Torah Min-Hashamayim: A Reply to Rabbi Nati Helfgot

Avrohom Gordimer

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.

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18 Responses

  1. Ben Elton says:

    This is an unfair representation of R Helfgot’s article.

    First, R Helfgot states explicitly that:

    In dealing with the challenges posed by higher Biblical Criticism, I personally do not adopt this more radical view of revelation [that the Torah is Divine, but was composed of a number of prophetic revelations, some directly to Moshe and others to later prophets which were then edited finally into one book in the prophetic mode]. I believe that the resolution of many of the issues lies in adopting a combination of some of the important work of U. Cassutto, Benno Jacob, R. David Tzvi Hoffman together with the basic approach of my teacher, Rav Breuer z”l and his shitat habehinot, (without signing off on each and everyone of his readings. This eclectic approach coupled with the insights of my teachers Rav Shalom Carmy and Rav Yoel Bin Nun and the literary-theological school can provide an intelligently cogent and religiously meaningful reading of Torah that seeks to understand the dvar Hashem with integrity and honesty.

    R Helfgot is the Chair of the Tanakh Department at YCT. His position, and therefore that of the yeshiva, is the classical doctrine of Torah Min Hashamayim. We should also note that in R Farber’s article he says he did not deal with these issues in his yeshiva years. This is not something he expressed, let alone was taught, at YCT.

    What R Helfgot explores is whether there is an alternative to R Farber’s approach, i.e. whether it is valid within Orthodoxy to expand on the view expressed in some parts of the Gemara and by some Rishonim that there were later additions to the original Mosaic revelation. As R Cherlow observes, this approach would answer many of the questions that the Documentary Hypothesis seeks to address.

    While R Helfgot does not himself accept this view of later additions, he shows that it is not without authoritative sources and is therefore a viable approach, which remains within acceptable bounds but does not ignore the questions that R Farber raised in his article.

    R Helfgot does not say one word in defense of R Farber’s much more radical claim that there was no revelation to Moses and that the text of the Humash is a human and composite work written under Divine inspiration. That is because R Farber’s position is not that of R Helfgot or YCT, and we can infer, because R Helfgot does not believe it is an acceptable position to hold.

  2. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    Please reread the article. It does not at all claim that R. Helfgot maintains the more liberal position or that YCT teaches that position. It is clear that R. Helfgot does not agree with the liberal position.

    You and I agree that R. Farber’s views are clearly way outside of the most liberal position presented by R. Helfgot in the spectrum of his article, and that R. Helfgot’s own views are quite traditional and not at all close with those of R. Farber.

  3. Chaim Zev Finkel says:

    It was not long ago that Rabbi Moshe Averick spoke out against YCT and suggested that the RCA should censure Rabbi Avi Weiss, yet instead the RCA responded by temporarily banning Rabbi Averick himself from participating in their rabbinic mailing list. Is the RCA also on the side of Farber? If Farber is a member of the RCA they should do something about him and his views.

    [YA – He is not a member of the RCA]

  4. Shlomo says:

    It should be noted that Dr. Farber’s Academic Bible studies at Hebrew U, at which point he had already rejected the traditional understanding of Torah min HaShamayim (by his own admission), took place BEFORE he entered YCT.

    In other words, his holding of these views, which was readily known, was not an impediment to his being accepted in the YCT program, nor was it an impediment to his receiving two semichot from them.

    Although Dr. Farber’s “real” beliefs about Torah min HaShamayim were not known to the Orthodox public until now, they were certainly well-known at YCT both before he was accepted and prior to their bestowing him with semicha.

    I believe that both YCT and Dr. Farber need to be more transparent about this.

  5. DF says:

    There’s little doubt Rabbi Farber’s views are, by the traditional definition of the term, apikorsus. The alternative views have always been mere outliers. Rabbi Gordimer is 100% right that to express such views – publicly, I would pointedly emphasize – is inimical to all of Jewish tradition. If the views he expresses are to be considered orthodox, then the term is meaningless.

    HOWEVER – honestly compels us to say that the problems raised by Biblical Studies are real, and not going away. “Solutions” from midrashic sources, as R. Gordimer suggested earlier, are not convincing, to put it mildly. And unlike scientific issues (Evolution, Big Bang) which can always be squared with traditional sources, and social trends (feminism, homosexuality) which are mere passing fads, Biblical issues cut to the very core of Judaism. The traditional response has been to declare such inquiries beyond the pale, and attempt to shield men from exposure to the challenges it poses. That is not a bad way to achieve the goal of preserving the tradition, but it comes at the price of truth and honesty. So, while Rabbi Gordimer is right in the narrow sense of what he wrote about, and an organization that accepts such views should certainly not be considered orthodox, we are till left with a nagging pit in our stomach.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    “The eyes of Orthodoxy are on YCT and IRF leadership.”

