But Is Torah True?

Rabbi Katz on Orthodoxy after Scholarship

Maimonides claims that “we have to believe that the whole Torah was given to us by Moses, our teacher, entirely from God.” He then says that anyone who denies this principle is a heretic—with all the halakhic ramifications associated with such a designation applicable to the denier. Well, a new book begs to differ.

The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible is a book whose raison d’etre is to critique or perhaps even negate Maimonides’ eighth principle. The book consists primarily of essays by rabbis and academics, all of whom are pushing back against Maimonides’ absolutist claim. The authors either reject or, at a minimum, problematize Rambam’s assertion that belief in a perfect Torah, written or dictated entirely by God, is an orthodox prerequisite.

Tova Ganzel, Yehuda Brandes, and Chayuta Deutsch, editors. The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible. Academic Studies Press. 2019. 528 pp. $135.99.

The book tackles the issue from two different angles, one halakhic, and the other academic. The rabbinic authors challenge Maimonides’ halakhic assumptions; the academics problematize his theological formulation.

There are two halakhic essays, one by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, the chancellor of Beit Morasha, the other by Rabbi David Bigman, the Dean of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. Rabbi Brandes’ claim is the bolder of the two.

Offering a novel understanding of Midrash, Rabbi Brandes argues that the authors of Midrash were precursors to Wellhausen, the father of modern Biblical criticism. He claims that at its core Midrash is a critical enterprise, written by Rabbis who believed that there are irreconcilable contradictions in the Torah. As a solution they offer robust non-literal reinterpretations. Ultimately, the Rabbis believed that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken literally. They contend that the Torah’s grammar, terms, and even its core narrative could be reinterpreted to be read in an abstract and allegorical fashion.

While Rabbi Brandes does amass an impressive array of examples where the Rabbis engage in “lower” and “higher” criticism, I question his ultimate thesis. He assumes that what the Rabbis do is always paradigmatic and can be replicated in other contexts. He, for example, thinks that Rabbinic higher criticism of the book of Job, where the Rabbis suggest that the book is perhaps fiction, gives the contemporary reader license to do the same with Genesis.

Although the argument is creative and courageous, one wonders whether it is not perhaps overstated. Tradition did not see those examples as paradigmatic but instead viewed them as isolated examples where the Rabbis, the sanctioned interpreters of the Torah, were entitled to reinterpret exceptional verses or texts that they thought needed to be reread. However, to see their project as a carte blanche license to reject the literal meaning of our formative religious narratives is a stretch.

Rabbi Bigman takes a different tack. He builds a convincing case that the Rabbis had a preference for some parts of the Bible, believing that certain sections are of primary importance. He infers from the lineup of “important” texts that those that are not on the list are non-essential to the tradition and can therefore be denuded of their historicity.

His claim also overreaches. It conflates preference with negation. The fact that the Rabbis saw some aspects of the Pentateuch as being particularly important does not imply that the other parts can be discarded as irrelevant. Being less important is not the same as being unimportant. Being relegated to a lesser status does not imply lack of authenticity.

While Rabbis Brandes and Bigman’s halakhic attempts to shake the foundation of Maimonides’ eighth principle are insufficient, this book’s attempt to expand its theological contours is promising. It offers hope that the believers compelled by modern biblical criticism’s claims will find the philosophical means to reconcile their religious beliefs with their intellectual convictions.

An outstanding example of this approach is Dr. Marc Brettler’s essay. Accepting the halakhic parameters of the eighth principle, he nevertheless advocates expanding its theological boundaries. Following in the footsteps of Tillich and others, he suggest an alternative understanding of biblical storytelling. Arguing for a robust interpretation of the “myth” category, Brettler claims that these narratives were always meant to be read as foundational myths, not historical facts.

While the specifics of his suggestion are unsuitable for the orthodox reader, I identify with its theological orientation. It stands in bold contrast to the halakhic orientation of Rabbis Brandes and Bigman, and I believe that this is the approach we need to adopt. We should reexamine philosophical terms, not quibble with established halakhic norms. We need to debate what heresy is, not whether it is allowed.

A promising direction might be to revisit the philosophical meaning of “belief,” and examine to what degree religious belief can be understood as a-factual, as a faith proclamation, not a factual postulate. Defining belief as a-factual would allow a person of faith to “believe” religiously in the historicity of the biblical narratives and at that same time entertain the postulates of biblical critics.

Regardless of whether this particular approach pans out, one things becomes clear when reading these essays: when read in sequence one cannot help notice the stark contrast between the futility of the halakhic discourse on this issue versus the utility of the theological conversation.

For observant Judaism to survive biblical criticism’s heavy artillery it will have to further articulate the meaning of its faith claims. This will allow it to remain faithful to its traditions while maintaining a mature dialogue with contemporary modes of thought.

The aforementioned essay by Dr. Brettler is just one of several in this richly informative book. There are also essays by Dr. Tamar Ross, Dr. Tova Ganzel, Rabbi Amit Kula, Chayuta Deutsch and many others, all of them exploring different aspects of the intersection between biblical criticism and normative theology. The authors’ sophisticated theological discourse inspires those who care about this tension to guide that debate towards the theological arena and away from the Beit Midrash. That is the arena in which orthodox creativity is most possible. The book convincingly demonstrates that retooling our theological formulations will allow orthodoxy to see these modernizing trends as complementary, not adversarial.

An earlier version of this essay was published on The Times of Israel‘s blog.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School. He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years. He is the chair of the Talmud department at YCT Rabbinical School.