A Humanist and a Bible Scholar: Interview with Tzemah Yoreh

Interviewed by co-founder and director of Project TABS, David Steinberg


February 26, 2014

Dr. Tzemah Yoreh has been fascinated with the bible since a young age. As a teenager he won the International Bible Contest (Diaspora division) and he went on to study bible and comparative literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he earned his PhD in 2004. As a teacher in academic and community settings alike, Yoreh enjoys making biblical stories come to life and loves to surprise people as they discover sides of the bible they never knew. He has written numerous books and his work has been featured in the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, and the Times of Israel. He has taught at Ben Gurion University in Israel and American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He currently splits his time between Israel and North America with his spouse, Aviva, and their son Boaz.

A Humanist and a Bible Scholar: Interview with Tzemah Yoreh

Caveat: The Torah’s value: Currency or Gold?

Is the Torah important and valuable to us only because God has given it to us, forcing us to find meaning and instruction in it? Or, is the Torah (also) intrinsically precious? ‘Traditionally’ we apply Tehillim 19:11 to Torah: הנחמדים–מזהב, ומפז רב; ומתוקים מדבש ונפת צופים – “More desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.” This would seem to indicate the latter.

Is this true? Can the Torah be finer than gold and sweeter than honey even to a person who doesn’t believe that God gave it to Israel? With this question in mind, I was particularly intrigued to interview Dr. Tzemah Yoreh, a humanist agnostic who is both a Bible scholar and a lover of Torah study. I believe there is much to learn from Tzemah’s insight, commitment and passion for Torah and Judaism. This is true even for those of us (like me) who think very differently about God and believe inTorah min HaShamayim.

— Rabbi David D. Steinberg

1. Tzemah, you’ve seen the TABS mission statement and core values on our website, If you were to start such an initiative, what would be your mission statement and core values?

I am very supportive of the TABS mission statement and relate to much of its platform. In fact, the only part of it which is hard for me to accept personally (but only personally) is the section that relates to the divinity of the Torah. Though I am a humanist I acknowledge that God is a very important part of many people’s experience of the world and a forum such as TABS, which respects this, and at the same time attempts to unflinchingly incorporate insights of modern scholarship relating to the Torah, is worthy of great admiration.

2. While preparing for this interview, I spoke with a number of formerly frum friends who have lost interest in Torah and asked them what they wanted to ask you. They all said the same thing. They want to ask you why you are still interested in studying Torah. I understand their question. As someone who still believes in Torah min HaShamayim, albeit through the lens of modern critical scholarship, I am taken by the fact that you are an agnostic yet you have dedicated your life to studying and writing about a text that claims to be a communication between God and humanity. Why? What do you find so compelling about Torah study? Why do you think it is important for people to know about this?

Jewish texts in general, and the Tanakh in particular, are a big part of what gives my life meaning. I see myself as an apikores in the learned tradition of Ecclesiastes, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah and Spinoza. I am a scholar well informed about Jewish texts, yet constantly doubting. I have my place in traditional Judaism, a place with which I am content. If I can help people achieve a sense of connectedness with Torah on their own terms, if I can impart something of how I experience the world through Jewish texts to the world at large, then I am content.

3. Your parents, Harry Fox and Tirzah Meacham, are both religious academics and you had a day school education. How would you describe your religious upbringing and education? How have your parents reacted to your change in views? (Also, while on the subject of your parents, how did you get the name Yoreh?)

In Pirkei Avot it says: “My entire life I grew up among Torah scholars.” Such was my upbringing. My mother began reading Torah to me in utero, and her favorite lullaby was based on mishnayot, while she was writing her doctorate on Mishnah Niddah. Our house was filled with books, both religious and secular, which I was encouraged to peruse from the moment I learned to read. From a very young age my parents fostered in us intellectual independence, and thus when I arrived at Hebrew University, I took to biblical criticism immediately. Truth be told, I wasn’t really concerned with philosophy/beliefs אמונות ודעות at the time, the critical approach just seemed to make the most sense to me.

My parents chose the name Yoreh for their children, because they hoped for either rabbis or teachers. I think they got what they wanted – my siblings are both in doctoral programs as well. I know my parents are proud of me; my father refers to me as the most religious of his children – even though my siblings have a more conservative hashkafah (outlook) – since I have dedicated so much of my energy to elucidating texts and struggling with prayer.

