Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism I

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Kippah and Gown: Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism

Essay 1: Narrative Contradictions between Devarim and Shemot-Bamidbar: Laying Out the Issues

I. Orthodox Judaism and Biblical Criticism

In this series
* Essay 1
* Essay 2
* Essay 3
* Essay 4

Jewish Orthodoxy[1. This series of essays is written for a popular Jewish audience. I will therefore refrain from footnoting the contents and will assume familiarity with basic Hebrew terms, including names of biblical figures and books. All references to Orthodoxy are to Orthodox Judaism.] witnesses today an engagement with the challenges of biblical criticism more robust than any since pre-war Germany. This probe has come in many guises. Thoughtful writers and scholars have brought to light the variety of positions found within rabbinic sources concerning some of the most sensitive doctrinal tenets of Orthodoxy. Some claim that there is no one Orthodox position, but a spectrum of opinions. They suggest that we extrapolate from rabbinic statements about the provenance of one passage of the Torah, rules that may apply to others. Still others seek to develop new theologies that may still be termed Orthodox. Finally, there are those who claim that the academy and the world of the spirit are entirely separate domains. For them, the pseudo-scholar that picks and chooses evades the truth while diminishing the spirit, embodying a shaatnez identity of Dr. Jekyll and Rabbi Hide.

I must confess that, as a Bible scholar, I register disappointment with the current state of the discussion. In the writing that comes under the rubric of “Orthodoxy and biblical criticism” I see a great deal of close examination of “Orthodoxy” but very little close examination of “biblical criticism.” The fields of biblical studies generally, and the sub-field called Pentateuch Formation in particular, are in an intense state of flux, some would say crisis. The methodologies that supposedly could tell us how to unravel a text into its constituent parts, approaches that held sway for more than a century, are now widely called into question.

There is a greater awareness than ever of how methodologies and assumptions come into being, the climates that give rise to them and the intellectual agendas that they serve

Let me share one recent development that has garnered a lot of attention within the academy that will speak volumes for the state of the field as a whole. Confronted with the Pentateuch—a text seemingly rife with contradictions—scholars began to consider how such a text could have come to be. The problem with this type of speculation is that we have no documented precursors of the Torah or any of its hypothesized components in the epigraphic record. Scholars can only work backwards from what we have in the Torah today in an attempt to trace its composition and development. But scholars do have other resources to assist in this enterprise. We possess over a million texts from the ancient Near East. Within this huge trove we can see that some texts—like the Gilgamesh Epic—change over time; that is, we can see that, across the generations, material was added, deleted or changed as the epic was transmitted. It turns out that we have a good number of such compositions from the ancient world, from which we can see how ancient peoples composed and edited their sacred texts across generations. The question of how these texts grew is not a matter of theory or hypothesis. The evidence is there for us to see. It turns out that when you take all of these examples together and carefully examine the compositional strategies that dictated the development of these texts over time, fairly consistent patterns emerge, whether we are talking about second millennium Mesopotamia or the writings found at Qumran. These examples provide an empirical model for how ancients composed texts and adapted them over time. And what we see from this empirical evidence is that ancients composed and altered texts in ways that are at variance with the long-held theories concerning sources, authors, conflation, conflicting editorial layers and redactors.

It is remarkable that although all of these texts have been available for at least fifty years, full-scale empirical study of compositional strategies was conducted only in 2011, by the eminent scholar, David Carr. Following his lead, more and more scholars are beginning to maintain that reconstructing the textual history of these books may well lie beyond our critical capacity. The field is changing rapidly and there are no longer “assured results” about the composition of any book of the Bible. There is a greater awareness than ever of how methodologies and assumptions come into being, the climates that give rise to them and the intellectual agendas that they serve. These have largely remained internal discussions within the academic community and have not become part of public discourse. Interested laypeople are simply unable to keep up with the various positions in the field, let alone consider their relations to Orthodoxy, because keeping abreast of this multidisciplinary issue requires an ongoing commitment to reading the latest in epigraphy, hermeneutics, and compositional theory, to name just a few of the relevant fields.

