Belief in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim: Damage Control by YCT: Subtly Defending the Indefensible


by Avrohom Gordimer


The beliefs of a rabbi are no small issue. They can impact the validity of geirus, gittin and kiddushin performed under the rabbi’s review or that hinge upon his testimony, and the halachic integrity of those institutions that affiliate with a rabbi whose beliefs are unacceptable becomes suspect. Our focus on the current topic is hence not in the realm of the theoretical or “merely hashkafic”, but relates to something that has ramifications for the most weighty of halachic matters.

Back to the Discussion

Cross-Currents recently addressed the fact that R. Zev Farber, YCT Yadin Yadin musmach, coordinator of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur, and IRF and Yeshivat Maharat board member, has publicly and in writing disseminated his views that the Torah is not the Word of God, that God did not give the Torah at Sinai, that God did not ever communicate with the Prophets, that He did not bring the Jewish People forth from Egypt, that He did not author the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh, that the Torah is the flawed work of biased men, and that the narratives in the Torah, including the Exodus and the existence of the Avos, Imahos and Shevatim, are false. Had these statements been written by a private layman, it would have been bad enough, but certainly not unprecedented; the fact that a rabbinic leader of Open Orthodoxy has disseminated such statements is of profoundly greater concern. (Please see .)

R. Nati Helfgot of YCT responded to the aforementioned Cross-Currents article by showing that there may very well exist within authentic Orthodox thought a basis to believe in a more liberal and expansive concept of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. Cross-Currents thereupon demonstrated that R. Farber’s views about Torah Min Ha-Shamayim are far outside of even the remotest possibilities of acceptable belief presented by R. Helfgot.

Whereas it was hoped and expected that YCT/IRF leadership would at least now repudiate R. Farber’s views, this proved to be far from the reality.

Clearly set on edge, YCT/IRF leadership, in yet another effort to deflect criticism, just proffered some new articles to explain its position regarding R. Farber’s views as well as to defend the sullied reputation of YCT, in light of massive amounts of negative data about YCT and its affiliates that was documented here

We will address each of these just-released articles independently.

I. Brushing Aside the Issue as Part of the Overall YCT Mission

In the just-published article Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School , Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, head of the YCT Talmud department, explains that YCT is committed to the traditional concept of Torah Mi-Sinai, and that YCT exposes its students to all sorts of views, including extreme ones, with the expectation that the students will learn to struggle with these views and thereby be prepared in their rabbinic careers to engage others who have exposure to such views. Rabbi Katz further writes that YCT students are expected to grow in their hashkafah as they grapple with modernity and the outside world.

Although one would expect a condemnation of R. Farber’s published views, which fly in the face of Orthodox belief – or, one would perhaps expect a highly-creative and novel defense of R. Farber’s views – the closest we get from R. Katz is:

In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge (of faith). And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

R. Katz also engages in relativism, downplaying in his article the seriousness of charges of heresy, noting that a great Religious Zionist rabbinic sage was deemed a heretic by some anti-Zionists – and thus implying that heresy is often a relative and specious charge. R. Katz further explains that, “frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising” – thereby watering down the significance of being confronted with charges of heresy. Such maneuvering out of the substance of the matter is endemic to R. Katz’ article.

The Morethodoxy article concludes with an affirmation of the YCT approach, despite the “bumps in the road”:

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly. We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people. Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

R. Katz provides no substantive defense of R. Farber’s published views, nor does R. Katz condemn those views. Nor is there any indication that anything at all is changing at YCT/IRF despite the alarming fact that one of its leaders has written and published theological material that contradicts by all counts the very fundaments of Orthodox Judaism.
Rather than address the substance, R. Katz provides a message of emotional encouragement that reads more like an introduction to an upbeat brochure about YCT than an analysis of charges of heresy against a central YCT/IRF rabbinic leader. It is clear and very sad that R. Katz and the group he represents do not take the issue at hand with full seriousness and that the Openness in Open Orthodoxy apparently trumps halachic and hashkafic standards.

