Sunday, November 03, 2013

What Does Orthodoxy Stand For?

You gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything.
-"Fall for Anything" by The Script

The recent rash of articles detailing Rabbi Asher Lopatin's appointment, reactions to it, and much discussion of Rabbi Zev Farber led to my finally reading "Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism," as published on

The stated goal of is to "energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship." I think this is a noble goal. And I think Rabbi Farber is a noble individual. I respect what he is trying to do. He wants to reach out to the minds of questioning individuals, serious thinkers who truly wish to engage with both our textual tradition and modern scholarship, and try to present them with a way to blend the two together. This way, these individuals may still stay observant and will be able to strengthen and give back to the Orthodox community. The unstated alternative seems to be that these individuals will become completely nonobservant and may even leave Judaism altogether.

Much ink has been spilled as to the question of whether or not Rabbi Farber is a heretic, and whether the thoughts he expresses are heretical. But I think the more important question is what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox. In short: what does Orthodoxy stand for? That is what the real disagreement here is about. And I even think, that framed in the right way, it could be and perhaps is, a machloket l'shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven.

On the one side, we have individuals who see Orthodoxy as something which is very much concerned with the "dox" part. Being Orthodox means not only worrying about what foods I put into my mouth, but also what thoughts I allow into my mind. Certain thoughts are not permissible. We must believe certain things (most commonly the Rambam's 13 Ikrei Emunah). Changing the official creed to which those who are Orthodox must subscribe by default devalues and waters down Orthodoxy, making it less than it is. In fact, it might not even make it Orthodoxy anymore. As 'The Script' says, we must stand for something or we will fall for anything. Orthodoxy means standing up for these 13 Ikrei Emunah at all costs. If one does not believe these, that individual might be orthoprax, but certainly not Orthodox.

On the other side, we see individuals who see Orthodoxy as something more to do with practice. To be Orthodox is to be shomer Torah u'mitzvot as it pertains to actions. If one keeps Shabbat, observes Kashrut, lights the Chanukah menorah and makes a Pesach Seder, among other laws, one is Orthodox. Issues of belief do not come into it, and neither do situations where we are unsure of one's practice (for instance, if I say I am gay, and you do not know whether or not I am having anal intercourse with my partner, I ought to be permitted into the synagogue and into the community). This approach will allow for more individuals to identify as Orthodox, more individuals to swell our synagogues, and will also keep those individuals who might be perceived as some of the most gifted (given their curiosity and questioning) within our ranks, as we will not exclude them based on belief system.

So we come down to a difference in goal. Is the goal of Orthodoxy to uphold certain tenets of belief and faith, or is the goal of Orthodoxy to be as inclusive as possible, except for situations in which individuals do not follow the majority of practices associated with observance? If it is the first goal, we will end up excluding many people. If it is the second goal, we will end up welcoming in many more people. One goal is more God focused- we must uphold the beliefs and creed that make us a nation that was chosen by God. The other goal is more Human focused- we must do everything in our power to allow access to all humans (women, LGBTQ+ etc) into our synagogues if they are not violating a certain number of our practices outright.

This is a clash that I feel personally, as I am constantly oscillating between the two sides of the argument. On the one hand, as a humanist, I would prefer for everyone to be welcome in our community and in our synagogues, no matter how they express themselves. On the other hand, I do believe that we need to stand for something, which means standing for God, and that there are certain matters of belief and principle which should not be crossed and are immutable.

Where it gets tricky is that sometimes even those who believe we ought to stand for certain principles need to redefine the principles. For instance, what does it mean to believe that the entire Torah that we now have was given to Moses? There are professors who teach Intro to Bible classes that include fascinating readings of Ibn Ezra which indicate that certain pesukim were added to the text later. Even Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg needed to modify what the Eighth Principle meant. And anyone who studies the Tanakh seriously is aware of the many passages that seem to contradict one another, or seem to have been added later. Certainly, some people (especially those who do not study Tanakh thoroughly) can simply ignore these. But others try to grapple with them, and certainly there have been Orthodox approaches attempting to make sense of the different accounts and contradictions. But sometimes these approaches are not satisfying to a particular student. What then?

