world.

What I found useful in Part I was the treatment of some of the classic tropes of biblical criticism. Ani Maamin creates sufficient space for the thoughtful reader to find a place on the spectrum between being concerned that the academy has managed to undermine the divinity of Torah and hence all that is left is atheism, and the position offered in many Orthodox circles that doubting any comma or sentence as divinely dictated to Moshe is tantamount to such atheism. Unlike the debate around the principles this has filled many pages of often heated debate and rhetoric across the Internet and social media.

By using rooted and dispassionate academic rigour Prof Berman sows multiple seeds of doubt about the perceived accepted academic, critical and monolithic view (to those of us outside academia). Such a view claims that the five books of Moses are an edited series of woven documents representing competing schools of thought in ancient Israel. Berman upends this by considering the evidence from multiple academic angles. The most persuasive tool for me was the repeated use of historic context to show that many of the academic theories themselves are somewhat anachronistic in their approach. That is to say, that using modern notions of history or modern notions of jurisprudence to measure the authenticity of a Near Eastern document is as useful as using the same tools of analysis for Greek mythology and modern day fiction.

By revealing the Torah in terms of a treaty between Imperial Kingdom and vassal state, he allows us to consider the conflicting  narratives with the Torah itself, not as a series of obvious contradictions, but as a very specific genre of writing between treaty partners of that age, marshaled now as a way of describing the relationship between the Sovereign King, God, and his treaty partner, Israel. The same academic anachronism arises when modern scholars view biblical edicts through the lens of a statutory based system, which would have been completely foreign to the mindset of the ancient Near East. By highlighting the common law approach inherent in biblical law, Berman shows a very different framework for understanding the way commandments are detailed differently across the five books of Moses. Finally, by using evidence from the history of Rameses II he allows us to consider the Exodus story as an echo of a classic inscription detailing Rameses’ victory over the Hittites, whereby the Torah appropriates Egyptian royal propaganda to highlight God’s intervention against the Egyptians on Israel’s behalf.

Using academic tools to create a basis for re-reading the Bible in manner’s that accord with tradition, he then goes on the offensive against the underpinnings of the documentary hypothesis which will no doubt delight the naysayers of academia by poking holes in the approach that seemingly applies different standards to the Torah than are applied other ancient texts. This speaks strongly to the same sense of attack and offense generated by Ibn Hazm’s original diatribe against the Torah a thousand years ago, leading devout Jews to aggressively defend the Torah from these modern day attacks. Putting these attacks aside (which are in some sense extraneous to his core academic argument but good sport), Berman elegantly allows us to engage within the academic debate and even use many of the academic tools, not just to defend the honor of the Torah, but also to enhance our understanding of it.

It is of course ironic that in order to do so one has to think much more about the ancient context of the Torah than a fundamentalist approach would allow, and here Berman navigates a fine line between rigourous academic work and acceptable or more conservative Orthodox parameters. He creates a space for lay readers to navigate these often vexing questions, by laying out the variety of opinions the sages of Israel have championed in understanding the concept of Torah from Heaven and by demonstrating that its ancient literary conventions render many a modern critical question obsolete if not at least eroded. This analysis demands of us to consider the anachronistic lens that we use to read the Torah, both religiously and academically.

Ultimately, this is the success of the book and why I strongly recommend it to anyone with a religious curiosity about divine revelation, and the foundational beliefs of Judaism. The recommendation is all the stronger if you feel torn between the modern world of academia and science and traditional Orthodox dogma.

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is a social entrepreneur and is immediate past Chairman of Gesher, the leading organisation bridging social gaps in Israeli society; he is also the Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital.