Torah from Heaven: Redefining the Question
Choosing Between Faith and Academic Bible
One hundred thirty years ago, a professor of Old Testament History resigned from his role teaching Protestant ministers, because he could no longer believe. Julius Wellhausen thought that the many contradictions in the Torah, like the two stories of Creation, betrayed the existence of multiple sources for the biblical text. The Documentary Hypothesis was not consistent with Torah as the word of God; Julius Wellhausen had to admit that.
Orthodox Jews responded to Wellhausen, by and large, by accepting his premises and rejecting his evidence. You can see that dynamic at work if you have his well-known blue Humash in your hands. Throughout the work, Rabbi Hertz argues that the Torah is a unified text from start to finish, that there is no convincing evidence for multiple source texts, and so, that one can continue to believe in Torah as the revelation of God, the core of Jewish belief and practice. Rabbi Hertz agrees that accepting the Documentary Hypothesis, any form of multiple authorship really, would mean rejecting classical Judaism, but he maintains that we do not have to accept the conclusions of the academy.
In other words, Professor Wellhausen and Rabbi Hertz seem to agree that faith in the divine source of the Torah and the theory of an evolving Torah redacted from multiple sources cannot go together.
Let’s pause and unpack the core premises behind this conclusion. God’s holy Bible must be internally consistent, with a homogenous style and moral perfection, and that God’s Bible should exist totally independent of earlier sources. If the critics could show that the Torah echoed earlier sources, had multiple sources, or presented matters in an inconsistent style, any of those facts would undermine the sanctity of the Torah. Conversely, if the defenders could show the Torah as a unified document, in a homogeneous style, radically different from earlier sources, those findings would reassure believers in the holiness of the Torah.
However, as I see it, to state these assumptions this simply amounts to refuting them. The assumptions do not make sense. Allow me to explain.
Why do both sides agree that God could produce a book in a certain style, but could not possibly produce a book in a different style? We cannot make that determination by comparing this book with the other books, which we know God has produced. Not to be glib, but we lack a set of the unchallenged original works of God. Nevertheless, both sides seem to agree that we can make that determination from what we know of God.
The argument for rejecting an evolving Torah with multiple authors as an option for the believer comes down to this: If the Torah is the revelation of God, it cannot have differences in style in the same book, or different versions of the same story; God can write only in a uniform style. God cannot write a book that shows sources, or takes part in a literary tradition, or that asserts counterfactual material, or that contains contradictions, because by definition, a perfect God must not produce such an imperfect product. To rephrase the last point, God has limitations or constraints generated by the very definition of God, and therefore we can confidently assert that God does not have the ability to produce a book with these listed characteristics.
But how can anyone know this? Who knows enough literary theory or enough about God to determine what kind of text could reveal the message from God? By what process could one find out what literary style God can or cannot use? This supposed limitation on producing a complex, contradictory, book in a literary tradition, etc., does not amount to the unique limitation on God’s abilities. We presume to know that God cannot produce this book because it would fit into the much larger set of “things that God, by the definition of God, cannot do.”
It seems to me that, in the idiom of the Talmud, “ipkha mistabra,” the opposite seems likely. If the only example of a book produced by God shows signs of complexity, inner contradiction, counter-factuality, of tweaking literary conventions, then perhaps God can and did produce such a book.
The problem of contradiction in a literary work strikes me as not significantly different from other literary techniques that we claim to know God could not use. Do we think it a flaw when we detect the contradiction in Carly Simon’s lyric, “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you?” Or when Shakespeare concludes Sonnet 57 with a similar self-contradiction: “So true a fool is love that in your will, though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.”
In the history of science, as in the history of biblical commentary, believers have often thought that some apparent fact could not be true, because of the very nature of God. In response to the puzzling findings of quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.” After repeating this quote on many occasions, one of quantum physics’ great proponents, Niels Bohr, purportedly responded with, “Stop telling God what to do with his dice.” Years and many scientific discoveries later, God’s dice have only become less predictable. Scientists who are believers do not tend to make Einstein’s mistake any more. The universe has proven itself stranger that we imagined.
There is no reason to think that the process of God’s revelation to humanity and the formation of God’s Torah would not reveal itself to be as complex and unpredictable as God’s universe. In fact, I argue that claiming that God could not have produced the Torah through such processes as combining sources, telling multiple versions of tales, making counterfactual claims, and tweaking existent literary conventions could approach a form of idolatry.
Can God Create a Book from Multiple Sources?
Idolatry comes in two forms, I think: procedural and metaphysical. Procedural, or physical, idolatry has to do with the method of our worship. If someone prays only to the One, unique God, but uses statues and paintings as aids to prayer, as representatives of that infinite God, he or she commits procedural idolatry. Halakhah does not permit Jews to address our prayers to God by means of physical representations.
It seems to me that if one asserts that God cannot produce a book with certain characteristics, and further, that this limitation amounts to an element in the much larger set of all things impossible for God, then one believes in a limited god. If one asserts that one knows a great deal about what God cannot do, because one knows how to define or limit or constrain God, then one believes in a limited god. Does worshipping such a neatly constrained God amount to idolatry?
My teacher, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, often quoted the appellation of God as “the Ein Sof,” the endless, the limitless, “de-let machashavah tefisah beih” that thought does not grasp. Metaphysical, or absolute, idolatry has to do with the object of our prayers. If someone prays in a bare pristine room, without any physical representations at all, to two of the several gods in whom he believes, or even to only one of them, he or she commits metaphysical idolatry. Anyone, as the Talmud notes, who addresses an act of religious service to a limited being, real or imaginary, from the Archangel Michael to a little worm, has committed idolatry (b. Hullin 40a).