It is the "what then" that Rabbi Farber is trying to address. It is all very well and good to tell a student they are not learned enough to make a decision of accepting what historical-biblical criticism has to say. That is not persuasive. It is well and good to tell a student that there are limits to what they can understand and sometimes they have to surrender to the Halakhah (or in this case, perhaps Hashkafah). But not every student will be willing to do that. At that point, there is perhaps a choice- either the student can decide they do not accept the tenets underwriting traditional Orthodoxy, and likely become orthoprax, Conservative, Reform or leave the tradition altogether, or they can try an approach like Rabbi Farber's, which seeks to redefine the meaning of Torah miSinai, and perhaps stay within Orthodoxy. Which choice is better for the student and for us as we see the Orthodox movement? Where do we draw our line?

Rabbi Farber wants us to include individuals who wish to accept historical-biblical criticism within Orthodoxy. The way he aims to do this is by advocating that we drop the binary divide between thinking that everything in the Tanakh must have literally happened in the way it is written. Instead, he wishes to advocate a world-view where "humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode," including a mode where they are "totally on his or her own" and one where a person "encounters the divine and channels it in some way." Therefore, when there are contradictions in the Torah, Farber sees these as reflecting the "respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way."

Farber sees the people as having been given insight "into God's plan for Israel/ the Jews" via divine encounter and suggests that over the years, these "revelations are synthesized and reframed." We need to seek out how "any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel" in order to see the ideas in "their relative purity and reapply them to our times." What is important is not the law itself, but the message or value beneath the law.

What is interesting is that nothing that Farber here suggests is new or unique to him. This is the interpretation of divine revelation proffered by the Conservative movement based on their understanding of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's saying that the Torah is a 'midrash' on revelation. Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man:
In speaking about revelation, the more descriptive the terms, the less adequate is the description. The words in which the prophets attempted to relate their experiences were not photographs but illustrations, not descriptions, but songs. A psychological reconstruction of the prophetic act is, therefore, no more possible than the attempt to paint a photographic likeness of a face on the basis of a song. The word "revelation" is like an exclamation; it is an indicative rather than a descriptive term. Like all terms that express the ultimate, it points to its meaning rather than fully rendering it. "It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events at Sinai, for there has never been before nor will there ever be again anything like it." "We believe," says Maimonides, "that the Torah has reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Scripture figuratively by the term 'word,' and that nobody has ever known how that took place except Moses himself to whom that word reached. 
We must try not to read chapters in the Bible dealing with the event at Sinai as if they were texts in systematic theology. Its intention is to celebrate the mystery, to introduce us to it rather than to penetrate or to explain it. As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. 
(page 185)
Neil Gillman in his work Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew interprets Heschel's position in this way:
The cardinal theological sin for Heschel, then, is literal-mindedness, the presumption that our theological concepts are literally true or objectively adequate. Thus Heschel’s striking claim about revelation: “As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.” We understand midrash as a later interpretation of a biblical text. But according to Heschel, even the Bible itself is a human interpretation of some prior, or more primal revelatory content that is beyond human comprehension.  
 Heschel teaches that two events occurred at Sinai: God’s giving of the Torah and Israel’s receiving of the Torah. Both parties were active in the encounter, and what emerged is colored by both its divine origin and its human appropriation. To use another of Heschel’s formulations, Judaism reflects “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” Accordingly, “the source of authority is not the word as given in the text but Israel’s understanding of the text.” Yet, as we shall see, Heschel takes the Jewish legal system that emerges out of this revelation very seriously indeed. …
Farber then goes on to speak about important characters in the Tanakh. He introduces the concept of mnemohistory vs. history, which he defines as a mixture of legends, myths, lore and "nuggets of cultural memory" all put together to explain the past. He suggests that we can make sense of the fact that current archeological findings do not support texts in the Tanakh (his examples include not only the account of Adam and Eve in the garden, but even the exodus from Egypt) by seeing them as the stories that a people or nation tells itself in order to explain itself and its values. Farber is not altogether alone in his view. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent debate with Dawkins, said (minute 18 on) "Well Adam and Eve is clearly a parable because there was no first human, and there may have been a mitochondrial Eve, but I mean, that was somewhere else and in another country, and besides [...] is dead, so no, I mean, Adam and Eve are really, I mean, if you trace it back 6000 years ago, obviously the Bible is telling us the story about the first dawn of civilization, I mean there was an [art?] 25,000 years ago." Dawkins continues and says, "So Adam and Eve is symbolic, but the passing of the Red Sea- I mean, how do you decide which bits are symbolic and-?" and Rabbi Sacks says, "Very simple. The rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: If a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally, and that was 8 centuries before the word 'scientist' was coined so they weren't just doing it to please Richard Dawkins. They were doing it for their own intellectual integrity." The moderator points out that many people do believe it literally and Rabbi Sacks says, "In Judaism, we take a strong view on this. We have now for [14,000?] years and we say reading the Bible literally is heresy. Why so? Because we believe in its a fundamental of rabbinic Judaism, that there is an Oral Tradition alive alongside the Written Tradition and simply to read the words as they're written is heretical in Judaism." However, Rabbi Sacks does say that he believes God's call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac literally happened and that that whole narrative was "critically misunderstood with disastrous consequences." (Rabbi Sacks continues his exploration of both of these passages in his work The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, on pages 174-181 in the hardcover version).

