Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rabbi Zev Farber's Choice

Rabbi Zev Farber has caused quite the online tumult.  It remains to be seen whether this will remain a tempest in an online teapot, or spread to the larger Jewish world of press releases.

After rereading the long essay, and some of the attacks and defenses, and discussing this with others, I'm left feeling rather sad about the whole business.  Namely, that R' Farber has real concerns, but that he may not have been the person to express them, or that this may not have been the time to do so.

As it is, most of us laypersons are being presented with a choice as to what should be an Orthodox approach to the textual problems of Torah.

1) Tradition, including the principles of Maimonides, based on 2000 years of biblical interpretation, most of which we don't actually know (how many of us have studied 20 supercommentaries on Rashi, as is included in one collection from the publisher of the big red modern Mikraot Gedolot?), but which we take on faith to have dealt somehow with the apparent inconsistences; or

2) Modern Biblical Scholarship, as presented by R' Farber, which includes:

  1. treating all of the narrative in the Torah as allegorical/legendary;
  2. treating at least some of the legal material in the Torah as affected by then-common social mores;
  3. eliminating Divine Providence "if the stories are nothing but history, then the details are nothing more than the random accidents of history" - do we eliminate Divine Providence, or do we make the Torah into legends?  Either way, a massive part of tradition is cut away.
  4. as a result, several of Maimonides' principles become no longer tenable.  The Wave Theory undoes the Seventh Principle (the primacy of Moses, who never existed anyway), and the Eighth Principle (which is today widely tempered by the knowledge of a few spelling differences between known Torahs), and even impinges on the Ninth Principle by partially abrogating the Law.  
    1. And the Wave Theory itself is based on solid texts in Jeremiah - where the people go to Chuldah to get a more merciful prophecy, rather than Jeremiah, because while she taps into the same flow of Divine will, women are more merciful. R' Farber loses me when he applies the Wave Theory to hypothetical pseudo-Mosaic prophets.

In other words, a choice of authorities as to who gets to define one's view of Judaism. Since most of us haven't spent the years it takes to master either approach, let alone both, we are left choosing who to believe has the correct interpretation of revelation and transmission of Torah.

And that is really no choice.  Do we go with the weight of 2000 years of tradition, hundreds or thousands of expert interpreters, communal acceptance of the model, and a mostly-consistent axiomatic system?  Or do we go with a model that is less than 200 years old, which was promoted largely by 19th-century antisemitten and Wissenschaftliche Reformers who deliberately wanted to undermine traditional Judaism?  A model which, by R' Farber's own admission, necessarily undermines practice and faith?

Others have proposed "heretical" ideas in the past 50 years, but generally from a position of a long history of building up the community, both institutionally and intellectually.  

  • R' Yitz Greenberg has some odd ideas about theology, but he keeps them in his academic writing, not his popular writing and speaking; meanwhile, he has built a life as a pillar of Modern Orthodoxy, developing institutions, writing, advocating.  Most people don't even know about his odd theology, and he & they are quite happy keeping it that way.
  • R' Rackman z"l proposed and built a court for freeing agunot based on questionable psychological premises; while the idea was rejected, nobody was going to reject the whole person, because he had spent 80 years building up Modern Orthodoxy in the US and Israel, at Bar-Ilan and YU, in his shuls, in his capacity as an officer-chaplain in the US military for over a decade, helping Soviet Jews, etc.
R' Farber, on the other hand, is at the start of what looks like a promising career. He doesn't have the broad communal record on which to maintain his reputation.  Reading the comments to the attacks, he seems to be mostly known for writing a series of increasingly radical articles on Judaism. 

So whose opinion should we take on authority as a dogmatic model for Judaism?  Hundreds of writers over thousands of years, ratified by communal acceptance, or a young (well, not that young, after earning a PhD, many years in several yeshivas, and working in day schools, he has to be past 40) upstart, who proposes a theory of Revelation almost indistinguishable from those put forth by Conservative and Reform thinkers, except for a repeated claim of fealty to halacha?

Having struggled for years to convince myself that (a minimalist form of) the traditional view is plausible hence believable, I know where I'm putting my money.


tesyaa said...

Just because something is old and venerated doesn't mean it's factually correct. I understand that religion is not always about factual correctness, which in itself should say something.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Rabbi Farber has a problem. On one hand he very much wants to be Orthodox. On the other hand he is guided by secular liberalism. He therefore needs to make his Orthodoxy fit within the limitations of secular liberalism.
Hence his "Boy I wish homosexual marriage would be okay!" and "There's nothing wrong with women rabbis!" positions. This latest debacle is simply more of the same. He wants to keep the Torah's rules but can't dismiss the secular liberal arguments against its authenticity because his prioritizes them. Too bad for him.

thanbo said...