To be clear, I don’t want to overstate the case against discussing limiting factors for God. Indeed, I agree with the formulation that God cannot create a square circle, or a rock that God cannot lift. But these do not represent limitations, since the desired creature belongs in the null set. An unlimited God does not have to produce logical impossibilities. Becoming coextensive with a human being, or creating another God alongside the original God, strike me as examples of the same null set.
However, these appear far different—to my mind—from the formulations that people offer in the claim “God could not create such a monster” or “God could not let that horrible event happen” because “God is good.” Rambam has pointed out the equivocal nature of attributes of God (in Guide 1:52 and elsewhere). God is good, but not in the way that humans are good. God is not constrained by our sense of goodness. Reasoning from God’s attributes to the kind of Torah that God could or could not produce seems to give too much credence to our supposed expertise in divine attributes.
The Current Controversy about Torah Min ha-Shamayim and Orthodoxy
In recent months, a group of Orthodox rabbis have come out with professions of belief in an evolving Torah with multiple authors. Other Orthodox rabbis have said, “that means you are not really Orthodox.” The argument has gone public. But these are not the first Orthodox Jews, or even Orthodox rabbis, to acknowledge the tension inherent in the Torah’s laws and narratives, there are precedents.
More than seventy years ago, on the day after it became illegal for a University to grant a graduate degree to a Jew in Nazi Germany, Rabbi Max Kapustin defended his Ph.D. thesis before his dissertation advisor, a student of the very same Julius Wellhausen referenced above. Rabbi Kapustin was an Orthodox rabbi who studied Documentary Hypothesis with a student of Wellhausen. In Rabbi Kapustin’s own words, “I got my Tumah from the Avi Avot haTumah,” meaning, “I contracted ritual impurity from Wellhausen himself, the original source of ritual impurity.” I do not know what Rabbi Kapustin thought about the ultimate validity of Documentary Hypothesis; certainly he thought it worth studying.
Another example: Professor David Daube, a scholar of Roman Law, but no small scholar of Torah and Talmud as well, wrote an article many decades ago about the development that he saw in a legal passage in the Torah. He speculated that originally the law must have been different, and that, in the course of time, various pieces must have been added. In a footnote, he wrote that that this speculated development could be accepted by the most Orthodox of believers, provided that the development happened before Matan Torah.
In fact, Orthodox rabbis and scholars in recent decades have been more and more candid about contradictions inherent in the Torah. Rabbi Mordechai Breuer is perhaps the most famous example, but even my own teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his famous essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” casually comments that the existence of two Creation stories does not bother him. He does not explain why not. The above list are only some illustrative examples, there are more and their numbers are growing. A believer can accept the Torah as a manifestation of the true God while accepting many of the assertions of various Bible critics, and he or she can take this position with intellectual integrity.
Academic Conclusions Do Not Contradict a Belief in a Divine Source
The real religious challenge of Bible criticism and the theory of multiple authorship does not inhere in questions about the style, sources, consistency or factual accuracy of the Torah. The question should never have been, does the Torah betray multiple sources, or is it a unified document? The question should always have been, do we treat Torah as the revelation of God, the core of Jewish belief and practice? The Torah could have been stitched together from many different texts, provided that the finished product qualifies as Torah, as revelation of God, as the core of Jewish belief and practice.
On the other hand, the Torah may show signs of multiple source texts, but if it is the revelation of God, the core of Jewish practice and belief, so what? If we accept the Torah as a work that reveals traces of complex source materials, and contains contradictions, and contradicts facts, but we continue to assert that it reveals the one true God, then we should worship that author and follow the author’s commandments. If we could prove the Torah to be the work of single author, free of contradictions, and factually accurate, that would not demonstrate that one should follow the commandments of that author, any more than we would follow the moral recommendations of Ernest Hemingway if we could show that he indeed wrote the complete works of Ernest Hemingway, and wrote it all in a consistent style.
If we do not accept the Torah as the revelation of God, the core of Jewish belief and practice, it would not help at all to prove that Torah is a unified text with only one author. Plenty of books are the unified work of one author, and do not pretend to have any religious authority. The complete works of . . . anyone, Ernest Hemmingway, H. L . Mencken, Mark Twain, may all have been written in the same style by the same hand, but so what? We do not have any reason to try to follow the commandments in those texts.
The real challenge inheres in whether the Torah reveals the one true God. The Jewish tradition has maintained that “all of his words are true and just” and that “not one of his words will come back empty.” I believe that Torah, as the word of God, truly has a positive impact on its students, perhaps even the foolish, irresponsible ones I’ve met over the years. Certainly, I have met profound, wise students of Torah and I believe that Torah refined their goodness and added to their profundity. The words of Torah should accomplish something for those who study them even if they do so without expressing truth in the way some have expected to find it. I have learned that Torah is here to teach me, not specific historical or scientific facts, but how to become worthy.
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October 30, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Eliezer (Louis) Finkelman received semikhah at R.I.E.T.S. of Yeshiva University and earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at City University of New York, writing on the theme of Cain and Abel in the Romantic Period. He served as Hillel Director at Wayne State University and synagogue Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel (Berkeley). He currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University.
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