My Name Is Yoel, I Am a Satmar Hasid and a Bible Critic
I am a Hassidic married man in my twenties, living in the heart of Boro Park. Yiddish is my first language. On Shabbos I wear a bekishe and streimel. I send my three little children to a strictly Hassidic cheder (school). All in all, I am a regular Hassidic yungreman. No one would pick me out of a line up or see me as anything different. Yet I have a little secret that only some of my close friends know; my belief and understanding of Judaism has changed.
No, I am not a closeted atheist; nor do I consider myself “off the derech.” I am a Hassid who is fascinated with biblical scholarship and see its findings as being a far more compelling explanation of Torah than the traditional one I was taught.
People often see me sitting hours on end with a Chumash or Navi open, but they probably have not the faintest clue about what I am looking for. I do not study the Chumash with the standard commentaries, Rashi and Ramban, ibn Ezra and Seforno. I want to know the original meaning of the ancient verses and grasp the messages its authors originally intended to convey, without any preconceptions whatsoever. I will go to great pains to achieve that.
Chumash has not always been so fascinating and exciting for me. In fact, it used to be one of the subjects I detested studying. I felt it was tedious and boring. I studied Chumash purely as a vehicle for understanding the Talmud, the Torah she-be’al peh (oral Torah), which, I believed at the time, is based primarily on Chumash, our sacred text. Of course, the Torah was holy and sacred in my eyes. I used to be ma’avir sedre, reading over the Torah portion every single week, although I paid little serious attention to the meaning of the verses. Never did I utter a word during leining, even though I had little patience to listen to the same stories repeated every year—stories that I already knew by heart. “Still,” I would tell myself, “these are the words of God, and if God speaks, who am I to judge whether the words are interesting or not? Every word must be holy and special!” This is what I would tell myself week in and week out. Nevertheless, as soon as the ba’al koreh finished reading the last word of the aliyah, I would take out my little gemara, hidden under my chumash, and delve into the intricate details of the sugya (Talmudic passage) I had been studying.
And study I did. Page after page, tractate after tractate, the complicated Talmudic debates and the deep insights of the rishonim were fulfilling. These huge books with small Rashi-script letters were enticing; they beckoned me to study them. I wanted to become wiser, to gain knowledge and hone my logic skills. I relegated Chumash to the older people in Shul learning chuk and mishnayos, while I delved into what I believed was God’s real Torah – the Talmud.
When I turned eighteen, I became engaged to a girl from a wealthy family, who could afford to support my dreams of becoming a ‘ben Torah’ making sure that I could spend many years in kollel. It was the ideal set up for a budding Torah scholar like me. Nevertheless, shortly after I got married, an odd feeling of dissatisfaction with my studies crept up on me. For a while I intensified my studies, believing that another chiddush of Reb Chaim or another Chazzon Ish would do the trick and satisfy me. However, as time went by, my studies began to strike me as shallow and I began to feel depressed. Somehow the intellectual challenge of Talmud lost its allure, offering me very little in the way of inspiration. I became disillusioned with my lifelong dream of being a scholar. I yearned for something more meaningful, something deeper than the dry logic and peripheral enquiries of the Talmud.
Not daring to raise these heretical feelings in my community, I began searching for answers beyond the walls of the ghetto in which I was living. In other words, I went online. The internet did not disappoint me. I discovered a whole new world. All of a sudden, I encountered new vistas of information that I hadn’t even known existed. A multifaceted, colorful universe emerged upon the shattered walls that enclosed world of my youth. The elegance of science, the magic of music, the richness of philosophy, and the power of words were revealed to me beyond anything I imagined possible.
It was there, in the place where I least expected, where my interest in studying the Torah was sparked. It was in this larger world that I encountered the Bible in its original form for the first time. It was right there waiting patiently for me.
Meeting the Documentary Hypothesis
I will never forget the day I started reading Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (an online friend recommend it for a beginner.) I vividly recall reading the first chapter, where Friedman dissects the story of the flood in Parshas Noach, and the strong impression this made on me.
As I did more research on the topic of academic Bible and studied the documentary hypothesis vigorously, I marveled at the beauty of it. The idea that the Torah evolved, the powerful insight that major events don’t occur in a vacuum—this resonated with me. The sophisticated techniques that modern scholars have discovered to reconstruct the past and trace back the history of our people, thereby understanding the process by which the rituals evolved and with them, the texts that describe them, had a profound impact on me.