It's interesting that Rabbi Sacks sees the Adam and Eve story as a parable due to conflicts with science, but stops there, while Rabbi Farber sees other pieces as conflicting with archaeological records or historical records that we do or do not have, and therefore continues to the point where he denies that main figures within our tradition ever literally existed (such as the aforementioned Abraham). Or at least, like King Arthur, he suggests the figure is much embellished. Is it that Rabbi Sacks does not find a proof in the lack of a discovery (such as the lack of archaeological records)? What stops Rabbi Sacks from continuing down the road that Rabbi Farber is led on, given that they both seem to begin with the same principle? And would Rabbi Sacks be troubled by Rabbi Farber's conclusions? These are not questions I can answer, but I think they would make for a very interesting discussion with Rabbi Sacks himself.

Rabbi Farber determines that the "stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troubling." This merely restates the position of the Conservative movement that has already been articulated. Farber explains that the stories of the Tanakh teach us morals, lessons and values and they are simply couched in a way where humanity could understand them and find them palatable. The Torah is, at its essence, a great parable, and the meaning ought to be found in the nimshal rather than in the mashal. Farber's position reminds me of why I read fiction and fantasy, and of one of the greatest lines in The Things They Carried by Tim O' Brien; "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth" (page 80).

Farber's philosophy is noble. He wants to create meaning for those who want to accept historical and biblical criticism, and he believes he has done it. Read the Torah as an ahistorical document that exists to teach us about morals, values and ethics! is his rallying cry. Do not lose the meaning and the message simply because you see something that conflicts with it. Keep the meaning and the message, and remain a part of the Orthodox community rather than leaving religion altogether. Like many in the Conservative movement, Farber sees the Torah as a human-made document which is representative of the encounter between God and His people, a midrash on revelation. The characters do not need to have literally existed to teach us the morals, messages and values that they do.

However, this raises the following questions:

(a) Farber states that he believes that "halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal's interpretation." But earlier in the essay he says we need to find out "how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel," in order to see the ideas "in their relative purity and reapply them to our times." By making this point, he seems to suggest that a historical understanding of halahka and societal impact upon halakha would mean that certain halakhot can be changed or might no longer be valid (given that our goal would be to find the halakha in its "relative purity and reapply" it to our times). Per some, that is de facto against against Chazal, as it assumes Chazal were the creators of a tradition, influenced by their times and the countries in which they lived, rather than the vessels of a tradition. For those who believe that Chazal are the vessels of a tradition, historical circumstance should have no bearing, as the Rav argued in his essay in Light magazine. Therefore, claiming that we should not excise or ignore any part of the Torah or Chazal's interpretation while at the same time saying we need to find the underlying cause of halakhot may be contradictory or impossible for some.

