Thursday, April 12, 2007

Do Orthodox Jews Avoid Investigating Biblical Authorship?

Chana, in her review of the movie Trembling Before God, responds to the tension between compassion for gay people and loyalty to the laws of the Torah:
The Rabbis who were interviewed came across as compassionate but in a halakhic bind, as they truly are; the Torah says what it says and one cannot, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg suggests, simply reinterpret the verses in question. The Rabbis on a whole explained that they felt compassion toward those who were suffering and realized that these people were in pain, but they were not at liberty to change Torah law. I believe this to be a fair approach.

In the comments section, erachat summed up the problem as follows:
The problem lies in the fact that Orthodox Jews don't believe the Torah was written by man.

Here was my response:
I agree. They also, by overwhelming majority, refuse to investigate whether this belief is reasonable in the light of the text itself, even when they admit it's a struggle to reconcile themselves to some of its moral instruction.

If nobody were harmed by the notion that the Torah was written by God, this would be merely a personal choice. However, because there are hundreds or thousands of actual, existing human beings who are being marginalized because of some of the words contained in that book, I'd argue that people have the moral responsibility to investigate whether the book is indeed divine, or whether said divinity falls apart under scrutiny.

If, upon honest investigation, they continue to believe the Torah is the word of God, so be it. But few have the courage to try, and even fewer of those remain convinced that it's God's word.

Chana wrote that the rabbis are in a bind and that is true, but what she is leaving out is that they have the ability to unbind themselves but choose not to exercise it.

How can I be so sure that the rabbis have chosen not to investigate the Torah's origins?

First of all, I grew up Orthodox. I know that certain topics are off-limits, and authorship of the Torah is one of them. Yeshiva students don't go through the process of studying Biblical criticism before coming to a conclusion about the Torah's origins -- they don't even spend an hour with a friend debating both sides of the issue.

Second, I don't believe that a fair-minded perusal of the facts can possibly support the notion that God dictated the Torah word-for-word to Moses. Even without the multiple authors idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis, a plain reading of the text shows that it was written well after Moses's lifetime. (For example, in Gen 14:14, it refers to the city Dan. Dan was named Dan much after Moses's time, though, as recounted in Judges 18. There are many other examples.)

Can anyone tell me I'm wrong? What percentage of rabbis who think they are "in a bind" have honestly investigated whether the binding is of their own making? How many of you, Orthodox readers, can tell me you've honestly considered the question and decided that the Torah was written by God as dictated to Moses?

33 comments:

meir said...

I've investigated somewhat. But I'm at a secular college, so I might not count. Anyway, upon investigation I think that there are two important points to make.

1) Modern theological thinkers are more than happy to admit that there are no proofs of God's existence, but they believe anyway. Still, many Orthodox Jews think that there are real proofs of TMS. But God is a crucial player in TMS. Therefore I think that it's time to change TMS from a historical claim to a theological one (more like belief in God, and less like belief in Abraham Lincoln).

2) As is often pointed out, every reading of the text starts with an assumption. If you assume human authorship, then one might also be compelled to claim that there is multiple authorship.

I'm not going to go down this well-trodden path. I just want to point out that if there were a good explanation for the different styles in the Torah under the assumption of Divine authorship, then there would be no theological problems. But until very recently, Orthodox Jews weren't willing to listen to what the scholars had to say. Our new project should be to work towards struggling to explain the Torah in light of modern scholarship. If we can provide sufficient reason, then it truly only would be a matter of one's starting assumption. This field is in its youth; academic scholarship has had an 150 year head start (though they took a strange path to where they are now, and they make much more modest claims than they once did). I have faith that we can work this out.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

Do you have the "Limits of Orthodox Judaism" handy? Check out the chapter about this topic. Shapiro has a lot of interesting facts and he ends up basically calling this ikkar of Maimonides more a matter of politically interested 'necessary beliefs' than one of true fact.

Chana said...

Orthoprax,

Incidentally, that was my favorite chapter of the book. It's chapter 7. I haven't written about that yet, JA, because I haven't finished my research. I'm in the process. :D

asher said...

