Monday, April 14, 2008

Divinity and Inerrancy of the Torah and the Dispassionate Scholar.

John Hobbins on his blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry has posted several discussions about the contrast between the scholarly approach to Biblical Study and inerrancy from the perspective of the Homo Religioso. On a recent post there is an interesting exchange between John and Alan Lenzi that I found fascinating and resonated very strongly for me. I have thought many times about the issue and for a time was quite interested in the historical and somewhat interested in the textual analysis of the Biblical corpus. I say “somewhat” regarding textual analysis because I do not have a natural affinity to that type of analysis. I have to force myself to pay more attention to the words as I am caught up in the sweep of the general concept and ideas. As time went by, I realized that Torah is not meant to be an historical literary document but a living educational tool. It was always to be read and interpreted so that it can talk to an individual in whichever era and culture he happens to live in. Torah has to be accepted. Its divinity and inerrancy have to be accepted rather than proven. For Torah to work as an educational tool towards the ultimate goal of knowing God and His ways, it has to be accepted fully as divine and inerrant. It is with that acceptance in mind that one then approaches it and interprets it with the traditional rabbinic perspective of “Shive’im Panim LaTorah” – there are seventy facets to the Torah - the various methods of analysis and interpretation among which are the textual and the historical analysis. From this perspective, that analysis is no longer an empirical approach, but rather interpretive with the view of how it will help teach the message that is pertinent to us in our own particular circumstances. True it had different meanings to the original society and peoples that received it, it also had different meanings to every individual reader since. If it does not talk to the individual, the masses and the society that accept it, at whatever era past and future, it will not have accomplished its intended purpose.

Inerrancy and divinity are only two aspects of the Torah that we have to accept for it to work its intended goal. With the freedom to interpret, restrictions have to be put in place to keep it focused and not allow imaginative deviants to take it into unintended directions. We therefore accept that along with the written text there is also a divine and inerrant oral Torah that is integral with the text. It teaches how to approach and read the text. It is the key to decipher the code. There are also foundational concepts about God that cannot be changed or questioned. Rambam in MN 1:35 lists foundational rules or accepted beliefs that all have to accept before embarking on a discovery journey towards God. They start with the existence of God and exclusive worship of only Him followed by belief that God is not physical, He is transcendent, His existence, life, knowledge are all equivocal statements (they are human concepts applied to a non-graspable entity for lack of better words). There is also no comparison between God and anything else that exists. These concepts are unshakeable and are the starting point for any analysis of text and learning. As Rambam puts it, when these foundational beliefs are accepted and deeply inculcated, one is now ready to confront the text and interpret it. In fact confronting the text, that at first blush seems to contradict these dogmas, forces us to bring clarity to our thinking.

Now, what about scholarly textual and historical analysis? Can a scholar and a religious person be objective? I think the question should be reversed. Can a non-religious scholar analyze the text and understand it correctly? I believe the answer is no! It is like using mathematics for the textual analysis of a literary work. It is applying the wrong discipline to the process. The results will be unintelligible and completely irrelevant. Let us say that we conclude that in the early centuries of Israel’s existence as a people, the concept of God was not the same as Rambam suggests it should be nor is it the same as the concept of a Rabbi during the late Hasmonean period. That probably would be correct. The text however had meaning to that early Israelite, a meaning that he geared to his cogitations, just as it has meaning to the later thinkers. The meaning may be different because of the different circumstances and state of knowledge of the times. But it is relevant to each one of these thinkers and directs all of them a step closer to the Truth the Torah was meant to teach. The messianic era is exactly that – the arrival of all of humanity at the ultimate Truth – knowledge of God. The Torah is the tool gifted to humanity to help it reach that goal. It is only a guide and a blueprint that has to be deciphered by all of us with that goal in mind. What then is the relevance of the historical or the textual other than in that context?

