Sunday, August 31, 2014

Orthodoxy and Bible Critcism

Summary:  In what follows, I argue that the Rambam's 8th ikkar unnecessarily and unfortunately became a litmus test of Orthodox Judaism and that the time has come to abandon this idea and let the chips fall where they may. While I believe the Torah developed historically, I also believe in God and in an initial revelation on Har Sinai. Therefore, I don't think abandoning the 8th -- an idea that itself developed contingently and was not accepted by many great Rabbis - can harm anything legitimately and authentically necessary to our religion.

The simplest way to summarize Zev Farber's new and overly-long essay about Orthodoxy and Bible Criticism is as follows: We Orthodox Jews have shot ourselves in the foot.

The reason is this: Over the centuries Orthodox Jews have  adopted an  idea about the Torah which has become the sine qua non of Orthodox Judaism. The idea, most famously expressed in the Rambam's 8th principle, claims that the Torah we have today is a letter-for-letter match with the one Moshe received. But as I will show in the following paragraphs, the development and acceptance of this idea as some kind of litmus text of Orthodox Judaism was both unnecessary and unfortunate.

Nothing about Judaism as we know it today was inevitable. In every generation there were decision points, or forks in the road where different choices might have been made. We could have decided, as a people, to follow Rav Yosi and eat chicken with milk. We could have decided, as a people, to heed the warning of the Vilna Gaon and reject the Hasidim. One hundred years ago we migh have decided that electircity was okay to use on Shabbos. Had we taken one of those paths - or any of the other divergences that were available over the centuries -  we'd still be Jewish, of course, but our Judaism would have a dramitcally different taste to it. The same sort of choice might have been made regarding the Rambam's 8th. This is why I call his idea unnecessary. 

As Marc Shapiro taught me, some of our great Rabbis were of the opinion that the 8th principle is untrue. As a people, we might have followed them, and developed a theology around their ideas instead of embracing the teachings of those who deny that the Torah developed historically over time. No one put a gun to our heads and forced us to, e.g deny that Rashi means actual scribal additions and deletions when he uses the phrase tikun sofrim. No one forced us to ignore the wisdom of ibn Ezra and Yom Tov Ellum who recognized that some of the verses contained in the Torah could not have been produced in the desert. We did that to ourselves. (1)

I call the idea unfortunate because accepting it has turned us into a nation that is foolish and ignoble, rather than one that is wise and understanding(2). If you marry yourself to the idea that the Torah we have today is a letter-for-letter match with the one Moshe received, you're forced to do all sorts of intellectual acrobatics to account for obvious problems. What do you do about the fact that the Torah allows for only 5000 years of human development when the archaeological record points to well over 100,000? How do you explain Noah's global flood or the 40 year sojourn in the desert when no evidence in support of either has been found? What do you do with dinosaurs or the fact of evolution?  And other less well-known, but no less significant problems abound including the existence of maculations within the Torah itself and textual witnesses to the Torah's historical development. A wise man follows the truth wherever it takes him, but accepting the 8th principle acts as a blockade against such a journey. The answers offered by archaeologists and  Bible critics, many of them compelling, simple and elegant, sit on the other side of the blockade, inaccessible to the Orthodox Jews.

On Facebook, some have argued that the 8th must be protected at all costs as Jews won't make religious sacrifices unless we stand convinced that the book we hold in our possession is the same one Moshe received. Farber finds that laughable and so do I. Catholics, as he points out, historically made great sacrifices for their faith without believing that the Gospels were dictated by God. To this I'll add that most of the sacrifices we make are not required by anything it says in the Torah. Most of the shabbos, kashrus and family purity laws are rabbinic decrees or custom. We don't pray three times per day or send our kids to wildly expensive schools because the written Torah says we must. We're rabinates, not Karraites. Our lives and our sacrifices are organized around the contents of the Talmud - a book all recognize as man-made - not the Torah. Recognizing that the written Torah developed historically, just as we've never doubted that the Talmud developed historically,  poses no threat to our accepting the authority of the Rabbis to make laws or to establish customs. We already acknowledge that our practices, in the main, were developed and instituted by the Rabbis and that most of the things we do are demanded by our contingent culture or our fear of neighbors, not our fear of God. Changing the way we think about the written Torah need not affect that core element of Orthodoxy.

