Nothing Too Challenging For Torah

Larger than life challenges to Torah values can be met in two different ways. We can prudently retreat, placing the sanctity of what is most important to us ahead of all other needs and feelings. Alternatively, we can face these challenges with confidence and certainty that nothing can compete with Torah, that it can and will triumph over every meretricious substitute.

Neither approach is more correct than the other. Different times, different communities, different challenges may require one approach, rather than the other. Discretion can be the better part of Torah valor at times – or it can be a sign of insecurity and retreat. Two people facing the same kind of challenge may individually opt for the opposite approaches; each one’s intentions can be le-shem Shomayim. Arguing about which one is “the” Torah approach is shallow and silly. We likely have representatives of both approaches among our readers.

I will confess to having chosen the latter one at a relatively early age. It has had its rewards and its failures. To this day, my final message to the seniors I teach in a modern Orthodox school is that whatever new ideas, concepts and challenges they face, remember that you had some teachers who looked you straight in the eye, and said, “Torah will bow to no challenge. There is nothing out there that holds a candle to it.”

Seeing this approach triumph at times is therefore a great thrill. Today was one of those days. One of the greatest challenges to modern Orthodox kids (the ones who think, rather than party when they get to the Ivy’s) is biblical criticism. Rumor has it that James Kugel’s course on it at Harvard did more damage to emunah than beer bongs.

Millions of readers of hundreds of papers around the world read an AP story today about an Israeli algorithm that can identify the author of written works. Developed by a team lead by Prof. Moshe Koppel of Bar-Ilan, this authorship attribution software (a branch of artificial intelligence) has previously been successfully applied to non-Biblical applications. It has helped determine authorship of a work of the Ben Ish Chai. It can determine whether an author is male of female.

In a paper delivered last week at an academic conference, Koppel’s group showed how their program could cull the so-called P fragments from the rest of Chumash. The programs results match those of a laborious manual approach around 90% of the time. It can do in minutes what takes teams of scholars years.

Why should we care? We don’t subscribe to the documentary hypothesis, do we? Most of the minority of our community who have even heard of it try sweeping it under the carpet, or dismiss it with something ineffective like “Wellhausen was an anti-Semite; ergo, all biblical criticism is stupid.” For that matter, why is Moshe Koppel involved in this project? Read on:

What the algorithm won’t answer, say the researchers who created it, is the question of whether the Bible is human or divine. Three of the four scholars, including Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.

For academic scholars, the existence of different stylistic threads in the Bible indicates human authorship.
But the research team says in their paper they aren’t addressing “how or why such distinct threads exist.”

“Those for whom it is a matter of faith that the Pentateuch is not a composition of multiple writers can view the distinction investigated here as that of multiple styles,” they said.

In other words, there’s no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.

“No amount of research is going to resolve that issue,” said Koppel.

In the space of a few lines, Moshe Koppel told the world three things. He told them that frum Jews still believe that the Torah was given by HKBH, even though that makes them part of a very small part of the world’s population. (Even devout Christians see the Bible as “Divinely inspired,” rather than authored. He told them that, as a frum Jew, he has a way of looking at what seems to be evidence of multiple authorship, and interpreting it in an entirely different way, perfectly consistent with traditional belief.

Subliminally, he also communicated the supreme confidence of the committed Jew not to hide from or deny hard evidence of something that seems to conflict with traditional modes of thought. One way or another, this very bright Jew has enough emunah to confront any truth without fear that his relationship with Hashem or His Torah will be disturbed.

This was a rich and elegant kiddush Hashem.

[Kudos to Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of NJOP for pointing out the story]

[For a fuller explanation in Dr Koppel’s own words, see the July 11 entry of the Seforim blog]

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21 Responses

  1. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Dr. Koppel also has one of the most original and internaly consistent peirushim on masechet kinim that I have ever seen. He approaches the text as a mathematician and the results are a peirush on the mishna unlike any other.

  2. Shabse Werther says:

    Kudos to Rabbi Adlerstein for expressing this important message so articulately.

