Living With Questions

Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Jews could easily offer a third option: judge the faith of a people by their ability to live with unanswered questions.

The Zev Farber debacle moved many people to comment: “So Rabbi Farber, YCT’s Yadin Yadin musmach, went far beyond asking questions. He came to conclusions, including some that put him well outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy. We ought to firmly reject his conclusions, and hold accountable those who still refuse to do so. But how do we respond to those questions? Where are the answers that genuine Torah Jews can live with?”

Those are good questions. Before we answer them, we might consider that we have been there before. We’ve been there so often, that living behind an intellectual eight ball might be described as the modal place of residence for Jews over our long history.

We didn’t just clash with our neighbors. They just knew we were wrong, and offered plenty of proof that we were intellectual pygmies and primitives. (No matter that today we consider their proofs silly. That is not the way those arguments were perceived at the time. If a Jew at umpteen times in our history was “open” to listen to the prevailing intellectual and cultural notions of the day, he had plenty to keep him up at night.)

The Greeks (followed by the Romans) mocked us for being atheists. Clearly we were. They found no representations of any gods in our houses of worship.

When some of the more sophisticated classic thinkers enjoyed a second season in medieval times, we were seen as contemptible nit-wits for cheapening the notion of Divinity. How, in heaven’s name, could a self-respecting First Cause have any concern for events in the sub-lunar world? He wouldn’t know, and he wouldn’t care. And he/it certainly didn’t/couldn’t “create” a world. The world always was, and always will be, an emanation of G-d – a being who is, but not one who does.

For centuries, it was quite apparent to anyone reasonable that G-d had rejected the people who had disappointed Him so often, and replaced them with His current favorite, the Christians. If contrasting the majesty of the sky-scraping spires of medieval cathedrals with the hovel of the local synagogue wasn’t enough to convince you, the poverty you found when entering a Jewish home would have done so. Shunned by the rest of humanity, living without rights and without security, the wandering Jew proved that Judaism was without merit.

In decades of fiery debates, Christian polemicists (having learned how better to swing a bat after their early shut-out at the hands of the Ramban at Barcelona) used sources in the gemara and midrash to “prove” that their redeemer had indeed arrived. If the Talmud itself claimed that the Messiah was born at the time of the Temple’s destruction, why were the pig-headed Jews still resistant to heeding his call a millennium and a half after his appearance? (Apologies to readers. I never did understand how they dealt with the seventy year discrepancy in birth year for their candidate.)

It was all in a day’s work for a Jew to live with questions, and with hostility from the surrounding cultural milieus.

You will object: Surely there were good responses available. Our best and brightest threw themselves at the challenges, and offered position papers that continue to enlighten us today.

True. But ask yourself: were these responses immediately available when the questions were posed? Did not years, sometimes decades go by, before the really good solutions were worked out? How many people were perplexed before the Rambam’s Guide unperplexed them? How many people had to content themselves with half-answers (or shrugged shoulders) before the Kuzari turned the tables and demonstrated the confidence Jews could have in the G-d of History that Christians and Muslims could never have?

When contemporary Jews encounter passages in the gemara that first strike them as fantastical or bizarre, many reflexively turn to the Maharal and his allegorical approach. What did Jews do before the Maharal wrote? To be sure, many others, including Rambam and Rashba, offered allegorical approaches to a passage here and there. But it took hundreds of years for a Maharal to emerge who set his mind to demonstrating that the technique could be used more often than not, and applied systematically. What did people do in the interim?

If we project backwards from people’s reactions today, we would look for mass defections. People argue that we are all entitled to clarity. Questions require answers, because otherwise they lead to skepticism, doubt and erosion of faith. If the answers are not forthcoming, people will pack up their theological toys and go home.

But did this happen? To be sure, there were casualties lost to those questions in earlier times. Some of the important works we study and cherish today were meant to curtail the extent of those casualties. Yet we, for the most part, are descendants of the majority who were not fazed by them, who realized that Jews can live with questions, when they have enough overarching commitment, love and loyalty for Hashem and His Torah.

When you think about it, how could it be otherwise? Do we believe that the encounter with HKBH leads to answers and perfect clarity? Imagine that all the current challenges to belief evaporated overnight. Imagine that all archeologists, evolutionary biologists, biblical scholars and anthropologists would converge on Bnei Brak and declare in unison that they have seen the light. Would we then have clarity? Would intellectual challenges cease? Would we not have to deal with questions, issues and challenges far more weighty than the debatable, changeable, and sometimes tendentious arguments of today’s critics?

Would we have any grasp of the essence of Elokus – or shamefacedly have to admit that we do not, and cannot, grasp anything of His essence? We know that He cares about the affairs of this incredibly insignificant being we call Man. But do we have any real handle on why He should care? Some people mock anyone who believes in something that he cannot feel, touch and understand. Does there mockery get in the way of our relating to the Ribbono Shel Olam?

If you are fortunate enough to shrug off the last few questions, what about the oldest challenge to organized religion – the existence of evil? Can any ma’amin really convince himself that he understands the pain, the suffering, the disasters and calamities that we cannot hide from? After offering several arguments to somewhat blunt the force of the existence of evil in a world operated by a good, loving G-d, Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda in Chovos Halevavos concedes that his arguments do not really satisfy. It must be, he says, that we are incapable of understanding, because if we were, Hashem surely would have provided us with the answers.

