The golden calf that Orthodoxy must slay

It’s time to say goodbye to the belief that the Torah we have was a word-for-word version from heaven


After most of a century, I still get a thrill every time we recommence the Torah reading at the New Year, because I know it won’t be the same as last year. Partly it’s me — I’ve changed, I’ve learned something in the past year, so the way I read changes.

It is also all those commentaries out there competing for attention. Not that I like everything I see in commentaries. Hertz now seems to me rather dated and too concerned with demonstrating the superiority of the Torah to other cultures, which he not infrequently misrepresents. Artscroll can be quite crazily fundamentalist, as when it claims (p48) that in 1760 BCE “all the national families were concentrated in present-day Iraq”. Really? The Chinese too, and the indigenous Americans and Australians?

Etz Hayim, the popular Conservative commentary, has a more positive approach to historical research and is also not afraid to address contemporary issues, if from a safely liberal perspective.

There are other avenues to explore. The commentaries we find in the synagogue are mostly shy of source criticism; to Hertz, indeed, it was the arch enemy. Yet the Bible itself often cites external sources; altogether 24 different sources, ranging from a “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14) to archives of the kings of Judah, Israel and even the Medes and Persians (Esther 10:2).

The books have a history and were compiled with reference to earlier documents. Even so, when the great commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) hinted at the late composition of Genesis, he had to cloak his ideas in obscure language for fear of being denounced as a heretic. And when modern source criticism began in earnest in the 17th century, its advocates were constantly put on the defensive by traditionalists — Christian as well as Jewish — who thought that the idea that there was a process by which the books had come to be as they are undermined traditional faith in scripture as the Word of God.

I understand the traditional view. Throughout the Middle Ages, expert consensus was that the Five Books of the Torah now in our hands are word for word, letter for letter, what God dictated to Moses in the Sinai desert 3,000 plus years ago; the Rambam stated specifically that the Aleppo Codex, completed by Ben Asher in the 10th century, was a precise copy of the text handed to Moses.

Expert consensus has, however, moved on as new evidence has become available. No one has found the hypothetical documents J, D, P and E that scholars claim were woven into what are now the Five Books of the Torah; if indeed they existed, they may have remained oral and never been written down. The direct evidence that our “received” texts achieved their present form only gradually is nevertheless strong, and comes from biblical manuscripts and ancient versions.

The earliest biblical manuscripts so far discovered, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, are just over 2,000 years old; roughly speaking, they correspond to what we have in our Sifrei Torah. But only roughly speaking. No early manuscript agrees exactly with the Aleppo Codex.

That codex falls within the Masoretic tradition, one of three known ancient scribal traditions, the others being the Hebrew on which the Greek Septuagint was based, and the original Samaritan version; and the Masoretic text itself comes in several versions. What is quite clear is that our “accepted” text has emerged only gradually, after many centuries of selection and refinement.

Traditionalists are simply in denial of the evidence. Does this matter? Yes, not least because it leads to harassment of serious scholars such as the American Orthodox rabbi, Zev Farber, who are pressured by colleagues to renounce what they believe to be the truth — in his case, that the books of the Bible have a compositional history, and did not fall from the sky fully-fledged in the exact form we have them today.

It matters because it is a denial of truth and faith must never be based on falsehood. It matters because it deprives the Orthodox of a whole world of insight into the meaning of scripture, not as a code for decryption, but as living testimony to the life of the Jewish people in their relationship with God through two millennia, an aspect being thoroughly worked out in the divrei Torah by Orthodox scholars that appear on Rabbi Farber’s website

In sum, contemporary Orthodoxy, in a misguided attempt to uphold sacred texts, has fallen prey to a new idol, a new “golden calf”. The holy text itself has become the idol, as a closed biblical fundamentalism diverts people from the real message of Torah while setting up the “received” text as the object of faith.

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