    As a Torah obervant Jew, I have no doubt that the Torah is authored by haKadosh baruch Hu. However, I was able to receive what I consider Divine proof of the Torah’s authorship through a personal experience.
    On the second day of Succoth, 5770, one of my sons, Sholom B’nayahu, delivered a passionate d’var Torah about the link between B’nei Yisroel and Zayis Ra’anan (a passage in Yirmiyahu 11). It is a piece of Talmud in Menachos 23b. Thirty hours later he was killed by a hit and run driver. In the ensuing eighteen months, I saw NUMEROUS references to both Zayis Raanan and my son’s unusual name, first in Tehillim, then in Chumash and finally in Talmud. For example, if Zayis Raanan is split into two parts, yud-zayin (17) and taf, reish, ayin, nun, nun sofit (770) one gets the date 17 or 770. The last day of my son’s life was the seventeenth day of (5)770. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The references in Chumash and Tehillim are eye-popping. Anyone wanting further information can read a newly published work, Zayis Raanan: The Gift of the Fresh Olive, available from

  3. lacosta says:

    sadly, the number of individuals who have combined haredi lomdus with rigourous secular education [by that i mean more than some namby-pamby apologetics that dilletantes in the given field can upschlug in seconds] are countable on one hand.

  4. dr. bill says:

    These results make the derech of rav mordechai breuer, ztl, the author of pirkei moadot and pirkei berashit, and the rebbe of many modern-day orthodox bible scholars, all the more important. it is referred to as the methods of brisk applied to the Torah. The rav ztl’s Adam I and Adam II is a fabulous example of the approach. Essays about him by Profs. Leiman and Carmy address the issues his methodology raises. His approach to the last two parshiot we read, the 2 stories about the meraglim, a spy mission and an assessment by Nesiai haAm and the dual rebellions of benai reuvain and korach, are good illustrations of areas where his contributions are extraordinary.

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “Different times, different communities, different challenges may require one approach, rather than the other…One of the greatest challenges to modern Orthodox kids (the ones who think, rather than party when they get to the Ivy’s) is biblical criticism.”

    I have seen conflicting views expressed by educators about what today’s generation finds as the greatest challenge. The differences are in part because each one is discussing different communities, or different people within those communities(as the Ami article, “Imposter Among Us” showed, there are a minority in the Charedi community whose situation and needs would be similar to that of the modern Orthodox kids attending college):

    In their pamphlet about secualar universities, Drs. Gil Perl and Yaakov Weinstein warned Orthodox parents about James Kugel’s class :

    “In 1999 the largest undergraduate course in Harvard was a Bible class with a registration of 900 students. In the first lecture, the professor, donning a large black kippah, warned those students from religious backgrounds that they may find his class troubling and should think twice about taking the class if they anticipate a severe spiritual crisis… ”

    On the other hand, R. Michael Broyde downplayed the issue of bible criticism in an 2007 OU interview radio on “Around the Dining Room Table”:

    “One has to always be wary about fighting the wrong war, so to speak. The challenges posed by modernity to those who are of faith don’t remain constant. The grand challenge to Orthodoxy 100 years ago which was the Documentary Hypothesis simply is unimportant in our time. Nobody leaves Orthodox Judaism over multiple authorship of the Torah, at least that’s my sense… But for example, as the Slifkin matter showed, this basic question of the compatibility of Torah with modern science, has proven to be an extraordinary important issue, and it’s an issue that didn’t strike a particular generation as crucial”

    Finally, an educator from Machon Lev quoted in the Jerusalem Post in 2005, referred to personal existential questions as being the most critical of issues:

    “A century ago [science and Torah issues] destroyed the spirituality of thousands of Jews. But today there are many religious scientists and professors who have refuted supposed inconsistencies…I think what truly bothers contemporary religious youth is a much more personal, existential question. The real thinkers are concerned with why they were put on this earth and what they are supposed to do here.”