    Because they are now doing and saying the very things anyone could have predicted? Was there a trace of a trace of a chance this would not have happened? RCA has a duty in this matter that goes beyond blogging.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    DF wrote:

    social trends (feminism, homosexuality) which are mere passing fads

    By your count, we could add the abolition of slavery and the enactment of civil rights laws as passing “social trends” as well.

  8. UVT says:

    This is an unfair attack on YCT. We now see that the chair of the Tanakh department at YCT (R Helfgot) holds views that you see as being within the fold, but a student who went off to do a PhD in Bible at another institution is outside of the fold. I agree that YCT or IRF must respond, but we cant rush to blame YCT for the heresy, if anything we should be discussing expelling Emory bible grads from rabbinic organizations…

    [Editor’s note: I caution you not to please not jump to conclusions. Nothing in this exchange indicates that the editors of Cross-Currents find Rabbi Helfgot’s views as “within the fold.” His bottom line – the most important part of his formulation – that the Torah is the Dvar Hashem, communicated to Man in a reliable manner, is not only within the fold, but front and center. However, the “extension” of the Ibn Ezra et al is an area in which many will take issue. They will take issue even in defining just what it was that the Ibn Ezra meant, or how much importance can be ascribed to minority shitos. R Helfgot admits to discomfort in allowing this extension to be too sweeping. The mainstream community would agree – but disagree about the sources he cites to bolster even smaller extensions. Some of those names are decidedly not within the fold, and should be given little significance in weighing the issues.]

  9. Shades of Gray says:

    “So, while Rabbi Gordimer is right in the narrow sense of what he wrote about, and an organization that accepts such views should certainly not be considered orthodox, we are till left with a nagging pit in our stomach.”

    To the extent this is true, the challenge perhaps becomes to take a firm stance against R. Farber’s ideas, without exacerbating any such doubts. Perhaps this is effected by contexts which can change.

    For example, in “Torah im Derekh Erez in the Shadow of Hitler”, Prof. Marc Shapiro shows how the situation then affected applying RSRH’s ideas to the time(see also writings of R. Shimon Schwab). Similarly, there can be various other social and historical contexts(hopefully positive) that can affect the allure of ideas, which are subject to Divine control, therefore it’s impossible to make predictions. Nevertheless, in the present time, I think one needs to be concerned with taking a stance, as well as dealing with an issue intellectually.

  10. Dr. E says:

    Without my getting into the discussion of Torah Min Hashamayim, I believe that it would be helpful for proponents of Open Orthodoxy to exactly define their outer limit(s) are–as they relate to Hashkafa and Halacha. What exactly are the red lines that Open Orthodoxy will never cross–both today, and 20 years from now? Without that, the movement is always going to be like a cell with a semi-permeable membrane and a malleable definition.

  11. Micah Segelman says:

    One phrase at the end of the R Helfgot’s article struck me – “…I am reticent to do so in the case of those who do not adopt the Rambam’s formulation in the 8th ikar, especially if they conform to the notion of the Divine origin of the Torah…”

    I apologize if I am misreading him, but does the “especially” mean to imply some level of tolerance for the view of multiple authors even without maintaining the Torah’s divine origin?

  12. Shades of Gray says:

    “His bottom line – the most important part of his formulation – that the Torah is the Dvar Hashem, communicated to Man in a reliable manner, is not only within the fold, but front and center. However, the “extension” of the Ibn Ezra et al is an area in which many will take issue”

    From a December, 2007 Cross Current’s post, referencing R. Yitzchok Blau’s essay(“Flexibility with a Firm Foundation: On Maintaining Jewish Dogma”):

    “I will end with where I probably should have begun – by urging readers to read Rabbi Yitzchok Blau’s excellent treatment [http coding broken] of Dr. Shapiro’s book. He treats the topics we have discussed here with more rigor than the disjointed musings of a late-night insomniac. It is important and comforting to learn that Dr Shapiro himself, as Rabbi Blau shows, holds that there are beliefs that describe the core teachings of Orthodoxy. The arena of Torah belief is not a free for all (or, borrowing from a previous posting of mine, a Chinese menu).

    I will reproduce two snippets for readers:

    “As Dr. Johnson remarked, the fact that there is a twilight does not minimize the distinction between day and night. We can exclude Ibn Ezra s view from the charge of heresy, remain unsure about how much more latitude to give for an expansion of Ibn Ezra, and still confidently assert that J, P, E and D are beyond the pale.”

