Meeting David Steinberg and the Genesis of TheTorah.com – Chanukah 2012
One of the curses—and blessings—of the internet is that it is easy to find biblical scholars online and to ask them whatever you want; my most frequently asked unsolicited question is: With whom did Adam’s sons have children? But on November 6, 2012, I received a very different sort of email:
Dear Prof. Brettler,
My name is David Steinberg; a Rabbi for Aish Hatorah New York…
Over the last two years I have been on quite a biblical and spiritual journey. Although it has been a difficult, painful and very confusing journey, I am at a stage where I find it more rewarding than ever to study the Torah in a critical, honest and comprehensive way.
This brings me to why I am reaching out to you. I am looking to get involved or / and possibly start some sort of organization that addresses modern biblical scholarship and traditional (Orthodox) practice…
I was intrigued. I was critical of the Discovery Seminar that was being run by Aish Hatorah, especially after they offered some presentations at Brandeis University, where I was then teaching. In fact, I took one of their publicity signs that said something like “Want to know more about what the Bible really means?” and crossed out their information and wrote instead: “ask me,” and posted it on my office door. And here was someone who was working for Aish, but was seriously interested in biblical criticism, and he had reached out to me after reading one of my books. Although I imagined (correctly) that he dressed in black and white, he refused to see the Bible in black and white.
David was persistent. My quick response to him—that I was too busy but was intrigued and would find time to answer him at more length, was soon answered:
I have put together a humble draft for an organization that I would like to found.
I know that you mentioned this is a busy time, yet, I could not resist asking for your feedback in advance of our phone conversation next week. Please forgive me J! Time is of the essence. As Chazal [the rabbinic sages] teach us “If a mitzvah comes to your hand, do not let it become chametz [leavened—and thus prohibited to eat over Passover] – do it right away!”…
Are you familiar with any Jewish popular (non-academic) educational organizations that focus on or address bible criticism and its challenges? Surprisingly, although I have seen it mentioned on non-Orthodox sites, I have not seen a structured or meaningful coverage of it.
David’s amazingly comprehensive document served as the blueprint for our early years. A few days later, David sent me another email with the additional thoughts that would eventually become the “Our Values” page on TheTorah.com. He wrote:
“Hineni muchan u’mezuman” [I am fully ready] to found with God’s help, the Institute: TORAH AND BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP…
And thus our name, TABS, was created; our purpose was defined more clearly by David a few days later:
Project Torah & Biblical Scholarship was founded to deepen the understanding of Torah in light of Modern Biblical Scholarship and to address with intellectual rigor the challenges it presents, while maintaining an appreciation and commitment to traditional halachic observance.
Finding Meaning in Academic Torah Study
As our telephone conversations continued, David observed:
Norman Solomon raises the idea in his book that “intellectual violence is possibly more damaging in the long run than physical abuse”… I love the study of Torah, find a lot of inspiration from how modern biblical scholarship has been able to try and reconstruct a critical-contextual interpretation despite the deeply ingrained traditional approach of the origins of Torah.
I also find it very meaningful to understand through modern Biblical Scholarship the spiritual journey the Jewish people have been on in an effort to believe, engage and serve God, and personally believe that retracing some of that process without compromising on the commitment, will energize Judaism, make it a healthier, more vibrant religion and will in turn make this world a better place.
My prayer and hope is to help as many people as we can, yet I recognize that this is a long journey, as the mishna in Avos [Ethics of the Fathers 2:16] says “It is not up to you to finish the job. Neither are you free to withdraw from it.”
It was time to continue these conversations in person, and on Monday December 10, 2012, six years ago, during the middle of Chanukah, David came to visit me to talk out his ideas in more detail, and to see if a Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Jew living in Passaic, New Jersey could really work together with an observant Jew who typically attended a Modern Orthodox synagogue.
We spoke for 3-4 hours, with an interlude for me to light Chanukah candles and for David to see what a scholarly personal library on biblical scholarship looks like—the issues discussed, the perspectives taken. David would only drink water and black coffee—I did not have cholov Yisroel (specially supervised milk) for him. But by the time we left, TABS was founded, though it took until Shavuot 2013 to go live.
