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4th Anniversary Reflections on the Vision and Progress of TheTorah.com

Are Jews moving towards studying Torah with academic scholarship?

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May 30, 2017

RabbiDavid D. Steinberg

Rabbi

David D. Steinberg

4th Anniversary Reflections on the Vision and Progress of TheTorah.com

Recent Developments in the Modern Orthodox Community

This Shavuot marks four years since we launched TheTorah.com, and is a good time to celebrate the progress we’ve made and our hopes for the future.  A recent article by Dr. Marc Shapiro, “Is Modern Orthodoxy Moving towards an Acceptance of Biblical Criticism?”[1] was a nice “anniversary gift.” There, Shapiro traces how rejecting Mosaic authorship of the Torah as an absolute dogma has been gaining acceptance in the Modern Orthodox world.

Shapiro concludes:

Theological changes do not happen overnight. They are the product of a long period of discussion and debate, during which time new approaches are slowly absorbed. This is exactly what has been happening in a segment of Modern Orthodoxy over the past twenty years or so, and which will continue to pick up steam in the years ahead.

Shapiro acknowledges the place of TheTorah.com in this process, and refers to it numerous times.[2] The acceptance of this approach has gained sufficient momentum to prompt programs that address the challenges of biblical criticism and their implications. For example, Dr. Yoram Hazony[3] of the Herzl Institute is running a conference this summer for theologians to discuss Torah from Heaven. The conference seeks “to elucidate the traditional Jewish theology of torah from heaven in response to recent challenges.”[4]

Similarly, the Lookstein Center is running a four-day seminar this summer led by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University[5] and Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi[6]“designed to equip Jewish educators with knowledge, research, and resources to address the topic of academic Bible study,” and to deal with questions such as:

  • My literature professor says that the Torah was written by many authors. Is that true?
  • Why is there no archaeological evidence for the Exodus?
  • Hammurabi’s code pre-dates the giving of the Torah and is very similar. Did Moshe copy from Hammurabi?
  • Do I have to believe that everything in the Torah is historically accurate?

The description of the seminar notes that “These, and others questions emerging from the exposure to academic Bible study, often pose deep religious challenges for the intelligent, thinking Orthodox student.”

Theology versus Torah Study

Shapiro’s article as well as these conferences focus on the Modern Orthodox community and the narrow question of Mosaic authorship. They ignore the need for a paradigm shift in how we study Torah, namely integrating the findings and tools of biblical criticism into Torah study more broadly. Such Torah study is more meaningful and relevant to people who otherwise integrate all types of academic scholarship into their lives. I believe that this is the reason for TheTorah.com’s growing success; we now reach 30,000+ readers a month.

From early rabbinic literature to the great medieval Jewish scholars, Torah study has been a foundation of our tradition. Employing a careful reading of the text — addressing duplications, inconsistencies, and variations, and making use of the best possible tools for understanding the text — has always been at the core of Torah study.

However, academic study of the Bible — employing linguistics, archeology, and other modern methodologies — has been relegated almost exclusively to universities, and is largely inaccessible to the broader community. The traditional world of Torah study has shunned many of these tools, fearing that they would shake people’s faith and ultimately distance them from traditional observance.

We recognize and appreciate this fear, but believe instead that the academic approach can enrich and deepen our engagement with the Torah as a living text in a modern world. For centuries, Jewish commentators have faced ethical and scientific challenges such as heliocentrism, human rights, evolution, and feminism. Confronting those challenges, rather than ignoring them, and integrating them into Judaism, was often difficult, but ultimately, deepened and enriched, rather than weakened, Jewish commitment. We believe the same is true for the challenges posed by academic biblical scholarship.  This is the driving belief behind Project TABS – TheTorah.com.

A Collective Jewish Challenge

The prevailing assumption is that integrating biblical criticism is a unique challenge to the Orthodox community, but this is incorrect. While the Conservative and Reform movements have accepted in theory the premises of biblical criticism decades ago, robust methods of Torah study for lay people utilizing these methods have not made their way to the fore in these communities.[7]  Given this vacuum, TheTorah.com has attempted to serve the entire Jewish community.

While the theological implications of academic methods of biblical studies are important to us, and we have an entire section dedicated to Torah from Heaven, our primary focus has been making academic Torah accessible. Indeed, over the last four years, with little fanfare, we have published on a weekly basis, nonstop, new academic Torah essays from more than 250 authors, including professors, rabbis, and other scholars. We view ourselves as more than a blog; to fulfill our goal of making the best scholarship accessible to the general public, our pieces are carefully read and extensively edited by our professional editorial team.

That this approach has borne fruit is clear from our readership base, which includes Hasidim, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews, as well as non-Jews.

Do the Masses Have an Opinion?

This leads to a final point. Early in his essay, Shapiro offers the following caveat:

When I speak of a change in outlook I am referring to the intellectual and rabbinic leadership and the educated laity, not the masses. The masses don’t have an opinion on this matter. If they are told they have to believe in Mosaic authorship they will comply, and if they are told they don’t have to believe in it they won’t bat an eye. Theological matters are not of great importance to them.

There is truth, of course, to the notion that rabbinic leadership influences the masses’ beliefs. Until it doesn’t.

TheTorah.com began with (and still has!) little official rabbinic support in the Orthodox establishment.[8] Nevertheless, readers, rabbis and lay alike, dissatisfied with the traditional explanations, regularly read TheTorah.com. Moreover, the project is being supported by a growing number of generous individuals, most of whom identify as Orthodox, and appreciate supplementing more traditional approaches with the findings and disciplines of academic scholarship.

A Time to Start Up and a Time to Grow

We continue to subsist on a shoestring budget, with no administrative support, development professionals, or website management. Instead, we have put all our energy into content, highlighting the depth and breadth of academic scholarship, and making it user-friendly to the greater Jewish community.

For too long people have been afraid of publicly raising the challenge of biblical criticism,[9] at the cost of turning many people away from tradition.[10] In contrast, at TheTorah.com we fully embrace biblical criticism in our desire to fulfill the psalmist’s words: מָה אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ כָּל הַיּוֹם הִיא שִׂיחָתִי, “How I love your Torah, it is my study all day long” (Psalm 119:97).

We live in a generation where God has given us an opportunity to study the Torah with tools of which Maimonides could have only dreamed.[11] However, change does not happen by itself. As we look ahead to expanding the project and revamping the website, we must broaden our support base. Whether through direct financial backing, connecting us to individuals or institutions who might help, or acknowledging your own convictions and interest in the project, we need and welcome your support.

Wishing you a Chag sameach,
David

Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program.

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