If God is all knowing and can see in the future wouldn't He be able to dictate a book that would forsee things and places that didn't exist at the time of the dictating?

That's one....

The other is the many contradictions that appear in the text. You'd think the God that created so many species of slugs (a rather difficult thing) could dictate a book without so many contrary sentences (a much easier thing).

Baal Habos said...

Asher, then why does the torah not mention Lakewood, NJ?

JA, in one sense, you're wrong. It's not simply that OJ don't debate it. To many OJ's, it never even dawns on them that there is an issue!

jewish philosopher said...

Probably as many Orthodox Judaism critically examine their beliefs as members of other religions, including atheism, do.

I haven't seen Professor Dawkins at any Aish haTorah seminars.

Jewish Atheist said...

meir:

Therefore I think that it's time to change TMS from a historical claim to a theological one

What do you mean by that? What would it imply about how bound to its rules contemporary Jews should be?

I just want to point out that if there were a good explanation for the different styles in the Torah under the assumption of Divine authorship, then there would be no theological problems.

I disagree. I think the fact that the Torah was obviously written after Moses's time is a much bigger challenge to Orthodoxy than the fact that it is written in different styles.

If we can provide sufficient reason, then it truly only would be a matter of one's starting assumption.

But not all starting assumptions are created equal. Some are reasonable; others absurd. If you're basing your religion on an absurd assumption, it's not really fair to the kids you raise, especially those who don't fit in, is it?


orthoprax:

Do you have the "Limits of Orthodox Judaism" handy?

I'm not familiar with that book. It sounds like his idea of Maimonides's ikkarim makes sense, considering almost nobody believes all of them anyway. Back to the cause of my post, though, how can one justify raising gay kids to think that gay sex is a sin and an abomination if the Torah was written by men?


Chana:

I'll be interested in what you come up with. Out of curiosity, what do you think will be the impact on your life and religious beliefs & practice if you conclude that the Torah was written after Moses, perhaps compiled in the time of Ezra?


If God is all knowing and can see in the future wouldn't He be able to dictate a book that would forsee things and places that didn't exist at the time of the dictating?

Of course. But "Dan" wasn't a prediction; it was simply used to refer to a place. It would be like if someone claimed Christopher Columbus wrote a document but the document referred to the area east of the Potomac river "Washington, D.C."


Baal Habos:

It's not simply that OJ don't debate it. To many OJ's, it never even dawns on them that there is an issue!

I'm speaking specifically of those rabbis who feel themselves in a bind between compassion towards gay people and the words of the Torah. I can't imagine it's never dawned on them that the Torah was written by people.


JP:

Tu quoque, huh? I agree that most people do not examine their fundamental religious beliefs very carefully.

jewish philosopher said...

Tu quoque is right baby.

But personally, I do a lot of research and comparative religion work.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"I'm not familiar with that book."

Really? It's a book that should be primary reading for anyone even vaguely skeptical about basic Orthodox dogma. You should get your hands on a copy.

"Back to the cause of my post, though, how can one justify raising gay kids to think that gay sex is a sin and an abomination if the Torah was written by men?"

You could ask the same question about anything written in the Torah. I'm not defending it, but you would have the same issue for those who desire incestuous intercourse or to dress in the opposite gender's clothing. Or even those who really want to taste lobster flesh. In what way can one justify teaching that these things are wrong if they were man's creation?

Though, if I were to be snarky, I could also question why we should respect any of the various morals of any culture since they were all man's creation. Adultery nowadays doesn't seem to carry much weight anymore.

The point is that even one who sees the rules as man made may still yet accept them as valid or even exemplary moral directives. Legitimizing homosexuality could conceivably return terrible resolutions for society down the road even if consensual sodomy itself is apparently harmless.

Like the eating of pork may be an objectively harmless act (except for the pig, of course), if it were legitimized in Jewish society it could send disastrous waves through the fabric of Jewish life.

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax:

I'm referring to those people who would not think gay sex is wrong outside of the Torah's say-so. For example, some of the compassionate rabbis who feel "bound" by halakha.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

Well...if they no longer saw themselves as bound by Halacha then I wouldn't understand why they would bind themselves by Halacha.

