Biblical Criticism for the Shomer Torah

The past few weeks have seen yet another controversy in the Jewish world over the merits of biblical criticism and depending on whom you read, the impetus for Yet Another Schism within the Jewish community. Given the frequency that biblical criticism is used as a shovel with which to dig theological graves, I will not even bother with linking to the most recent essays. In fact, just this past February I devoted an entire class to Biblical Criticism and Orthodox Judaism after the last series of exchanges. For those who are unable, unwilling, or just too impatient to listen to the class in its entirety, I will summarize the major points while referring to the source sheet and bibliography included in the above post.

Most of the debates surrounding Biblical Criticism focus less on the merits of arguments and instead serve as a litmus test for which ideas – and by extension which individuals – are compatible with or acceptable to “Orthodox Judaism” or if there must be a distinction with an illegitimate Orthodox franchise. Since Orthodox Judaism is in fact less of a religious system and more of a religious society with its own definitions of exclusion, whether or not biblical criticism is a “threat” will tautologically depend on the community in which one finds oneself and the cultures of Orthodox Judaisms will accept nothing less than strict adherence to the collective dogma. But for those disinterested in partisan pretentiousness or legislating labels, the real question is if it is possible to reconcile biblical criticism with being a Shomer Torah.

The entire corpus of literature relevant to Biblical Criticism is impossible for me to summarize adequately. It incorporates archeology, linguistic analysis of languages such as Ugaritic and Akkadian, and a whole host of other areas in which I have no expertise. For our purposes, the core challenge biblical criticism poses to Orthodox Judaism is the assumption of multiple authors in what is known as the documentary hypothesis, which for the purpose of this essay I will cite the Wikipedia summary:

The contribution of Julius Wellhausen, a Christian theologian and Christian biblical scholar, was to order these sources chronologically as JEDP, giving them a coherent setting in a notional evolving religious history of Israel, which he saw as one of ever-increasing priestly power. Wellhausen’s formulation was:

  • the Yahwist source ( J ) : hypothetically written c. 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
  • the Elohist source ( E ) : hypothetically written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
  • the Deuteronomist ( D ) : hypothetically written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
  • the Priestly source ( P ) : hypothetically written c. 500 BCE by Kohanim (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon.

From this description the challenge to Shomrei Torah should be obvious. After all, how can Jews view the Bible as the authentic infallible Word of God if it was in fact written by human beings? Such a theory is vehemently rejected by Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith:

וממה שראוי שאזכיר כאן וזהו המקום היותר ראוי להזכירם בו, שעיקרי תורתינו הטהורה ויסודותיה שלש עשרה יסודות…
והיסוד השמיני הוא תורה מן השמים. והוא, שנאמין שכל התורה הזו הנמצאת בידינו היום הזה היא התורה שניתנה למשה, ושהיא כולה מפי הגבורה, כלומר שהגיעה עליו כולה מאת ה’ הגעה שקורים אותה על דרך ההשאלה דבור, ואין יודע איכות אותה ההגעה אלא הוא עליו השלום אשר הגיעה אליו, ושהוא במעלת לבלר שקורין לפניו והוא כותב כולה תאריכיה וספוריה ומצותיה, וכך נקרא מחוקק.

It is appropriate to mention here – and this is the most appropriate place [in this text] to mention the following points – the essential [beliefs] of our sacred Torah and its fundamental principles of faithThe eighth fundamental principle is that the Torah is from heaven, that we should believe that the entire Torah that we possess today is the Torah that was given to Moses, and that it is of Godly origin in its entirety. [The Torah as a comprehensive whole] was granted [to Moses] by God. The manner in which it was granted to him we call – by analogy – speech. The only one who knows the nature of this process of communication is Moses, the one to whom it was granted. Nevertheless, metaphorically he can be compared to a scribe taking dictation, writing down all the events that took place, the stories and the mitzvoth. For this reason he is referred to as “the scribe.” (Translated by Touger, emphasis added)

The culture of Orthodox Judaism tends to view Maimonides 13 principles of faith as a matter of incontrovertible Dogma, despite no court legislating mandated belief, numerous medieval and later disputes over Maimonides’ 13 principles, and that Orthodox Judaism ignores or disregards most of Rambam’s actual halakhic writings. Still, given the cultural importance of Maimonides’ principles, it is essential that we address his comments.

The crucial words in Maimonides’ formulation is that the Torah “הנמצאת בידינו” – that we currently posess in our hands – is what God dictated to Moses.1 As written, Maimonides’ formulation does not allow for any textual variants since whatever text we have must have been exactly what was transmitted to Moses at Sinai. Unfortunately, this absolute belief in an unaltered text is untenable given that earlier Rabbinic sages already admit to the imperfections of the written transmission.

Some of these variants may be considered trivial such as “defective” and “full” readings, where a yod or vav may be excluded or included respectively. Already in the times of the Talmud, there was no definitive tradition as to how such words ought to be spelled (B. Kiddushin 30a).

