Yesterday’s heresies can become the orthodoxies of tomorrow

Sites like are creating new interest in academic study of biblical texts


When first published, many considered the Hertz Pentateuch to be scandalous, since it cited many non-Jewish biblical scholars. These objections are now long forgotten and Hertz is instead remembered for its traditionalism, for strenuously defending Maimonides’s eighth principle of faith of Torah min hashamyim — literally “Torah from heaven”— that the exact Torah text that we now possess was revealed to Moses on Mt Sinai.

The Jacobs Affair, which began to unfold almost 60 years ago, is usually understood to centre around this issue. In We Have Reason to Believe, a powerful defence of traditional Judaism, Jacobs describes revelation as including human participation, a theological position he calls “liberal supernaturalism”. For Chief Rabbi Brodie, such views justified blocking Jacobs’s appointment as principal of Jews’ College and then banning him from returning as minister at the New West End Synagogue.

Brodie defended his position in a piece printed in this newspaper, insisting: “An attitude to the Torah such as this which denies its Divine source and unity (Torah min Hashamayim) is directly opposed to orthodox teaching, and no person holding such views can expect to obtain approval of the orthodox Ecclesiastical authority.”

As an observant Jew (I prefer that term to Orthodox), I wonder what would have happened if Jacobs were alive now. How would the larger Orthodox community, which then jumped on the anti-Jacobs bandwagon, react?

One way of gauging this is by looking at The project’s idea originated with David Steinberg, a Charedi Orthodox rabbi; another Orthodox rabbi, Zev Farber joined soon thereafter — I am a co-founder and an active member of an Orthodox shul. was originally conceived of as a site by traditional Jews for traditional Jews, but now has much broader readers and contributors, including the Regius Professors of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge. It strives to show how historical-critical (or better, contextual) study of the Bible could fit well within Orthodoxy and thus has become an important flashpoint in discussions of the boundaries of Orthodoxy, in some ways occupying a similar place to that Jacobs’s book had in the 1960s.

The site has been censured. Soon after it went live, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) proclaimed: “In recent days there has been much discussion regarding the belief in Torah min Hashamayim… [It] is necessary … to assert the centrality of this bedrock principle in broad terms”.

Denunciations for its “heretical” essays continue; a recent email said: “I have a peculiar feeling that it [] is full of apikorsus and heresy…. Would you please unsubscribe me from this filth.”

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, an RCA member, polemicised against the site on in a post titled “The It is Most Certainly Not ‘Orthodox Jews Challenging Commonly Held Beliefs About the Torah’”. It engendered 75 responses, indicating that Torah min hashamyim is being widely discussed in the Orthodox community.

The energy that various people are expending to deny the validity of the open-minded approaches taken in, alongside the fact that most of the site’s funders are members of the Orthodox community, and it reaches over 100,000 users each month, reveals the inroads it is making among traditional, including Orthodox, Jews.

In an essay on website, the sociologist Chaim Waxman examined why critical approaches to the Bible have penetrated into the Orthodox community, noting the influence of Israeli rabbis Mordechai Breuer and Yoel Bin-Nun, as well as certain developments in American Orthodoxy, including the impact of the web and of new views of pluralism.

The scholar of Orthodox Judaism Marc Shapiro begins his discussion of this phenomenon with the Jacobs affair and concludes: “I believe that as far as some in their community are concerned, the answer [to the question of whether modern Orthodoxy is moving toward accepting biblical criticism] is yes.”

The Bar-Ilan professor Adam S Ferziger sees the change emanating from the Israeli religious Zionist circles, but acknowledges that these changes are becoming more globalised. These studies show that Orthodoxy is no longer only polemicising against academic biblical studies, but trying to integrate its teachings.

The support for by many Orthodox leaders was brought home to me, quite movingly, when they, among others, were asked to comment on the seventh anniversary of the site. For example, Dr Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo “congratulate[d] for its ongoing efforts to face the text with courage and honesty”.

Professor Tova Ganzel observed: “Some worry that critical scholarship of the Torah will uproot the basis of their faith. I worry that clinging uncritically to one’s faith will compromise his or her integrity and faith.”

Professor Tamar Ross offered a passionate plea: “awareness and acknowledgement of the accomplishments of critical biblical scholarship are crucial for the development of a mature and sober theology relevant for our times.”

Had such scholars given voice to similar opinions 60 years ago, the history of Orthodox Jewry might have been different.

Hertz’s heresies from over three-quarters of a century ago became today’s Orthodoxy, and the same is happening in some circles for the “heretical” beliefs of Louis Jacobs, which are becoming well-accepted by a significant number of Orthodox Jews today.

Professor Brettler and Dr Edward Breuer are giving the Louis Jacobs Annual Memorial Lecture, “Approaching The Torah With Honesty,” on Sunday week June 21 at 5.30pm. 
To book, see

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