4. You have taken a long journey since your upbringing. What made you change your religious views so radically? How did you decide on your affiliation? Do you still keep mitzvot? If so which ones?

I wouldn’t say I am “affiliated” with any movement, since humanism is more of a philosophical bend than an affiliation. In one respect, I would say that my journey has been long, but in another it has been very short. I still define myself as an observant Jew – I keep kosher and keep Shabbat – and this has been true my entire life. The main distinction between me and an Orthodox person in the realm of observance would be my relationship to prayer. I take prayer very seriously, and since I am a pashtan and a literalist when it comes to texts, it is hard for me to pray from a siddur, which does not reflect my values.

In terms of Emunot veDeot (philosophy/beliefs) I have taken quite a long journey. It is a journey that began in Yeshivat Netiv Meir, where I went for high school. The students of that institution were treated like numbers and the Rosh Yeshiva was a pederast.[1] It was there that I began to doubt authorities and institutions, an attitude that was unfortunately reinforced by my experiences in the IDF, where my commander was convicted for using me and others to further his own goals, rather than the army’s. This atmosphere of mistrust and doubt pervaded my experience of the world including my religious experience. The atheism of my mid-twenties turned into a more positive humanism when I met my spouse who helped me believe in the power of human relationships. That is where I am today.

5. You did your Ph.D. and now you are in rabbinical school. What makes you want to be a rabbi? Where do you see your future, in the rabbinate in academia or both? Do the two go hand in hand?

I am studying to be a Humanist Rabbi because I feel a deep investment in making Jewish texts and traditions meaningful to people on their own terms. Frankly, I do not know how being a humanist rabbi is going to pan out, though my experience with the humanist movement in Israel especially has shown that there is a great need for people to be able to access Jewish texts from a cultural perspective, on their own terms. There is a great need for Bible teachers in modern Israel who can relate to the Hiloni (secular) perspective. There is a deep sense of dissatisfaction in Israel with orthodoxy’s monopoly over Jewish text and practice, which leads to antipathy towards the textual founts upon which Judaism is based.

My main problem with academia is the ivory tower approach to knowledge, an attitude propagated at Hebrew University, and my main problem with the rabbinate is that it doesn’t live up to the maxim in Pirkei Avot: שנא את הרבנות (Avoid self-aggrandizement / pomposity). I hope to find a way to incorporate both the rigor of academia and the more popular appeal of the rabbinate without falling into these traps.

6. You were the youngest person ever to receive a Ph.D. at Hebrew University, and you studied with some of the most prominent scholars of the Documentary Hypothesis. Yet you do not believe in it. What are your main critiques of that model?

I don’t know if I was the youngest person to receive a PhD, though I was one of the fastest, but that is just because I was lucky enough to have an idea that panned out immediately. I feel very lucky to have been educated at Hebrew University. I was taught by proponents of the three major paradigms in Pentateuchal research (Documentary, Supplementary, and Fragmentary). I studied under Baruch Schwartz, who taught me rigor, Israel Knohl, who taught me creativity, and Alexander Rofé who taught me philology.

My main critique of the Documentary Hypothesis is that it posits a cut-and-paste editorial process that I feel is alien to the time period. Texts were treated with more reverence (than today) and I feel (and try to prove) that it was more likely that people added and reinterpreted rather than excised and deleted.

7. What is your approach? How was the Torah written? You’ve developed a very unique version of the supplementary hypothesis. Can you explain your overall schematic for how this works?

At its most basic level, my version of the supplementary hypothesis suggests that the way in which biblical narrative evolved was one of successive additions upon one original and complete text in order to make the text relevant to a new audience of readers. I envision an organic procedure occurring in a culture that respected the written word and revered revelation. (Perhaps they believed they were interpreting it – since they were only adding to it.) Each stage of composition was a complete and cohesive work. The first stage, the original source, tells us of Abraham’s sin and Isaac’s murder, of Israel’s descent to Egypt, and of their escape after the plague of darkness. It tells us of God’s seven commandments to Israel, and of Moses’ conquest of Canaan – it is E (the Elohistic source), which I call, The First Book of God .

