A Word from the Publisher
Dear Reader, I am excited to share with you Rabbi Zev Farber’s Ph.D. reflection on “Torah, History, and Judaism.”
Whether you agree or disagree with parts or all of Rabbi Farber’s ideas, they are thoughtful, candid, and courageous, offering members of klal yisrael–Jewish people from all backgrounds, an opportunity to engage with Torah and mitzvot.
After spending more than ten years in kiruv – outreach, it is my belief that current approaches used in some Jewish organizations to strengthen Jewish identity are at best shallow and sometimes even dishonest. Many in the Jewish community who care about Jewish education are increasingly acknowledging the fact that these approaches just do not work.
Many more traditional Jews fear studying Tanach in an honest fashion. For more than ten years I studied in some of the best-known ultra-Orthodox yeshivot where the study of Tanach is non-existent. Not once did we have a lecture on the Prophets and Writings and the closest we got to Torah was what is known as a Mussar Schmooze – an inspirational speech that extrapolates a theme from a verse or detail from a biblical story in order to improve our moral conduct. Although this is worthwhile in its own right, it is no substitute for study of the Torah.
What is the reason for this total neglect of the Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim (prophets and writings)? (Although I appreciate the engagement with Tanach offered in more modern yeshivot like the Gush, YCT and Yeshiva University there is still much work to be done in integrating the full gamut of academic disciplines and findings into our understanding of the Torah.) Are we to conclude that there is a deep scary secret that we are trying to hide about Torah? Many have concluded just that, and with this kind of fear, is it at all surprising that Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice-president of Agudath Israel of America, recently identified the single greatest challenge facing the Orthodox community as the increasing number of “adults at risk,” who find themselves struggling in mid-life with the meaning of religious observance.
I believe Torah is divine and that God wants us to study it — to think and think reasonably about it, to ask questions even if they are difficult ones and to be truthful even if it brings scorn. And I believe that the academic study of the Bible is one among many tools that may help us as we search for meaning and try to understand what life is about. It is with this in mind that I co-founded TheTorah.com and started Project TABS.
TheTorah.com is very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, in the two months since we unofficially launched the site, we have had thousands of unique visits. We have received emails from people across the spectrum—including ultra-Orthodox people who have been in kolel for more than ten years—thanking us for providing them with information and a forum that discussed issues that were troubling them for years.
I believe that openly discussing these questions and exploring the historical and critical explanations not only releases us from the vortex of fear that alienates religious Jews but also adds a whole new layer to the tradition that there are 70 “faces” (facets) of Torah (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15). Keeping an open-minded attitude (instead of blind acceptance or blind rejection of) to academic biblical studies and its findings offers a much-needed nuanced approach to engaging with God and Torah in the modern world.
Although we are publishing Rabbi Farber’s essay as our first lengthy rabbinic reflection on the problem of Torah and academic Bible, this is only the beginning. In time, I will be writing my own thoughts, and a number of rabbis and scholars have agreed to respond to Rabbi Farber’s piece and share their own reflections with the readership. We hope that this will help foster an important conversation in the Jewish community on the meaning of the Bible, its interpretation, and its place in Jewish life.
I would like to conclude by personally thanking Rabbi Farber for agreeing to help us with this endeavor and for being source of ongoing chizuk, support and inspiration. Above all, I am grateful to God for giving me the strength to embark on this journey and project, and it is my deepest prayer that God guides me in his path. הוֹרֵנִי ה’, דַּרְכֶּךָ: וּנְחֵנִי, בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר–לְמַעַן, שׁוֹרְרָי Show me your way, O Lord, and lead me in on a level path because of my watchful foes (Psalms 27:11).
גַּל־עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה נִפְלָאוֹת מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ׃
Open my eyes that I may perceive the wonder of your teachings. (Psalms 119:18)
— Rabbi David D. Steinberg, תמוז תשע”ג (July, 12, 2013)