Tesyaa. Factually correct? We pay more attention to Oral Tora than to biblicsl literalism. Still, the Tora has to be factually existent to be a solid basis for a Tora-based religion.

tesyaa said...

If it is historically true that the Oral Torah was given from God to Moses at Sinai, then it is indeed a factual interpretation/explanation of the Written Law - i.e. "factually correct". If it developed over time as a way to synchronize practice with the Written Law, then well whatever.

thanbo said...

tesyaa: To my understanding, the Oral Torah is a mix. that is, there are sinaitic roots, but they don't really show except in the 37 halachot lemoshe misinai listed by Rambam in the introduction to the mishnah commentary.

As for the rest, the body of authoritative interpretations, they could be from tradition, OR they could be derived from drashot, and WE DON'T KNOW. Since we don't know, we figure that those which CAN be derived midrashically, have to be treated AS IF they were traditional, hence de'oraita. Things actively legislated are derabbanan.

that's my "oral torah minimalist" understanding. 99% of it is uncertain, 1% is evidently sinaitic, but we treat all of it as if it were sinaitic becase we don't know if the 99% might have been revealed.

arriving at that understanding allowed me to consider myself Orthodox.

Y. Aharon said...

Thanbo, I agree with your assessment of the likely provenance of the oral torah - at least the bulk of it, and your comments on the Farber tumult. Anything that is passed down by an oral tradition is bound to have the imprint of the generations of such transmitters despite the Rambam's counterargument. That is not such a bad thing, however, in that it allows more modern sensibilities to modify more ancient attitudes. The problem that we face stems from the fact that the oral tradition has not been oral for many generations. The writing of the talmud has converted the dynamic and evolutionary oral tradition into something written in stone. While there is still some room for reinterpreting older written sources, the traditional mindset tends to repudiate such approaches.

On the other hand, if traditional religion is to have a secure footing, then its foundational document must be treated with reverence. If someone has problems with his understanding of the text - particularly, ostensible contradictions, then the effort should be exerted in reconciling such texts rather than deconstructing them. R' Farber's arguments point to a superficial reading of the torah, as if he were an some academician rather than a trained posek.

I do not maintain that all of the text must be Moshe's writing. However, minor additions such as the last 12 verses, or sundry other verses dealing with geneology do not, to my mind, reduce the perceived sanctity of the torah. In fact, there is a minority viewpoint among both Tana'im and Amora'im that the original script of the torah was paleoHebrew rather than the stylized Aramaic that we have. Yet, it is only the Aramaic script that is acceptable in writing a sefer torah.

The instances of apparent contradictions and inconsistencies cited by R' Farber can be resolved if one takes the trouble to attempt a resolution. It is far too simple and superficial to assume that the seeming discrepancies are evidence for different authors. R' Farber has not done justice to the foundational text of his religious practice or to the institution that granted him several ordinations.

Anonymous said...

These are all interesting comments – actually less caustic than one finds on many other blogs. I am not orthodox – and was quite shocked to find out that orthodox Jews believed the Torah was actually transmitted from G-d to Moses.

I was falsely impressed with Judaism because I thought it was “better” than other religions than other religions for not holding to ideas that were difficult or shaky. For instance, I believed that Judaism didn’t really care about the afterlife; didn’t believe in hell; wasn’t particularly concerned over sexuality. It may not be the norm for orthodoxy to have gay people in the community – but it was more a shrug than a scowl.

Obviously I was terribly wrong. But I think that Judaism followed other religions down this blind alley – we didn’t lead them there.

The Rambam came up with the ikkurim in response to other religions. Now we are stuck with that as a litmus test.

The Talmud made concrete what was oral. Now we are stuck with it.

And the idea of hell, or an afterlife – hardly concerns of our sacred texts – yet probably a nagging concern once we learned other religions had raised and answered those questions.

Also, the idea of Moses (or any person) as the author of Torah – very likely only emphasized once the secular world developed the idea of the author, and intellectual property – all later developments in human history. (Some say Homer was the first “author” in this scheme.)

Even mussar is in many ways a reaction to the haskalah from what I understand.

We follow the goyim in other ways of course: we were not the first ones to embrace monogamy – but you would never have thought this from the frumkeit we are taught.

The orthodox of course dress very much like the goyim (not the chasidim of course – who dress like goyim from centuries ago.)

It’s all fascinating to me. Our Jewishness is historically determined by the outside culture. I am surprised people don’t discuss these things more.