    “I can agree…without coming to the conclusion that no decisions can ever be reached in theological debates among traditional figures. The methodology may differ from halakhic decision making but that does not mean that no decision-making method exists altogether. Perhaps majority vote plays no role in the world of hashkafah, but a near unanimous vote does.”

    All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

    (See also a recent MP3 on Torah Web, Rav Michael Rosensweig, What Must a Jew Believe? Foundational Beliefs and Their Practical Implications,
    May 12, 2013)

  13. Milhouse says:

    If Farber really holds the beliefs that are alleged here, then it would seem to follow that all the purported giyurim that were done before him and two others would be pasul, and the “gerim” are still nochrim. That is a huge thing to say, and one that requires an exceeding amount of caution. Perhaps Farber has some explanation for his words quoted here, some way of claiming that they don’t reflect his actual beliefs.

  14. ben dov says:

    Rabbi Gordimer is correct to point out that we should not conflate two different issues: the Divinity of the Torah and the role of Moshe Rabeinu. The former is an absolute, non-negotiable matter, where Farber has crossed the line. The latter is subject, to some extent, to different opinions in the Orthodox tradition. If YCT does not disclaim Farber’s kefira, they must be held responsible for it.

    Why has the RCA not spoken out? Rabbi Gordimer is only one member thereof.

  15. Dovid Shlomo says:

    With all the quoting of the Ibn Ezra and Rav Yosef Tov Ellem’s interpretation of it, I thought it might be a good idea to point out what Rav Yosef Tov Ellem actually says and how he understands the Ibn Ezras in question.

    Yes, it’s true that Rav Yosef Tov Ellem (in Tzafnat Paneach) understands Ibn Ezra as believing that parts of the Torah were edited or added after the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.

    He adds however, that:
    1)This could only be true of a handful of verses, not entire sections.
    2)It could only be true of “sippurim b’alma” but NOT any verses that had halachic consequence.
    3)It was done al pi HASHEM, no different than the process through which the rest of the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu. In other words, it was HASHEM’s choice to reveal these edits to later prophets and HASHEM’s choice that the Torah be changed accordingly The particular navi he chose is immaterial, but it had to be through nevuah — as opposed to flesh and blood taking the initiative.

    I believe that once one actually reads Tzafnat Paneach, one can readily see that Rabbi Helfgot’s citation notwithstanding, Tzafnat Paneach is not even a “sort of” precedent for the approach Dr. Farber and other Academic Biblical scholars and that it is highly misleading to even suggest it.

    It is true that Ibn Ezra set a precedent for using literary tools as well as an openness to accepting the possibility of later additions. But, he did not set a precedent for the theological position that halachic parts of the Torah could have been added at a later time, even through a prophet, and he did not set a precedent for the the theological position that ANY parts of the Torah — let alone ALL of it – came from a source other than HASHEM).

    Interested readers may view Tzafnat Paneach on and look in particular at his explanation of “v’Hacanaani az b’Aretz).

  16. Dovid Shlomo says:

    To UVT:

    See posting by Shlomo above.

    Dr. Farber’s views were known to YCT when they accepted him and awarded him the two semichos.
    AT that point, he had already completed his MA at Hebrew U.

    While he had not shared these views with the general public, he did share them with his colleagues.
    You are aware, of course, of how small YCT was at that time and how intimately familiar Rabbi Linzer and the students would have been with what Farber believed about something so central to his approach to Torah.

  17. Moh Oshiv says:

    The question is whether the RCA will publicly condemn Farber and by extension all of open orthodoxy. I believe it is beyond vital for modern orthodoxy to establish its position as being unequivocally opposed to Farber and his ilk.

  18. Ben Zion Katz says:

    As I have written in a recent piece on the Think Judaism site, for some reason the issue of Biblical criticism is being debated with renewed vigor at the present time in the modern Orthodox intellectual world. I am not going to specifically comment on Rabbi Farber’s piece or any of the responses it has engendered thusfar except to say that many if not all of these issues are reviewed in my recent book (A Journey Through Torah: a critique of the documentary hypothesis [Urim, 2012]) and in a book review in press at the Jewish Bible Quarterly critiquing Joel Baden’s new book on the documentary hypothesis. For whatever it is worth, I have proposed a fragmentary approach that combines academic rigor with belief in Torat Moshe MiSinai; see the review by Rabbi Tzvi Gromet on the Bar Ilan website.

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