Again – we are incapable of understanding. That translates into: We will have questions, and insufficient answers. And HKBH who created us and the Torah, understands that we are capable of living full lives of joyous commitment to Him, all the while laboring with unanswered questions! He Himself designed us that way!

Why do we believe that religion answers all questions? Must not the encounter of Man, the finite, with the infinite produce a kind of tension that has no resolution?

After touching on some of what we know about G-d – that He cannot be described, since He has no form, no limits or boundaries; that His Oneness is unique, and has no parallel; that He is the cause of all phenomena – the Meshech Chochmah bemoans our inability to grasp what He is. “Rabbenu Bachya went so far as to say that only the philosopher or prophet can properly serve Him. Yet, all of Klal Yisrael believe in His existence and Oneness, which are cerebral concepts, mocking all the sense impressions [that would naturally lead people to a conception of G-d that is tangible, simpler to grasp, and downright false.]

Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchk put it pithily and succinctly: “The error of modern representatives of religion is that they promise their congregants the solution to all the problems of life —an expectation which religion does not fulfill. Religion, on the contrary, deepens the problems but never intends to solve them.”

How did he deal with the gnawing desire to find “proof” and clarity? In two places in his writing he approvingly cites a non-Jewish response: “Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists? So asked Soren Kierkegaard sarcastically when told that Anselm of Canterbury, the father of the very abstract and complex ontological proof, spent many days in prayer and supplication that he be presented with rational evidence of the existence of G-d.”

The ultimate “answer,” it would seem, is predicated upon the quality, immediacy and intimacy of a person’s relationship with Hashem. The ancient words of the prophet (who, according to the gemara, was most successful at reducing Torah life to a single principle) ring just as true today: tzadik b’emunoso yichyeh / “the tzadik shall live through his faith.” (Chabakuk 2:4)

I am not arguing for intellectual quietism – only for time and perspective. We are dutibound to search for ways to deflect the challenges thrown at us. We always have. But we should be patient. We should realize that the challenges of the moment do not come from the hard sciences, but from disciplines whose criteria for establishing truth are not and cannot be what they are in empirical, non-historical science. We should not rush to embrace (or even be confounded by) every academic zeitgeist. (We should remember the wisdom of the German proverb: Whoever is married to the spirit of the times is bound to be a widow.) We should look – but we should be patient, and not succumb to anxiety in the interim.

Factors beyond the control of any of us created the reality that the last Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman that we had – was Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman! (In the 19th century, he tackled the challenges of the time as a massive talmid chacham.) This does not mean that we have nowhere to turn. There are people, yir’ei Shomayim, who quietly are making contributions. We need to identify them and encourage them.

But we need to employ the formula of the past, applying it as best as possible to the changed conditions of the present. That means that we should entrust such work only to those who have immersed themselves in serious Torah study. People who are not afraid to say ad kan/ I can go till this point, but no further. Beyond this point is treif. My starting point is not “let’s see where this leads us,” but “how can I better demonstrate the beauty and cogency of the Torah I know to be true?” People who operate with responsibility, answering the perplexed few without perplexing the clueless many. People who respect the halachic sanctions against studying kefirah, except for those entrusted by their rabbeim to do battle with it. People who do not smirk when you speak of the gemara’s warnings of the potency of minus, but recognize that simple faith is more worthwhile preserving than skepticism.

We know where to find those few good men. And by now, we know where we should not even bother to look.

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36 Responses

  1. micha says:

    The closing paragraph undermines the thesis of the rest of the article. You appear to be saying that we are not the people capable of living with a question after all. That the masses should instead not face the question, and leave it to those who can. The people you have to worry about defecting are the ones bothered by the big questions who can’t simply put them down. Those who need things to make sense to their own mode of thinking. The people for whom accepting your tactic is as big of a challenge as the original one.

    To accept any document theory r”l is to accept that (for example) the juxtaposition of Shabbos to building the Tabernacle was not necessarily the product of Divine Wisdom. After all, the entire foundation is the claim that one could perceive the seams between documents, that the composition has imperfections. But without attributing that juxtaposition to the Creator, the basis of a Shabbos of resting from 39 specific categories of work becomes human. The basis for (again, one example among thousands) distinguishing between “little things” like whether I remove what I don’t want from what I do or if I remove the good from the bad is being questioned. Anyone who has observed a halachic Shabbos, one so different than intuitive notions of how to structure a “day of rest”, and has felt it heal his soul, couldn’t take such theories seriously.

    We lived with the questions because, as R’ JB Soloveitchik put it, we had “erev Shabbos Jews” — people who not only kept the laws of Shabbos, but felt its approach on Friday. Today we have universal education, and so the community could well on average know the laws of Shabbos better than the masses of our great-grandparents’ generation did. But Shabbos — and kashrus, and even Hashem’s Presence — aren’t firsthand experiences nearly as many of us live with. We know more about these things, but we don’t know them. If a philosopher were to disprove the existence of a country you regularly travel to, you wouldn’t worry about his proofs too much either. But too few of us in today’s generation have retained the ability to have regular first-hand experience of the world the Torah brings us.

    [YA – Not sure I understand what you mean. However, since we are personal friends, and both neo-Litvaks, it is safe to say that whatever you meant, I disagree!

    As in any distribution, there are people at extremes, and people in the middle. I believe that there is still a sizable and healthy middle group of loyal Yidden who want/expect guidance on how to deal with issues and challenges. (If I could have doubted it two weeks ago, I can’t today, after seeing the enormous support offline that R Gordimer got for his piece, including many notables very far from the haredi world of “emunah peshutah is the only way to go.” My piece was meant for them.

