A Note on the Biblical Theology of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman zt”l on the Occasion of His Third Yahrtzeit
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta, and is a member (dayan) in the Beth Din of America
When Rabbi Rackman zt”l left this world on December 1, 2008 – 4 Kislev 5769, I wrote a eulogy for him of some length (which was published in the Jewish Press on December 10, 2008 and posted on Hirhurim shortly thereafter: link). I confess that I received dozens of emails about this eulogy, many of which I did not understand. One group wrote to me complimenting me on how proper it was that I now agreed with the view Rabbi Rackman took on the matter of Jewish family law that had disagreed with him about (and which I noted that I still disagreed with him about!). Another group of writers complained that it was wrong of me to write such a kind eulogy, since I did not agree with Rabbi Rackman on a serious matter of Jewish family law (a position I explicitly disagreed with in my eulogy). Yet another group simply used this hesped to complain about me personally (because I am either too frum or not frum enough, take your pick). I generally wrote back to none of them as there seemed to be little point. It seems hard to explain to people that one can admire someone while disagreeing with them, even though that seems obvious to me.
But one writer raised a significant issue and I share his question and my answer to it with the readership of Hirhurim around Rabbi Rackman’s yartzeit. He asked me a question about Rabbi Rackman’s biblical theology and raised the possibility that Rabbi Rackman was a technical heretic in that he did not believe in the Torah being revealed by God at Sinai to Moses (Torah miSinai). In truth, I had never spoken to Rabbi Rackman about the issue raised by this writer, although I had myself seen the view of Rabbi Rackman and been troubled by it. In a symposium in Commentary in 1966 entitled “The State of Jewish Belief”, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman wrote:
The most definitive record of God’s encounters with man is contained in the Pentatuch. Much of it may have been written by people in different times, but at one point in history God not only made the people of Israel aware of his immediacy, but caused Moses to write the eternal evidence of the covenant between Him and His people. (Commentary, August, 1966 at page 128)
Nor was this a mere slip of the pen, as Rabbi Rackman confirmed this view of his in a 1969 article published in Judaism entitled “A Challenge to Orthodoxy” when he wrote:
The sanctity of the Pentatuch does not derive from God’s authorship of all of it, but rather from the fact that God’s is the final version. The final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity-the kiss of immortality. (Judaism, Spring 1969, page 153)
I confess that while I do not personally agree with this approach, I do not find these two statements theologically bothersome. I do not think that they are at all inconsistent with any of the thirteen ikarim that Rambam shared with us and which I do know from a conversation with Rabbi Rackman directly that he found binding.
Understanding why Rabbi Rackman’s view is not heretical is important for us all. I think the notion that God took pre-existing texts and then God himself wove these pre-existing text into the Torah that God gave Moshe on Sinai is not inconsistent with any of the Rambam’s ikarim, and that all that Rabbi Rackman did was propose (albeit in an incomplete form, which he never elaborated on) the thoughts that Rabbi Mordechai Beruer subsequently developed at great length. This Orthodox version of the documentary hypothesis claims that there might have been a J, P, E or D, but the R (who the secularist call “the redactor”) really is Moshe Rabbenu mipi haGevura. I do not think that Jewish theology posits a binding and firm notion of how God created the texts of Torah and if God perchance took some of these texts from some other source, I don’t think that this creates theological problems for Rabbi Rackman or anyone else who believes such. Rabbi Rackman never denies that God gave the Torah to Moshe, each and every word exactly as we have it. He just speculates as to where God got the original material for the Torah from.
The motives behind Rabbi Rackman’s speculation as to the origins of the book of Bereshit is both clear and sincere. The Epic of Gilgamesh in tablet XI (which is generally thought to predate the giving of the Torah to Moshe by centuries) contains a flood story that is surprisingly similar to that found in the Torah in any number of specific details, such as the ark and the animals and many of the precise dimensions. Rabbi Rackman’s point is as follows: since the flood actually happened, there is no reason to think that contemporary accounts of it might have been written centuries before the Torah was written, and there is no heresy in believing that God, when He wrote the Torah to give to Moshe, examined the contemporary accounts of the flood and took that which was well written and incorporated it into Torah.
Let me add that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher in his Torah Shelema (Volume 19, pages 356-362) considers this view as well and it is elaborated on at great length in Professor Yehudah Kil’s Daat Mikra on Bereshit. Indeed, this approach is hinted at in Shemot Rabbah 5:22, and is elaborated on the Perush Maharzu on this, as well as in Yalkut Shimoni on Chukat (247) as well as many other places.
Nor do I think that it is fair to read Rabbi Rackman’s words (as some have done) as indicating that God did not dictate the text of Torah to Moshe word by word, but that somehow Moshe used his own creativity to determine what was actually placed in the Torah. I understand Rabbi Rackman’s poetic claim that “the final writing by Moses has the stamp of divinity-the kiss of immortality” to be simply a claim that even if one can show that some parts of the Torah texts show literary similarity to other pre-existing texts, that was God’s intentional plan and he dictated such texts directly to Moshe.
I would certainly eat from the shechita of someone who believed this, even as I would not eat from the shechita of someone who said that Ezra revealed the Torah even with God’s blessings.
Let me add one theological thought. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman understood – as do I – that changing reality requires that one reexamine some previously thought-to-be-true assumptions to make sure that they still reflect the truth as we now understand it. These new truths can be mathematical, sociological, or scientific, but the one true God is the God whose seal is truth, as told to us in Shabbat 58a. Of course, there are some theological questions that we are committed not to ponder the data about, as we are axiologically committed as a matter of theology to certain answers – Divine revelation of the Torah to Moshe is one of these axioms. But the expansion of the ikarim to create a vast network of theological beliefs is neither called for in the halachic tradition nor a wise idea in modern times. For example, a person who thinks the world is now more than 5772 years old is certainly not a heretic, has said nothing inconsistent with the Rambam’s ikarim, has violated none of the theological rules of Judaism, and if otherwise fully halachic in his practice is to be considered fully achicha bemitzvot without limitation.
Rabbi Rackman contemplates the possibility that the Torah has in it texts that were written by humans in a different form prior to God taking these text, incorporating them into Torah and then giving that Torah to Moshe in its fully revealed form, word by word to Moshe. This belief violates none of the Rambam’s ikarim. Anyone who claims that this idea by Rabbi Rackman is heretical can only do so by adding dogma to the ikarim that we have accepted as binding through the historical mesorah accepted by the halachic community. I think that just like the contraction of the thirteen ikarim into 12 or 8 or 3 is to be resisted as a violation of that historical mesorah (even as I am well aware that Albo advocates such), so too the expansion of the ikarim into 15, 19 or 613 principles is to be resisted as a violation of that same mesorah (even as I am well aware that Chatam Sofer advocates such).
May the study of Rabbi Rackman’s works be a blessing for us all and remind us that we can disagree some someone about important matters without growing to hate them.