We started with just the two of us and had many wonderful, and some difficult, conversations. David soon left his full-time job, applied for Project TABS’s nonprofit status 501(c)(3), and raised seed money from several of his close friends. He served—and still serves—as the director and project manager. David created a business plan and a timeline, learned how to set up and maintain a website (we did not have the funds to set it up professionally), and delved into the world of scholarship as one of our editors, ever confident that funding for the project would come through.
In early 2014, more than a year later, generous individuals stepped forward. (Several of our major donors prefer to remain anonymous: They feel that our mission is crucial but fear that their known involvement in the project may jeopardize their family’s standing within the Orthodox community.) We began, and continue to function, on a shoestring budget with little overhead.
David’s favorite topic in the early days was the lack of Jewishly sensitive, academically responsible online material, and the unfortunate fact that much academic biblical knowledge was hidden in university libraries or behind paywalls. We would periodically Google “Bible, Critical, Jewish” and find little valuable material, except for the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) of Christine Hayes, the non-Jewish scholar of Bible, rabbinics, and early Judaism at Yale University.
By early 2013, we needed more help, and we contacted Zev Farber, who was finishing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Emory University and had been ordained as a rabbi and dayan [rabbinic judge] at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT Rabbinical School) in NY. Our goals resonated with Zev, who responded:
I can’t stand the putting our heads in the sand and pretending that the Modern Orthodox community can just act as if the notions of history and the development of the Bible can remain pre-Modern. I think it is madness and would love to be involved in showing our community how our understanding can evolve without endangering our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, as it did with evolution, heliocentrism, etc.
Soon thereafter David hired Zev as our senior editor, and he has since been centrally involved in many aspects of the project.
The initial goal of the three of us, working together, was to provide weekly pieces on the Torah portion (parashat ha-shavua). The early pieces were all written by traditional Jews. We started this way because we wanted to highlight these scholars, who did not feel confined by many of the predominant traditional attitudes toward the Bible’s composition; we also thought that our audience would be more open to reading non-traditional material if they knew it was written by such scholars.
We followed this pattern for several months. But eventually we realized that our readership was much broader, and that many traditional Jews were open to compelling viewpoints, no matter who the author was. We had become the most popular academic Bible site worldwide. We therefore decided to expand to a wide variety of authors of varying commitments and affiliations, greatly increasing our rank of contributors, who now number close to four hundred.
Over the years, we have broadened our readership in surprising ways. Every time I attend the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, many non-Jewish (and Jewish) colleagues tell me that they are using TheTorah.com posts in class, and that we offer the best detailed, well-edited online pieces on many topics. Six years ago, I never imagined our site would be used for this purpose.
Of course, we have had enemies and detractors, but these have only strengthened our conviction that TheTorah.com is important for both the Jewish world and the general academic world. We have expanded our mission and readership over time and look forward to having an even greater impact on anyone interested in serious study of the Hebrew Bible.
Shavuot 2019 will be our sixth anniversary for online publications, and we expect to launch by then a new, professionally designed, more user-friendly website, a process that is being managed by David Bar-Cohn, a member of our TABS team. We also recently hired Dr. Juni Hoppe, who has a Masters and Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Oxford and Cambridge, as editorial manager.
As our readership and impact continue to grow, we hope that more supporters will step forward, to allow us to stabilize our budget and offer events that we have been planning from the beginning, including a TABS/TheTorah.com weekend/shabbaton where our contributors and readers will have a chance to meet.
As I draft this, it is almost time to light candles for the final day of Chanukah, and I am reminded of the words of Psalm 30, which has become associated with Chanukah, due to its superscription, “A song for the dedication of the House.” I am thankful that we have continued and grow stronger in subscribers and contributors, and that those who disparaged us have not successfully gloated over our collapse—(Psalm 30:2) וְלֹא־שִׂמַּ֖חְתָּ אֹיְבַ֣י לִֽי, “and You have not let my enemies rejoice over me.”
I believe that our commitment to academic biblical studies within our broad Jewish framework has enhanced both my religiosity and scholarship, and for this, I recite with gratitude the conclusion of Psalm 30: לְמַ֤עַן ׀ יְזַמֶּרְךָ֣ כָ֭בוֹד וְלֹ֣א יִדֹּ֑ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱ֝לֹהַ֗י לְעוֹלָ֥ם אוֹדֶֽךָּ, “that [my] whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly; O LORD my God, I will praise You forever.” This verse expresses the joy that has redounded to me from meeting David six years ago today.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.