Pursuing Truth: Our Responsibility Beyond Orthodox Identity
Every age offers examples of the tension between those who welcome new insights and those who uncritically repeat and elaborate on outworn models.
It was at the restaurant Abigael’s in New York, shortly before Chanukah in December 2012, that I first met David Steinberg. He had read my recently published Torah from Heaven and contacted me with the suggestion that should I ever find myself on his side of the Atlantic we might meet up.
I well remember the impression I formed of a thoughtful and determined young man who had studied seriously at yeshiva but had also picked up on the academic way of reading texts within a broader, critical framework, utilizing insights from history and science, raising questions that could not be satisfactorily addressed by conventional means. He wondered: Surely it was possible to remain faithful to Orthodoxy without doing violence to reason and denying the fast-growing body of historical and scientific evidence? Had not great teachers of the past such as Rambam and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch shown in their different ways that it was possible to combine Torah with the best of ambient culture?
So we chatted a little, mooted the idea of a website aimed at sharing ideas with others who thought as we did, and wondered whether a yeshiva might be created to foster study of the kind we had in mind. Following a pleasant lunch, we went our separate ways; when Chanukah arrived, we kindled lights on opposite sides of the ocean and reflected on the discrepancies between the accounts of a victory of Maccabees (not named as such by the Rabbis) over “Greeks” (Macedonian rulers of Syria), as well as on the more recent construction of those events as a triumph of Judaism over Hellenism.
Dreams. But David didn’t leave it there. By Shavuot, mere months later, TABS was a reality and TheTorah.com was online. A long and challenging journey lay ahead. In addition to specialist knowledge and literary skill, funds and technical know-how were required to transform the dream into lasting reality. David, together with Marc Brettler, Zev Farber and others, proved more than equal to the task, enlisting expert and enthusiastic cooperation while at the same time dexterously handling the inevitable opposition.
TheTorah.com is now acknowledged throughout the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world as a major resource for balanced and well-informed interpretation of biblical and rabbinic texts as well as open and honest discussion of Jewish beliefs and values.
Every age offers examples of those who welcome new insights and those who uncritically repeat and elaborate on outworn models. How is it possible to maintain inherently conservative institutions while absorbing new information and insights? To be precise, is it possible to sustain identity with an Orthodox community that proclaims the perfection and inviolability of scripture as interpreted by the rabbis while at the same time acknowledging that history often says otherwise?
Can we move forward without rupturing Jewish, or at least Orthodox, identity? To what extent do the new understandings affect our implementation of halakha, as defined in rabbinic tradition, and can we hold together our community by rigorous adherence to halakha while disagreeing with one another on basic theological issues?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that, as an individual, my first responsibility is to pursue truth to the extent that I can grasp it. If institutions are slow to change, we must persist. If there is one thing that history teaches us it is that institutions do change over time, else they perish. As the Rabbis put it, כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם “any debate for the sake of heaven will ultimately prevail” (m. Avot 5:17).
So, congratulations to all—staff, authors, supporters, and readers—who have brought TheTorah to its tenth birthday. May they, and it, be blessed and long continue!
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.