Belying the regimented connotation of the word “orthodox,” Orthodox Judaism is
by far the most diverse stream of Judaism, encompassing such incompatible types
as rationalists and mystics, West Bank settlers and peaceniks, college
professors and obscurantists, feminists and male chauvinists.
internal critics, too, come in different varieties. Recently, two Orthodox
rabbis have leveled serious charges against their religious community, one
attacking its theology, the other its primary educational thrust. In important
respects they contradict each other.
Norman Solomon is a distinguished
British academician, recently retired from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and
Jewish Studies, who whimsically claims to belong to the “skeptical Orthodox.”
His latest book, Torah from Heaven, certainly exudes skepticism.
argues that the central assumption of classical Judaism – the divine origin of
Torah – has become so clearly unbelievable in its literal sense that the only
way to keep intellectually honest Jews from abandoning Orthodoxy is to
reinterpret the doctrine not as fact but as foundational myth. Solomon, tongue
firmly in cheek, tries to reassure the faithful by pointing out that myths are
not necessarily false.
But he clearly thinks this one is.
painstakingly traces the development of the notion of Torah from Heaven as it
mushroomed to include not only the divinity of the Five Books of Moses and the
somewhat lesser holiness of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, but also a divinely
inspired Oral Torah, eventually written down in the Talmud, that explains and
elucidates scripture, and rabbinic decrees and interpretations through the
generations that are also alleged to embody God’s will.
surveys the ancient and medieval critiques of the doctrine, which either denied
the Oral Law (Sadducees and Karaites) or superseded or replaced both it and the
Bible with a new revelation (Christians and Muslims).
The rabbis dealt
with problems of internal contradictions, anthropomorphisms and apparent moral
blemishes in the Torah through what Solomon calls a “reconciling hermeneutic.”
Familiar to students of the Talmud, this mode of analysis employs ingenious
interpretations of words and phrases and clever juxtaposition of texts to
untangle difficulties. The method was sufficient to satisfy the premodern Jewish
But the challenges raised over the past 400 years to the divinity
of Torah can no longer be so easily countered, writes Solomon, since we now
understand “the relationship between revelation and other sources of knowledge”
–archeology, history, anthropology, comparative religion, literary analysis,
evolutionary biology. These disciplines throw into doubt not only the veracity
of what is related in the Bible and the authority of the rabbis’ Oral Torah but
the textual integrity of scripture itself.
Solomon deftly catalogs the
strategies that Orthodox thinkers have adopted to fend off these threats to
tradition. Some – the currently popular ArtScroll publishing project, for
example – simply close their eyes to any view that veers from the regnant
Orthodox line, even if antecedents for it can be found in rabbinic
Others accept elements of modern thought and try to fit them
into the traditional framework, reconciling the Big Bang, for example, with the
Bible’s Creation narrative. Another alternative, a favorite of the
philosophically-minded, elevates Torah to a Kantian conceptual world immune from
evaluation by earthbound criteria.
Solomon does not find any of this
convincing: Torah from Heaven, he claims, “cannot be upheld by the serious
historian, scientist, or philosopher.” But how many Jews outside Solomon’s
academic ivory tower practice these rarefied professions? Does Solomon’s
alternative, appropriating the doctrine as myth, an “interpretation of history
through faith,” work any better? It is hard to imagine Orthodox Jews continuing
their demanding regimen – of prayer, ritual, study and raising their children to
these tasks as well—for the sake of an Orthopraxy built upon myth.
Rothstein, a Yeshiva Universityordained rabbi and Harvard PhD, thinks
Orthodoxy’s problem lies elsewhere. He claims that We’re Missing the Point
title of his new book – by conveying Orthodoxy primarily as a system of
commanded behaviors. While Norman Solomon came of age in the mid-20th century,
when important elements of Orthodox Judaism sought to address intellectual
challenges such as modern biblical scholarship, Rothstein is a generation
younger, and his concern is how to square Orthodoxy with the currently treasured
value of individual autonomy.
Flying in the face of the common assumption
that Judaism is a religion of requirements and religious acts, Rothstein claims
to find biblical proof that God originally intended to impose very few commands
upon humanity, allowing men and women to devise their individual paths to
emulate Him. Only after human beings’ repeated failure to find God on their own
did He impose an elaborate system of mitzvot on one model people, the
And even now, Rothstein asserts, a Jew is supposed to view those
commandments only as a bare-bones framework for developing a relationship with
God that is primarily personal and spiritual – as he calls it, in the hackneyed
vernacular of contemporary spirituality, a “personal journey.”
relationship that Rothstein advocates is based on the very same theological
tenet that Solomon finds unbelievable: the idea that God revealed Himself to the
Israelites and gave them the Torah. Blissfully ignorant of or indifferent to the
thorny problems that the doctrine has encountered over the last few centuries,
Rothstein calls this the “unequivocal core” of Judaism.
These two books
are incommensurate: Solomon’s is judicious and erudite, Rothstein’s disorganized
and somewhat bombastic.
Yet their critiques of Orthodoxy, taken together,
themselves invite a critical question: If Orthodox Judaism’s core theological
claim is weak, and if its commandment- centered approach to religion is so at
odds with human autonomy, why is it so much more vibrant and successful than the
liberal streams of Judaism, which suffer from neither deficiency? Lawrence
Grossman, director of publications at the American Jewish Committee, edited the
American Jewish Year Book from 2000 to 2008.