II. R. Farber: No Retraction

Surprisingly, the next just-released damage-control article was written by R. Farber himself. One would expect this article to either consist of a major retraction and withdrawal of the author’s very unOrthodox views, or to somehow muster new sources and clever arguments to support his views, as radical as they are in negating the authenticity of the Torah. Instead, R. Farber presents us with a brief description of his intellectual challenge in terms of squaring his commitment to Tradition with his commitment to academic Biblical studies (Biblical Criticism), explaining regarding his written statements that deny the authenticity of the Torah:

…my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t.

R. Farber does not retract his statements of denial that the Torah is the Word of God and that the Torah is a factually untrue document written by biased men; furthermore, it is clear that R. Farber does not feel that there is anything wrong with such views.

Although R. Farber asserts that the views he published that denied the authenticity of the Torah were not intended to be conclusive, a brief read-through of those views as R. Farber published them would compellingly indicate otherwise:

From TEST CASE: THE LAW OF THE RAPIST (Devarim 22:28-29):

The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e. that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.

Prophecy does not come as a verbal revelation from God to the prophet, but as a tapping into the divine flow. Even while channeling the divine wrath against the injustice of the rape, the Deuteronomic prophet (i.e. the author of Deuteronomy) was still a human being, his scope remains limited by education and social context. The prophet could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see. Nevertheless, the injustice of the rape and the consequences to the girl and her family were things that he could see. This is what he worked to correct.

The law of the rapist is actually an example of a human mind tapping into the divine flow—albeit in a way limited by his own societally determined biases. Instead of our focusing on the outmoded biases that clouded the prophet’s vision—as vital as it is to note them—it would be apposite to focus on the Torah’s message: Society must protect its women from being victims of unwanted sexual activity, and try to correct any damage done to them if such a thing occurs…

(Note: This section of R. Farber’s article no longer appears in the above link and is being moved to a different article, according to the article’s publisher.)


(R. Farber begins this section by stating that the Creation, Flood and Patriarchal narratives did not occur and that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs did not exist:)

The same holds true of the description of the development of Israel. The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves: “We are all one family because we are all children of the same father.” These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.

…It is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.
The popular idea that the Torah’s holiness stems only from the historicity of its claims, dictated by the mouth of God, strikes me as an attempt to depict the Almighty as a news reporter.


Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.

The above statements are written by R. Farber as facts, not “conversation starters”. And, even if they were intended as conversation starters, is it acceptable to publish statements that negate the truth of the Torah in order to “start a conversation”?

In a footnote to his just-released explanatory article, R. Farber apologizes that another of his articles may have startled readers, explaining that the original published version of that article had accidentally omitted the conclusion and was actually an introduction to a lengthier article that was not attached at the time – a major oversight that led to misunderstanding the article’s views, according to R. Farber. R. Farber feels that the conclusion of the segment of the article that he added into the republished version renders the article more nuanced and apparently less negating or confrontational regarding Tradition. Let’s take a look:


The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.


Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there is no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. Whether it be the description of the scout story, the reaction of the Edomites and Moabites to Israel’s request, or the legitimacy of dwelling in the Transjordan, the two versions work with contradictory assumptions.


The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.


Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there appears to be no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. The simplest literary approach is the academic one which posits multiple authors with multiple traditions. How such an approach meshes with traditionalist belief requires serious thought but it is necessary to start by recognizing the simplicity and straightforwardness of the academic approach.

Finally, it appears to me that being able to accept that there are contradictory perspectives expressed in the Torah allows us to offer meaningful interpretations of each and to address significant tensions in the text without feeling the need to create hollow apologetic explanations. Think of our other holy texts, the Mishna and the Talmud, for instance. They are filled with debates about Torah principles, and yet we say that eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim – each position is the word of the Living God. We are a religion that loves incongruity and debate and our Torah study thrives on the productive tension inherent in multivocality and conflicting perspectives.

