Belief in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim: Damage Control by YCT: Subtly Defending the Indefensible
by Avrohom Gordimer
The beliefs of a rabbi are no small issue. They can impact the validity of geirus, gittin and kiddushin performed under the rabbi’s review or that hinge upon his testimony, and the halachic integrity of those institutions that affiliate with a rabbi whose beliefs are unacceptable becomes suspect. Our focus on the current topic is hence not in the realm of the theoretical or “merely hashkafic”, but relates to something that has ramifications for the most weighty of halachic matters.
Back to the Discussion
Cross-Currents recently addressed the fact that R. Zev Farber, YCT Yadin Yadin musmach, coordinator of the IRF Vaad Ha-Giyur, and IRF and Yeshivat Maharat board member, has publicly and in writing disseminated his views that the Torah is not the Word of God, that God did not give the Torah at Sinai, that God did not ever communicate with the Prophets, that He did not bring the Jewish People forth from Egypt, that He did not author the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh, that the Torah is the flawed work of biased men, and that the narratives in the Torah, including the Exodus and the existence of the Avos, Imahos and Shevatim, are false. Had these statements been written by a private layman, it would have been bad enough, but certainly not unprecedented; the fact that a rabbinic leader of Open Orthodoxy has disseminated such statements is of profoundly greater concern. (Please see .)
R. Nati Helfgot of YCT responded to the aforementioned Cross-Currents article by showing that there may very well exist within authentic Orthodox thought a basis to believe in a more liberal and expansive concept of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. Cross-Currents thereupon demonstrated that R. Farber’s views about Torah Min Ha-Shamayim are far outside of even the remotest possibilities of acceptable belief presented by R. Helfgot.
Whereas it was hoped and expected that YCT/IRF leadership would at least now repudiate R. Farber’s views, this proved to be far from the reality.
Clearly set on edge, YCT/IRF leadership, in yet another effort to deflect criticism, just proffered some new articles to explain its position regarding R. Farber’s views as well as to defend the sullied reputation of YCT, in light of massive amounts of negative data about YCT and its affiliates that was documented here
We will address each of these just-released articles independently.
I. Brushing Aside the Issue as Part of the Overall YCT Mission
In the just-published article Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School , Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, head of the YCT Talmud department, explains that YCT is committed to the traditional concept of Torah Mi-Sinai, and that YCT exposes its students to all sorts of views, including extreme ones, with the expectation that the students will learn to struggle with these views and thereby be prepared in their rabbinic careers to engage others who have exposure to such views. Rabbi Katz further writes that YCT students are expected to grow in their hashkafah as they grapple with modernity and the outside world.
Although one would expect a condemnation of R. Farber’s published views, which fly in the face of Orthodox belief – or, one would perhaps expect a highly-creative and novel defense of R. Farber’s views – the closest we get from R. Katz is:
In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.
We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge (of faith). And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.
R. Katz also engages in relativism, downplaying in his article the seriousness of charges of heresy, noting that a great Religious Zionist rabbinic sage was deemed a heretic by some anti-Zionists – and thus implying that heresy is often a relative and specious charge. R. Katz further explains that, “frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising” – thereby watering down the significance of being confronted with charges of heresy. Such maneuvering out of the substance of the matter is endemic to R. Katz’ article.
The Morethodoxy article concludes with an affirmation of the YCT approach, despite the “bumps in the road”:
Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly. We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.
Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people. Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).
R. Katz provides no substantive defense of R. Farber’s published views, nor does R. Katz condemn those views. Nor is there any indication that anything at all is changing at YCT/IRF despite the alarming fact that one of its leaders has written and published theological material that contradicts by all counts the very fundaments of Orthodox Judaism.
Rather than address the substance, R. Katz provides a message of emotional encouragement that reads more like an introduction to an upbeat brochure about YCT than an analysis of charges of heresy against a central YCT/IRF rabbinic leader. It is clear and very sad that R. Katz and the group he represents do not take the issue at hand with full seriousness and that the Openness in Open Orthodoxy apparently trumps halachic and hashkafic standards.