(b) I do not see why Farber gives so much validity to Chazal and indeed thinks that their interpretations cannot be excised or ignored. He is perfectly fine ignoring the understanding of Chazal that the characters in Torah are absolutely true-to-life historical figures who lived and breathed. Why is it acceptable to him to ignore this underlying point of view, but it is still important to him to accept their opinion on halakha? This is especially curious in circumstances where they call upon historical events in Judaism to explain why we have halakhot. (For instance, if the Exodus is nothing but a fable that exists to teach us certain lessons, morals and values, I can understand the need to have a meal to discuss the fable and the values we learn from it. But does it really matter so much whether or not I talk about matzah, maror and the Korban Pesach, and why, if all of these are just metaphors?) This leads to a larger question: where does practice and ritual come into play if the entire document off of which we create these practices and rituals is simply a large parable or metaphor? What is the point of keeping these practices or rituals; why don't we just focus on the underlying ethics, values and morals of the document? It seems absurd to follow laws that were learned out of human-written lore and mnemohistory; as well follow laws that are learned out of Bernard Cornwall's King Arthur trilogy.

(c) What is the compelling reason to remain a Jew according to Farber's theology? Let us suppose that he is correct that our allegedly human-written texts are the result of some sort of revelation between God and man, specifically 'Jewish' man. If I can get these ethics, morals and values from a different religion (Christianity, Islam) that may couch them in different human-written texts, why ought I to stay Jewish rather than becoming a universally moral person with no official religion? And even if I do stay Jewish in the sense that I hold by the values, ethics and morals derived from my own lore and literature, why would I continue to practice or be observant? After all, my practices would all be based on figurative parables that never actually occurred; why should my life be restricted or inconvenienced by this fiction? Let me take the core messages and leave aside the wrapping in which they were encased, much as a person takes the gift and throws out the wrapping paper.

(d) Why should one believe in revelation? Farber starts from the premise that one wants to be a believing Jew, but is struggling to reconcile Torah and archeology/ historical evidence/ biblical criticism with Torah. He therefore posits that we should see Torah as the story and lore that encases our uniquely Jewish values and ethics. And he says we should believe the human authors of the Torah were responding to God (and were perhaps even prophets). But it would seem simpler and easier to say that the human authors of the Torah were simply creative individuals who came up with some very compelling parables about radical value systems and ethics. There is no proof against revelation- but there is no proof for it, either, and not even a claim that it happened, if the Sinai experience never occurred, is a parable, or did not occur in the format that was suggested, before hundreds of thousands of people.

(e) Why would one die for such a religion? People are willing to die for those they love, their family members, their community. (See the heroic story of Roi Klein). But Farber is saying that Jews should all be willing to die for an idea. You should not convert or change your religion because you hold fast to the ideas couched within human-written texts that the Torah represents. It's true that we do believe in the power of ideas. Many people who serve in the army do so because they want to defend this country's ideas and ideals of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech and so forth. But just as many do so because they want the benefits, the education, or need more discipline or structure in their lives. If we mandated that people needed to die for the USA because of the ideas the US stands for, some would, but many wouldn't. But people are willing to die for brotherhood, fellowship, love, community- in short, their family. I would posit that if you take away the historical significance of our religion, the episodes where our real-life relatives chose not to bow before the Nimrods, Pharoahs or Nebuchadnezzars of the past, you take away a fundamental connection with the past, and with the families that we are a part of, and you take away a large part of the reason that people commit to the religion and to live by it or die by it. If you say the Torah is an ahistorical collection of ideas,then if given the choice between converting or dying, it would make much more sense to slightly change one's idea rather than to die for it, or even to convert but secretly continue to believe in one's original idea. Many of the people who died for Judaism throughout history died because it was the religion of their forefathers in a literal sense, because our ancestors were willing to give up anything to keep this religion. People died because of the connection they shared with real-life heroes who would not bow, not because of a thought.

(f) If Farber's theology were adopted on a large scale, would it help or would it hinder Jews? I think that Farber's theology might be helpful for, as Maimonides might have put it, the 'elite' thinkers who would otherwise face a crisis of faith and would not continue to believe. These individuals can choose to see the Torah as a collection of ahistorical truths, values and ethics written by humans but caused by a revelation between God and man. But for the majority of people, or 'the masses,' as we might otherwise put it, this thought system would be utterly detrimental. Although he argues against this choice, Farber himself admits he has met people who would no longer practice if the events in the Torah were proved not to have occurred. Therefore, he agrees that if the events in the Torah never really happened, there are many people who would not feel a connection to it, practice its laws, or die for it. If, therefore, Farber's theology were adopted on a large scale, it is likely that it would simply lead to more disbelief and less observance, contrary to his goals.