R. Farber couches his conclusion of this segment of the article in a religious context yet fails in any way to renounce his belief that there were several human authors of the Torah; nor does R. Farber commit to the “traditionalist belief” (i.e. One Divine Author of the Torah), neither at this point or later on in the article. Additionally, R. Farber does not retract his article quoted extensively above in which he states that the Torah is not the Word of God, that God did not give the Torah at Sinai, that God did not ever communicate with the Prophets, that He did not bring the Jewish People forth from Egypt, that He did not author the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh, that the Torah is the flawed work of biased men, and that the narratives in the Torah, including the Exodus and the existence of the Avos, Imahos and Shevatim, are false.
The inescapable conclusion of R. Farber’s damage-control article is that R. Farber maintains his views about the (lack of) authenticity of the Torah, even as these views may not be his ultimate position on the matter as he continues his studies and his evaluation of the Torah and its authorship.

It is important to note that R. Farber does emphasize that he believes in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim and the holiness of the Torah – but we need to then understand what exactly he means:

I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people.

These platitudes, caged in elusive language and taken in the context of R. Farber’s clear and unretracted writings that deny the authenticity of the Torah as God’s Word, as God-given, as true and as the source of Halacha from God, are almost identical with the belief tenets of Conservative Judaism. R. Farber has written that God never communicated with the Prophets and that the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh were not given to Moshe; hence, “Torah Min Ha-Shamayim” and “Torah Mi-Sinai” are catchphrases or intentional ambiguities in his lingo and do not at all mean that the Torah was given from heaven or at Sinai. R. Farber’s assignment of divinity to the Torah is his “Wave Theory” , which is basically identical with the Conservative concept that the Torah was written “with divine inspiration” yet is the work and word of man and is decidedly not the Word of God.

III. R. Lopatin Finally Speaks Up

The final significant damage-control response by YCT came from R. Asher Lopatin, president of YCT. In a brief hot-off-the-press missive , R. Lopatin affirms that YCT is committed to the traditional concept of Torah Min-Hashamayim and that R. Farber’s views on the matter do not represent YCT. However, R. Lopatin fails to condemn R. Farber’s views, and he accords them the full dignity of Orthodox rabbinical discourse, even as he differentiates them from the traditional approach:

Some talmidim are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest. One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT. He discusses his struggle in more detail here. Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim that we at the Yeshiva believe in.

R. Lopatin’s praise of R. Farber’s theological honesty and classifying R. Farber’s theology as within Orthodoxy frustrates any expectation for YCT to state that there are limits as to what is acceptable and what is within Orthodoxy. R. Lopatin made his statement with his usual warmth, eloquence and articulateness – but the statement was pretty much the opposite of what needed to be said.

In sum, R. Farber’s beliefs are still in process due to his allegiance to Torah and to secular academia, he has postulated a theology that works for him, yet is totally outside the remotest acceptable parameters of Orthodox belief, and he has not renounced anything that he has written that negates the authenticity of the Torah by Orthodox standards – all as YCT leadership fails to condemn his views and continues to provide them with a platform and accord his approach with Orthodox rabbinic credentials. (I must commend R. Helfgot for an afterword paragraph in a new article , in which he addresses unnamed authors who have recently gone beyond the pale in promoting their understanding of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. YCT student Dr. Ben Elton likewise affirmed in a new article that belief in a man-made Torah is inconsistent with Orthodoxy. Sadly, this will not suffice, as YCT/IRF senior leadership continues to enable the views of R. Farber, embraces him within the Orthodox rabbinate, and fails to tackle the problem head-on.)

We have another seismic problem to deal with – an elephant in the room, as it were. The R. Farber case is the tail end of an immense, decade-long trek by YCT to modify Orthodoxy, and this dangerous trek is far from ending. All of the hair-raising innovations of Open Orthodoxy are still out there; Yeshivat Maharat, with the full support of YCT and IRF leadership, continues to ordain women; leaders and followers of the YCT movement continue to actively promote partnership minyanim and introduce feminist innovations into ritual; the list of issues is long, yet it is staring us in the face, if we merely raise our heads to see it.