II. R. Farber: No Retraction
Surprisingly, the next just-released damage-control article was written by R. Farber himself. One would expect this article to either consist of a major retraction and withdrawal of the author’s very unOrthodox views, or to somehow muster new sources and clever arguments to support his views, as radical as they are in negating the authenticity of the Torah. Instead, R. Farber presents us with a brief description of his intellectual challenge in terms of squaring his commitment to Tradition with his commitment to academic Biblical studies (Biblical Criticism), explaining regarding his written statements that deny the authenticity of the Torah:
…my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t.
R. Farber does not retract his statements of denial that the Torah is the Word of God and that the Torah is a factually untrue document written by biased men; furthermore, it is clear that R. Farber does not feel that there is anything wrong with such views.
Although R. Farber asserts that the views he published that denied the authenticity of the Torah were not intended to be conclusive, a brief read-through of those views as R. Farber published them would compellingly indicate otherwise:
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…
(Note: This section of R. Farber’s article no longer appears in the above link and is being moved to a different article, according to the article’s publisher.)
From MNEMOHISTORY VERSUS HISTORY:
(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.
From AVRAHAM AVINU IS MY FATHER:
Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.
The above statements are written by R. Farber as facts, not “conversation starters”. And, even if they were intended as conversation starters, is it acceptable to publish statements that negate the truth of the Torah in order to “start a conversation”?
In a footnote to his just-released explanatory article, R. Farber apologizes that another of his articles may have startled readers, explaining that the original published version of that article had accidentally omitted the conclusion and was actually an introduction to a lengthier article that was not attached at the time – a major oversight that led to misunderstanding the article’s views, according to R. Farber. R. Farber feels that the conclusion of the segment of the article that he added into the republished version renders the article more nuanced and apparently less negating or confrontational regarding Tradition. Let’s take a look:
FROM TEXT OF ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.
Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there is no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. Whether it be the description of the scout story, the reaction of the Edomites and Moabites to Israel’s request, or the legitimacy of dwelling in the Transjordan, the two versions work with contradictory assumptions.
FROM TEXT OF REVISED ARTICLE:
The simplest explanation for these differences between the accounts in Exodus-Numbers and Deuteronomy is that they were penned by (at least) two different authors with different conceptions of the desert experience.
Despite sharing many details with the desert story as told in Exodus and Numbers, there appears to be no way to make the two versions work with each other without unreasonably stretching the meaning of the texts. 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 but it is necessary to start by recognizing the simplicity and straightforwardness of the academic approach.
Finally, it appears to me that being able to accept that there are contradictory perspectives expressed in the Torah allows us to offer meaningful interpretations of each and to address significant tensions in the text without feeling the need to create hollow apologetic explanations. Think of our other holy texts, the Mishna and the Talmud, for instance. They are filled with debates about Torah principles, and yet we say that eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim – each position is the word of the Living God. We are a religion that loves incongruity and debate and our Torah study thrives on the productive tension inherent in multivocality and conflicting perspectives.
R. Farber couches his conclusion of this segment of the article in a religious context yet fails in any way to renounce his belief that there were several human authors of the Torah; nor does R. Farber commit to the “traditionalist belief” (i.e. One Divine Author of the Torah), neither at this point or later on in the article. Additionally, R. Farber does not retract his article quoted extensively above in which he states that the Torah is not the Word of God, that God did not give the Torah at Sinai, that God did not ever communicate with the Prophets, that He did not bring the Jewish People forth from Egypt, that He did not author the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh, that the Torah is the flawed work of biased men, and that the narratives in the Torah, including the Exodus and the existence of the Avos, Imahos and Shevatim, are false.
The inescapable conclusion of R. Farber’s damage-control article is that R. Farber maintains his views about the (lack of) authenticity of the Torah, even as these views may not be his ultimate position on the matter as he continues his studies and his evaluation of the Torah and its authorship.
It is important to note that R. Farber does emphasize that he believes in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim and the holiness of the Torah – but we need to then understand what exactly he means:
I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people.