  2. Yisrael Asper says:

    The scoffers live with half and tentative answers but still hold on to to their faith. We can do the same.

  3. David says:

    I agree, but there’s one important question that needs to be addressed. Didn’t the great Jewish thinkers come up with unconventional and controversial theories to defend Torah tradition? Wasn’t the Moreh Nevuchim burned and banned? I suspect there were many who did not take kindly to the Maharal’s allegorical reading of aggadeta. Did everyone accept Rav Hirsch’s novel and innovative approaches, or did people accuse him of being too “modern”? And he was strongly opposed to Rav David Tzvi Hoffman’s involvement in Wissenschaft (pardon the spelling…). Rav Chaim Brisker could also be placed into this category of great thinkers who innovated in response to changing trends and new challenges, and there was plenty of opposition to his derech halimud.

    The point that I feel we cannot ignore is, yes, we’ve had great thinkers tackle the difficult challenges of the day, and in so doing they came up with what was then considered pretty revolutionary, or at least innovative, ideas. Supporters of YCT (a group with whom I do not identify) would claim that Rabbi Farber ודעימיה are following this tradition, courageously posing bold, innovative theories to reconcile tradition with the challenges of the day. I’d be eager to hear your response.

    [YA – The greater the apparent chidush or innovation, the greater the talmid chacham necessary to champion it. Hamayvin yavin.]

  4. Shaya Karlinsky says:

    As usual, Rabbi Adlerstein has said all that needs to be said. We always tell our students (most of whom are ba’alei tshuvah): If you entered Orthodox Judasim because someone promised that we have all the answers, you were misled. We don’t have all the answers. But we DO have all the questions. No really good question hasn’t already been asked, and can be found in earlier sources. (Even Zev Farber’s!) And those early sources struggled to understand what they — and hopefully we — know to be Divinely revealed truth. We shouldn’t be afraid of the struggle. And we certainly shouldn’t ignore the evidence (not proof) of the Torah’s Divinity provided by our simply still being here, having a Torah that has promised us endurance through a tortuous exile, a return to the Land of Israel, and the never to be extinguished light of the continue study of and fidelity to that Torah by the committed body of the Jewish people.

  5. Abe says:

    There is a reason that “faith” is synonym for “religion”.

  6. mb says:

    “We know where to find those few good men”

    So name names, please.

    [YA – Just because you come to shiur doesn’t mean you get preferential treatment. I will share the names with you in person, next time we hit Chezkas HaBatim.]

  7. Jill Schaeffer says:

    Thank you, Rabbi. I think your questions point towards the eye of the hurricane but cannot arrive at its center or there would be no more questions, and we could all go home. I agree that religion is not for answers. I think religions can lead you to the precipice that approaches you as you approach that awful edge in all its forms, its guises, or in the spirit of any time. Religion can be a mentor of encounters, not a dictionary of human nature. So, Pascal had declared that his was the God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not the G-d of the philosophers. Pascal failed to mention Jesus Christ in that particular dictum, and that omission, perhaps, was ingenuously appropriate, because the post-biblical Church created a Christ that the Bible did not and still does not know: the Trinitarian one. I don’t think scholars in my shop (Reformed Churches) are going to bay at the moon on that issue, or howl, heretic. There’s been too much work done over the past two centuries that point to an “uh-oh.” Pascal had opted for the personal G-d rather than the unmoved mover who, of course, cannot give a hoot, or He would be moved, in which case, it was little Tommy or Aunt May who caused G-d to growl, grumble and fuss with them. So much for omni-anything. Yet this G-d does something and is something beyond any predicate who also is somehow in cahoots with human beings. When the inevitability of that relationship is acknowledged, theodicy sneaks over the threshold of one’s heart, but few actually let that grunge into their chambers for a cup of tea and a chat. It’s a scary visit. But really, I don’t think we’re entitled to anything except recognizing that that relationship between G-d and human beings yields consequences beyond our ability to name even one of them well. To wield the spirit of the times, we’re in the probability business. We can tell where sixty percent of any bucket of bullets is going to pepper the floor, but not the individual bullet. Nope, can’t predict that one at all. Free mover and shaker that bullet. My mother, the bullet, who, when she was alive, was Jewish. My mother is dead and still Jewish. She died on the Sabbath. A month before she fell asleep and never awoke, suffering and not quite in her right mind, she said to the pillow, “G-d is my best friend.” I think that ,in the long run, it begins and ends there. Maybe the questions teach us who we are in the midst of that statement. When religion tries to be only clear, concise and rational, it has lost its way and us. Better questions that lead us into life than answers that lead us nowhere. A disciplined “dunno.” Again, thank you.

    [YA – Thanks, Jill, for your deep analysis as always. The story about your mother was especially moving. Maybe it’s time to come home….]

  8. Dovid says:

    I am somewhat taken aback by Rabbi Karlinsky’s comment.

    It’s one thing to acknowledge that we can and should live with doubt, which I agree with.

    It’s quite another to say “We don’t have all the answers. But we DO have all the questions. No really good question hasn’t already been asked, and can be found in earlier sources.”

    Has Rabbi Karlinsky read James Kugel’s “How to read the Bible”, for instance?

    (I have not, because I feel that it’s not in my best interest to do so. I prefer to sit at the Pesach Seder thinking about it as historical event and part of my history, rather than as a myth. Same with Matan Torah. And the only reason I refrain from reading Kugel is because I expect that, although I maintain my faith that Kugel must be wrong, I expect that nothing I have heard in the Beis Midrash or from classical commentators or from Yeshiva Rabbe’im will arm me to refute on an intellectual level what Kugel has to say.)

    Although Kugel’s and others’ questions might have been asked before, at least in a general sense, is it really correct to say that they are not now being asked with much more evidence behind them?

    Again, I am not saying that Kugel SHOULD be read and discussed in Rabbi Karlinsky’s — or anyone else’s — Bais Midrash, but would Rabbi Karlinsky say that Kugel’s questions have been addressed in ANY Beis Midrash by ANY Rebbe in a way that sounds plausible to someone with the knowledge and training to evaluate these things critically?

    Even if we dismiss Kugel’s and other’s speculations, how can we honestly deny that their questions have far more behind them than they did 100 years ago, albeit not enough to provide the knockout blow that Farber thinks has been dealt?

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    I recommend THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH THOUGHT (2 volumes) by
    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (ztl zya) and all of his books in general.

    They may not answer every question, but they give you a fighting chance.

    Also very helpful are all the writings of Rabbi Avigor Miller (ztl zya)
    and books by Rabbi Arush like GARDEN OF EMUNAH, GARDEN OF GRATITUDE

  10. Yisrael Asper says:

    Dovid”…Even if we dismiss Kugel’s and other’s speculations, how can we honestly deny that their questions have far more behind them than they did 100 years ago, albeit not enough to provide the knockout blow that Farber thinks has been dealt?”

    On the contrary they don’t have the force of argument they purported to have. Its power was at its best a lack of evidence. We know a lot more and yet the minimalists and DH followers turn back the clock as if nothing has changed and then twist and turn to try and fit the evidence into their mold. It’s fashion and not facts that drives that. Expecting DH to be true by now is like excepting a novel you wrote and claimed was written a long time before you were born to be dug up somewhere. Even if it would have been it doesn’t prove we don’t have the Divine version and that other texts of the Bible are just that. Factionalism amongst even non-idolatrous Jews always existed eg. Korach, false prophets who prophesied in Hashem’s name, and of course the various movements after Biblical times.

  11. Ari Heitner says:

    Abe said, There is a reason that “faith” is synonym for “religion”.

    That’s interesting. The Alter of Novardok said, “א גאלאך איז פרום, אבער א איד איז ישר” – “A priest is religious, but a Yid is yashar.”

    There seems to be a lot of confusion in the (unfortunate name intended) frum world about the difference between אמונה פשוטה and אמונה שפלה. Here’s a hint, in the form of a question I regularly ask my ffb students: “You happen to have been born and raised Orthodox Jewish, so you’re Orthodox Jewish. If you had been born Christian or Muslim, would you then be Christian or Muslim?”

    The other key (anonymous) זאג to go with the Novardoker is: “!מ’שטארבט נישט פון א קשיא” – “You don’t die from a question!” Ok, mainstream academic archeology raises questions at the moment about the historical evidence for the Exodus. Either the entirety of the Jewish people some time between the Exodus (mythical, ~1500BCE) and the construction of the First Temple (factual, ~1000BCE) was convinced of a massive lie, and bought it and perpetuated it into the present … or the consensus of academic archeology is wrong.

    The consensus of academic archeology at one point considered Troy and Gamla to be mythical as well.

  12. Eliezer C. Abrahamson says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein makes a very important point, however it appears (from some of the comments) that his point is being misunderstood by some as an argument in favor of irrational faith. (The fact that Rabbi Adlerstein (via Rav Soloveitchik) quotes Kierkegaard, the most famous advocate of irrational faith, probably doesn’t help.)

    If I understand Rabbi Adlerstein correctly, what he is basically saying is that no matter how much we know, there will always be questions (about God, about Divine providence, about the teachings of the Torah, about the relationship between Torah and the physical world). As the Torah makes very clear, even the Jewish people who experienced the Sinai Revelation had questions for which they had no satisfactory answers. Indeed, even Moses himself had such questions!

    In any area of life, the mere fact that we don’t understand how or why something is true never constitutes proof, or even evidence, against that truth. If I don’t understand how my computer works, or if the idea of heavier than air aircraft seems absurd to me, this does not justify denying that these things are valid. The mere fact that I have questions, even very good questions, has no bearing on the truth itself.

    At the same time, the fact that the existence of questions, in of itself, does not disprove belief does not mean that religious belief is therefore a free-for-all, without any basis in rationality at all. This has never been a mainstream position in Judaism, and, to my knowledge, is clearly rejected by all the rishonim. Belief in God and in His Torah must have some rational basis, or it is nothing more than wishful thinking.

  13. shmuel says:

    I’m puzzled by the suggestion that people who are already living with emuna in HKB”H and His Torah are bothered much by Biblical criticism. I understand that young people might need to be educated with these issues in mind, that certain people will suffer a crisis of faith based on this (Farber himself appears to be one), and that in order to reach Jews who are not currently believers one would need to deal with it. But although I might (or might not) be interested in the observations of a secular professor of ancient near eastern texts, since he and I don’t share the most fundamental assumption about one of those texts (i.e., the Torah), I can’t possibly accept his conclusions that are based on an assumption different from mine. He says that he has observed that the Torah appears to be written in the form of multiple documents that were melded together. Even if he were correct, what difference does that make to me? G-d gave us the Torah and it looks on its face like other texts from the same time and place (“dibra Torah k’lashon bnei adam,” but it’s obvious without this principle as well. The Torah wasn’t written in Chinese or French or Esperanto, and wasn’t given to Moshe on a flash drive or in paperback form for obvious reasons). Now I know that what I am saying would never fly in a kiruv seminar, and it’s with good reason that kiruv seminars approach this differently. But is Rabbi Adlerstein’s intended audience living in a kiruv seminar?

  14. Zvi Lampel says:

    How many people were perplexed before the Rambam’s Guide unperplexed them? How many people had to content themselves with half-answers (or shrugged shoulders) before the Kuzari turned the tables and demonstrated the confidence Jews could have in the G-d of History that Christians and Muslims could never have?

    Also, just as the Rambam was evidently not satisfied with the Kuzari’s shittos, I’m far from confident that all perplexed Jews of the time, mesmerized by their Aristotelean environs (not to mention the Aristoteleans themseves), felt convinced of the Rambam’s answers, regardless of the sense they made.

  15. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Alderstein. you are quite right. kugel’s arguments, like many of his contemporaries, are more precise, with, as you say, “far more behind them.” more importantly is how he explains his adherence to halakha, how he remains devout without either of our precise fundamental ikarim about torah mi’sinai and an unbroken mesorah. i suspect if he read Jill Shaeffer’s comment: “When religion tries to be only clear, concise and rational, it has lost its way and us.” he might say that is an apt description of how tradtional jew’s formulate the ikarim, and why they do not work for him.

  16. micha says:


    I was trying to make two points:

    1- The guy heading off the derekh over some ideological issue wants things to make sense to his own sense. Telling him to punt the question to those more capable of answering it than he is isn’t to my mind a solution. That means he is already not-bothered enough to wait on someone else’s answer, or to accept the gadol’s authority over the gaps he perceives in the reasoning that stops the answer from making sense to the questioner himself. The whole proposal is to my mind one step too late — the harder it is for them to accept leaving the question open the harder it will be for them to accept an answer on the basis of authority and knowledge they personally lack.

    2- I then proposed my own take on the issue, which is siding with the Kuzari over the Rambam. Rav Yehudah haLevi notes that whatever one philosopher will prove, another will just as convincingly prove something conflicting. I think this is because proofs really rest on what ideas we’re willing to accept as givens, which in turn means which givens fit our experience. Someone who has felt the redemptive qualities of Shabbos, or has seen the elegence of a stellar piece of lomdus has no question that the Torah is from G-d, including derashos and all the halakhah that flows from it. Theories that seem to prove otherwise simply doesn’t mean much.

    Dr Farber’s argument reads to me like someone who lived his whole life in a cave and studied nuclear physics, who writes a paper proving that the light of the sun must be bright indigo. For those of us who have seen a sunny day, we might wonder about where the flaw in his physics lies, but we aren’t in doubt that there is a mistake in there somewhere.

    Therefore, the problem to my eye appears to me to be not so much a weakening of trust in our authorities or a Western love of independence, autonomy, and thinking for myself. Instead, I see it being a symptom of a lack of personal engagement with the mitzvos. We know more, but too many of us don’t actually live it. And so, more people are falling out.

  17. david a. says:

    Rabbi YA,

    It seems to me that you fail to distinguish clearly among various types of questions “that people can live with”.

    Specifically, questions that are beyond human understanding or that we lack information to answer adequately are type of questions that most, if not all, reasonable people can live with. But questions that do have rational answers, just that you choose to dismiss as unsatisfying or even deem silly are NOT questions that many can live with and are compelled to choose those answers that you (and traditional Judaism)call heretical.

    [YA – 1) I’m not persuaded that there is a difference. The questions that are “beyond human understanding” go to the most basic aspects of our belief in and relationship with HKBH. For some, they have been so critical that they left Yiddishkeit. Those who stay in do so because of a firm emunah that Moshe emes v’soroso emes. That gets them past both kinds of questions. 2) I would never call a question silly 3) My secular background was in the hard(er) sciences. I can’t get past the position that NOTHING posited by those in the historical sciences is so overwhelming that I will lose major amounts of sleep. Too many of the orthodoxies of yesterday in those sciences, once seen as universally accepted, have gone the way of the dodo bird. I won’t mock the evidence – it deserves when availabel – good alternative explanations. When they are not available, we take refuge in our emunah.

  18. DF says:

    “We know a lot more and yet the minimalists and DH followers turn back the clock as if nothing has changed….”

    The commenter is incorrect. Nothing has changed, and if anything, the principles of the DH are taken for granted today in every school where the Bible is taught seriously. As Dr. Leiman pointed out nearly twenty years ago in an OU forum book, some orthodox Jews are under the impression that the DH was “vanquished” by RDZ Hoffman. The reality is exactly the opposite. The precise divisions framed by Wellhausen are disputed, but there is virtual unanimous acceptance of composite authorship, as well as the basic sources.