Accepting its inerrancy and divinity is crucial to accomplish the Torah’s intent. It is the inviolate and divine text confronting the perception of our reality, that dialectic, which impels us to a better understanding of our existence. It forces us to put our reality in a perspective that takes into account a greater Truth than our own physical existence. I do not see how the objective scholarly approach can help to accomplish this.

I know that what I write here will probably not resonate with the dispassionate scholar. I accept that. We do not talk the same language. We can cross into each other’s world for short periods and catch a glimpse of what each one of us is trying to accomplish, but we really cannot grasp what the other’s accomplishment means. We both see the other as missing the point. That is a reality we both have to live with.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that I am gearing up to begin posting again on my blog(s), spread the word!

  2. have you seen James Kugel's latest book? The whole book is about illustrating the two different approaches throughout Tanach

  3. But if the perception of God,let's say,by some of Chazal was completely different than Rambams,e.g.if God has any physical form-why do you think Rambams view should prevail?
    Actually,there was a Rishon by the name of R. Moshe Taku,who wrote a book(most of it lost)showing that Chazal believed in some physical God.
    One can just Rashi on"betselem Elohim-betsalmo mammash",that he too believed that God is in some physical,or at least has form.

    I suppose what I want to ask you is that if according to you each generation has a valid perception of God that speaks to his heart-then this is akin to post modernism,where only ONE objecive truth doesn't exist,& each generation has different views of God,interpretion of Torah etc.
    Where does go from here?
    Chag Sameach

  4. R' David,

    "True it had different meanings to the original society and peoples that received it, it also had different meanings to every individual reader since."

    What do you mean by different meaning?

    Do you agree w/ what Y wrote that chazal or any rishon maintained God is physical?

    David W.

  5. BS,

    I have not yet read Kugel's book though I have read several reviews. I will try to get to it through Pessach. From the little I know about it I believe he would agree with me.

    Anonymous and David,

    Yes we all know that R. Moshe taku held that anyone who does not accept God's physicality is a kofer.On the other hand I don't believe Rashi held that notwithstanding his comment on betzalmo. I also know some scholars agree with you about rashi. There were other rishonim who believed similarly probably some in R. Yehudah Hachasid circles though he himself knew at least parts of R.Sa'adyah's Emunot vede'ot. As far as chazal are concerned there are many that if read literally may intimate physicality. Can they be explained away? Probably. But that is not the issue here and let me explain.

    There are two ways of looking at the past - one Utopian and the other realistic. The Utopian says that the closer we are to Sinai the closer to the truth. The realistic one says we were not so knowledgeable at early stages but with time and Torah we keep on getting closer to the Truth. both agree that there is only one truth and they both agree that eventually we will all come to the truth - when Mashiach comes. The Utopians need a miraculous Mashiach to bring us back to the original truth - the realists say Mashiach will come when we reach the truth. Rambam is a realist with a variation. He believes that at the very early stages after Sinai there was a font of knowledge that had some of us close to the Truth at least scientifically and philosophically (bnei yssachar) and that was lost over time (it was inherited and taken over by the Greeks!). So we are on our own and have to find the truth without the help of those savants. The process is long and arduous but as we continue with Torah and scientific discoveries understanding our world and adapting the theological understanding to that developing knowledge we will discover the truth. Not only for ourselves but the whole world will realize and appreciate our accomplishments and join us in that new insight. That will be mashiach times. According to this there are stages of development, deviations and refocusing, as human history is not tidy. That is why Rambam is not concerned with any statement that does not stand up to scrutiny and it is irrelevant who said it.

    I believe this answers most of your comments.

  6. R' David,

    I agree with the theme of your answer, however, allow me to rephrase the question.

    Is it possible that a Baal Hamesorah (at any point in history) maintained physicality of God?

    Thanks and chag Kosher V'sameach!

    David W.

  7. I am not sure what you mean Ba'al hamesorah? Mesorah is halachik and not theology. halachik mesorah stopped with rav Ashi. Theology is developmental and based on a deeper understanding of Halacha and the world we live in. there is no theological mesorah per se other than the written text. the understanding thereof is left to interpretation and is the subject of my post.

