Very few rabbis have both a PhD in humanities and also functioned as a Dayyan (Isidor Grunfled, Herzog, Bleich). Zev Farber has a PhD in Biblical history and yadin yadin. He just published a manifesto of his beliefs on faith and criticism. It is a well thought out position paper of what he believes. Here are some excerpts totaling about a third of the essay. This is the time to compare his position to that of Kugel, Ross, Berman, and the others. The discussion here is to be about the theological and philosophic issues, not the denominational ones. I placed his concluding section first, then followed the order of the essay.
AVRAHAM AVINU IS MY FATHER:THOUGHTS ON TORAH, HISTORY, AND JUDAISM– Rabbi Zev Farber
Beyond strict adherence to halakha, part of being a Torah observant—or Orthodox—Jew is believing in the divinity of the Torah, that the Torah is devar Hashem, the word of God. In this essay I have tried to describe how this is possible while still embracing the findings and methods of modern academic scholarship which appear to me to be convincing. What is “the sum of the matter”? Here are my beliefs in short.
I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah is from heaven, and that the entirety of the book is nevua (prophecy) and represents the encounter between God and the people of Israel.
I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, meaning the uniqueness of the Torah as being of a higher order than any other work in its level of divine encounter. The story of the revelation at Sinai in the Torah I understand as a narrative depiction of a deeper truth—the Torah is God’s book and the divine blueprint for Israel and Jewish life.
I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses, from “Timnah was a concubine” (Gen. 36:12) to “I am the Lord your God,” are holy.
I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal’s interpretation.
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Every generation has its challenges, both intellectual and social. As committed observant Jews, it is our job to keep the tradition alive by adapting the message of God to respond to these challenges, without fear and without apology, but with intellectual honesty, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual integrity. We must always be ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts. Only in this way will we succeed in facilitating the growth of Torah observance in our day and allow the Torah and its message to flourish.
THE PARADIGM SHIFT
Our engagement with Torah cannot remain stagnant as the world continues to turn. Our Torah has proven to be timeless, but this doesn’t mean that it remains the same. Chazal call the Torah a torat chayim, a living Torah. Living implies growing; living implies continued vibrance.
As has happened many times in human history, the world is going through a Kuhnian paradigm shift in its understanding of its past and the foundations of its religious identity.What was once thought to be history may, in the light of developing understanding about history, science and society, now be understood as mnemohistory, a technical term which means the study of constructed memory.
This shift goes deeper than questioning miracles or allegorically interpreting tales such as the Garden of Eden with its talking snake. It runs deeper than the realization that the Torah contains difficult and seemingly contradictory accounts of certain events. Over the past few decades, much of the narrative of ancient Israel’s origins, from the patriarchs to the conquest, including the Exodus, the wilderness experience and Sinai, have proven problematic to reconstruct as historical. Certain accounts have been subject to re-characterization as legend or constructed memory, and not necessarily historical fact.
Fundamentalist objections to this paradigm shift include those who cast aspersions on historians or professors of religion, those who espouse conspiracy theories about a war on God, and those who intimate that the so-called objective scientific approach is anything but.
Nevertheless, many traditionally-observant Jews wish for an engagement with Torah free of apologetics and irrational claims. Can our religious way of life and our faith that we are part of some larger divine plan survive the loss of its “historical” underpinnings, now relegated to the status of legend or narrative allegory by the vast majority of academic historians? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes!
ENCOUNTERS WITH ACADEMIC STUDIES
Since my teenage years, I have been aware of the tension between academic biblical studies and Torah mi-Sinai as presented by some of my teachers. For years, as I was mastering my yeshiva studies, I put these concerns aside with the implicit understanding that I would return to them when I became more grounded in traditional learning. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I signed up to study biblical history at Hebrew University.
As I began my studies, I started to learn Tanakh with the historical-critical approach. As I deepened my facility with this methodology, I realized that I was constantly engaged in apologetics with myself, subscribing to readings of texts and theories that I would not be included to subscribe to if it were any other subject and if my beliefs were not at stake. This was intolerable to me since if I could not be honest with myself, I was lost before I started.
Over these years, I became proficient in the nuts and bolts of ancient history and academic biblical interpretation, learning Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin so that I could read important material in the original.6 I learned about source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, literary theory, and a variety of other tools that academic biblical scholars use when studying the text.7 As I became more adept at this, I began to notice a myriad of problems. I will offer here some illustrative examples.
So where does this inquiry leave me? First, it appears that the Torah is a layered document. While I am not convinced of the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) per se, it seems that the Torah has evident signs of being an edited work which makes use of multiple sources and contains layers of redaction. The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives and lists. At first I toyed with the possibility that these might be literary devices, but this only works for some of the examples (and not for many of them).
Second, religious practices as well as aspects of the Jewish belief system have changed and developed over the generations. 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.
THE MISTAKE OF BINARY THINKING
Faced with this awareness, I turned back to my religious self (which I had kept on hold for a few years) and asked whether this new perspective should change anything about my lifestyle and commitments.
I realized that some Jewish thinkers are caught in a binary system: either every word of the Torah was literally dictated by God to Moses, hence perfect, or the Torah was written by people, hence flawed. I wish to abandon the binary system and offer something else: a faith-position of sorts.
In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. These different modes themselves are probably not binary; I imagine that a person can be in prophetic mode to a greater or lesser degree, depending on his or her level of inspiration and spiritual sensitivity.
The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way. To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God create a mesorah in which distinct documents, traditions, redactional comments, and other sources can evolve into the Torat Hashem (God’s Torah).
THE WAVE THEORY
Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.
I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud.
In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.
MNEMOHISTORY VERSUS HISTORY
Once upon a time, history and lore were closely intertwined. Legends and myths, blended with nuggets of cultural memory, explained the distant past.
But matters did not—could not—stop there. The Torah traces the lineage of Israel’s first founding father, Abraham, back to Noah. But if Noah is not a historical character, what about Abraham? Additionally, it is hard to ignore the symbolic elements of many of the Abraham stories. Many of his sons—if not all of them—founded their own nations. Scholars began to realize that the family history being offered in the Torah was really a schematic attempt—the technical term is etiological narrative—of the Israelite writers or story tellers to explain the relationships between themselves and their neighbors.
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.
Given the data to which modern historians have access, 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. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century). However, even when historiography and biblical history overlap, they are hardly one and the same.
CRITIQUE OF THE STANDARD REACTION
The stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troublesome.
This vision of Torah may appeal to some but, ironically, I find it both unappealing and even sacrilegious. The Sages tell us that the Torah predates creation—although I understand this as a non-literal claim, it implies that the Torah had no choice but to turn out the way it did. The stories were destined to be told, irrespective of the historicity of its characters and their actions.
MNEMOHISTORY: TORAH AS SACRED LORE
Many may feel a pang of fear when sacred stories of the past are referred to as lore—when mnemohistory is understood as something different than factual history. However, the most powerful force in most societies is not history. Societies are driven by their lore—their legends and their stories.
The same is true for biblical stories and characters. The stories of the Torah reflect the ways the prophets of old refracted their encounters with divine wisdom through the prism of mnemohistorical narrative. Adam is the story about why humans are here, and Noah is the story about the precariousness of our position and the existential need to be good people in order for our existence to have meaning. The stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are about who we (Israel/Jews) are as a people and how we found God/God found us; the Exodus and Conquest tell us about Israel’s mission as a nation and our covenantal relationship with God. (Read the Full Version-Here)