By this point, I have come to believe that even the DH model is an oversimplification. There are more twists and turns on the way to creating the Torah text as we have it, and some questions will probably never be answered fully. Yet, I still cherish the idea behind it, which left such an indelible impression on me and influenced my way of thought. By losing my old conception of the entire Torah being revealed all at once to the entire nation of Israel, I gained a deep understanding of how our tradition evolved, how our ancestors were influenced by the people around them, and how they differed from the surroundings nations. When things were put in context, so many obscure chukim of the Torah, which I used to consider impenetrable to a simple mortal like me, now made sense. The intellectual thrill of trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle and rearrange them cannot be overstated.
More than merely understanding the Torah on an intellectual level, I discovered a hidden treasure in a text, which before then I barely found meaningful. The more I came to believe that the Torah was written by humans, for humans, from a human perspective, the more I appreciated what it said. In a paradoxical way, once I ceased to view the Torah as a direct divine document, beyond human understanding, only then did I start seeing the real divinity hidden underneath the ancient myths and fables of our ancestors. Only then did I realize how these extraordinary people of Judah, sitting in a small land, between the mighty kingdoms of the ancient near east, always threatened to be crushed by them, cemented the basis that was to become the foundation of morality, justice, faith and hope for half the world’s population.
Reading without Commentaries
I started reading the Torah without any commentaries, neither traditional nor modern, just to understand the words of other human beings like myself on their own without any filters. Doing so I began to see the richness of their thoughts, sense their struggles, understand their fears, and feel their search for meaning—because I, like them, experience all that too. As human beings created in the image of God, we search for meaning. We have an inner voice that yearns for truth and justice and I can hear the inner voice of the Torah’s authors when I read their words as they wrote them and as they meant them to be read.
Reading the Torah carefully opened a window into an ancient world where many people were primitive and ignorant yet some were enlightened and inspired. A world of old, where gods and sacrifices and festivals made up almost everything of which the religion consisted, and yet prophet Isaiah would challenge the people with: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me… Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” The powerful voice of Amos reverberated throughout Israel: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
God in the Image of Man
Just as each modern country chooses leaders that reflect the attitude and interests of this particular country, so too, it seems, did the people of the ancient near east create gods that reflected their own personality. The God of Israel is a mirror of its own character. The God of Israel is contradictory and multifaceted. He is moody, spontaneous, and passionate. He can be violent and cruel when enraged, but soft and compassionate when the anger assuages. He takes pleasure in the existence of humans, in spite of all their sinful acts. He is just and He expects His people to practice justice. Above all, He has a rare gift: a feel for the unfortunate. His heart melts when hearing the cry of the unfortunate ones, whether they are right or wrong.
The accomplishments of our founding fathers still sustain us to this day. They remain ingrained in our attitude to life and to the world, and we must acknowledge their achievements and appreciate them. However, we can only do that if we appreciate their context, understanding where our ancestors were situated, how they thought, and what their purpose was in meticulously crafting these documents. Ascribing their hard work to a distant, unapproachable, inscrutable and mysterious god is untrue, certainly, but it is also unfair—to them and to us. We need to understand their struggles so that we can learn from them and see how they dealt with it. We need to appreciate their achievements, so that we can emulate them and try to make the world a better place.
Struggling with Faith
I am sometimes asked whether I struggled with the questions biblical scholarship posed to me, given the fundamentalist faith with which I grew up. My answer to that is no. My struggle came earlier. I did not struggle with these questions because I struggled even more with my faith long before I was exposed to biblical scholarship. It was as if I knew all along that this couldn’t be true. The concept of the one and only exclusive truth, revealed by a mighty God long ago, and now known only to a negligible portion of the world’s population never resonated with me. So the questions which poked holes in my faith and shattered the myths of my youth were actually a relief.
Yet I do struggle. I struggle with the implications of my newly found Weltanschauung. The same fears and questions that led our ancient forefathers to invent religion in the first place still bother me, some three thousand years later. The feeling of human vulnerability, the need to rely on something bigger and more powerful than us still exists in all humans throughout all cultures. The “blind and wretched state of man” as Blaise Pascal called it, is still very real. The confusion and misery in the world don’t allow those of us with a conscience to have any rest. The futility of our efforts and the vanity of our hopes is part and parcel of the package we call life. When I struggle with these questions, it is the Torah I consult – the original Torah – for solutions and inspiration.
Rabbi Farber’s Essay and the Response
When the controversy over Rabbi Zev Farber’s essay, Avraham Avinu Is My Father, on TheTorah.com first broke out, I followed it with great interest. On one hand, it was exciting and refreshing to finally hear a brave man voicing his opinion and acknowledging what all Orthodox leaders should be acknowledging. On the other hand, I was pained to watch the response by Modern Orthodox rabbis. Ironically, they are the same ones who never fail to take the Haredim to task for ignoring their own problems, but this was precisely what they were doing right now to the problems in their own community. In our community, academic biblical studies is not really a problem, because so few of us are exposed to it. We have a long list of steps to take before biblical scholarship becomes a problem. Among them, teaching basic English language skills, studying literature and reading comprehension, to mention a few.