  8. David W.

    I reread my last comment and I am not trying to be cagey. There could have been some great halachik authority who had a misconception of God. There are still some today! That does not change the fact that they were wrong.

  9. R' David,

    Its ok, (i didnt find the comment cagey), and the term Baal hamesorah was wrong. I tend to forget that when two people converse it is essentail to use proper terms and not assume that you know what I mean.

    At Haar Sinai, the Torah was received, which means (I believe) that Moshe received and taught, 1)Torah Shebichtav 2)torah Shel Baal Peh and 3) the methodology of how to both interput and investigate their meaning.

    It would therefore seem to me that no legitimate receiver of the mesorah (referring to the 3 above aspects) could maintain God's corpreality (heaven forbid). And, therfore anyone who would maintain in the physicality of God would be someone who denies the oneness of God and therefore not be a legitimate transmitor of the true ideas of yahadus.

    This is an area that is most important to me and I am truly most interested in your insights.

    Thank you.

    David W.

  10. Three points:

    1 - The comment attributed to Rashi above is a misquote. That statement doesn't appear where the commenter suggests it appears, nor anywhere else in Rashi's perush.

    (I happen to know which comments of Rashi the commenter is thinking of, but they are nowhere near the passuq he cited, and I will leave that to the mevinim l'havin).

    Rashi's actual explanation of tzelem and demut sound anti-corporealist, at least as I read them.

    2. Why would any baal mesorah be superior to the Ziqnei Yisrael in the times of Moshe, who sanctioned the worship of the golden calf and who, according to the Rambam's interpretation, attributed corporeality to God in the vision they experienced following the revelation at Sinai, as recorded at the end of Parashat Mishpatim???

    3. I would be willing to bet that "David W." is a 'Chaitian' from Yeshiva Bnei Torah.

  11. David W.

    RJM is correct regarding 2.

    I think that you are working with a misconception that is quite common in the yshiva world. When we talk about TSBP at sinai, we refer to Pirushim Hamekubalim as far as how a halacha has to be implemented. That would apply for example to Pri etz hadar = Etrog and other similar such halachot. There are no mesorah re theology. It is a personal search and growth in understanding. Rambam says that eino guf is a basic belief. True but the definition of eino guf can be quite wide and a non philosophic person may define it differently than a more philosophic person. The same goes for echad. does it mean Unique or one among many just one of a sort? The correct understanding would come to the few and as time went on it would take hold among the masses. nowadays every body professes to believe that eino guf but i think you would be surprised by the variety of the apprehension of what that means. Will it ever change - hopefully and that is the hope for messianic times.

    Again just to make it clear the sinaitic 2 and 3 in your comment apply only to halacha.

  12. You might be a 100% right that the Rambam’s views on the nature of God are the truth and over time before or after mashiach they will be commonly recognized as such, & still be wrong on your necessary irrelevant thesis. There may be and I would say are facts and hypothesis that look quite plausible and are in fact true even though they lead one away from the truth about God. Let me give 2 examples not from the Bible. The voluminous Dead Sea Scrolls which have been published in the last twenty years seem to indicate the calendar used in the temple by the Zadokite priesthood was a solar calendar and that the lunar calendar was a chidush of the Pharisses. (See Rachel Elior’s The Three Temples) Why must I say such evidence is irrelevant or unintelligible. What would that mean other than it might or will lead one to doubt there was an unbroken mesorah? Isn’t this self censorship sort of 1984ish…we start from unproven dogma X, anything that suggests it is not the truth must be pushed aside.

    The synagogues discovered in Dura Europa and Sepphoris with their art work indicate that Jews in the time of the Talmud did not share the Rambam’s views. This is not unintelligible and not irrelevant. If tanaaim and amorayim davened there is it right to dismiss this with a ‘There have been some great halachik authorities who had a misconception of God.’ Even if it turns out the Rambam is proven correct, were the generations of kohanim, the Talmudic masters all bivchinat moreidin vlo maalin without a share in the world to come?