  6. Raymond says:

    I consider myself to be an agnostic, yet I never understood why the multiple-authors hypothesis of the Torah should even be taken seriously. For one thing, it strikes me that even the most sophisticate computer can only give results based on its human input. If the input consists of nothing but the classic Torah commentators such as Rashi and the Ramban, no computer in the world would then say that the Torah comes from anybody other than G-d. Similar is the case if the input is made by those who have an agenda that is hostile to our Torah. And second of all, even if somehow a computer demonstrates that different parts of the Torah are written in completely different styles, how does that prove anything? Every one of us human beings have different moods at different times, and thus those of us who are talented enough to get our writings published, may reflect those same differences in our writings. Isn’t G-d at least as capable as us of manifesting as much variance in how we experience Him?

  7. Leon Zacharowicz says:

    My heartfelt condolences to Mr. Werther.

    My guess is that existential and emotional issues play a much greater role in one’s spiritual path than a Harvard course.

  8. Shmuel says:

    I agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s approach (and Prof. Koppel) 100%. A human being can no more test empirically whether the Almighty wrote the Torah than he can test empirically whether the Almighty created the universe along with the laws that govern it. However, I tend to doubt that secular academic Bible study is a big challenge to people, at least in my circles. The only people I’ve ever come across who gave any credence to Biblical criticism are orthodox Jews who went into academic Jewish studies and for whatever reason adopted the assumptions of their professional peers. (I am not suggesting that all or most orthodox people who go into this field adopt such assumptions.) Other people have a way to think about it ranging from contempt to some kind of view like Prof. Koppel, or ignore it altogether. It seems to me that kids at colleges go off the derech because of a cute lab partner, not because of an academic bible class.

  9. Phil says:

    “One way or another, this very bright Jew has enough emunah to confront any truth without fear that his relationship with Hashem or His Torah will be disturbed.”

    What about fear that his children’s, students’ or readers relationship with Hashem or His Torah will be disturbed?

  10. Nachum says:

    Your reference to Professor Kugel is somewhat unfair. You failed to point out that Kugel is a completely observant Jew. I would not be at all surprised (I’ve even seen examples of this) if he, in fact, *kept* people within Orthodox Judaism, by demonstrating that knowledge of, and belief in, multiple authorship need not “require” one to drop mitzvah observance. People entering his class know what they’re getting into- they don’t pick it at random. But perhaps they only *thought* they knew- the yarmulke may have helped them in ways they hadn’t imagined.

    I remember when he came to speak at YU (on a completely unrelated topic). The room was packed- in my view, with students who know full well about authorship theories and still want to remain Torah observant. Kugel, even passively, gives them a reason.

  11. Ori says:

    Phil: What about fear that his children’s, students’ or readers relationship with Hashem or His Torah will be disturbed?

    Ori: Probably Moshe Koppel figured that the challenge would be even greater if those children, students, and readers came across the same research done by somebody else whose purpose was to show the Torah as untrue. Scientific advances are rarely something that only a single person could have done.

  12. A.Schreiber says:

    “I remember when he [Dr. Kugel] came to speak at YU (on a completely unrelated topic). The room was packed- in my view, with students who know full well about authorship theories and still want to remain Torah observant. Kugel, even passively, gives them a reason.”

    However, it is a reason few people understand. He insists that he is NOT merely orthoprax [which would be undestandable] but rather, is fully orthodox. In the same vein, he insists that he is being intellectually honest when he remains an orthdox Jews, and is not leading this lifesttle simply “for the chulent” and social trimmings. Moreover, as I understand him, he does not keep halacha because it’s a convenient standard, but because he says be accepts it to be authoritative. How he can reconcile this outlook with the Documentary Hypothesis completely baffles me. To me, traditional orthodox beliefs and acceptance of the DH are entirely and 100% mutually exclusive. They simply cannot be squared. No one of the many intelligent and learned people I have spoken to about it has ever been able to explain Dr. Kugel’s position. I sincerely, genuinely, and wholeheartedly wish RA or Nachum or someone else familiar with the field would explain it to me.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I’m not sure that Dr Kugel can explain his position either. Nor am I inclined to rush into the job of defending him. I think that he regards his Yiddishkeit as a work in progress. He struggles to make peace between two strong beliers that, for the rest of us, are really incompatible. I do give him credit for the honest struggle, but my granting of credit does not hold open or slam shut the doors of Gan Eden. I wish he would keep the struggle internal, rather than share it with others, many of whom have been seriously harmed by his articulation.

