In What Sense Did Orthodoxy Believe the Torah to be Divine?
In the very short time since its founding, TABS—through its website, TheTorah.com—has helped place the modern study of Torah on the agenda of Orthodox Judaism. While the number of religiously observant academics involved in critical biblical scholarship has been steadily growing for decades, it has taken the internet to introduce this approach to a wide audience of non-specialists, including those who live their lives as Orthodox Jews.
Taking a 50-Year Step Back: The Survey in Commentary Magazine
It may be worth recalling how different things were almost 50 years ago—way before the internet age—when Commentary, then the most prestigious Jewish periodical in America, gave the country’s Jewish religious leaders the opportunity to state their views on the subject. In 1966, the magazine asked 55 rabbis to submit responses to five questions on contentious theological issues. Thirty-eight responded, of whom ten were unequivocally Orthodox.
Part of question one asked:
“In what sense do you believe the Torah to be divine revelation?”
The significance of the challenge the Orthodox respondents faced can only be understood in historical context. Defining the Orthodox understanding of divine revelation and determining the role doctrine should play in demarcating denominational boundaries had recently become hot issues in English-speaking Orthodox communities.
The Jacobs Affair in Britain
The so-called Jacobs Affair had just run its course in Great Britain. Louis Jacobs, a charismatic, yeshiva-educated rabbi universally acknowledged as a great scholar in the traditional sense, but also possessing university training in philosophy and comparative religion, was appointed in 1959 to the faculty of Jews’ College in London—the country’s Orthodox seminary—with the understanding that he would head the institution upon the retirement of the incumbent. Once in that position, many assumed, he would likely be a strong eventual candidate for the post of chief rabbi.
These plans were derailed, however, when community leaders found out about We Have Reason to Believe, a book Jacobs published in 1957 that rejected a literal understanding of Torah Mi’Sinai, the doctrine that the Torah as we have it today was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While Jacobs lived a wholly observant life, this public break with the traditional theological understanding of revelation led Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie to pass him over for consideration to head Jews’ College when the position became vacant in 1961. Adding insult to injury, Brodie vetoed his appointment two years later as rabbi of the New West End Synagogue, where Jacobs had served years earlier. In a word, Jacobs was virtually excommunicated from Orthodoxy for embracing an academic approach to Torah.
The State of Orthodox Theology in the USA
Orthodox Jews on the other side of the Atlantic were also encountering the challenge of biblical criticism. In post-World War II America the previously blurry boundary between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism gradually became clearer. While Rabbi David de Sola Pool could plausibly state in 1942 that “no logical or clear line can be drawn today between American Orthodoxy and Conservatism,” the decision of the Conservative movement in 1950 to allow driving to synagogue on Shabbat, and the growing Orthodox insistence on mechitzot, physical partitions between men and women during synagogue services established formal markers differentiating the practices of the two religious streams, although for some years afterward many Orthodox synagogues would retain mixed seating, and their congregants would drive on Shabbat.
The Shadow Cast by Rav Soloveitchik’s Position
Meanwhile, Orthodox authorities came increasingly to stress the traditional belief in divine revelation as the distinguishing feature of Orthodoxy. In 1954, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who had recently emerged as the acknowledged leader of modern Orthodoxy, stated that “Either one believes in Torah min ha-Shamayim [that the Torah comes from heaven], and one accepts the Halakhah [Jewish law] in its totality, or one does not believe in this basic principle, and rejects it entirely.” He challenged Conservative rabbis to declare “honestly and truthfully” if “they believe in the Divine origin of the Law,” and to do so “in simple terms, without sophisticated interpretation and without ambiguous phrases.”
By 1966, when the ten Orthodox participants prepared their responses for Commentary’s symposium on “The State of Jewish Belief,” Soloveitchik’s position was unchallenged—at least publicly—in the Orthodox community. No wonder, then, that while their views varied somewhat from each other, not one seriously addressed the challenges posed by modern Bible scholarship. What made their reticence even more striking was that not one of them was an “old-world” Orthodox type; all were “modern.” Beside their credentials in Jewish learning, they had advanced secular educations, most of them, like Soloveitchik, having earned PhDs.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler
At what might be called the extreme fundamentalist end of the spectrum was Moshe Tendler, who taught (and still today teaches) Talmud and biology at Yeshiva University. He espoused “the literal interpretation of the theological doctrine of divine revelation…. the Torah, was received by Moses accompanied by the necessary explanatory details. The actual words and sentence structure of this divine revelation are recorded in the Pentateuch….”
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits and Professor Marvin Fox
Two Orthodox scholars in the Commentary symposium, both of them professors of Jewish philosophy, asserted the traditional doctrine of revelation without the literalism. Thus Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits wrote: “I believe that God did indeed speak to Moses, as the Bible says. I am however, unable to imagine, much less to describe, the actual event…. I find it impossible to visualize how an infinite, incorporeal Being speaks to a man ‘face to face.’” Similarly, Rabbi Marvin Fox explained that “We cannot make fully intelligible in the language of human experience how the eternal enters into the temporal world of man.” Nevertheless, he went on, “I believe because I cannot afford not to believe,” although “I make no specific claim about the way in which revelation took place….”
Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein
Others entirely avoided the theological questions posed by the doctrine of revelation. To take one prominent example, the late Aaron Lichtenstein, who then taught at Yeshiva University and would later have a distinguished career as a yeshiva head in Israel, described Torah as “an objective ‘given’ invested with definite form and content, which was addressed by God to Israel as a whole or to its leader and representative, Moses.”