    More generally suppose belief X leads us away from recognizing the truth about God that will be accepted at some future time according to authority Y, & X is true and can be established as plausible. What should we do about X?

  13. EJ I am not sure what you are trying to prove.

    Re dead sea scrolls - who says they had a mesorah? If they had who says there was not a competing one? Apparently their mesorah got stuck in the qumran caves and ours flourished through several centuries thereafter.
    So they did not accept Kazeh re'eh vekadesh! what does that teach me? that there were deviant sects - we know that from Korach on.

    Re the rest of your comment - again Rambam's view is that humanity led by judaism is evolving - he buys into the understanding of the dwarf standing on the shoulders of the giant - and it is irrelevant what the earlier generations believed other than what it can teach us to better understand our reality. Rambam enumerates many tannaim who believed the world was not created in time! It existed eternally with God as Plato believed! Does he think they were wrong? yes! Does he despise them for that? No! of course not! (BTW Ramban's chaver, rabbeinu Azriel held that as truth and he was a Mekubal! one of the fathers of Spanish Kabbala.)

    Did he know of ramban's understanding of the world of spirits based on tannaim and Amoraim? Yes! of course - see Pirush Hamishna AZ 4:4. Did he think that it was wrong and smacked of idolatry? yes! Did he despise them? No! he calls them Chassidim and other such titles of respect.

    Notwithstanding the current inquisitional tone, we Jews, had a very open debate about ideas and concepts all along our history. We would not be here today if not for that! The imprimatur of a frum Jew was his search and relentless pursuit of Truth - no matter where it took him as long as he anchored himself in torah and halacha. I chose rambam's approach because it talks to me and it touches me - I believe with all my heart and mind that it is closer and leads to Truth more than any other of the paths. But as long as they remain anchored in halacha and praxis - I have to accept other searchers though I may believe they are on the wrong path - there is only one truth which we all search for in our own way - some are closer (me, of course) some are farther ( the "other" of course) LOL

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  15. >The voluminous Dead Sea Scrolls which have been published in the last twenty years seem to indicate the calendar used in the temple by the Zadokite priesthood was a solar calendar and that the lunar calendar was a chidush of the Pharisses<

    They indicate nothing of the sort. They DO indicate that the qumran sect (assuming they were zadukim - a position which I agree with but which is still not the mainstream in academia) had a solar calendar. Its says NOTHING regarding whether the solar or lunar calendar was more ancient nor does it tell us whether the zadukim innovated a solar calendar or the prushim a lunar one. If anything, the fact that the sect needed a seperate canonical book in order to find support for a solar calendar (eg. the book of Jubilees) seems to indicate that the prushim were the ones with the proper interpertation of the Torah text. Add to this the fact of the liberal borrowing of greek doctorine that is well documented among the zadukim and a pretty clear picture arrises.

    (BTW, another amazing thing that comes out of the DSS is the ability of chazal to maintain an oral tradition that did not get very corrupted over time. The MMT scroll, for example, records prushi-zaduki debates that would not be recorded in writing by hazal for another few centuries!)

  16. Chardal...if you read the book and feel this way it would be wonderful if you could lay out her arguments and explain why she is mistaken. If you haven't read the book then I guess you can't do that. I think the topic is so very interesting it deserves a detailed examination. I think and here again I might be in the minority that Elior is right in saying Torah reads more straightforwardly if one assumes that chumash is presupposing a solar calendar.

  17. RJM,

    Ah, name calling, the staple of every "jewish" pursuit of understanding and truth! (although i am not sure of the shitah and exactly what is a Chaitian).

    R' David,

    I will put a lot of thought to your position and will likely respond in the upcoming days.

    I look forward to the return of your post after yom tov; Chag Sameach!