      This does not preclude other, different ways of accomodating DH. Dr. Mordechai Breuer thought he found a way – without crossing the line that Dr Kugel has crossed. You can accept Dr Breuer’s approach or reject it, but you will not have to reject Dr Breuer himself as a denier of the divinity of the Torah. He retained that belief; it appears that Dr Kugel does not.

  13. BTG says:

    If nothing is too challenging for Torah (I agree), you need to convince your friend R’ Shafran to open his posts to comments. I understand these things can get heated, but if he is representing Da’as Torah (debatable), he should not cower behind the “Comments Closed” when he tries to make his point. We all know these comments are heavily edited (I would be suprised if this one makes it), so there’s no reason why a calm and fruitful discussion can’t be moderated in any forum on this site.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I wouldn’t call it cowering. Because of his position at Agudah, he is too often a target for irrelevant and over-the-top criticism – alongside the more valid comments. It got to a point that he felt he could not continue unless he turned off the spigot altogether.

      Besides – the declaration that there is nothing too challenging for Torah was mine, not his. He should not be measured by my yardstick. I am not sure that every one of my friends would agree with my articulation.

  14. Nachum says:

    Actually, he does make it clear that he believes in the divinity of the Torah, just not in the sense that we are told is a fundamental of Judaism today.

    Elaborations of the above sentence:

    Theology isn’t his field, so he doesn’t dwell on the first point.

    What we are told is a fundamental isn’t necessarily so, as Marc Shapiro has demonstrated.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I think that Dr Shapiro demonstrated nothing of the sort, but that is a topic for a different time.

  15. Shades of Gray says:

    Regarding the subject of this post, “Nothing Too Challenging For Torah”, R. Klugman describes RSRH as maintaining a “buoyant confidence” in the ability of Torah to vanquish foreign ideas, as I recall. There is a quote on page 205 of the Artscroll RSRH biography from RSRH’s Collected Writings which is relevant:

    ”Only if one knows the essence of what is antagonistic to Torah can one resist and overcome these influences. That which looms as a fear-inspiring giant specter in the twilight zone of ignorance, will shrink into a pygmy before the shining light of thought.”

    I also wonder if it’s relevant to compare R. Hirsch with R. Hoffman and R. Hildsheimer as far as confidence, since they differed in approach to dealing with Wissenschaft of their day. I think that even if RSRH engaged the above-mentioned school of thought less directly as the other Rabbonim, he was still confident in his approach, as reflected in the above quote from Collected Writings, and would not consider himself to “have [hidden] from or having [denied] hard evidence”.

  16. Shmuel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein–

    I just wanted to point out for the readership that the person who accepted academic bible except for its assumption of human authorship (which he replaced with his belief in Torah min hashamayim and Torah miSinai) was Rabbi Mordechai Breuer (who before he became a specialist in Tanach was a regular maggid shiur at Yeshivat HaDarom).

    There is or was also a Dr. Mordechai Breuer, who I believe was a historian. I don’t know if or how they were related.

  17. Nachum says:

    Shmuel: They were first cousins, and passed away a few years ago within months of each other.

  18. Shlomo says:

    I would like to see the discussion on “Nothing Too Challenging For Torah” expanded from “documentary hypothesis” and “biblical criticism” to examining how we think.
    What does the readership have to say about Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance –The more one sacrifices to a belief the harder it is to let go of that belief.
    And Gordon Allport
    “As children, we view our parents as respectable, admirable, and even “perfect” human beings. As a result, when we are socialized to their values and interests, we often blindly accept their religion as well. When education and experience leads the individual to question the value of his religion, these inquiries are almost always linked to the individual’s feelings for his parents. The only way to reconcile these feelings of doubt and uncertainty is to understand the cognitive principles that led to their development.”

    Does the readership have a similar opinion to what was said before?
    Thank you

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