    The questions raised by biblical scholarship is THE end of the road. Still, it is very possible that the apikorsus of Zev Farber – for that it is, by definition, whether he be right or wrong – may well end up as orthodox conventional wisdom a hundred years hence. Though in my mind they are utterly different, to others (perhaps those only superficially familiar) the questions raised by biblical criticsim are not terribly different than the ones raised by evolution or the Big Bang. As in response to the latter we’ve learned to re-read sources and reconsider certain positions, perhaps we will, in the fullness of time,end up doing the same in response to the DH. And why not? For its strongest adherents, the orthodox was of life has, thus far at least, proved impervious to all intellectual challenges. That says something, but I’m not quite sure what.

  19. Ss says:

    The gemarah says teiku and we don’ t know the answer. But as one of my Rebbeim told us in H.S., the gemarah continues nonetheless …

  20. Daniel Shain says:

    “MB: “We know where to find those few good men”
    So name names, please.
    [YA – Just because you come to shiur doesn’t mean you get preferential treatment. I will share the names with you in person, next time we hit Chezkas HaBatim.]”

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for another insightful and thought provoking article. However, I don’t understand the reluctance to name names. Clearly many of us are perplexed by these types of questions and challenges to our emunah, even though we may all accept the idea that we can live with questions. Some of the commentators have mentioned some names, but I for one would love to know Rabbi Adlerstein’s thoughts of what contemporary talmidei chachamim are working and writing on these issues.

    [YA – I’ll gladly do the same for you as I did for one or two others. We’ll talk by phone (you should be able to track me down) and I’ll give you a few names. I don’t want to make them public, because I have not fully checked out their bona fides yet, and don’t want to make a public endorsement until I do. They are all Orthodox]

  21. Raymond says:

    This article is so brilliant, and so approaches (or maybe even surpasses) the limits of what my very limited mind can understand, that I better not read other people’s responses before making my own comments, out of fear of being rendered nothing but confused.

    Before I write the main idea that I want to express, I first want to acknowledge how special it is when a religious Jew, no less one that is such a prominent Orthodox Rabbi, is so honest so as to acknowledge not knowing all the answers. It also provides some comfort for me, since I know far far less of what he claims to not know!

    And now for my central point. In reading the above article, I was reminded of one of the reasons given for why we Jews are collectively called Yisrael. If I recall correctly, at least one of the meanings of this word, is struggle with G-d. Jacob himself was given that name when he wrestled with that unidentifiable being, who, after all, was sent to Jacob by G-d.

    Let’s face it: all of is are very limited, mortal beings with very limited perceptions. Even the wisest among us, cannot truly know G-d. As it has been expressed, if I would know G-d, I would be G-d. Maybe, though, what G-d wants from us, is not to be Him, but to struggle in trying to find out Who He is, and in that struggle, gain the kind of wisdom for which G-d put us here on this Earth in the first place.

    Perhaps a worthy comparison would be with a happily married couple. In trying to discover the degree to which they love each another, what is important is not the actual words that they say to one another, but rather how they say what they say to each other…the tone of their voices, their facial expressions, their body language. None of us can truly know G-d, but maybe what G-d desires from us, is to be eager to know him, and in those efforts, we are rewarded with spiritual luminosity.

  22. Yisrael Asper says:

    “We know a lot more and yet the minimalists and DH followers turn back the clock as if nothing has changed….”

    The commenter is incorrect. Nothing has changed, and if anything, the principles of the DH are taken for granted today in every school where the Bible is taught seriously. As Dr. Leiman pointed out nearly twenty years ago in an OU forum book, some orthodox Jews are under the impression that the DH was “vanquished” by RDZ Hoffman. The reality is exactly the opposite. The precise divisions framed by Wellhausen are disputed, but there is virtual unanimous acceptance of composite authorship, as well as the basic sources.”

    You are wrong. Everything has changed. The divisions of DH are held to vaguely as a matter of dogma. Differences in style and names of God are recognized as something one author can give and parallels of this are seen with ancient writings and peoples. Archaeologists dig up more and more evidence for the Davidic dynasty and other Biblical artifacts are proving other aspects of Biblical history.

    If however you measure truth as what the majority of experts are said to believe in then there is nothing to say here as far as DH. DH is held unto because it is dogma and it therefore enjoys the support between lip service and more strong faith in the academic community.

    But it is a Procrustean bed. When verses don’t fit from one author it then is said to be a transplant of another one. Only academics are able to propose anything in this theory. It is their playground. We have plenty of real variants like with the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as ones proposed on the basis of real scholarship even if without texts dug up on their behalf. DH has as its basis Wellhausen who tried to show that Judaism evolved from polytheism then sunk into legalism and then comes their savior. The books of the Torah are divided into names of Hashem since supposedly how can an ancient god have more than one name? and Deuteronomy is yanked out as another source. We are supposed to be skeptical of our traditions which at least have the benefit of having been believed in for thousands of years but are supposed to believe their speculations that were new and are based on our Bible when it suits them.

    DH is fatuous nonsense. But even if it were convincing all it could show is human texts. If we allow for the finger of Hashem we have our own texts. Let the DH be for the Bible…their Bible. We should stick with ours.

  23. Ari Heitner says:

    DF says, …Nothing has changed, and if anything, the principles of the DH are taken for granted today in every school where the Bible is taught seriously…The precise divisions framed by Wellhausen are disputed, but there is virtual unanimous acceptance of composite authorship, as well as the basic sources.

