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Torah M’Sinai According to Professor Tamar Ross

Gérôme,_Jean-Léon_-_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900Professor Tamar Ross was interviewed by Professor Alan Brill over at Kavvanah about Torah M’Sinai and Biblical Criticism. To be honest, when I read the interview I was unable to comprehend what she was trying to say. Only after a lengthy Facebook conversation and some posts by Gideon Slifkin did I get her approach, sort of.

Her words are very dense and quite cryptic but I think this what she is trying to say.

In her opinion, we have two immovable objects. We have Divine Revelation and the requisite belief that God gave the Torah to us in its complete form and we have Biblical Criticism which in her opinion asserts that the Torah has evolved from multiple authors and multiple eras. Something has to give. For most people, ignorance about one or the other is the turning point. People who know more about Biblical Criticism than TMS are more likely to think that the Torah is not Divine. Those who know more about (the Orthodox Jewish) approach to Torah than Biblical Criticism are more likely to think that Biblical Criticism is just a theory or soft science with more biases than religious approaches to Torah.

I am not here to take sides and apparently neither is Professor Ross.

Ross’s basic idea is that “revelation” was not a one time thing. The revelation continues as the world progressed and however the Torah was emended or edited after Sinai was part of revelation. In order to make this sound religious, Professor Ross uses all kinds of fancy kabbalistic “logic” to make this approach kosher. In short, God is not bound by time so everything is really happening at once. Revelation can’t be just a moment in time and God is continually revealed through the evolution of Torah. Apparently there are allusions to this kind of theology in classical sources. Also, the thing that make our tradition unique is only that it is our tradition. I’m not sure how and why this fits in, but she does say it.

Read the entire interview because the bulk of it is really about what this approach is not as opposed to what this approach actually is. But what is it?

Well, it’s not Orthodox. That’s for sure. But as has been pointed out, it’s not that far off. In terms of how the charedi world sees Mesorah and Daas Torah, the assumption is that God is “signing off” on the developments of Orthodox Judaism is part and parcel of how charedi Judaism works. So is it so hard to hear that God functioned the same way with regard to how the text of the Written Law evolved? Granted, the Written Law and Oral Law have different parameters and roles and I am not saying that these two ideas are the same. I am merely pointing out that the two ideas are similar.

Is this idea viable or useful?

I don’t think so. First of all, simple ideas are popular. There is a reason that more nuanced positions are less popular than bombastic theories of everything. People like when things are simple. The fundamentalist version of Torah M’Sinai is simple and not nuanced at all. It’s also pretty popular. If you want a theory to be popular it needs to be simple. Professor Ross has proposed a very complicated theory that is very difficult to articulate. It’s not going to gain much traction because of this fatal flaw.

More importantly, I think that an idea like this is not likely to help actual people. People who believe in the fundamentalist version of Torah M’Sinai don’t need this. People who reject Torah M’Sinai are not usually looking for creative way to believe in Torah M’Sinai. Further, I am not sure that this path will lead people who reject fundamentalist Torah M’Sinai to mitzvah observance. I think they want to do what God says to do, not what men say to do as a part of God’s slow revelation.

However, there are a few people in the middle who I am confident that this approach can help. Some people just want some theological basis to be orthodox and this can potentially serve that small group. If we believe in the primacy of keeping Torah and Mitzvos then we should welcome creative ways that are somewhat theologically sound to help more people accomplish this goal.

Melt your brain and read the interview here: Kavvanah


27 Comments
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  • zach

    I thought that the Tamar Ross interview was abstruse and overly-intellectual. I lost patience and didn’t feel like reading it a second time to understand what she was trying to say.

    As for Gideon Slifkin, I thought that the once-prolific blogger had dropped off the face of the earth! Is he posting anything publicly??

  • Adam Kenigsberg

    “I am not here to take sides”.

    Seriously???

    You won’t pick a side between TMS and documentary hypothesis? Really???

    Taking the side of TMS on this one is a basic requirement to be an Orthodox Jew, not to mention an Orthodox Rabbi.

    I hope and pray that you will clarify your post.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Relax. This post is not about my personal opinion. It is an analysis of another person’s opinion. Nothing wrong with that.

      • Adam Kenigsberg

        Then please don’t write things that make it sound like you have no personal opinion on the matter.

        “Do not say something that is not readily understood in the belief that it will ultimately be understood” -Pirkei Avot 2:4

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          It’s just you jumping the gun.

    • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

      So what do you do with the DH? The
      details may be fuzzy, but the overall theory is compelling.

      • Adam Kenigsberg

        I refuted DH thoroughly in a paper in college. Got a good grade on it too. J and E aren’t two separate authors; the usage is too deliberate. Even without dipping into J = kindness and E = strict judgement, it can be stated much more simply: J is a proper noun. E is a common noun. That’s why E gets conjugated into first, second, third person, while J does not.

        If you want to be pedantic about it, you can say that author D is different from J+E. Moses spoke in first person throughout Deuteronomy. Whoop dee doo. Masoretic understanding of the text readily acknowledges that.

        Lawrence Kelemen’s book “Permission to Receive” solidly explains why a separate P author could not exist.

        So, there you have it. JEDP all came from HKBH. (Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu)

        • zach

          “I refuted DH thoroughly in a paper in college”.

          Not bad, a college student refuting the consensus of thousands of Bible scholars! I suggest that you publish a book, or at least publish it on-line to see if it can truly stand the scrutiny of academics. If so, you will be met by the highest accolades, no less than someone who is able to falsify the theory of evolution!

          • Adam Kenigsberg

            Literary style analysis is not exactly a hard science.

            It is pure sophistry to compare Documentary Hypothesis to any biological study.

          • Benignuman

            When was the last time anyone published a paper or book that refuted the consensus of a field and was met with accolades by the members of that consensus?

      • Benignuman

        DH isn’t science. It is rank speculation based of inconsistencies in the text.

        The critical scholar presupposes that the Torah is a man-made document and therefore doesn’t seek to reconcile contradictions or get a deeper understanding of the Torah. They also ignore the possibility of a received oral tradition as to how to understand the text. The arguments of the DH only make sense within the man-made paradigm.

        Even within a man-made paradigm many of the arguments are ridiculously weak and/or raise a whole host of other questions leading the DH scholars to create “just-so” stories to explain the text.

        • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

          > …therefore doesn’t seek to reconcile contradictions or get a deeper understanding of the Torah.

          The “deeper understanding” is a result of millennia of clever people trying to fix the problems they found in tanach, not something inherent in the text.

          > They also ignore the possibility of a received oral tradition as to how to understand the text.

          The Koran developed an oral tradition to explain away its problems within a couple of centuries. We have no particular reason to believe that the Jewish oral tradition developed any differently, or should be given any more weight, than the Islamic one.

          > Even within a man-made paradigm many of the arguments are ridiculously weak and/or raise a whole host of other questions leading the DH scholars to create “just-so” stories to explain the text.

          Like I said, the details are fuzzy, but the overall theory of multiple authors is compelling.

          • Benignuman

            “The “deeper understanding” is a result of millennia of clever people trying to fix the problems they found in tanach, not something inherent in the text.”

            That is begging the question. Obviously the “clever people” you are referring to, thought that they were uncovering deeper understandings.

            Which was my point. DH presupposes that G-d did not write the Torah and goes from there. The traditional approach presupposes that G-d did write the Torah and goes from there. Meaningful debate as to the merits of one approach over there other would require evidence supporting one position and not the other.

            I cannot claim to know anything about the Koran. I don’t know why you are so sure that there was no oral tradition for the Koran from the beginning. I also don’t know what relevance it has to the possibility of their being an oral tradition as to the proper understanding of the Torah.

            “Like I said, the details are fuzzy, but the overall theory of multiple authors is compelling.”

            If a new theory creates just as many problems (if not many more) as the old theory, why abandon the old theory?

            • Tuvia

              The enlightenment made sense partly because it concluded that revelation, tradition, belief, and prophecy were unreliable guides to the truth.

              This led to a reliance on rationally evaluating claims.

              While the Jews bemoan the enlightenment, it was actually the best thing that ever happened to them. Enemies of the Jews could no longer use their strong beliefs as valid reasons to kill Jews (or enslave blacks, or deny women civil rights, or burn witches.)

              The “truth” of anyone’s strong beliefs no longer worked in the Age of Reason.

              Where strong belief starts, thinking stops. Strong beliefs can get you anywhere: to being a Hare Krishna, an Orthodox Jew, a member of the KKK, a Nazi.

              And what could threaten Jews again? The reemergence in our world of the dark force of strong belief.

              Read Spinoza. Read Jefferson.

              Tuvia

  • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

    > Is this idea viable or useful?… If you want a theory to be popular it needs to be simple. Professor Ross has proposed a very complicated theory that is very difficult to articulate. It’s not going to gain much traction because of this fatal flaw.

    I think you’re right, but it’s a little disturbing to see a theory rated on its ability to gain traction rather than its truth or how well it fits with the existing framework.

    If one wants to live in the real world and maintain belief in OJ, I think something like her suggestion is the way to go.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I don’t make the rules… :)

  • IH

    Personally, I find Moshe Halbertal’s use of “Mechuayvut Phonetit” to be more useful to Orthodox Jews trying to reconcile between our tradition and what we now know (DH is really small potatoes and stale at that).

    Listen for 3 minutes at this cued spot on the YouTube of his lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHrgn4k7E20&feature=player_detailpage#t=1384s

  • Shades of Gray

    On the general idea of what is needed to be helpful, this is an excerpt from a Beacon interview with James Kugel:

    Beacon: “You seem to have adopted the position that the Torah was not written at the time it has purported to be written, and along with that, presumably the divinity of the Torah as well. Could you explain why you still continue to observe Judaism? Would you describe your religious orientation, broadly speaking, as “Orthoprax”? What are the benefits and difficulties that you face in living that kind of religious life?”

    Kugel: “…I’ve also never described myself, or anyone, as “Orthoprax.” I don’t see how it is possible to live with all the requirements and restrictions of Orthodox Judaism for any length of time if you don’t believe in the basics of Judaism, not only “Torah min ha-Shamayim” but the authority of the Torah she-be‘al peh and the teachings of HaZaL. I suppose some sentimental attachment to the way one was brought up can carry a person for a while, but ultimately that will not be enough.” (see full interview in the Beacon)

    (Kugel seems to be describing someone immersed in the field of scholarship, and seems to make it all or nothing. I think there are people in the Orthodox community, with varying degrees of belief at any given time, who are in it for the long term, which he is not discussing.)

    • tesyaa

      He’s just wrong if he doesn’t realize there are people who are orthoprax for the long term

      • Holy Hyrax

        Maybe he was talking about by choice

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          Yes. It is absolutely different. But very similar structurally.

  • Shades of Gray

    “In terms of how the charedi world sees Mesorah and Daas Torah, the assumption is that God is “signing off” on the developments of Orthodox Judaism is part and parcel of how charedi
    Judaism works…Granted, the Written Law and Oral Law have different parameters
    and roles and I am not saying that these two ideas are the same ”

    This is an interesting analogy, and it’s not the only one. In other words, there is a similar concept where Michtav Meliyahu explains the Radak’s opinion on Kri Uksiv as having happened that way because of Divine will; one can probably explain various machlokes like that as well. There is a concept(Netziv?) of TSBP growing like a flower.

    Nevertheless, the Charedi approach of constant Daas Torah development, Michtav Meliyahu’s understanding of Radak, etc., is based on a solid Orthodox historical belief regarding certain ikkarim. After the tree exists, there are leaves that grow. This is conceptually different in philosophical terms.

  • IH

    Those of you arguing about DH should read this earlier post from Prof. Brill’s blog: http://kavvanah.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/interview-with-david-m-carr-current-state-of-bible-scholarship/

    The reason for this interview is because if the religious community
    wants to respond to Biblical criticism, then it should know what it is
    talking about. It has to stop create homiletics about repetitions and
    thinking that it answers anything at all.

    • Benignuman

      Interesting interview. It is nice to see that biblical scholar can recognize that much of the documentary hypothesis was based on very weak reasoning.

      What I found odd was his assertion that we first start seeing the idea that Moshe wrote the entire Torah at the end of the second Temple period. The Mosaic authorship of the Torah is claimed in the Torah itself. (One can speculate that it only means some parts of the Torah, or that it is just an interpolation, but that is just speculation. The simple meaning is that it refers to the whole Torah.)

      Similarly the Torah is linked to Moshe in many places in Tanach (from Yehoshua to Malachi).

      • Tuvia

        What I’ve learned about the DH is it has improved with age, and changed. There is more evidence now than there was twenty years ago. But it would take a few years to really pore over the evidence. Light reading is not enough to evaluate it. And evaluating it with orthodox rabbis is a mistake.

        The latest I read is from a scholar — name escapes me — who has shown that other texts of that period that survive show themselves to be composite documents, starting as scrolls, becoming codex’s, with no one author, and being compiled over long periods of time.

        But I have long ago stopped believing that religious people have any intention of challenging themselves by delving into the scholarship in a sustained, unflinching way by studying it not with rabbis, but with the scholars, the academics, themselves.

        Professor Kugel when pressed does not consider the academic work anything but incredible and compelling — but he is someone who “enjoys being told what to do” and feels this accurately describes his fellow orthodox Jews.

        Rav Marc Shapiro considers the evidence too — and finds any proof or evidence for Judaism to be weak — but loves being an orthodox Jew, is raising his children as orthodox Jews, and was raised by his father as an orthodox Jew and that is enough.
        Tuvia

  • http://freethinkingjew.com/ Freethinking Jew

    Rabbi Fink, thanks for all your open-minded analyses and your support for the freedom of formerly frum people.
    It seems like in this post your analysis is more focused on whether Prof. Ross’s approach is catchy, rather than being focused on whether it’s true. Or am I misreading?
    Shouldn’t our criteria for accepting claims about history – such as how the Torah was passed down – be based on whether there is good reason to believe those claims are true, regardless of how “sexy” those claims are?