(g) Why does Farber's theology go this far and no further? If we have already interpreted the entire Torah as an ahistorical compilation of truths, values and messages, why ought they to be seen as God's truths, values and messages rather than human truths, values and messages? Why ought we to still believe in prophecy, a phenomenon science has never seen or identified? Why ought we to still believe in revelation? Why pray an elaborate liturgy which makes reference to ahistorical figures all the time (praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as stand-ins for certain values)? Why follow chukim in the Torah where we don't understand the values or ethics underlying the law (for example, shatnez)? Farber suggests we can isolate history from practice. Just because something didn't happen, doesn't make it not true or valuable. We can practice religion and Judaism even if we don't think the narratives are true in a literal sense. But why would that not lead to further suspicion? Why the need for all these categories and designations- for rituals of tumah and taharah - are those also just stand-ins for certain ethics or values, and can we replace them in modern times? Why a need for halakha at all? Why are we bound, if there was no true covenant truly accepted between Abraham and God? Why are we bound if there was no literal Sinai?

I don't understand why Farber stops where he does, and goes no further, unless it is simply out of desperation. He wants to believe, and he also wants to be engaged in scholarly biblical and historical criticism. He has found a system that does not directly contradict the theory of revelation. Revelation can still have happened, but what was truly revealed were ethics, precepts and ideas, and these were couched in human terms and stories by human authors, perhaps even based on original characters that did exist (much like King Arthur). It's true that revelation could still have happened in that format. But wouldn't it be more sensible to believe that humans simply wrote this mnemohistory without revelation occurring? What is it that pushes one to believe in revelation in this case? Or is this simply where faith comes in- faith is believing in this form of revelation? If so, I do not think this is a faith that will stand the test of time- and I point you to the dwindling numbers in the Conservative movement as my evidence. Regular people find it very difficult to attach themselves to ideas rather than to events, history and family, especially when they have cause to be suspicious that the ideas may have been the outcome of human creativity rather than Godly creativity.

The question we must really address is this: What does Orthodox Judaism stand for?

Is it about practice?
Is it about belief?
Is it about retaining the greatest number of adherents to the system?
Is it about retaining true, faithful adherents to the system, even if the numbers are small?
What are its limits? Where do we draw lines between Orthodoxy and other denominations?
Ought there to be limits?

Farber believes that if there is a clash between the faith of individuals and the Torah, the Torah itself must change. Let us reinterpret the Torah as an ahistorical compilation of texts written by prophets who were teaching us values via parables. That way, people will still believe in the core precept of revelation. Many others believe that if there is a clash between the faith of individuals and the Torah, the individuals must change. They must surrender to the halakha, to the authority of the Torah, or to the fact that they do not or will not understand, and must, as Rilke says, "live the questions." These people say the core precepts are larger; we believe, not only in revelation, but in the historicity of the text. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived, loved, and died beloved by God. And of course, there is a spectrum of responses in between these two poles. Farber is guided by a love of the people, and others are guided by a love of God. We need to remember that at its core, the machloket here is a machloket l'shem shamayim. How is God best served? Is He best served by uprooting some precepts to save the main one (if, indeed, revelation is the main precept)? Or by taking a firm stand that all the precepts must hold, even if that places others outside the Orthodox camp?

Can we engage with Farber and see him as a noble individual with God-focused motivations, even if some are concerned that his ideas are misleading or dangerous? Or, precisely because the ideas might be misleading or dangerous, should we not engage with him at all, and place him and those marred by association with him outside of the established community, so that no one else may be negatively impacted by his words? Is there a middle ground, and what is it? Are certain people equipped to think about his ideas, while others ought to be protected from them? And who makes this determination?

What does it mean to call oneself an Orthodox Jew?

What does Orthodoxy stand for?