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Reconciling Modern Biblical Scholarship With Traditional Orthodox Belief

Who wrote the Torah? An unlikely group of Orthodox scholars has launched a website that gets to the heart of Jewish tenets.

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“Virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical,” declares a manifesto posted in July on TheTorah.com. “Given the data to which modern historians have access,” the essay explains, “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.” Not only did the events in the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah never transpire, readers are informed, but “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”

Such sweeping sentiments might be expected from an academic scholar, or perhaps a critic of fundamentalist religion. But the author of this manifesto is an Orthodox rabbi named Zev Farber. The essay, and much of the work of TheTorah.com, is an attempt by dissident Orthodox rabbis and professors to reconcile the findings of modern biblical scholarship with traditional Jewish belief.

This project is not new, but it has bedeviled American Jewry in different ways. Within liberal denominations, while some intellectuals and theologians have grappled with the questions posed by the field of biblical criticism—which sees the Torah as a man-made, composite work produced over time, rather than simply revealed to Moses by God at Sinai—the results have rarely filtered down to synagogue congregants and day-school pupils. Within Orthodoxy, meanwhile, the findings of academia have often met with outright rejection.

By launching TheTorah.com, Rabbi David Steinberg—a former outreach rabbi for the ultra-Orthodox organization Aish HaTorah—and Brandeis Bible professor Marc Brettler, also an Orthodox Jew, set out to challenge this state of affairs, provoking significant controversy within their own community.

A furor over a website might seem like a distinctly modern phenomenon. But in fact this dispute over the Bible is only the latest incarnation of a very old debate—one that traces back centuries in Jewish thought and goes to the heart of Jewish self-definition and belief.

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“The eighth fundamental principle [of faith] is that the Torah came from God,” wrote Maimonides over 800 years ago in his classic exposition of the 13 tenets of Jewish belief. “We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our teacher entirely from God.” In the next principle, he elaborated: “The ninth fundamental principle is the authenticity of the Torah, i.e., that this Torah was precisely transcribed from God and no one else.”

Few thinkers match Maimonides’ intellectual stature in Jewish tradition, and his principles of faith are generally considered canonical. But commentators long recognized numerous difficulties in the text of the Torah and parted ways from Maimonides in attempting to explain them. For instance, the Talmud itself records a dispute over whether Moses actually wrote the final verses of the Torah, which describe his death, or whether his successor Joshua did—and some biblical commentators side with the latter approach. Abraham ibn Ezra, the distinguished 12th-century biblical exegete, went further and argued that several Torah verses beyond the last ones had to be post-Mosaic additions. Because these verses seemed to be written from the vantage point of someone living long after the events they describe, ibn Ezra reasoned, they must have been added by a later prophet.

Even more radically, Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid, the leading 13th-century German-Jewish pietist, claimed that entire passages in the Pentateuch had been inserted by subsequent authors. The suggestion was so scandalous that some declared those portions of he-Hasid’s writings to be heretical forgeries. The controversy highlighted a tension between two exegetical impulses: the desire to preserve the Maimonidean notion of revelation, and the drive to explain the Torah’s textual anomalies.

Other conundrums also puzzled traditional commentators. For example, Genesis opens with two ostensibly conflicting stories of the world’s creation and then seems to offer two entangled accounts of Noah’s flood. The book of Deuteronomy retells the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness but often departs from the earlier biblical narrative. Cognizant of these and other problems, the midrash and medieval interpreters worked to resolve them within the traditional framework of unified Mosaic authorship, with only occasional deviations like those above.

But in the 19th-century German academy, these ancient questions got some startling new answers. Building off earlier work by Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and more recent contemporaries, Protestant scholars like Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen offered a radical reimagining of the origins of the Pentateuch. In their account, the reason the Torah seemed to contain retrospective insertions, internal contradictions, and duplicate narratives of key stories and laws was that it was the product of multiple authors over time. Rather than the record of a single revelation at Sinai, the five books of Moses, they asserted, were written long after their namesake’s lifetime—if, indeed, such an individual had even existed—and later woven into a whole from disparate documents.

The response from Jewish scholars to this “higher criticism” was largely rejectionist. “We believe that the whole Bible is true, holy, and of divine origin,” wrote Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, a leading Orthodox academic and head of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, in 1905. “We must not presume to set ourselves up as critics of the author of a biblical text or doubt the truth of his statements or question the correctness of his teaching.” To buttress his argument, Hoffmann penned a two-volume refutation of the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis drawing on his vast secular and religious learning, as well as an entire biblical commentary significantly devoted to demonstrating the unitary nature of the Torah.

While some Reform thinkers like Abraham Geiger and Leopold Zunz accepted the conclusions of the German academy, leading forerunners of Conservative Judaism like Zechariah Frankel did not. Thus, Louis Ginzberg, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s premier Talmudist, wrote glowingly of Hoffmann’s critique of German biblical scholarship. “Hoffmann was prepared to receive and welcome the fullest light of the new learning,” Ginzberg recounted in his 1928 memoir, “but he refused to be dragged at the wheels of those who would make of the work of God a book partly myth, partly dishonest legend, deliberate fabrications, containing history which is not history, and a code of laws made a thousand years after the time of Moses.”

Most famously, Solomon Schechter, the founding father of Conservative Judaism in America, delivered an impassioned 1903 address titled “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism.” He did not mince words. “The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future,” he declared. “Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess … we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world?”

Schechter had a point about prejudice. Many German critics were not disinterested academics, seeking a purely historical reconstruction of Jewish history and its central text. On the contrary, the biblical scholarship of Hoffmann and Schechter’s day was shot through with anti-Semitic conceptions of Jews and Judaism. Ancient Israelites were often portrayed as illiterate, legalistic, and backward, in pointed contrast to enlightened Christians. The “Old Testament” was viewed as a necessary but outmoded precursor to Christianity at best, and as a primitive artifact to be scorned and discarded at worst. As Schechter observed, by denigrating the Jewish past, such scholarship served to justify the denigration of Jews in the present. (Tellingly, scholars have found affinities between this scholarship and later Nazi biblical exegesis.)

Much of the Jewish scholarly elite rallied around Hoffmann and Schechter, rejecting the claims of the German academy. But over time, the Bible critics corrected their theories in response to Hoffmann’s critique of their substance and Schechter’s critique of their ideological underpinnings. Slowly but surely, over the course of decades, Jews themselves entered the field and began shaping it on their own. The question then became: How should modern Judaism respond to this fundamental reconception of its origin story?

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For most Orthodox Jews, the answer was clear: Higher biblical criticism remained high heresy. The notion that the Bible was not the direct word of God to Moses at Sinai contradicted centuries of Jewish self-understanding. “Accepting the findings of biblical scholarship would represent a complete departure from traditional Jewish thought,” wrote Ben Elton, a visiting scholar at New York University, in response to Farber’s manifesto at TheTorah.com. “It means rejecting the attitude towards the Torah held by every Jew until Spinoza and every traditional Jew since.” Judaism, in this construction, is like a wall—attempting to replace the crucial bricks at its base risks toppling the entire edifice that has been built upon it by generations of biblical commentators, Talmudists, and halakhists. After all, if the Torah did not actually come directly from God, why would its precepts be binding?

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Reconciling Modern Biblical Scholarship With Traditional Orthodox Belief

Who wrote the Torah? An unlikely group of Orthodox scholars has launched a website that gets to the heart of Jewish tenets.