It was however, only the first stage. The first book of God was followed by, J: The book of Mercy, who resurrected Isaac and composed the first historiographical work of the Bible, then P: The Book of Order, who added the bulk of the laws found in the Pentateuch to J’s historiographical work and so on and so forth. Each successive supplementation respected the received text and only added to it; the only erasures were accidental.

8. I understand that your position has not been adopted by most other scholars. Why do you think this is? What are you seeing that others are overlooking? What are your colleagues’ basic critiques and how do you respond to them?

Indeed my positions have not been adopted by most scholars (though I am still at the relative beginning of my career), and actually I am not looking for that to happen necessarily. My purpose is to cause people to rethink their assumptions not to necessarily have them accept my own positions. I believe that in this respect I have had a modicum of success. I guess that one of my main advantages is that I have examined all the narrative texts in the Tanakh through the lens of my approach and can speak as confidently about texts in Genesis as I can about texts in Judges.

One of the main critiques I have heard against my approach is that other divisions of the text are just as likely in many particular cases. I do not deny this. The strength in my approach is that it is very global, I seek to explain how all the material from Genesis – II Kings developed. It has also led to many chiddushim. I think that any methodology that leads to interesting insights about biblical texts is a valid one, though one needn’t accept it hook line and sinker.

9. Your approach has led you to some interesting findings. I remember reading about your now well-known chiddush that Abraham and Jacob were not connected at all in E; instead, in that source Abraham kills his son and we move on to the next story about a different ancient Israelite hero, Jacob. That is a fascinating idea. What are some other chiddushim that come out of your approach?

I have shown that in the original version of the text Cain was the father of humanity not Seth, but the genealogy was rewritten so that humanity would not descend from a murderer. In fact, in the original version, Cain is not punished for his sin because in J his sin is seen as a catalyst. Noah had four sons (Shem, Ham, Yephet, and Canaan), and it was Canaan who uncovered his father’s nakedness and thus he was cursed. In E the reason God asked Abraham to kill his son was because Abraham did not trust in God to preserve him in Gerar, which caused him to give Sarah to Abimelech in an act of self-preservation, and this version suggests that Abimelech fathered Isaac. In turn, God asks Abraham to prove that he is a true fearer of God by sacrificing Isaac, since he is the symbol of Abraham’s mistrust.

I can demonstrate that in the original story Shechem did not rape Dinah, in fact he acted in good faith and that all the sons of Jacob (not just Shimon and Levi) ransacked Shechem as an act of opportunism. The original text of Genesis 34 underwent a good deal of whitewashing before we received it.

I can show that in the original story the Israelites were not enslaved in Egypt, instead they were just prevented from leaving just like the Jews of the Soviet Union. Enslavement was added to the text in order to justify the punishment to which the Egyptians were subjected.

10. You’ve written more than 10 books on the Torah and even started a new press called Modern Scriptures to popularize your views for lay audiences. Who is your readership? Whom are your views affecting? Are there modern religious leaders who share your worldview or do you see yourself as a total maverick?

It is a little too early to tell whom my books are affecting; I only founded the press a little more than a year ago. As I launched the press, I was lucky enough to be featured on the front page of the Times of Israel, “When Abraham Murdered Isaac.” This generated a lot of attention, and caused people to rethink some of their basic assumptions regarding the Akedah account and other accounts.

My press is based in part on my website where I take apart all the narrative texts between Genesis – II Kings and many others besides. Over the years my website has generated many responses from a very diverse bunch from Christian divinity students to professors to Ultra Orthodox Jews; I try to enter into dialogue with everyone who has questions. I know my books and website are being used in classrooms at universities and that they are causing students and other readers to question their assumptions about the Torah and how it developed and read the text more closely.

I’ve delivered divrei Torah and lectures in multiple synagogues based on my interpretive method and it often leads people to recognize and value the variety of religious approaches that exist in the Torah.

We often credit rabbinic texts for containing religious complexity and multifaceted opinions but when you employ the methods of biblical criticism you see that the Torah itself already bears testimony to different intuitions about God and religion. In that way, I hope my project contributes to a non-fundamentalist way of reading the Bible, bringing people to see that the Bible is quite complex and contains many different layers of meaning. I may be unique in the particulars of my life story but I want to think that I am not a total maverick in terms of my intellectual approach. I want to have a voice in how the Jewish community relates to texts and hope that I have begun to.

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