Rabbi Norman Lamm
Only two of the Orthodox participants went so far as to mention biblical criticism. Norman Lamm, then a pulpit rabbi and subsequently president of Yeshiva University, admitted that “Literary criticism of the Bible is a problem, but not a crucial one,” since the discipline “is far indeed from an exact science,” and paid insufficient attention to “much first-rate scholarship in modern Hebrew supporting the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship.”  (Perhaps he was referring to the work of Mordechai Breuer, which began to appear in 1959, that identified the “documents” hypothesized by the critics as in fact manifestations of the different Kabbalistic aspects of the Godhead.)
Rabbi Emanuel Rackman
Emanuel Rackman, also a pulpit rabbi, who would later serve as chancellor of Bar-Ilan University, went further, writing that “much” of the Pentateuch “may have been written by people in different times, but at one point in history God not only made the people of Israel aware of his immediacy but caused Moses to write the eternal evidence of the covenant between Him and His people.” Rackman appears to assert the possibility that pre-biblical material was sanctified by God and made part of revelation, a position similar to that articulated by Jean Astruc—considered the pioneer of critical Bible study—articulated two centuries earlier.
Tradition’s Commentary on the Commentary Survey: A Kiddush Hashem!
In his introduction to the symposium, editor Milton Himmelfarb noted that “one sees that the true division is between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.” A reviewer for the Orthodox journal Tradition reiterated that point specifically in regard to the question about biblical authorship, expressing “deep pride and satisfaction” that among the Orthodox contributors, “While the expressions may be different, the conviction and the commitment are the same; the Torah in our possession as interpreted by the halakhic Tradition represents the will of God as revealed by Him to Moses.”
This reviewer considered what he interpreted as “the Orthodox unanimity on the question of Revelation” as a “Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name],” and compared it to the Talmudic account of when “King Ptolemy of Egypt placed seventy-two elders in seventy-two cubicles and ordered them to translate the Pentateuch into Greek.” Miraculously, they all translated identically, in a way that was both accurate “and yet contained apologetic emendations to prevent misunderstandings by the pagan world.”
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away”
The reviewer was correct that Orthodox rabbis were not willing to incorporate any critical, academic perspectives on Torah and revelation into their thinking, but not all observers of this phenomenon were as enamored with this choice as he was. Charles Liebman, in his groundbreaking 1965 article “Orthodoxy in Jewish Life,” cited “Mosaic authorship of the Torah” as a prime example of “questions of actual dogma” that “have not been broached among Orthodox leaders.” “When they are,” he predicted, “as seems likely, there will be explosive consequences… It is fair to say that the entire belief structure of American Orthodoxy still finds verbal expression within the bounds of a rather narrow fundamentalism.”
And yet Liebman suggested that a silent intellectual split was inevitable between the Modern Orthodox and the more right-wing versions:
Unquestionably there are Orthodox intellectuals who would like to raise the question, but with few exceptions neither they nor the fundamentalists have yet articulated exactly what they mean by Mosaic authorship or Sinaitic origin of the Oral Law… Privately, the modern Orthodox admit that they simply interpret the same words to mean different things from what they mean to the sectarian Orthodox. They have sought to keep the subject outside the area of controversy, making no serious effort, for example, to engage in biblical criticism, and thereby ruling out the development of any outstanding Orthodox biblical scholars in the United States…. It is sometimes acknowledged that some abandon Orthodoxy because their intellectual predispositions cannot be reconciled with traditional patterns of belief. But such losses, qualitatively important, are quantitatively insignificant. The main body of Orthodoxy in the United States appears at present to be doctrinally untroubled.
The Outlier: Zalman Schachter’s Unique Voice
An eleventh nominally Orthodox participant in the Commentary symposium, described by the editor as “wild, not easily classifiable,” trenchantly expressed these incipient Orthodox tensions as his own internal conflict. Writes Zalman Schachter,
What is disquieting is that the tenor of the ‘shegetzy’ questions—the kind asked by outsiders or unbelievers or skeptics—is often more serious, more devout, holy, prophetic, and divine than the patness of the Sha! be-quiet-and-gorge-yourself-with-the-answer stance of the righteous one in me.
But such ambivalence would prove incompatible with Orthodoxy. Schachter, then tenuously affiliated with Chabad, would later leave the Orthodox fold and, under the name Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, initiate the Jewish Renewal movement.
A New Reality
Today, with the availability of TheTorah.com and other internet Bible sites, the silence will be broken and a greater range of possible beliefs and interpretations will surely emerge, and people who cannot honestly accept a simplistic understanding of revelation will not need to abandon the Orthodox community. In fact, the Torah from Heaven section, featuring essays from a number of important Orthodox thinkers, and recent books such as the just-released Hebrew volume, People of Faith and Biblical Criticism, are beginning to form a new, unofficial symposium featuring a far broader range of Orthodox opinion.
To quote Liebman again,
Modern Orthodoxy pays lip service to the notion that something ought to be done in this area and that aspects of biblical criticism can be incorporated into the Orthodox tradition, but no one is prepared to undertake or even encourage the work.
A half-century later, the work begins.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
August 15, 2015
January 4, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications at the American Jewish Committee. He received smicha from Yeshiva University and a PhD in American History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Grossman was editor of the American Jewish Year Book (2000-2008).
Essays on Related Topics: