TheTorah.com: It Is Most Certainly Not “Orthodox Jews Challenging Commonly Held Beliefs About the Torah”
In what is surely for many readers an eye-opening article, entitled It Ain’t Necessarily So: These Orthodox Jews Are Challenging Commonly Held Beliefs About the Torah, Haaretz’ Judy Maltz takes a close look at the ideas and personalities behind TheTorah.com (also known as Project TABS – “Torah and Biblical Scholarship”). For those who are unaware, TheTorah.com is a website run by Jews who for the most part refer to themselves as Orthodox, but who have rejected paramount Orthodox beliefs, such as belief in the Revelation at Sinai in a literal sense and belief in the historicity of the Torah. Although there are a few exceptional narratives in the Torah which some commentators opine might be symbolic or futuristic visions, rather than literal historical events, TheTorah.com has gone way, way beyond this, using Higher Biblical Criticism and secular academic methodology to dismiss and discount the most central elements of the Torah, thereby rendering it an inaccurate and largely concocted product of human authors and redactors.
It is obvious that this is not Orthodox, and that the title of the Haaretz article – in referring to TheTorah.com management as Orthodox – is as accurate as describing yarmulke-wearing Jews who are committed to a diet of cheeseburgers, shrimp and pork as “kosher consumers”. The fact that TheTorah.com’s management includes several people who call themselves Orthodox but who publicly disavow the Ikarei Ha-Emunah (Cardinal Principles of Faith) does not render these people or the website as Orthodox. (Furthermore, a brief scroll down TheTorah.com’s list of authors reveals a very substantial number of Conservative and Reform clergy members and academics – people who would not dare identify as Orthodox.)
The problem (one of the many) is that whereas other Jewish studies websites, such as MyJewishLearning.com, do not claim to be Orthodox, and readers who click onto these sites immediately see that they have entered a clearly non-Orthodox forum, TheTorah.com cleverly masks its true nature, due to the self-proclaimed Orthodoxy of its management and many of its writers.
When compared with the early Conservative movement, TheTorah.com is closer to Reform theology. Unlike Zecharias Frankel in Germany, and Solomon Shechter and the early leadership cohort at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who accepted the literal and verbal Revelation at Sinai and refused to apply Higher Biblical Criticism to the Pentateuch (but who rejected the Sinaitic quality of Torah She-b’al Peh, the Oral Law), TheTorah.com management has no problem denying the literal concept of Torah Mi-Sinai (the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai) and has instead adopted the Documentary Hypothesis, ascribing Torah authorship to various people over the ages. Hence, TheTorah.com is not only decidedly not Orthodox, but is not even Traditional Conservative.
Unfortunately, TheTorah.com maintains close ties to some major elements in the American Open Orthodox movement and to some liberal Israeli Orthodox rabbis, the latter having been discussed in the endnote of this article. To be precise, clergy from these groups contribute articles to TheTorah.com, including articles that deny the Revelation and the Torah’s historicity.
R. David Bigman, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maale Gilbo’a, a liberal Israeli institution, wrote a series of articles for TheTorah.com, in which he expressed views that are quite inconsistent with Ikarei Ha-Emunah. In an article titled “Reclaiming the Multi-Genre Perspective,” R. Bigman argued that the Torah was not dictated by God to Moses. Based on Higher Biblical Criticism and R. Bigman’s reading of the Chumash, he professed that “there is no other option but to let go of the narrative of the dictation… ‘The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.’ We can understand this statement as merely a comment on the literary style of our Torah, but it can also be understood in a broader and more fundamental way.” In other words, according to R. Bigman, as explained further in his article, the text of the Torah was written by men, not by God Who taught it to Moses. According to the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8), this is outright kefirah (heresy).
In another article on TheTorah.com, entitled “Refracting History through the Spiritual Experience of the Present,” R. Bigman asserted that one need not accept the Torah’s narrative of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) as historical fact. And in an article on the website entitled “Moderating the Stark Truth of the Written Torah,” R. Bigman maintained that Chazal (the Sages) fabricated certain halachos in order to make the commandments of the Torah more palatable. Denying the Sinaitic quality of Torah She-b’al Peh is categorized by the Rambam as kefirah. (Hil. Teshuvah ibid., and Introduction to Peirush Ha-Mishnayos/Commentary on the Mishnah)
It is not only R. Bigman who has penned such ideas on TheTorah.com. On the contrary, the website is jam-packed with articles that chip away at the foundations of the Torah’s authority and traditional belief from every angle. One featured article will seek to dismantle certain Ikarei Ha-Emunah (totally unrelated to and going way, way beyond anything presented by Dr. Marc Shapiro or anyone similar); another article will argue that the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Torah is foreign concept (a recent TheTorah.com article ascribes the idea of Mosaic authorship to Persian influences – “In the Persian period, the Torah, which is made up of various law collections, was ascribed to Moses as revealed by YHWH; a parallel development was taking place in Achaemenid Persia that sheds light on this process”); another article will posit that the Torah’s text is dramatically corrupt (not just with variations in chaseiros and yeseiros and so forth/the presence or absence of the letter “yud“ in a few places – and whether the letter in one word in the middle of Sefer Devarim/Deuteronomy should be “aleph” or “heh”); another article will explore a cultural or geographical tidbit in the Torah, and might cavalierly dismiss the Torah’s own text in order to advance a certain historical or cultural thesis; another article will reexamine the lesson of a specific Torah narrative, using the Documentary Hypothesis to revise and reinterpret it; another article will suggest a highly unconventional theological idea, using Higher Biblical Criticism to overturn tradition (one such recent article, using this method, asserts that “the story (of the Flood) chronicles not the moral and emotional advancement of humanity but of YHWH”); another article will claim that large sections of Sefer Devarim were modified, due to the text appearing to be polytheistic (e.g. “According to a reasonable (if radical) understanding of the original verse 8, when all gods in the world received their inheritance from a senior god appropriately named Elyon ([most] high), YHWH was a merely a minor deity. YHWH subsequently raised Israel, making Himself a reputation as a senior and successful god among other nations and their gods”); another article dedicated to denying Mosaic authorship of the Torah states, “the Torah’s author is not Moses; this author or these authors must have lived in the Cisjordan no earlier than the time of King Saul… or even Solomon“. You get the point.