I will concede one minor point. Its true that we may not be able to stay 21st-century style frum after accepting disbelief in the 8th. We may lose or gain some practices. But so what? None of the greats we study and honor were 21st-century style frum. Abandoning an idea that evidence and some of the voices in our own tradition (3) tell us is false can't -and won't- mean the end of Judaism. It will just mean the end of a particular iteration of Judaism, but iterations of Judaism have always come and gone. If e.g Rashi could believe in scribal emendations and stay Jewish, so can we. Ibn Ezra's disbelief in the immutable Torah didn't make him less authentically or less authoritatively Jewish. Such disbelief should likewise have no affect on our own Jewish legitimacy.

Farber concludes by calling for reinterpretations:
 When the Torah states that God created the world in six days, or that God opened up the reserves of water in the sky and flooded the earth, it means what it says, but nowadays it means something else. The reason the meaning of these words changed is because it had to; Judaism has always adapted itself to conceptual changes—which is why it survives: it is survival through adaptation as opposed to slow death or marginalization through ossification.
In our time, another shift is needed to accommodate the now very developed academic disciplines of biblical studies and archaeology. The old words need to be imbued with new meaning. I have made some suggestions, other scholars have made other suggestions and the conversation is a robust one.
In every generation the Rabbis added their own layers of interpretation and introduced new readings, such that we no longer comprehend the words of the Torah in the way that the original audience did. The Sages knew this which is why they imagined Moshe as the class dunce at a shiur given by Rabbi Akiva. They were not attempting to insult Moshe with this story, but to acknowledge their own rabinic contributions to our legal code and theology. When necessary, the Rabbbis reinterpreted verses to make them fit with their own pereptions of morality or with the facts of science as they were understood at that time.

While Farber is correct that we must continue the rabbinic program of investing the words of Scripture with new meanings and new understandings, something more fundamental is required: The time has come to stop using the Rambam's unnecessary and unfortunate 8th ikkar as a litmus test. Its time to recognize what the evidence and the voices in our own mesorah tell us. Let's view the Torah for what it is - a book of great power, meaning, majesty and significance - that may have been revealed on Har Sinai but subsequently developed historically. If we truly believe in God, in an initial revelation and in the eternal power of Judaism,  it follows that reality poses no threat. Achnowledging what the evidence suggests may mean the end of 21st-century frumkeit but accepting reality can't possibly damage anything that is legitimate and worth preserving.  By accepting disbelief in the 8th we may lose the chaff, but the wheat will not be endangered.

(1) Some might argue that there is a different between scribal emendations and the documentary hypothesis. Its also true that neither Yom Tov Ellum nor the ibn Ezra allowed for the idea that the Torah is actually a redaction of different textual traditions. However, the idea that the Torah we have today is a letter for letter match with the one Moshe received dies at their hands, not at the hands of the DH. And once a body is dead you can't kill it again.

(2) This is a pun in Hebrew, and its originally the Rambam's.

(3) Lots of examples like this can be found in the mesorah.

1 – Sanhedrin 4b: Rabbi Yshmael derives a law from the spelling of the word totafos. However, in all known copies of the Bible the word is not spelled the way Rabbi Yishmael has it. There are about 20 example of this, and regarding this phenomenon Tosfot says Hashas shelonu cholek in haseforim shelonu (our gemrah disagrees with our books)

2 – Avot d’rabi Nathan and the Midrash Raba both suggest Ezra, and not Moshe, wrote the dotted words.

3 – The Talmud tells us that three scrolls containing varient readings were once found in the Temple courtyard. The differences were resolved, in each instance, after the majority. It’s unlikely that the result, in every instance, matched the original revelation.

4 – We also have a system in which marginal notes indicate that certain words are to be read differently than they are spelled in the text, called “kere and ketiv.” Regarding this the Radak wrote: “It appears that these words are here because during the first Exile, books were misplaced and lost and scholars died; when the Great Assembly restored the Torah they found conflicting information in manuscripts and went according to the majority. ” Again suggesting that our current Torah is not a perfect word-for-word match to the original.

5 – - In his introduction to Masoret Seyag LaTorah, the Ramah wrote: “If we seek to rely on the proofread scrolls in our possession, they are also in great disaccord. Were it not for the Masorah which serves as a fence around the Torah, almost no one would find his way in the controversies between the scrolls. Even the Masorah is not free from dispute, and there are several instances disputed [among the Masorah manuscripts], but not as many as among the scrolls. If a man wishes to write a halakhically “kosher” scroll, he will stumble on the plene and defective spellings and grope like a blind man through a fog of controversy; he will not succeed. Even if he seeks the aid of someone knowledgeable, he will not find such a one. ”

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