It was almost a throw away comment, coming in the last half hour of a four part lecture series on “Truth and History in the Bible.” But in it lies the germ of revolution, with the power to rock traditional understandings of Jewish history, religion and the even the very underpinnings of rabbinic authority.
The comment: that the first book of the Torah was not Genesis but Deuteronomy. Or, to put it perhaps more accurately: the other four books of the Pentateuch did not become authoritative until after Deuteronomy.
The speaker was Brandeis University Professor Marc Brettler and he wasn’t trying to foment unrest. He was just trying to explain why the biblical book of Chronicles seems to be referring to a different version of the Torah than the one referenced in the previous three books of Judges, Samuel and Kings.
Most biblical scholars today, Brettler said, believe that Deuteronomy became “authoritative” as much as several hundred years before Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers did. As such, the earlier books of the bible only had Deuteronomy to rely on, while by the time Chronicles came around, the other four books were available. Whether they were only written then or existed in pieces is still up for debate.
Brettler brought a variety of text examples to support his position, such as the number of days for the holiday of Sukkot (7 in Kings, corresponding to Deuteronomy; 8 in Chronicles which matches Leviticus) or whether the Passover sacrifice must be roasted or boiled (or in the clever case of Chronicles, both).
In either case, though, the scholarly position contradicts two classically held Orthodox positions. First, that the Torah was handed down by God through Moses all at once at Sinai. And second, that – even if Sinai didn’t happen exactly as described – then at least the Jewish people had Genesis through Numbers and only later, in the time of Ezra the Scribe, was a fifth book (presumed to be Deuteronomy) “discovered.”
But isn’t the order in which these books became authoritative just a niggling point; a small historical debate mostly of interest to academics? Don’t we have bigger theological fish to fry?
For Brettler, it’s become a mission of sorts. Brettler is the co-founder of TheTorah.com, a website that attempts to jive modern biblical scholarship with a religious lifestyle.
TheTorah.com is about as far on the fringes of Orthodoxy as imaginable, but Brettler believes it is a necessary solution for the growing number of Jews who are no longer willing or able to turn a blind eye to the insights researchers are making in understanding our shared past.
“Not to confront modernity…is suicidal,” the site says on its Current Approaches page. “Defending the faith at all costs turns many people away from tradition. Hiding from the truth never succeeds.”
That truth, according to TheTorah.com, includes the position that “the Torah is a composite document that has developed over time. It is not always historically accurate, and indeed should not be taken as a historical or as a scientific treatise…[But] whether one affirms revelation or not, the Bible remains a sacred work. However, its sacredness is connected to the Jewish community that declares it to be sacred.”
In that light of reconciling scholarship with sanctity, The Torah.com website includes essays on a variety of subjects, including a weekly analysis of the portion of the week with a biblical critical spin. There are sections on holidays and God; book excerpts (including from Brettler’s own “The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously”; and an “Ask a Rabbi” feature. Currently highlighted on the site is a long essay from “Yoel a Satmar Hasid Bible Critic” who the site had vetted by “unaffiliated third party.”
The underlying message is that, even if many or most of the characters and events that have shaped Jewish history are myths – national origin stories that can teach us truths about human nature but that may never actually happened – there are nevertheless important reasons to remain observant or at least highly Jewishly engaged.
One of the TheTorah.com’s contributors is Professor James Kugel, who gave his own provocative lecture series on “How to Read the Bible” several years ago at Pardes. Based on his popular class at Harvard University and book of the same name, Kugel emphasizes that the idea of a fixed, unchangeable, divinely delivered canon was not a notion the early Israelites had. Rewrites, changes and additions were all acceptable as the bible was coming together.
When asked how he can stray from the strict doctrine of Sinai and still remain an Orthodox Jew, Kugel replied that he bases his fidelity to the faith on the authority structure of the rabbis in the Talmud, rather than the historical veracity of the biblical texts themselves.
I’m not so sure I get that. If the rabbis are creating reams of legislation about all aspects of Jewish life and it’s not based on the Truth with a capital T, why should anyone follow it? If God didn’t really say which animals are on or off the list, why be a shtickler for a shrimp-free diet? Why do anything that strays from the hedonistic, for that matter?
I think the answer is in accepting that we all pick and choose which observances we follow, even if some of us kid ourselves by saying we’re following every law without exception. We need to decide, both individually and communally, which parts of Jewish tradition add meaning to our lives and then claim intimate ownership over those actions.
For example, can Shabbat be of value even if God didn’t command it? Are there certain core, such as taking a break from electronics or enhancing social skills over workaholism, that are of such importance you wouldn’t give up on them even if the divine source was removed? Can the same approach be applied to other areas where Jewish tradition has something to say, such as eating, mindfulness and sex?
I suspect that, while this approach is only partially in sync with the mission of TheTorah.com, the end-goal is similar. “Whereas seeing Torah as originating in an actual revelation at Sinai is not tenable historically, it is a very effective narrative or tangible formulation of the idea that the Jewish way of life is an actualization of the divine will,” reads an essay on the site.
Read “divine will” with a slightly different accent, and are we really that far apart?