בעי רב יוסף: וא”ו דגחון מהאי גיסא, או מהאי גיסא? א”ל: ניתי ס”ת ואימנינהו! מי לא אמר רבה בר בר חנה: לא זזו משם עד שהביאו ספר תורה ומנאום? א”ל: אינהו בקיאי בחסירות ויתרות, אנן לא בקיאינן.

R. Joseph propounded: Does the waw of gahon belong to the first half or the second? Said they [the scholars] to him, Let a Scroll of the Torah be brought and we will count them! Did not Rabbah b. Bar Hanah say, They did not stir from there until a Scroll of the Torah was brought and they counted them? — They were thoroughly versed in the defective and full readings, but we are not.

According to Jewish law, a Torah scroll which is incorrect even by one letter is considered invalid, yet in the cases of “defective” or “full” readings we have no set rule. In the words of R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe Y.D. 3:114)

וכן אי אפשר לשום אדם אף לא לנביא להחסיר אפילו אות אחת ואם חסר אות אחת או יתר אות אחת פסולה כמפורש ברמב”ם פ”י מס”ת ה”א ומחמת שאין אנו בקיאין בחסירות ויתירות כדאיתא בקידושין דף ל’, אין כשרות ס”ת שלנו ברורה כל כך

And thus no person – not even a prophet – may remove even one letter [from the Torah], and if one letter is missing or one letter is added [to the Torah], it is invalid as explained in Rambam’s Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:1. But since we are not experts in the “defective” or “full” writings as we find in B. Kiddushin 30, the validity of our Torah scrolls is not so certain. [Emphasis added]

Regardless if these defective or full letters invalidates the validity of a Torah scroll, R. Moshe Feinstein is technically casting doubt on Maimonides’ 8th principle in that he is explicitly doubting that the Torah scroll “that we posess today” is in fact the pristine text which Moses received. Were we to invoke the literal Maimonidean Dogma, we would have to disqualify R. Moshe Feinstein as being a heretic.

But we also find more substantive variations noted in the Rabbinic literature. Y. Ta’anit 4:2 82a records an instance where three Torah scrolls were found with variations between them. Following majority rule, two of the scrolls invalidated the third.

שלשה ספרים מצאו בעזרה ספר מעוני וספר זעטוטי וספר היא באחד מצאו כתוב מעון אלהי קדם ובשנים כתוב מעונה אלהי קדם וקיימו שנים וביטלו אחד באחד מצאו כתוב וישלח את זעטוטי בני ישראל ובשנים כתוב וישלח את נערי בני ישראל וקיימו שנים וביטלו אחד באחד מצאו כתוב תשע היא ובשנים כתוב אחת עשרה היא וקיימו שנים וביטלו אחד

Three scrolls did they find in the Temple courtyard. These were the Maon-scroll [“Dwelling”], the Zaatuti -scroll [“Little ones”], and the He- scroll. In one of these scrolls they found it written, “The eternal God is our dwelling place (maon)” (Deut. 33:27: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms. And he thrust out the enemy before you, and said, ‘Destroy’”). And in two of the scrolls it was written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place” (meonah). They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other. In one of them they found written, “They sent the little ones of the people of Israel” (Ex. 24:5: “And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord”). And in the two it
was written, “They sent young men….” They confirmed the two and abrogated the other. In one of them they found written, “He [he written in the feminine spelling] nine times, and in two, they found it written that way eleven times.” They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other.

Ignoring for a moment that the textual tradition was ultimately determined by relying on three invalid Torah scrolls, it is impossible to maintain the Maimonidean principle that the Torah scroll “that we posess today” was exactly what Moses received.

Finally, there are three instances where Genesis Rabba records that the Tanna R. Meir had his own scroll with its own anomalies.

בראשית א, לא
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי:

בראשית רבה בראשית פרשה ט:ה
בתורתו של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב, והנה טוב מאד והנה טוב מות

בראשית ג, כא
וַיַּעַשׂ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם:

בראשית רבה בראשית פרשה כ:יב
בתורתו של ר”מ מצאו כתוב כתנות אור

בראשית מו, כג
וּבְנֵי דָן חֻשִׁים:

בראשית רבה פרשת ויגש צד:ט
בתורתן /בתורתו/ של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב ובן דן חושים

Genesis 1:31
Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very
good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Genesis Rabbah 1:5
In the Torah of R. Meir it was found to be written, “And indeed it was very good, and indeed it was death.”

Genesis 3:21
Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.

Genesis Rabba 20:12
In the Torah of R. Meir it was found to be written, “tunics of light”

Genesis 46:23
The children of Dan were “Hushim”

Genesis Rabba 94:9
In the Torah of R. Meir it was found to be written, “the child of Dan was Hushim.”

Again, were we to impose Maimonidean Dogma as written, we would have to further excise the heresy of one of the most prominent Tannaim in Rabbinic literature, since R. Meir clearly did not have the same Torah which even his own contemporaries possessed.

If we were to rely on Maimonides’ 13 Principles as an absolute dogma, we would be forced to reject rabbinic traditions. However, I suggest the possibility that perhaps due to the above conflicts with Rabbinic texts, Maimonides changed his mind.