I don't think the point you're making is about their conclusion, per se, though you may disagree with that as well, but the application of willful ignorance to moral issues. They are basing their moral views on a belief which they have not well investigated or, worse yet, refuse to seriously investigate.

I would agree that generally that could be a moral failing in its own right.

shishkadox said...

Jewish Philosopher, you imply that when people doubt their fundamental beliefs they are not being rational. Because rationality is only defined within a system of fundamental beliefs. And that the system itself taken together as a whole cannot be rationaly doubted. But by the same logic: the universe as a whole doesn't need a cause: a cause is something that only functions within the system, the system as a whole is not subject to the laws of cause and effect. Tu quoque.

Jewish Atheist said...

I don't think the point you're making is about their conclusion, per se, though you may disagree with that as well, but the application of willful ignorance to moral issues. They are basing their moral views on a belief which they have not well investigated or, worse yet, refuse to seriously investigate.

I would agree that generally that could be a moral failing in its own right.


Yes, you said it better than I. :-)

intuitor said...

I think only people of a certain independent psychological bent question their beliefs. You can't blame someone for having a wrong personality type. The most you can blame them for is for not befriending someone like that.

David Fryman said...

>>I know that certain topics are off-limits, and authorship of the Torah is one of them. Yeshiva students don't go through the process of studying Biblical criticism before coming to a conclusion about the Torah's origins -- they don't even spend an hour with a friend debating both sides of the issue.

JA, you're holding the frum community to an unfair standard. There are many frum intellectuals and academics who deal with issues of biblical authorship. Just look at some of the professors at Revel, for example.

You're right that most Orthodox Jews don't considers all sides of the issue. But most nonreligious people don't either. Do you really think the typical secular American rejected religion after a careful analysis of the arguments for and against? I doubt it.

Jewish Atheist said...

Do you really think the typical secular American rejected religion after a careful analysis of the arguments for and against? I doubt it.

But secular people don't teach their kids that something perfectly natural is a sin and abomination. There are no rules that I'm aware of that secular people force on their children because they believe God does not exist.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"But secular people don't teach their kids that something perfectly natural is a sin and abomination."

Are you talking about requiring soldiers to bury their excrement? It's perfectly natural to just let it sit where one dumps it. ;-)

"There are no rules that I'm aware of that secular people force on their children because they believe God does not exist."

Yet, conversely, their permissiveness may instill in their children a disregard for other moral values. Especially if it's true that God does indeed require all these things then they may have been grossly deficient.

Jewish Atheist said...

Are you talking about requiring soldiers to bury their excrement? It's perfectly natural to just let it sit where one dumps it. ;-)

I knew someone was going to jump on that. :-) I meant natural and harmless.

Yet, conversely, their permissiveness may instill in their children a disregard for other moral values. Especially if it's true that God does indeed require all these things then they may have been grossly deficient.

Ok, that's a good point. Maybe secular people who don't investigate religions' claims are equally morally deficient. But then again, so are religious people who don't investigate other religions' claims.

Ezzie said...

I think that's an unfair challenge. For someone who was raised Orthodox and believes it to be true, there's no reason to waste time on the issue.

It's similar to testing what we accept as basic scientific fact. Why bother when you already know the answer?

Skeptics often miss part of the idea of mesorah (and I'm not a fan of a lot of mesorah). It's that the previous generations have tested and come to a certain conclusion about a subject, and there's no real point in doing it over again. They're passing down that knowledge, just as we pass down our knowledge. Now, if something (science is an obvious example) becomes more testable, then it makes sense to test it. But for theological beliefs? What's the point?

Does the DH fall into that? Maybe, but I don't think it does, really.

Now, to answer your Q: I've investigated only a bit, but I don't think that the basic premise of DH is a good one. :)

BEAJ said...

Ezzie, science always takes new information into account, religion doesn't in many instances. In the past 150 years scientific discovery has defined the age of the earth to be well over 6000 years old, proven there was no global flood, at least while man has populated the earth, and lack of evidence (where there should be lots of evidence) has refuted a large Exodus, and perhaps any Exodus at all.