    In physics, all academics are forced to play by the same rules. Whether you are Newton timing apples falling from trees in England, or Galileo timing meatballs falling from from the leaning tower in Pisa, if your stopwatches are good, you will get the same answer. Any crackpot theory must agree that F = (Gm1m2)/d^2, at least for objects ranging from the size of a meatball to the size of the Earth (though the math may diverge for cases with no experimental basis – which is why physicists call such theories “crackpot”).

    I’m no expert on DH. But last I checked, anyone with a professorship in Biblical Studies can publish whatever he or she wants, subject only to charisma/literary ability in attracting students. Wellhausen can say one thing, and Whybray can say the opposite, and no one can force anyone else to agree. Why should academic popularity correlate with historical correctness in the absence of meatball, tower, and stopwatch? Is there some trove of archeological evidence for DH that I’m missing?

    (Footnote 1: Wikipedia makes it sound like the current state of affairs is the academic free-for-all one would expect from literary disciplines: … does anyone with ties to the current state of academia want to argue things aren’t so disjointed?)

  24. RAM says:

    I’m not impressed by any unanimity of the academic community that disputes the composition and transmission of Torah as our sages have understood it. That same community takes exception to many other basic tenets of our faith. The reason why Rav Hoffmann ZT”L could not “vanquish” them into recanting their views should be obvious; neither he nor anyone else could overcome their prejudices in the matter.

  25. dave says:

    All types of questions should be valid. One of the problems in our yeshivas and bais yaakovs is that there are too many teachers who tell their students that “to ask such a question is assur” or “apikarsus” or “beneath you”. High schoolers are old enough to see through flim-flam and ignorance. That kind of stance leads to the more cynical questions. Better to answer and discuss and sometimes to even conclude that there is no good answer. Yet.

    I was recently at a shiva house for a lady who survived Auschwitz. She did not talk much about her experiences in the war with her family. Her grand-daughter once asked her if she ever lost her emunah in the camps. She replied “no – we were hungry but we weren’t stupid.”

  26. Yisrael Asper says:

    Ultimately no one simply leaves Frumkite because of questions. If we have been implanted with enough of a pull towards Yiddishkeit we can hold on despite questions. If we haven’t been implanted with enough of a pull towards Yiddishkeit we can leave despite answers. The spirit of today’s challenge to Judaism is how can all those academics be wrong? It becomes a matter of which group to join and this despite an infinity of arguments you can give on behalf of Judaism they will stick with their faith and live with the questions even if they stare them in the face and appear to contradict reality as they know it. We can do the same even as we try to come up with answers.

  27. DF says:

    The idea that the DH is fatuous nonsense or has been discredited is wishful thinking. Certainly there is freewheeling debate and many arguments – do we not have the same thing on every page of Shas? But as I said before, the foundation of the DH, ie, that of composite authorship, is univerally accepted. The Dr. Leiman article I referenced above was published in an OU book – mainstream orthodoxy, I should say – introducing an article by R. Mordechai Breuer in which he too, accepts the DH. That doesnt mean you or me or anyone has to accept it also. But to call it “fatuous nonsnese” is to call fools all the thousands of serious scholars, Jews and non-Jews, who have studied the issue free from any religious training, background or pressure, and have accepted it.

    Re archeologists digging up more and more Biblical artificats – Yes. That is for sure true. Even older finds, like the Mesha Stele or the Deir Alla inscription are wonderful to know about, and can be very important for chizuk emunah. [I believe all 7th or 8th grade students should learn about them.] Does not resolve all the questions, nor does it speak to the DH issue, but very important nonetheless.

  28. Nachum says:

    Yisrael Asper and DF: Just to clarify: First, it was a *YU* Forum book, not OU. Doesn’t change your points, of course.

    Second, again to clarify, R’ Leiman is not stating his position, but that of the vast majority of the field. His writings can be a bit more nuanced; certainly R’ Breuer’s are. The latter accepts the *assumptions* of DH without accepting its conclusions; R’ Leiman differs with him somewhat.

  29. Bob Miller says:

    The loyal Jew who sees different written styles within Chumash concludes that the Divine Author wished to convey His message in that fashion for His own reasons. In at least some cases, the choice of style seems to match the nature or deep content of the subject matter.

    The heretic sees the same combination of styles, but, starting from the assumption that the authorship was human, posits a composite work taken from multiple human authors.

  30. ruvie says:

    DF makes some excellent points but i beg differ on the comparison to big bang and evolution. to my limited understanding, those ideas never conflicted with any ikarei emunah(just chazal view and interpreting text) – so there is a BIG difference. I agree with his conclusion – it will be worked in one way or another in time but there will be losses on the way there. Hard to see how one can have fealty to torah and mitzvot without believing in revelation as a historical fact.

  31. Zvi Lampel says:

    Nothing has changed, and if anything, the principles of the DH are taken for granted today in every school where the Bible is taught seriously. As Dr. Leiman pointed out nearly twenty years ago in an OU forum book, some orthodox Jews are under the impression that the DH was “vanquished” by RDZ Hoffman.