In Hilkhot Teshuva 3:8 Maimonides lists the characteristics of certain types of heretics:

שלשה הן הנקראים אפיקורסין: האומר שאין שם נבואה כלל ואין שם מדע שמגיע מהבורא ללב בני האדם, והמכחיש נבואתו של משה רבינו, והאומר שאין הבורא יודע מעשה בני האדם כל אחד משלשה אלו הן אפיקורוסים, שלשה הן הכופרים בתורה: האומר שאין התורה מעם ה’ אפילו פסוק אחד אפילו תיבה אחת אם אמר משה אמרו מפי עצמו הרי זה כופר בתורה, וכן הכופר בפרושה והוא תורה שבעל פה והמכחיש מגידיה כגון צדוק ובייתוס, והאומר שהבורא החליף מצוה זו במצוה אחרת וכבר בטלה תורה זו אף על פי שהיא היתה מעם ה’ כגון ההגרים כל אחד משלשה אלו כופר בתורה.

Three are called “Apikores:” 1. One who says there is on prophecy at all and that no knowledge comes from God to the hearts of man. 2. One who denies the prophecy of Moses, our teacher. 3. And the one who says that God does not know the actions of man. Three are called “Koferim” (deniers): 1. The one who says that the Torah is not from God, even one verse, even one letter – if one says Moses himself had written it on his own, he is a denier of the Torah. 2. The one who denies [the Torah’s] interpretation and one denies [the authority] of its teachers like Zadok and Baitus 3. And the who says God substituted one commandment for another and the previous Torah is now invalid – even if it is from God like the “hagrim” (likely Christians, possibly Muslims) – all these three types of people deny Torah. [Emphasis added]

Note that the first characteristic of a “kofer” or “denier” is one who denies the divine origin of the Torah. While this is similar to his statement in the 13 Principles, conspicuous by its absence is the requirement that one believe the Torah “that we posess today” is from God itself. The importance of this distinction cannot be understated. While the Rambam in his 13 Principles requires belief in the authenticity of the specific physical Torah scroll, in his Mishnah Torah he only requires belief in (or at least not contradicting) the Torah’s divine authorship.2 More importantly, unlike his Commentary to the Mishnah, Rambam viewed his Mishnah Torah as the representative of what he considered to be normative Jewish law.

What this can mean practically is that even according to Maimonidean thought, there is room to believe that God gave a Torah to Moses, and this Torah was completely divine in its transmission even though our physical Torah scroll may have undergone some changes over time. Some may wish to distinguish between the “lower criticism” of textual variations and the “higher criticism” of authorship. However, once we concede any textual variant in the Torah, Maimonides’ 8th principle is no longer valid.3 On the other hand, once we are no longer bound by the absolutist Maimonidean adherence to a specific physical text then even the higher criticism poses no threat as it only is a commentary on the scrolls “that we posses today” and not a challenge to the Torah which we believe Moses actually received.

However, we are still left with the question posed at the beginning of this essay, how could a Shomer Torah reconcile the premises of biblical criticism when it challenges the divine origins of the Torah? While there are several possibilities – those of David Weiss Halivni and Yeshayahu Leibowitz are summarized in my class – I would like to follow the thinking of a professor of mine at the University of Chicago, Dr. Martin Riesebrodt in that instead of viewing fundamental principles as required or mandated beliefs, to consider them as beliefs without which the religion would not make sense. What would this belief be for Judaism? I would phrase this belief not in terms of the physical authenticity of a particular text, but rather the acceptance of the Torah as representative of Divine Will. Regardless of the academic scholarship of past, present, or future, a Shomer Torah would still view adherence to the Torah and its precepts as following the commandments of the Divine Will and are thus religiously binding on all Jews.4

To be sure, this will not be a terribly convincing argument for doubters, nor is it intended to be, but rather it serves as one possible approach in how to reconcile academic scholarship with religious faith. I recently heard Dr. Lawrence Schiffman at The Hampton Synagogue reference an Israeli archaeologist who personally does not believe that an Exodus happened but still conducts a Passover Seder because, “that’s what Jews do.” I cite this not to endorse Kaplanian Reconstructionism, but to point out that cognitive dissonance need not impede religious observance let alone uproot one’s system of belief. This is also not to say that one’s faith cannot be challenged. After all, were religion a matter of certainty, it could hardly be called a “faith.”

  1. Note that while Orthodox Jewish culture also mandates belief that the entire corpus of the Torah was specifically delivered at Mt. Sinai, Maimonides does not include this factor as a fundamental belief. I will assume that this is in part because the Torah itself contradicts this idea in sources such as the narrative of Bilam in Num 22, Deut. 1:1 where Moses begins speaking on the bank of the Jordan River and Deut. 28:69 where the Torah specifically notes a second covenant “apart from what was established” at Sinai.
  2. Think heftza vs. gavra for the Brisker fans.
  3. On this point my father like quoting his PhD. advisor Dr. Baruch Levine that you can’t be 1% pregnant.
  4. Not unlike how Rashbam’s literal commentary to the Torah does not impact halakhically binding legal exegesis.
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