Torah Min-Hashamayim: A Reply to Rabbi Nati Helfgot
Last week’s Cross-Currents article, From Openness to Heresy, which featured what were for many readers some quite alarming and startling statements by R. Zev Farber about the authorship of the Torah, has garnered much interest and support from all segments of the Orthodox community. R. Farber’s standing in the Open Orthodox rabbinate as the sole recipient of Yadin Yadin semicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, qualifying him as a dayan, and his role as coordinator of the Vaad Hagiyur of International Rabbinic Fellowship and as an IRF and Yeshivat Maharat board member, make his publicly-espoused positions on the Ikkarei Ha-Emunah/ Principles of Faith extremely important. Of great import also are how YCT and IRF leadership react to what would appear to be the highly problematic theology one of its most high-profile, influential and authoritative rabbis, who directs its geirus authority and establishes standards for Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos of prospective converts.
In response to the aforementioned Cross-Currents article and in an effort to defend R. Farber’s views regarding the authorship of the Torah, R. Nati Helfgot wrote an article for Morethodoxy in which he musters several interesting sources that allow for more liberal parameters of acceptable belief in the Divine authorship and Mosaic origin of the Torah.
Although R. Helfgot concedes that the view of the Rambam, that the entirety of the Torah was dictated by God to Moshe Rabbeinu, is the most dominant and widely-accepted understanding of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99a) concerning the authorship of the Torah (the Gemara there, read literally, states that one is not allowed to believe that any part of the Torah was fabricated by Moshe and is not God’s Word to him), some of the sources that R. Helfgot invokes do consider it acceptable to believe that some words and sections of the Torah were not dictated by God to Moshe (in tandem with the opinion in Bava Basra 15a that Yehoshua penned the final eight pesukim of the Torah), yet were included by God in the Torah “as the definitive Word of God that emanated literally from His mouth”, to quote R. Yuval Cherlow.
R. Helfgot explains that the acceptability of believing that whole swaths of the Torah could have been written by someone other than Moshe is disputed by two Bible scholars and that a few roshei yeshiva (e.g. as quoted above) do not consider one who adopts the more liberal of these two beliefs to be beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy, based upon the Gemara in Bava Basra. Nonetheless, there is no definitive conclusion on this specific point as to where acceptable belief ends and heretical belief begins, as the views on this topic are somewhat novel and its sources sparse, and mainstream Orthodox thought and belief do not extend anywhere near the more liberal of the two boundaries in this discussion.
It is critical to realize that there exist some undeniable and dispositive common denominators that are essential elements of acceptable belief in all of the views cited by R. Helfgot: that the words of the Torah are the direct and literal Word of God, that the words of God reported in the Torah as having been communicated directly from God to Moshe were indeed communicated as such, that the Torah was given at Sinai in a tangible manner of historical veracity, that the historical events in the Torah that form the basis of our faith (such as the Exodus) did occur, and that Torah She-b’al Peh is of direct Mosaic origin and is part and parcel of the Torah itself. (While not all of these points are elaborated upon in R. Helfgot’s article, divergence from them as acceptable belief is not even suggested.)
However, the writings of R. Zev Farber reject the above fundamentals, both those articulated in the sources cited by R. Helfgot and those that are givens, and thus fall outside of the realm of acceptable belief by any Orthodox definition.
Here are some samples from Rabbi Farber’s writings that demonstrate this important point:
From TEST CASE: THE LAW OF THE RAPIST (Devarim 22:28-29):
The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e. that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.
Prophecy does not come as a verbal revelation from God to the prophet, but as a tapping into the divine flow. Even while channeling the divine wrath against the injustice of the rape, the Deuteronomic prophet (i.e. the author of Deuteronomy) was still a human being, his scope remains limited by education and social context. The prophet could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see. Nevertheless, the injustice of the rape and the consequences to the girl and her family were things that he could see. This is what he worked to correct.
The law of the rapist is actually an example of a human mind tapping into the divine flow—albeit in a way limited by his own societally determined biases. Instead of our focusing on the outmoded biases that clouded the prophet’s vision—as vital as it is to note them—it would be apposite to focus on the Torah’s message: Society must protect its women from being victims of unwanted sexual activity, and try to correct any damage done to them if such a thing occurs…
R. Farber begins this section by stating that the Creation, Flood and Patriarchal narratives did not occur and that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs did not exist:
The same holds true of the description of the development of Israel. The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves: “We are all one family because we are all children of the same father.” These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.
…It is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.
The popular idea that the Torah’s holiness stems only from the historicity of its claims, dictated by the mouth of God, strikes me as an attempt to depict the Almighty as a news reporter.
Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.
R. Farber denies the historical development of K’lal Yisroel, the events of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim and Mattan Torah, Torah having been dictated by God to Moshe or any prophet, the perfection of Torah as God’s Word, and the authenticity of Torah She-b’al Peh as Mosaic. Rather, R. Farber’s position is one of belief in a divinely-inspired Torah that is the work of man, the sole words of man, has faults, and has no historical veracity. R. Farber denies the concept of prophecy as God speaking to man, and he likewise denies any literal Divine authorship of the Torah, whether Written or Oral. This is way beyond the boundaries of even the remotest possibilities of acceptable belief that R. Helfgot cites.
Taking a step back, we must consider that the view of the Rambam regarding Torah authorship is the the view that has been universally accepted, at least over the past several centuries, and is also the most authoritative view; the notion that it is acceptable to believe that large swaths of the Torah could have been composed by someone other than Moshe (albeit with God’s direct approval and acceptance into His Torah as His exact Word) is very novel, debatable and was flatly rejected by R. Mordechai Breuer zt”l, whose personal (and brilliant, in this writer’s mind) approach has been more or less accepted as the “kosher” limit of acceptable belief. (R. Breuer firmly maintained that every word of the Torah is the direct Word of God to Moshe, but that God wrote various parts of the Torah from different perspectives in order to provide disparate Divine teachings and insights that must be presented independently – sort of like R. Soloveitchik’s Adam I and Adam II concept.)
Coming back to R. Farber’s theology that postulates that God never spoke to man, that the Torah is not the Word of God (but rather was written by various people who tapped into a Divine wave, yet never heard a word from God), that the Torah has flaws that reflect the limits and biases of its various human authors, that Oral Torah law was not given by God to Moshe or to anyone else – we are left with the difficult yet clear conclusion that R. Farber’s theology is far out of Orthodox bounds as measured by even the most liberal approach cited by R. Helfgot.
R. Helfgot penned a noble, eloquent and comprehensive defense, but it utterly fails to change the the way we must look at R Farber’s position. When taking the larger picture into account, it would have been even nobler to declare that R. Farber’s views do not represent R. Helfgot’s institution or its affiliates. While some have viewed this discussion about R. Farber’s theology as a personal issue of a rabbi and his faith, there is an overwhelming sentiment throughout the Orthodox world that there is before us a far broader issue of a movement that identifies itself as Orthodox yet may allow, welcome and even defend positions of its own rabbinate that negate the Ikkarei Ha-Emunah by all counts.
The eyes of Orthodoxy are on YCT and IRF leadership. Will it take a stand and recognize limits, or does the openness of its brand of Orthodoxy extend to defending breaches of the fundamentals of Torah belief, such that even a dayan and head of the conversion authority within Open Orthodoxy may affirm beliefs that affront the integrity of the Torah and its most precious and essential teachings?
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and is also a member of the New York Bar.