This timid response only shows how fragile our religion has become; how far removed we are from our ancestors. It is indeed perplexing to see such a wild reaction to biblical scholarship coming from the MO community. I am used to hearing Modern Orthodox rabbis talk about how the Torah is all about moral values and social justice. If that is the case, what difference does it make whether one person wrote those lessons or a hundred people wrote them? Or, for that matter, whether God delivered the Torah from atop Mount Sinai in the presence of all of klal Yisrael, or if we, the people, invented it ourselves gradually? After all, it’s much more of an accomplishment to invent moral rules in a barbaric world than to hear it coming out of God’s mouth!
Perhaps, I thought to myself, they are afraid of the implication of accepting the academic understanding upon mitzvah observance. If the mitzvos were invented by humans, why shouldn’t we modify or even nullify them? After all, we have advanced a lot in all areas of knowledge. If we could get rid of Aristotelian science, why can’t we get rid of some ancient “moral” values, which to us often seem barbaric and brutal? All the countless rules and details which may have been perfectly meaningful and inspiring to an ancient Jewish nation rife with superstitions and primitive rites may be entirely irrelevant today. I understand this fear, but I believe it to be unwarranted.
Mitzvos Then and Now
It is impossible to abandon all or most of the mitzvos and still retain the spiritual values for which we strove during millennia of our existence. Tradition, after all, has a unique power. There must be some reason why thousands of intelligent Jews who consider life to be sacred and special have often sacrificed their lives and their children’s lives for the sake of not violating the mitzvos. Of course, they believed it was directly dictated by God, but still, most of us wouldn’t follow God’s rules if we believed them to be immoral or meaningless.
Throughout history the mitzvos have provided a framework for our values, a framework by which we must abide in our daily life in order to maintain our inner values. Humanity needs to be constantly reminded about its goals, its missions, its values and beliefs. That is where mitzvos have proven to do a dependable job. A Shabbos may be the moment of peace and tranquility, dedicated to spend time just with ourselves and our family and renew the connection between our bodies and souls. Sukkos may be dedicated for a time of joy and appreciation for the gift of life and the magic of being. Pesach may be the time to think about personal freedom, the power to choose right from wrong, the passion to free ourselves from emotional luggage and accomplish our goals.
Likely, we will never find relevant meaning in all the mitzvos, and we should not expect to. In truth, once we accept biblical scholarship at face value there will be some moral conflicts that require navigation, things that need interpreting, red lines that may not be crossed. However, this does not, by any means, render the entire concept of keeping mitzvos irrelevant. We should try to find out why our ancestors invented these mitzvos in the first place, and then we might be able to modify its meanings for us, living in the 21st century. We may find out that the same desires that drove them to create such a complex Torah still exist within ourselves to this day, ingrained in the human genome.
Julius Wellhausen famously denigrated the P portions in the Torah, which contain much of the ritual laws, dates and numbers, and descriptions of the tabernacle and other priestly items. He claimed P reflects a degeneration of the biblical religion, where the intimate connection between Israel and God has withered. The God of P is a distant God, more interested in proper ritual than people.
A good example of this is the above mentioned story of the flood. According to many scholars, the flood story is a hybrid of the J source and the P source. J’s God personally closes the door of the ark and after the flood personally smells the sweet scent of the burnt offerings which appeases Him to such an extent that He makes a promise on the spot never to bring a flood again. P’s God, however, does none of this. Instead, He is the omniscient, omnipotent God who is master of the entire cosmos and quite aloof from human activities. With his obsessive sticking to details and lack of personal connection to God, P does make a good example for an overdose of emphasis on practical details, and less on inner value.
I often feel that the separate strata in the Torah reflect the transformation in my own faith. The different views on God and religion mirror separate phases in my journey to understand God and Torah. In my case, however, the order was the reverse of Wellhausen’s description. I grew up on P’s God, a huge, mighty God, who expects us to be faithful to all His demands… and he has lots of demands. By now, I have adopted J’s God, a merciful God who loves and wants to be loved, who may be angry with us, but forgives and forgets. This God is not all knowing, and He sometimes makes mistakes and regrets His actions. This is also the God I reflect; it’s the image of God inside me.
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November 6, 2013
May 17, 2023
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Yoel is a Satmar Hasid who has studied in yeshiva and kollel for many years and has taken an interest in academic Bible studies. See his TABS Essay, My Name is Yoel: I am a Satmar Hasid and a Bible Critic.
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