The battle over Orthodox belief that led to the Jacobs Affair in British Jewry has erupted again a half-century later after an American rabbi was accused of advancing heretical ideas about the Torah.
Rabbi Zev Farber, a graduate of the Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), has suggested that the view propounded by academic critics of the Bible that the Torah was composed by multiple authors should be taken seriously.
But other rabbis say that challenging the traditional Orthodox doctrine that the text of the Torah was given directly by God to Moses is beyond the pale.
The dispute, which has been raging on-line over the past month, has echoes of the controversy that led to Rabbi Louis Jacobs being forced out of the United Synagogue in Britain and the consequent birth of the Masorti movement.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, an executive member of the Rabbinical Council of America, who has led the charge against Rabbi Farber on the blog Cross-Currents.com, said that “outright heresy is emanating from the heart of the YCT rabbinic world”.
He declared: “We are dealing with denial of the singular Divine authorship of the Torah — heresy of the highest order — publicly espoused in writing by one of Open Orthodoxy’s most prominent rabbinic leaders.”
YCT — which has a number of British rabbinical students — was founded in 1999 as an alternative to America’s existing modern Orthodox establishment and one of a number new institutions identified as “open Orthodox”.
Rabbi Farber, who has a doctorate in Jewish studies, is YCT’s only graduate to qualify as a dayan. He is also a board member of the conversion programme of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, set up five years ago.
The controversy began after Rabbi Farber posted a series of essays on a blog, TheTorah.com, which tries to integrate Torah study with academic scholarship.
Examining differences between Deuteronomy and the previous books of the Torah, he wrote that the simplest explanation was that “they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience”.
He continued: “The simplest literary approach is the academic one which posits multiple authors with multiple traditions. How such an approach meshes with traditionalist belief requires serious thought.”
Under pressure to renounce Rabbi Farber’s views, the president of YCT’s rabbinical school, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, said on the blog Morethodoxy.org that they represented the “outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject” but were “different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT”.
In a later post, Rabbi Farber made clear his belief in the concept of Torah min Hashamayim (“Torah from heaven”), writing that “the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel”.