These platitudes, caged in elusive language and taken in the context of R. Farber’s clear and unretracted writings that deny the authenticity of the Torah as God’s Word, as God-given, as true and as the source of Halacha from God, are almost identical with the belief tenets of Conservative Judaism. R. Farber has written that God never communicated with the Prophets and that the halachos of Torah She-b’al Peh were not given to Moshe; hence, “Torah Min Ha-Shamayim” and “Torah Mi-Sinai” are catchphrases or intentional ambiguities in his lingo and do not at all mean that the Torah was given from heaven or at Sinai. R. Farber’s assignment of divinity to the Torah is his “Wave Theory” , which is basically identical with the Conservative concept that the Torah was written “with divine inspiration” yet is the work and word of man and is decidedly not the Word of God.
III. R. Lopatin Finally Speaks Up
The final significant damage-control response by YCT came from R. Asher Lopatin, president of YCT. In a brief hot-off-the-press missive , R. Lopatin affirms that YCT is committed to the traditional concept of Torah Min-Hashamayim and that R. Farber’s views on the matter do not represent YCT. However, R. Lopatin fails to condemn R. Farber’s views, and he accords them the full dignity of Orthodox rabbinical discourse, even as he differentiates them from the traditional approach:
Some talmidim are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest. One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT. He discusses his struggle in more detail here. Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim that we at the Yeshiva believe in.
R. Lopatin’s praise of R. Farber’s theological honesty and classifying R. Farber’s theology as within Orthodoxy frustrates any expectation for YCT to state that there are limits as to what is acceptable and what is within Orthodoxy. R. Lopatin made his statement with his usual warmth, eloquence and articulateness – but the statement was pretty much the opposite of what needed to be said.
In sum, R. Farber’s beliefs are still in process due to his allegiance to Torah and to secular academia, he has postulated a theology that works for him, yet is totally outside the remotest acceptable parameters of Orthodox belief, and he has not renounced anything that he has written that negates the authenticity of the Torah by Orthodox standards – all as YCT leadership fails to condemn his views and continues to provide them with a platform and accord his approach with Orthodox rabbinic credentials. (I must commend R. Helfgot for an afterword paragraph in a new article , in which he addresses unnamed authors who have recently gone beyond the pale in promoting their understanding of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. YCT student Dr. Ben Elton likewise affirmed in a new article that belief in a man-made Torah is inconsistent with Orthodoxy. Sadly, this will not suffice, as YCT/IRF senior leadership continues to enable the views of R. Farber, embraces him within the Orthodox rabbinate, and fails to tackle the problem head-on.)
We have another seismic problem to deal with – an elephant in the room, as it were. The R. Farber case is the tail end of an immense, decade-long trek by YCT to modify Orthodoxy, and this dangerous trek is far from ending. All of the hair-raising innovations of Open Orthodoxy are still out there; Yeshivat Maharat, with the full support of YCT and IRF leadership, continues to ordain women; leaders and followers of the YCT movement continue to actively promote partnership minyanim and introduce feminist innovations into ritual; the list of issues is long, yet it is staring us in the face, if we merely raise our heads to see it.
It is dangerous to be fooled into believing that the multitude of problems that YCT/IRF/Yeshivat Maharat have introduced to Orthodoxy will disappear even if these institutions remove R. Farber from the scene. Only one who is extremely naive or who does not see the larger picture will feel any closure at this juncture.
On a personal note, dealing with these issues and writing these articles is terribly painful (and time-consuming!). It is the last thing that I wish I had to do, but I (and so many other Jews from throughout the Orthodox spectrum) feel that we are at a watershed moment and there is no choice, as Orthodoxy as we and our ancestors have known it is being challenged from within in an unprecedented fashion, and the potential for severe and eternal negative consequences for large segments of Jewry is very real. To write off people from Jewish lineage or render them unfit for normative Jewish marriage due to unacceptable beliefs of a rabbi and the institutions in which he operates would be disastrous – yet we now face this as a stark reality.
I would love if R. Avi Weiss and his followers would use their skills for activism and kiruv – R. Weiss is such a master at this and can offer so much. It is tragic that the great creativity of R. Weiss and his following is instead being channeled into modifying Orthodoxy rather than into helping the Klal and bringing it closer to Judaism without innovations or departures from Tradition – especially if those departures, left unchecked, can be eternally destructive for large masses of the Jewish People and their progeny.
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