It is dangerous to be fooled into believing that the multitude of problems that YCT/IRF/Yeshivat Maharat have introduced to Orthodoxy will disappear even if these institutions remove R. Farber from the scene. Only one who is extremely naive or who does not see the larger picture will feel any closure at this juncture.


On a personal note, dealing with these issues and writing these articles is terribly painful (and time-consuming!). It is the last thing that I wish I had to do, but I (and so many other Jews from throughout the Orthodox spectrum) feel that we are at a watershed moment and there is no choice, as Orthodoxy as we and our ancestors have known it is being challenged from within in an unprecedented fashion, and the potential for severe and eternal negative consequences for large segments of Jewry is very real. To write off people from Jewish lineage or render them unfit for normative Jewish marriage due to unacceptable beliefs of a rabbi and the institutions in which he operates would be disastrous – yet we now face this as a stark reality.

I would love if R. Avi Weiss and his followers would use their skills for activism and kiruv – R. Weiss is such a master at this and can offer so much. It is tragic that the great creativity of R. Weiss and his following is instead being channeled into modifying Orthodoxy rather than into helping the Klal and bringing it closer to Judaism without innovations or departures from Tradition – especially if those departures, left unchecked, can be eternally destructive for large masses of the Jewish People and their progeny.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and is also a member of the New York Bar

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2 years 20 days ago

To L. Oberstein:

I hear your friend’s point and am sympathetic to it.
Most people don’t care about theology.

However, how would your friend and her friends feel if their Rabbi’s Shabbos derosha ridiculed belief that the Torah’s mitzvoth were dictated by HASHEM to Moshe?

How would that affect their observance and the way they felt about the shul experience?

Ben Tzur
2 years 22 days ago

Blenkinsopp’s book was published in 1992, not 1922; please forgive the typo.

Ben Tzur
2 years 23 days ago

One or two other points occur to me to add to this list of evident absurdities in the DH approach.

It is important to mention that even advocates of the DH admit to rather self-contradictory aspects of the hypothesis. E.g., the method used to determine the existence of four separate documents leads to a reductio ad absurdum, just by itself. For why stop when you have precisely four documents? Why not continue to apply the methodological criteria for separate sources? And then what happens? “J” divides into at least two different documents (Smend) or three (Eissfeldt, Morgenstern, Pfeiffer, Fohrer) or more, “E” either multiplies in similar ways (even into 12 different “documents”) or disappears entirely (Procksch, Volz, Rudolph), and so on for each of the other “source documents,” producing when enthusiastically applied to “its logical, not to say lunatic limits … a veritable alphabet soup of algebraic signs” (Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch [1922], p.14 — Blenkinsopp nevertheless wishes to retain some form of the DH). Sustaining the DH is therefore like suspending the theory in mid-air and preventing its fall to the ground purely by faith alone, abandoning the methodology when it becomes a self-refutation. Advocates also admit the antisemitic and dubiously evolutionary assumptions behind Wellhausen’s own thinking — they just think that with whatever modifications are necessary it still has no alternatives. Cassuto, as I said above, shows otherwise.

A “pillar” of the DH, as Cassuto calls it, is that each supposed “source document” shows itself by a different style and even terminology. But I myself use a different style and terminology when I write scholarly essays, private letters to friends, to my wife, my children, and to my bank, compose shopping lists, contribute to blogs, and so on. That does not make me a multitude of different authors. The intended audience or recipient, wider context and topic determine the style used by every accomplished author. For example, the supposedly diagnostic “priestly” trait of focussing on genealogical lists and lineages is actually one deeply interesting to everyone in tribal societies, so it addresses the entire people and not just priests, and they all memorize such lists from childhood up. Lineage lists, and indeed memorized lists as such, are not the preserve of any specific group in ancient societies. And so on.