Strong evidence that oral history is unreliable: they can't find Solomon's temple. It leads me to believe, it didn't even exist. But then again, I like hardcore evidence.

littlefoxling said...

JA,

I am Orthofox and I have spent a lot of time investigating it.

littlefoxling said...

I couldn't agree more with your point. It's one thing to say you've researched the issues and concluded that you believe. But, if someone hasn't even taken the time to research and think about the issues, it's quite clear their belief is not based on reason, but dogma.

Jewish Atheist said...

Now, if something (science is an obvious example) becomes more testable, then it makes sense to test it. But for theological beliefs? What's the point?

TMS has become more testable. New evidence has called into question not only the authorship, but the exodus itself, as littlefoxling points out. Also, advances in secular morality should lead one to question Orthodox views on gays, just as polygamy, 12-year-old marriages, and slavery have been reevaluated by Orthodox Jews.

Now, to answer your Q: I've investigated only a bit, but I don't think that the basic premise of DH is a good one. :)

Forget the DH. As I said, the question of when it was written (during Moses's time or afterwards) is much easier and more important.


littlefoxling:

I am Orthofox and I have spent a lot of time investigating it.

Interesting. And do you still believe in TMS?

Orthoprax said...

BEAJ,

"Strong evidence that oral history is unreliable: they can't find Solomon's temple. It leads me to believe, it didn't even exist."

That seems rather presumptuous. Physical evidence is the only thing that works for you? How would you explain Jewish history without the first temple? Conspiracy theories? Ezra and Nechemia fooled the returnees into 'rebuilding' what was never there in the first place?

I think you'd find that most of ancient history didn't happen if you stick to such high standards.

Szbojeci said...

Maybe there was a temple it just wasn't built in Solomon's days. Maybe the returnees had a legend that there once was a temple that Solomon built.

Orthoprax said...

SZ,

I don't see what is so difficult with just accepting the traditional account. Seems to be the simplest explanation.

Lots of things could be, but its all speculation unless you have the evidential goods.

BEAJ said...

"That seems rather presumptuous. Physical evidence is the only thing that works for you? How would you explain Jewish history without the first temple?"
**********************
It is presumptuous to believe something that only has evidence in after the fact writing. I think that Judaism fazed in from around 650-800 BC up until Ezra scribed down the laws. There is no evidence that Judaism existed prior to just before Ezra's time. The bible is not a history book.
And the same goes with a historical Jesus. 42 contemporary historians were alive and writing in the area from 1-40 AD and not one word was mentioned about him. I speculate that Paul invented Christianity by taking a lot of myths that were around at the time, just as I believe Ezra invented Judaism.

"I don't see what is so difficult with just accepting the traditional account. Seems to be the simplest explanation."
***********************
From geological records, we know that a worldwide flood that killed all but two humans is impossible. And the Ark story is a complete fable (adults believe in fairy tales still by taking the simplest explanation)
If you investigate any bible, you'll see that it has extraordinary claims, and nothing to back those claims up. Take scientology. Why not believe that aliens came here millions of years ago? It is written in their books.

Ezzie said...

Hey! I wrote a whole long comment last night... PLEASE say it didn't disappear... ARGH!

Orthoprax said...

BEAJ,

"It is presumptuous to believe something that only has evidence in after the fact writing."

Then, as I said before, that means you don't believe in most of ancient history. Much of what we know from that time period is based on historical accounts written many years after the times of the events. These accounts are usually then compared to the physical evidence and some academic balance is sought. The idea is that it is _unreasonable_ to suppose that a people would just create a whole history without it being, at least to some extent, based on fact.

"42 contemporary historians were alive and writing in the area from 1-40 AD and not one word was mentioned about him."

And? He was a two-bit religious leader who was crucified along with thousands of other people. That he wasn't recognized in his lifetime doesn't mean he was a complete fabrication.

"I speculate that Paul invented Christianity by taking a lot of myths that were around at the time, just as I believe Ezra invented Judaism."

You do know that these are conspiracy theories, right?

"From geological records, we know that a worldwide flood that killed all but two humans is impossible. And the Ark story is a complete fable (adults believe in fairy tales still by taking the simplest explanation)"

And if you study Greek history you'll see that they begin with Zeus and Prometheus, but that doesn't mean the Trojan War was a complete fabrication.

