The rabbi behind the American Jacobs affair

A new debate on the origins of the Torah is testing the boundaries of Orthodoxy


The New London Synagogue, founded by Rabbi Louis Jacobs after his exile from the United Synagogue, has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Today it is considered the first Masorti congregation in the UK. But Rabbi Jacobs had never wanted to start a new movement and the synagogue at first labelled itself Orthodox. He believed it possible to reconcile traditional Judaism with the modern academic view that the Torah was not dictated word for word by God in the wilderness but was compiled over time.

Now a half-century later, the issue has caught fire again and once more people are asking if it is possible to remain Orthodox while not believing that Moses wrote down the whole Torah as if some divinely appointed secretary. This time the centre of the debate is in the United States and it has been sparked by a young rabbi called Dr Zev Farber.

In 2006, Rabbi Farber was one of the first rabbinic graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York, a new academy on the left of the Orthodox spectrum. The holder of a doctorate in Jewish studies from Emory University in Atlanta, he also received ordination from YCT as a dayan.

A year ago he published an essay "Avraham Avinu is My Father", on, a website founded by Rabbi David Steinberg, a former Manchester Yeshivah graduate and Aish outreach worker. It is the main arm of Project TABS, Torah and Biblical Scholarship, an intellectual bridge between the university and yeshivah worlds.

The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives

The Torah "seems to have evident signs of being an edited work which makes use of multiple sources and contains layers of redaction", he wrote. "The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives and lists."

It was "impossible" to consider the mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or Joshua's conquest of the whole of Canaan as historical.

But he still believed that the Torah was from heaven, a prophetic work assembled over time, representing "the encounter between God and the people of Israel".

Immediately accusations of heresy began flying across the internet and the institutions with which Rabbi Farber was associated - such as YCT and the International Rabbinical Fellowship (IRF) - were pressed to disavow his views.

"There was a pushback from among those who identify as centrist or Charedi-lite, or college-educated frum," he told the JC during a visit to the UK a few weeks ago for the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies' summer institute.

"Some have drawn lines in the sand similar to the lines drawn for partnership minyans [where women read from the Torah] and things like that. That said, we received unexpected support from people in these camps and even from further to the right.

"They can try to swat it down, but these issues are not going away any time soon, and the world is voting with their feet."

In the ensuing "firestorm", he stepped down from a leadership role in many of the projects he was involved with for YCT and the IRF which was "sad but not devastating". But he has retained a relationship with the two organisations.

"They were getting flak and it was becoming too tense," he explained. "I think it was less about their believing I was doing something wrong and more about avoiding being painted with my brush. Each organisation made a public statement reaffirming their own commitments to Torah from Heaven in a more classical sense and YCT said explicitly that my views are not representative of the yeshivah."

But the reaction has disproved the idea that such theological controversies are just "for a handful of brainiacs in the modern Orthodox community who struggle with these questions and 40 other professors of Bible who happen to be frum talking to each other". has turned out to be "very popular," he said. "I don't know the exact figures but the website has a lot of hits, a very large email list with many rabbis from multiple denominations. We've had over 100 authors thus far, including quite a number of Orthodox writers, including rabbis and roshei [heads of] yeshivah."

The website was "TABS's introduction to the world," he added. "It is not going to stop at the website." Conferences and publications are planned.

Just as Orthodoxy adapted to scientific ideas such as evolution, so it must grapple with academic scholarship on the origins of the Bible in "a sophisticated and honest way", he believes.

"The greatest threat to religion already happened. Once upon a time we thought we were the centre of the world… and now we realise we are sitting on one planet in a galaxy in a cluster of galaxies in one of many multiverses. If religion can survive that, I can't imagine it can't survive [the idea] that God communicated the Torah through multiple authors, as opposed to one."

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