I mentioned that Cassuto’s refutations have not even been addressed by DH scholars. Let me give an instance of this. One of the most Teutonically elaborate Christian treatments of Biblical literature is Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction; 3rd ed. (1965). His elaborate footnotes and bibliographies, and pedantic style, in this nearly 900-page book, indicate that he wishes to convey the impression that he has read everything relevant and gives the conclusions of full, fair and definitive scholarship. He notes, for example, that there have been critics of the DH. “Many of these attempts, as for example those of Möller, B. Jacob, Cassuto, Aalders and Young, with all their differences in detail, declare so unreservedly not only in favour of the literary unity of the Pentateuch, but also for its derivation from Moses, that although they contain in detail useful and correct observations, they hardly come into consideration as serious contributions to the solution of the Pentateuchal problem.” That’s it. There is no further reference even to those grudgingly admitted “useful and correct observations” regarding the DH from Cassuto, Jacobs, or the others named, elsewhere in the book, so we are given no idea what they might be. The faint praise is perhaps merely a cover for the bias of not treating those critics seriously. Moreover, the dismissive comment regarding the Mosaic origins of the Torah is in fact incorrect, at least as far as Cassuto is concerned, since he did not argue for that, only for the untenability of the DH hypothesis about multiple documents as such. As an aside, he does not in fact date the Torah as a written text to the Mosaic period. That is why I wrote above that: “One does not need to be either Orthodox or non-Orthodox to accept his devastating analysis of the DH.” So Eissfeldt misrepresents Cassuto. His excuse for ignoring him does not hold water. The same seems likely to be true for his treatment of other DH critics, judging from this evidence.

Ben Tzur
2 years 25 days ago

This article focusses on the presentation of the Orthodox position on the Documentary Hypothesis. However understandable such a response might be, this misses the most effective avenue to refuting it definitively. The Documentary Hypothesis itself is deeply flawed and implausible, on its very own terms. One can use general reasoning acceptable to secularists to demolish its claims. That is the best sort of refutation: using the scholarly assumptions, tools, results and claims of the challenger to demonstrate the unsustainable absurdities that result, a self-refutation that the challenger cannot dismiss nor answer. Of course, to do this, one must master the field that is so modestly self-described as “Higher Biblical Criticism.” It is not enough to be a master of Rabbinic literature.

The best refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis (DH, I will call it) is by Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Heb., Torat HaTeudot, 1941; English translation 1961) — see the summary of it at the Wikipedia article on “Umberto Cassuto.” It demolishes the DH in less than 200 pages of exceptionally clear prose. Also see his volumes of commentary on the various books of the Chumash, in which he goes into more detail than he could do in his general critique just mentioned, about passages offered as “proofs” by DH advocates, and refutes their arguments. Cassuto had exceptional qualifications for this subject. He was not only thoroughly familiar with Rabbinic literature down through the ages, but was also a world-recognized and leading authority on Semitics and ancient Near Eastern languages generally, and in addition, he had thoroughly mastered “Higher Biblical Criticism” and general standards of secular scholarship — a combination rare if not entirely unique in “Higher Biblical Criticism.” He also wrote concisely and logically, with exceptional elegance, clarity and wit. It is not necessary to agree with Cassuto’s brief speculation made in passing, at the end of his book, about the historical emergence of the Torah text, since his book is devoted almost wholly to another topic, i.e., simply on the untenability of the “several documents” hypothesis. One does not need to be either Orthodox or non-Orthodox to accept his devastating analysis of the DH. It is notable that his criticisms of the DH have not been refuted by any of the “Higher Biblical Critics.” They cannot handle it, even though his high academic reputation requires some acknowledgement. So they cite his book in their footnotes and bibliographies to give the semblance of scholarly breadth and depth, but never ever discuss and respond to what he actually wrote. Perhaps this is also because Cassuto is a Jew, and therefore an interloper in their own secular/Christian domain.