If you believe the Iliad is based on true events then you're on at least as solid ground as believing that Tanach is as well. Take it with a grain of salt, sure, but you can hardly justify throwing it out completely.

BEAJ said...

There is no evidence for the Exodus, and there should be lots. There is lots of evidence for the Trojan Wars.

I think when archeology matches up with writings, and is matched by contemporary writings of others, and the claims aren't extraordinary, I can buy into the history.

Extraordinary claims require at least some real evidence for me to buy into it.

Again, what stops you from believing in Scientology and their claims?

Orthoprax said...

BEAJ,

"There is no evidence for the Exodus, and there should be lots. There is lots of evidence for the Trojan Wars."

First, since when were we talking about the Exodus? The topic of conversation was the First Temple. Secondly, lots of evidence for the Trojan War? Hardly. There is some to be sure and it makes sense given the basic story given in the Iliad but there's no way you would necessarily figure out any such story from just the archeological remains.

"I think when archeology matches up with writings, and is matched by contemporary writings of others, and the claims aren't extraordinary, I can buy into the history."

So what contemporary writings have you for the Trojan War? And the claims in the Iliad are indeed extraordinary which the archeology only very poorly reflects.

"Extraordinary claims require at least some real evidence for me to buy into it."

So what's so extraordinary about a king of Israel building a Temple?

"Again, what stops you from believing in Scientology and their claims?"

Because there's no reason to and many reasons against. It's not grounded in anything.

The Bible, in contrast, is very well grounded in the area where it was written and the political situations of the period. It is the story of a people told to a people of their not very distant past. Also, once you strip it of its supernatural extras, it tells a reasonable story of Israelite history. How much of Jewish history do you hold in doubt? Do you believe that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had kings and wars with each other and the neighboring states? Is that so unlikely?

Forget the Bible is a religious text for a moment. As it stands as just a record of history why would you reject it in total but accept something like the Iliad, at least in part?

BEAJ said...

OK, I really shouldn't believe the Trojan Wars took place. I didn't really look into it, until now. Much live my ideas about the first temple,the Exodus and the historical Jesus. It could very well be fable or an exaggerated story.

I was talking about extraordinary claims about the Exodus. As far as the First Temple goes, the fact it can't be found, the fact that there is no evidence that Judaism existed either leads me to be a skeptic about it.

Prior to around 650 BC and closer to 450 BC, the OT is not well grounded. Just a bunch of mythological stories and exaggeration and usurping going on.

Honestly, it makes do difference to me whether a first temple existed. But knowing what I know about religious history (pick one) and how religions are started, I remain skeptical.

Scientologists will argue with you about their religion being groundless. If it wasn't true, how could they cure so many Hollywood gays?

Alex said...

Delving into heresy, I agree the pushing the dating of the Torah back from Moses to Ezra would be DRASTICALLY more challenging to Orthodoxy than losing divine authorship. Losing a claim to Moshe Rabbenu undermines the credibility of the Oral Law, which not only destroys Halacha, it particularly destroys leniencies from Oral Law...

OTOH, the time of the Torah being authoritatve in Judaism was rather short (whether you deny the existence of Kings David and Solomon and the Temple or not), because the Torah deals MUCH more with sacrifices and other non-applicable in the absense of the Temple obligations and Rabbinic Judaism and its Christian offshoots use very little of it.

That said, it is a bit dishonest that all claims BUT the Bible are given much more weight than the Bible. But the interesting facts for the believers (non-fundamentalist) is that we DO know that the kind of "modern" civilizations that humans evolved that we would recognize began 5000-10000 years ago, so the 6000 year estimate isn't so horrible, and the special relativity calculations that shows histroy -> basically "now" is about 6 days from the center of the universe is kinda neat.

As a BT believer, I wouldn't be shocked if we find some remains that undermine our understanding that humans have been biologically similar for about 200,000 years but only started on tools 10000 years ago and finds that there is a REAL biological shift to "modern man" in the 5000-10000 range... giving you a mutant Adam... :)