    Interestingly, in the referenced article :

    Wherever bible is taught critically, [Dr. Leiman’s phraseology differs in that he used the word ”critically” rather than ”seriously”–ZL] that is, at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and the Hebrew University, it is accompanied by the documentary hypothesis even as the twentieth century draws to a close. …

    Lest one misunderstands (I am not making any accusations of intentional misleading), Dr. Leiman’s argument is with ”those who cavalierly deny that the problem exists.” But he does not agree to the possibility that DH is a halachically legitimate approach with which ”we will, in the fullness of time, end up.” On the contrary, he criticzes Rabbi Dr. Breur for suggesting that prophets other than Moses were responsible for the alleged stylistic inconsistenicies of the Torah. And he notes that:

    Even if the vast majority of modern Bible scholars concurred on the plausibility of the documentary hypothesis, there is always room for honest dissent. …Rabbi David Hoffman and Professoer Umberto Cassuto…took issue with it, even as they were modeh al ha-emet and intellectually honest to a fault. Since then, no new textual evidence of any significance has been discovered that “proves” the documentary hypothesis.

    Dr. Leiman in the article suggests his own approaches in how to refute DH.
    His denial not of the halachic illegitimacy of DH, nor of the strength of RDZH’s and R. Cassuto’s refutations. His denial is only of the idea that academia surrendered.

    Perhaps Dr. Leiman does not quite consider the hypothesis itself a ”fatuously ridiculous one,” but despite the ”thousands of serious scholars…who have studies the issue…and have accepted it,” he ends the above paragraph with the followng quip:

    Nor does there appear to be any imminent danger that a copy of J, E, or P will be discovered.

  32. L. Oberstein says:

    On Tuesday, I attended a symposium in D C about Israel and met for the first time the famous Los Angeles Conservative rabbi Wolpe. I went over to him and said that I had been waiting for years for the opportunity to ask him why he doesn’t believe in the factuality of the Exodus from Egypt as written in the Torah,. He answered me that he didnt say that it didnt happen, just that there is no evidence that it ever occured and if it did, it certainly was a much smaller number than the Torah says. He told me that it was his responsibility to enlighten his mostly Iranian congregants so that they would know that what is important is the lesson of the story even if the story is nothing more than a fable.I said that Yetzias Mitzrayim is the cornerstone of our faith but he did not agree that it has to have been factually as described. If you are concerned about heresy, he told me that no one believes in the Biblical version anymore, except for “people like you”. We are the Neanderthals who still subscribe to literal truth in the Torah but our view is not relevant because it is contradicted by all who are scholars of the field and there is no evidence it ever happened.
    I think I understand his position better now, it is all just a “moshol” and we can make of it what we will. That certainly gives him freedom to cut and paste as he chooses. Now that is apikorsus.l

  33. Shades of Gray says:

    “No really good question hasn’t already been asked, and can be found in earlier sources. (Even Zev Farber’s!) And those early sources struggled to understand what they — and hopefully we — know to be Divinely revealed truth. ”

    R. Daniel Eidensohn quotes a similar point in the name of R. Solevitchik on his blog(December,2008):

    “Rav Solveitchik on the other hand was not an intellectual i.e., he was not an open ended thinker – he was a Brisker. One of his students told me that one winter they were involved in a complex sugya when someone raised a question which was not discussed in any of the commentaries. It greatly upset Rav Solveitchik because “there is no valid question which is not discussed in the meforshim.” The students were in the middle of their summer break when they received a call that Rav Soloveitchik wanted them to come to a special shiur. At the shiur he announced that he had found the solution to why no one talked about the question. The question was based on a mistaken girsa. He repeated again, “If it is a valid question you will find it discussed in the meforshim. If it isn’t discussed that indicates it is not a valid question.”

    Regarding RYBS, Brisk, and bible criticism specifically, “armed with the conceptual Brisker method, the Rav found that academic critical-historical text study did not hold much interest for him”, unlike R. Chaim Heller and R. YY Weinberg(R. Ronnie Ziegler, Lecture #1). Also, “instead of undertaking a detailed critique of the critics’ interpretation of the first two chapters of Bereishit, he undercuts their arguments entirely by presenting a cogent alternative. Thus, he DOES actually confront the critics – in an indirect yet constructive manner, rather than in a direct but defensive manner”(R. Ronnie Ziegler, Lecture #20b, quoting R. Carmy; other reasons are mentioned by R. Ziegler as well).

  34. Reb Yid says:

    To Rabbi Oberstein:

    In our Orthodox shul, when Shir HaShirim is read the rabbi makes a point of passing out the JPS translation since it sticks close to the literal, sexual imagery of the text. He wants the congregants to first understand what is actually said, rather than use the G rated “frum” Artscroll English translation which, while perhaps an interesting supplement, does not adhere in any way, shape or form to the actual Hebrew.

  35. Steve Brizel says:

    IIIRC, RYBS in a comment, that is noted in one of the Mesoras HaRav machzorim ( possibly RH), RYBS is quoted as advocating that living in a sense of Teiku, with unanswered questions is part and parcel of being a Shomer Torah Umitzvos. IMO, in our collective urge to suggest bad answers to the toughest questions that invited various approaches from Chazal and Rishonim, we err in suggesting the same rather recognizing that living with Teiku is a far better answer than a bad answer.

  36. Michael Halberstam says:

    After spending many years studying sifrei Machshava Chassidus and Hakira, I have simply concluded that we all live with questions, about the Torah about Hashem and about how to understand things. Hopefully we will try to find responsible people to talk to about these things. However, I have come to the conclusion that much of what passes for talk about these things today is either an attempt to identify as many apikorsim as possible, as if this helps anything, or an attempt to describe ourselves as the possessors of the real emes. None of these approaches will help serious peiople with serious questions. Usually they do more harm than good. I choose to believe that Hashem created the world so that people would understand thater there are questions and those who are capable need to spend their lives in study and grapple with them.

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