Is it Halakhically Permissible to Study Source Criticism?
Many Orthodox Jews object to source criticism because they say that it contradicts the doctrine of “Torah from Sinai” as mandated by the Talmud and Maimonides. As I have shown at length elsewhere, I believe that it’s permissible to study source criticism.
The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:1) states that a person who says that the Torah is not from Heaven does not have a share in the World to Come. The Talmud adds (Sanhedrin 99a) that if a person says that even one verse was not said by God but by Moses “he has spurned the word of the Lord.” Maimonides adds (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:8) “even one word” and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein added in our day (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, part 3, Nos. 114–115) “even one letter.” Indeed, Maimonides says in his Mishnah commentary (to Sanhedrin 10, ed. Kafih, pp. 143–144) that Moses was “was like a copyist writing all of it from dictation.”
From a halakhic point of view, these sources are far from conclusive. Maimonides and Rabbi Feinstein based their halakhic rulings on the aggadic (non-halakhic) sources cited above, but there is no obligation to make halakhic rulings on the basis of aggadah. Indeed, in this specific case, the Rif (Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, 1013–1103), the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, ca. 1250–1321), the Tur (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, 1269–1343) and the Shulhan Arukh (Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488–1575) all ignored these aggadic passages.
Furthermore, Rambam’s halakhic ruling cited above is surprising since he stated three times in his commentary to the Mishnah “that in every debate between the Sages that does not depend on action but merely determines opinion, there is no reason to render a halakhic decision in accordance with one of them” (Sanhedrin 10:3; and cf. Sotah 3:3; Shevuot 1;4).
Moreover, many famous Talmudic and medieval rabbis engaged in source criticism:
In Gittin (60a–b), Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish states that “the Torah was given complete.” Yet Rabbi Levi maintains that “eight passages in the Torah were said on the day that the Tabernacle was erected” and not at Mount Sinai, while Rabbi Yohanan, the most important Amora in Eretz Yisrael and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish’s teacher (d. 279 C.E.), said that “the Torah was given scroll by scroll” and not all at once at Mt. Sinai. According to Rashi (ibid.), Rabbi Yohanan believed that the Torah was given scroll by scroll in stages, apparently in chronological order, at the time of creation, Noah, Abraham, and so on, while Rabbi Levi thought the Torah was given in stages, but not in chronological order.
Three rabbinic sources (Sifrei Numbers, piska 84; Sifrei Zuta, ed. Horovitz, p. 266; b. Shabbat 115b–116a) indicate that Moses put Numbers 10:35–36 in brackets to indicate that “this was not its place.” Thus, Moses was not just a copyist but also an editor of the Torah.
Rabbi Abbahu expounds in Midrash Tanhuma (Ki Tissa, paragraph 16) that God taught Moses the general principles on Mount Sinai, which he then developed into specific laws.
In a famous Talmudic passage (b. Makkot 11a and b. Bava Batra 14b–15a), two out of three Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah) maintain that Joshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah or another section of the Torah after the death of Moses.
Furthermore, many famous medieval rabbis said that Moses edited the Torah or that certain verses were added long after the time of Moses. They include: Rabbi Isaac of Toledo (982–1056), Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1080–ca. 1160), Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167), Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor (b. 1140), Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency (12th century), Rabbi Judah HeChasid [the Pious] (d. 1217), the author of Sefer Chasidim, and many more.
This widespread approach was summarized by Rabbi Joseph Bonfils (Yosef Tov Elem, Spain, b. 1335) in his super-commentary to ibn Ezra (ed. Herzog, pp. 91-92):
ואחר שיש לנו להאמין בדברי קבלה ובדברי נבואה --מה לי שכתבו משה או שכתבו נביא אחר, הואיל ודברי כולם אמת והם בנבואה?
And since we are supposed to believe in the words of tradition and prophecy, what difference does it make if Moses wrote it or a different prophet, since all their words are true and prophetic?”
In other words, all of these Talmudic and medieval rabbis believed in Torah from Heaven, but not in Torah from Sinai. The Torah is the result of progressive revelation over the course of many centuries, as opposed to a one-time event at Mount Sinai.
Furthermore—as the Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, 1800–1865), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) and many others have stressed—the search for truth is important and, some say, a religious value in Judaism. It behooves us to study Torah with the help of biblical criticism and archaeology since they can help us arrive at the peshat or simple meaning of the Torah.
Thus, like many Talmudic and medieval rabbis, I believe in Torah from Heaven, but not in Torah from Sinai. Source criticism does not contradict this belief and, in many cases, helps us arrive at the peshat of the Torah.
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January 18, 2022
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Prof. Rabbi David Golinkin is the President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., Jerusalem; President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies; and a Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute. He is the author or editor of over 60 books and over 200 articles.
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