Here is a very typical snippet of an article on TheTorah.com, addressing the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac):
Some critical scholars, such as Tzemah Yoreh (in another TheTorah.com article), have gone so far as to suggest that the story has been redacted by an ‘Israelite Euripides.’ The original simply has Abraham sacrifice his son and return home alone. A later sage could not accept that God would let the story end this way, and revised it to have God stop the sacrifice at the last minute, like Artemis, and substitute an animal. But the redactor forgot to adjust the ending, giving away to the critical reader what the original story said.
And regarding Abraham and Sarah, we read in another TheTorah.com article:
Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.
And regarding the Torah’s narrative of Noah being victimized by his son Ham, an article in TheTorah.com posits:
I suggest that the text was revised by an editor who took the euphemism “seeing nakedness” literally, as if the sin was really visual alone. Whether out of deference to Noah or in the name of modesty more generally, this editor sought to temper the severe offense of forced incest with an incapacitated father. This reinterpretation was accomplished by adding a report about the two brothers’ contrasting act of covering their father without looking. The same editor also added the report of the perpetrator mockingly (?) relating to his brothers that he saw their father’s nakedness (verse 22b: “He told his two brothers who were outside”) so as to facilitate the subsequent presentation of the brothers’ contrasting act; the same editor then added the blessings of Shem and Japhet, the two “good” brothers/sons, at the end of the story.
TheTorah.com contains hundreds of articles which employ similar methodologies, each article more hair-raising than the next for those of us who accept the Torah as the Word of God.
TheTorah.com has an agenda of deconstructing the Torah as a holy and traditional, God-given document, stripping it of its veracity and Singular Divine authorship. It is no different than current literature from standard non-Orthodox sources, but is more dangerous, as it bizarrely purports to be Orthodox.
There is not much more to say. The issue is not complex, necessitating a lengthy and exhaustive essay to demonstrate the glaring fact that this website, which denies the most central foundations of Orthodoxy, is not Orthodox.
As I wrote six years ago, the ideas contained in TheTorah.com are heresy of the highest order.
Before closing, two additional points must be made.
First, not only is the methodology employed by TheTorah.com not Orthodox; the methodology is halachically prohibited. The Rambam (Hil. Avodas Kochavim 2:3) rules that it is Biblically forbidden to entertain any thought or pursue any inquiry that leads to rejection of the Ikarei Ha-Emunah – including whether the Torah is Min Ha-Shamayim (from Heaven/authored by God), as the Rambam specifies. TheTorah.com management and authors are in clear violation of this Biblical prohibition.
Second, and less important but not to be dismissed, is that there is a vast qualitative difference between answering a challenging question by changing the text and ascribing the apparent perplexity to poor editing, versus racking one’s brains to resolve the question from within the system. Serious questions in the Torah are traditionally addressed not only by turning with deference to the classical primary commentaries (including Midrash, of course), but by working within the system to develop what are often profoundly deep, conceptual and brilliant insights, whose compelling truth excites those who are involved in the process. Working out and elucidating such concepts requires siyata di-shmaya (Divine assistance), and such is the path of our Mesorah (heritage). Some questions take longer than others to answer, and bigger guns than us may be needed, but the proper method is to work from within and pierce through the veil of surface-level comprehension, analyzing the concepts with precision and great depth, so as to yield what are often highly advanced and abstract insights into the heart of the text and its innermost meaning and message. If we read that a certain character has dropped out of the scene, that a certain object is now described differently, that certain facts appear in one text but are omitted in another one, it is easy to resolve the issue by declaring that the text is corrupt or improperly edited; in other disciplines, such an approach is referred to as the easy or cheap way out. It is much more meaningful (and requires greater discipline, patience and depth) to instead ponder and acutely examine the matter from within, think broadly and “out of the box”, and arrive at what is often an exquisite substrate conceptual structure, revealing the most sublime treasures of understanding. People who learn Torah at a high level do this all the time; it takes a great amount of time and skill, but it is the correct way, both religiously and qualitatively.
Friends: Please don’t learn from TheTorah.com; instead, learn from the Torah.