Nevertheless, a number of less systematic but still very strong refutations of the DH have emerged in the “Higher Biblical Criticism” camp itself, from both Christian and secular scholars, the most significant probably being Ivan Engnell, John Van Seters, Rolf Rendtorff, Gordon Whybray and Gordon Wenham. E.g., the last-named scholar, Wenham, in his A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 2 vols. (1961-4), pushes some of Cassuto’s arguments further, showing for example that a favorite “proof” of multiple authorship, the Flood narrative, actually has a tight chiastic structure (i.e., verses and meanings unfolding in ABCBA form). It is a single, very ingeniously constructed text, in which every phrase and practically every word before the central point, “C” in the formula I gave, is echoed and amplified by an identical or similar word or phrase after it, in reversed order. Revealed in this way, there are no contradictions or incongruities in the text at all. Chiastic style is found throughout the Torah and is a distinctive and chief form of Biblical narrative. Wenham’s brilliant analysis is also available in his “The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum, XXVIII, 3 (1975): 336-348, available on-line at…. I recommend it to those unduly swayed by the DH.

Again drawing on “Higher Biblical Criticism” itself, studies show that the earliest post-Joshua historical and prophetic writings already make reference to written texts and also to a written Torah from Sinai, and there is much reference as well to Torah teachings as having unquestioned and authoritative, long-standing and traditional status in other books of the Tanakh. For example, see R.W.L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament (1992). Again, it is not necessary to accept all of Moberly’s views to grant the central point that the Torah text and its authoritative account of revelation and history is recognised already in early times in Biblical Israel, and is taken as an established “given” by the earliest prophets themselves.

Nor is this surprising. After all, one of the key absurdities of the DH is that it ignores completely the fact that ancient Israel was a literate culture. There were scribes from the beginning of ancient Israel (indeed, the alphabetic script of proto-Hebraic dates at least to 1,850 BCE, and was used in ancient Canaan, so naturally ancient Israel also had it from the start), and yet the DH requires us to believe that the Biblical Jews never bothered to write down, preserve nor read any account of the Sinai revelation, the central account of the origin and identity of themselves, the core of their religion and beliefs, for at the very least some 300 if not 400 years, The “J” document, the first of the four documents hypothesized, is said to have been written around 950 or so BCE. That non-existence of a Torah text, or very very late composition of any version of it, quite simply, is unbelievable.

Furthermore, close study of the Hebrew of the Chumash shows that many of its terms are used in ways that no longer had the same application or meaning even in the early monarchical period; writings from that period use the terms differently. But these terms have a similar meaning to those found in Ugaritic proto-Hebraic texts from the 13th century BCE. On this, see Jacob Milgrom’s commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers. (This also shows that Rashi’s explanations, which often specify meanings that were archaic already in the Middle Biblical period and that connect with what we now know from Ugaritic archives, preserve an authentic scribal tradition going back to the Mosaic period, just as Orthodoxy has always said.)

These are not the only blatant absurdities in the DH claims, even beyond the determined omission of consideration of Israel’s literate culture. Let me name a few more. The DH claims a composition process about the Pentateuch that allegedly makes use of general reasonings applicable to all writings and all Scriptures, from which the Torah text cannot be exempted, but unfortunately for the thesis, there is no example of any other scriptural text in world religions that shows the alleged process. I.e., the uniqueness of the Torah text and its contents is supposedly undermined and even delegitimized and destroyed, by the use of a “generalizing” and “neutral” method which in fact actually relies on the uniqueness of the Torah text itself in comparative religious terms. (Some commentators have seen in the J,E,P,D documentary “sources” an attempt to read back into the Jewish Scriptures the Four Gospels of the New Testament, thereby legitimizing to some degree the Christian Scriptures.)

A further absurdity: the interweaving of the various sources, in particular J, E, and P, the ones applying to Genesis through Numbers, in which each is retained verbatim but merely cut-and-pasted into a single text interleaving sentences and sometimes even just sentence clauses together, is supposedly due to the sanctity of each text for its own community. These texts are so revered that they cannot be paraphrased, and even seeming contradictions must be retained when putting a sentence or phrase of one after a sentence or phrase of another. In other words, the sanctity of each means that each must be ripped to pieces and the pieces patched together into a “better” version. The desecration and disintegration of each source is because it is already sanctified in custom. This, of course, is a self-refuting nonsense. And, as mentioned, there is not a single example of such cut-and-paste treatment of sanctified texts anywhere else in world religions.

Yet another absurdity: although the supposed authors of the separate sources were intelligent enough to present in their own compositions a unified text without any seeming contradictions, we are to believe that the priests who brought all this together (according to Wellhausen), or the final Redactor(s) (according to other versions) were dumbbells who could not see a self-contradiction when it stared them in the face. They just mindlessly pasted it all together as a pretended single text, creating a lie without any hesitation: such was their fidelity and truthfulness.

We are often told in Rabbinic midrash and in Jewish disputations with Christians in the Middle Ages that the Torah revelation was witnessed not by a single person or small group, whose testimony could be challenged or distorted in transmission by others, but by an entire people, who together have preserved this testimony in exactitude and continue to study it closely, thus testifying down through the ages to the authenticity of that Torah revelation and text. This brings up another absurdity in the DH. We are supposed to believe that a novel account of the Sinai revelation, containing a description of the creation of the universe, the history of humanity, the formation of Israel and the laws and teachings that defined Israel as a people, which was supposedly written very many centuries after Sinai and finally edited into its present form in Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE by some scribes or under Ezra and his disciples from the 5th century BCE on, would be accepted holus-bolus not only by other Babylonian Jews and all their learned authorities, but also by the entire Jewish people throughout the world without demur. Presumably, the Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora, which then already existed and who were independent of Babylonian Jewry, had no Torah preserved amongst themselves by their scribes and elders that might compete with this final edited “account of Moses,” with all its alleged self-contradictions. They were too dumb and ignorant to see those novelties and self-contradictions. And they were too illiterate, passive and indifferent to reject this as an authentic narration from Moses. They all apparently suffered from short-term memory loss, even their own priests, scribes, judges and learned elders. All previous accounts vanished from their minds; the novel “revelation” became the ancient “revelation.” The whole Diaspora fell into line with not a even a flicker of known resistance or protest. The Jews of Egypt, for example, presumably readily accepted this novel account of their own identity and sacred teachings from the rival community of Babylonian Jews, without rejecting it. Jews further afield also had no earlier counter-documents or views. That is simply impossible, on the face of it.

Considering all this, we might well ask how it can be that the DH has convinced generations of highly learned Christian and secular scholars? I have just mentioned that in fact there have been dissenters. But the reality is that the entire field of modern Biblical scholarship is deeply compromised by Judeophobia and partisan bias. It is a remarkable thing about this entire discipline, pursued chiefly in Christian seminaries in former times but now also in secular universities, that all of its key terms for Biblical Israel and its religion are calculated to draw a sharp antithesis between Judaism/Jews and Biblical Israel. The terms for God, the religion itself, the people who follow it, the land they live in and even the Scripture they possess, are made to be different from the Jewish ones, archaizing and de-Judaizing pre-Exilic Israel. This is too general and consistent to be a coincidence. It extends to wilful anachronisms to achieve its effect, but often excuses itself as necessitated to avoid anachronisms.

So we are told that the God of ancient Israel is really a national god like unto Baal and Ashtarot, whose personal name is constantly employed in scholarly discussions, namely “Yahweh.” This practice not only relegates HaShem to a mere status as a “Tom, Dick and Harry” god within a polytheistic environment, but also makes crystal clear that Orthodox or even just observant Jews are not welcome in the discipline — for there is an explicit prohibition on the casual use of this term in the Mosaic Torah and Jews have refused for two thousand years to pronounce YHVH, saying just Adonai or HaShem. It also ignores the philological fact that the Tetragrammaton is a descriptive verb rather than a name in the usual sense.

However, according to “Higher Biblical Criticism,” the religion of Biblical Israel is “Israelite religion,” which is allegedly altogether different from later “Judaism” due to its full or quasi-polytheism or genial, tolerant “henotheism,” not the later, post-Exilic monotheistic Judaism with its supposedly fierce, punitive and “legalistic” God. 

The people who follow this pre-Exilic religion are “Israelites” (comparable, it is often said, e.g., by Johannes Pedersen in his still much cited book Israel: Its Life and Culture, to contemporary Arab Bedouin tribalists): they are emphatically not “Jews” (for, it is said, the “Jews” only take over the religion at and after the Exile).