    David W.

  18. RJM,

    Please point me to the Rambam you referred to.


    David W.

  19. EJ,

    I have not read her book but I have read MUCH on the DDS and I am in touch with several scholars in the field. I can add her book to my queue but it would probably not get read for another 2 years :).

    Its HIGHLY improbable that the Torah had a solar cycle. For one example see devarhim 13:21

    וְהֵסִירָה אֶת-שִׂמְלַת שִׁבְיָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וְיָשְׁבָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבָכְתָה אֶת-אָבִיהָ וְאֶת-אִמָּהּ, יֶרַח יָמִים

    A month is obviously associated with the moon. For further evidence from later biblical books, see melachim II 15:13 and tehilim 104:19

    What evidance does she bring for a solar calendar before the zadukim?!?!?

  20. Chardal...I am old, too much stuff on my plate, I can't say over baal peh detailed arguments on a topic that I am not close to from a book that I read three years ago.(I do remember it hung partially on the relationship between pesach and shevuos, plus proofs from the apocrapha.)I also remember both Dan and Liebes wrote glowing reviews in Haaretz. Dan said the most imortant book in many years, Liebes agreed on its importance but had some doubts on various points. At this point the literature must have expanded, but little is available here in the galus shebegalusa called Chicago.

    But you are young and knowledgeable...why not start a discussion on these sort of topics...DDS and how they are to be contextualized, Elior, Boyarin in Borders, Yaakov Elman and Persia, Halivni and the stamm, the iconology in the synagogues umefarsheha. No DH, no big apikorsis but important and of great value.

  21. Chardal...I used Elior as an example of why historical evidence might be relevant. Nothing really hangs on whether it turns out to be true after it is evaluated by the scholarly community.

    And I found this :

  22. EJ,

    Thanks for the links. I have no problem discussing any of the topics you have brought up. In fact, I have read up a lot on several of them. For that matter, I have no fear of discussing DH either - my emunah is trully not threatened by it. (my ex-neighbor is a big DH guy and is in the last stages of publishing a book in an academic press which is full of various DH theories. My name appears in several footnotes in the book since of of the content was a result of our discussions).

    In general, I am not afraid of any discussion. I am a BT and I studied the DH before I ever had much invested in it being true of false from a religious perspective. I actually limit myself regarding WHO I will discuss these matters with and not WHAT I will discuss. I find it painful to discuss serious topics with immature or shallow minds (which account for a large segment of the blogging world) and therefore I find many of these discussions not worth while. There are of course exceptions.

    Regarding Elior, I doubt I will have time for her book any time soon, I have read the review and the little I could gleen from there was not convincing. What I would have to find is solid textual proof and not synagouge floors or apocryphal/pseudopygraphal books which are largely irrelevant to the task of establishing the Torah's calendar. The fact that the Torah uses the same word for moon and month is extremely strong and the burden of proof lies in her camp.

    In the end, I have to be a bit suspicious of any work of scholarship that attempts so broad a task as Elior has set for herself in her book. An holistic approach to such ancient history is so filled with assumptions and conjectures that it is sure to end up looking like a milder and scholarly version of the daVinchi code. Each claim must be taken seperatly and evaluated in and of itself. And I find the claim that chazal innovated a solar calendar extremely weak.

  23. chardal,

    I'm curious what factors contributed to you becoming a BT. If you would like to discus it with me you can email me b.spinoza.42 at

  24. I share your sentiments about discussing topics with shallow and immature minds. I also have difficulties with closed minds. If we are engaged in wissenschaft we have to hover, looking at each item as it is presented, changing our probability assignments as the evidence develops. I am not talking emunah, which is a different matter. Ideally there could be some public Jewish space where claims should be able to be evaluated in something approaching objectivity. How to construct such a space in a way that satisfies all segments of the scholarly world, MO and secular is beyond me. If you are up to such a task for the blogging world it would be a huge toelet.