The land these “Israelites” or “Hebrews” live in is “Canaan” or “Palestine” (entirely anachronistically, since the term “Palestine” does not appear either in the Jewish Scriptures nor even in the New Testament). In any case it is clear that they do not live in “the land of Israel” as Biblical texts say they do, and certainly they are not in “Judea” or “Israel” unless talking about the specific kingdoms.

And the scripture these Israelites develop is the “Old Testament” (another blatant anachronism pointing to and presuming the “New Testament”) which Jews have alleged distorted into the “Law” of later “Judaism” (the terminology of “Law” is itself a wilfully false and anachronistic translation of the word Torah, “Teaching” and also implies a contrast with a supposed New Covenant of “Grace”). This Judaism is an unjustified new religion, in which particularistic “nationalistic” and/or “legalistic priestly” religion has taken over, and drives genuine spirituality, i.e., the “prophetic” religion, underground (or at least so it was said up to the end of the last century even by such an otherwise sympathetic Biblical scholar as John Bright, in his The History of Israel [1959], currently in its fourth edition). 

So we see that if you want to accept “Higher Biblical Criticism” you are obliged by the basic terminology of the discipline to presume that the God, the religion, the people, the land, and even the Scriptures of Biblical Israel are all radically different from “later Judaism” and from what Jews have made of it. In a word, this is anti-Judaism in action, a kidnapping of the Jewish sources and appropriation of them for non-Jewish and even anti-Jewish goals and agendas. This does not mean that all or even most scholars working in this field are antisemites per se or at the least Judeophobes, but it does mean that what historically originated and still frames the whole discipline of “Higher Biblical Criticism” and shapes its discourse, willy-nilly, is Judeophobia. It has served a Christian desire to appropriate the “prophetic” strand in pre-Exilic Judaism from the Jews and deny it to “later Judaism,” to claim it as a kind of proto-Christianity, or a secular motivation (beginning with Spinoza even more than with Hobbes) to undermine the influence and legitimacy of the Bible in Western culture and of Judaism as a religious heritage in the modern world. As mentioned already, Wellhausen himself, the author of the DH, is a relevant case in point, and exemplifies all these motivations. Thus the popular acceptance of his theories can be understood, however strained and absurd they may be.

Having said all that, the positive fruits of modern Biblical studies must also be granted, and the work of scholars of good will. There are many such scholars in contemporary Biblical studies, and there is much that can be learned from them. Wenham, for example, writes out of a strongly Protestant perspective, but his commentaries on the Torah are often very good.

L. Oberstein
2 years 25 days ago

Rather than engage in talking to ourselves, which is the normal way we discuss these issues, I asked someone who davens at HIR, the shul of Rabbi Avi Weiss , Rabba Sarah and Rav Stephen. She explained to me that what attracts her to Open Orthodoxy and HIR is not the theology of this person whom she had never heard of. She is impressed by the sincerity and concern of that group for so many ethical issues that the rest of us seem to not care that much about. Open Orthodoxy, she says, is more than theology, it is chesed and ahavas habriyos, Jew, non Jew , healthy and ill, etc. She feels that large numbers of orthodox raised people are made to feel distant from the ethical core of Judaism by orthodoxy’s move to the right. She feels that Open Orthodoxy will bring back lots of intelligent and ethical people to a level of obserance they would otherwise not have. I asked her if this may indeed be the 21st century’s Conservative Movement and she didn’t find that offensive at all. She also informed me that many of the students at YCT attended schools and Seminaries that are more open to diversity. In other words, the arguments made by those who think deeply and parse the theological purity of this man are not relevant to people who go to HIR and have an affinity for ecology, ethical humanism, those who are not opposed to every social advance since FDR. The split in Orthodoxy may be between libersals and conservatives, whose world views are broad versus and inclusive. You are absolutely right about the theology of this Rabbi but those who follow Open Orthodoxy couldn’t care less. At least ,that is how I understand it.