This hardly dismisses all of the challenges raised for Orthodoxy by biblical criticism. Issuing this caveat, I am reminded of the dinner-table of my youth. My parents would occasionally jest about get-rich schemes and my father’s favorite was an invention called “pareve pinch.” “Pareve pinch” was a confection you could sprinkle onto any dish, neutering its designation as either meat or milk, thereby rendering it fit for consumption under any circumstance. A little sprinkle and your problem was solved.

Dad never did discover a recipe for “pareve pinch” and I propose no instant panacea for all of the possible questions raised by critical study of the Bible and how they might interact with any or all of the various interpretations of Orthodoxy. What I do believe, however, is that over the last twenty years or so, there have been major changes in the discipline of biblical studies and that these open possibilities for a new engagement of the issue. This can only be done with patience, by exploring specific questions through a responsible handling of the evidence.

II. Inconsistencies in Devarim

One of the greatest challenges posed for Orthodoxy by critical study of the Bible concerns the coherence of the Torah. And nowhere is this more pressing than in the question of the relationship between Sefer Devarim and the earlier books of the Torah. In serial and wholesale fashion we find that the stories and laws related in this book seem to stand at odds with earlier versions of the same stories and same laws found elsewhere in the Torah. I believe that the question of the inconsistent narratives and the question of inconsistent laws are two separate issues, and need to be addressed separately. This essay is the first of a four-part series devoted to the question of narrative in Devarim and elsewhere in the Torah. A second series of essays will address the seeming inconsistencies of law.

Addressing the narrative inconsistencies between Devarim and the other books requires extended discussion. Toward that end, let me explain up front what lies ahead in these four essays:

  1. In this essay, I examine sample discrepancies between the narratives of Devarim and the earlier books. I lay out why some find the approaches of the classical exegetes unsatisfying. I then present the critical approach and lay bare the academic difficulties of that position.
  2. In the second essay, I marshal sources from the Rambam and Ralbag who maintain that it is religiously vital to appreciate the ancient Near Eastern context in which the Torah was written and I discuss the theological implications of their positions for our study of the Torah.
  3. In the third essay, I introduce a particular genre of writing that is crucial for understanding the Torah in its ancient Near Eastern context: the treaties between sovereign and vassal kings.
  4. In the fourth essay, I demonstrate that in this literature, the vassal would routinely receive from the sovereign king differing and conflicting accounts of the history of their relationship. I explain why this was so and how it sheds light on the relationship between the narratives of Israel’s behavior in Devarim and those contained in the earlier books.

I’ll take as my sample Devarim chapter 1, which already reveals a slew of discrepancies. If you carefully review that chapter, covering the appointment of officers and judges at Sinai (compare with Shemot 18) and the account of the spies (compare with Bamidbar 14-15), you ought to come up with no less than fifteen discrepancies. Among the more striking ones:

  1. When did Moshe appoint judges at Sinai, before the giving of the Torah (Shemot) or after (Devarim)?
  2. Who chose the judges, Moshe (Shemot) or the people (Devarim)?
  3. Who was it that declared the land to be good, Calev and Yehoshua (Bamidbar) or all of the spies (Devarim)?
  4. What was Moshe’s response to the spies’ defamation, silence (Bamidbar) or stern rebuke (Devarim)?
  5. Why was Moshe denied entry into the land? Was he punished on account of his own shortcomings for hitting the rock (Bamidbar 20) or together with the rest of the people on account of the sin of the spies (Devarim)?

Abarbanel, for one, saw no harmonization possible with some of these questions

By and large, our medieval rabbinic exegetes attended to these questions through strategies of harmonization. All accounts recorded are true and the discrepancies can be explained. Thus, in a well-known example, Bamidbar implies that it was God, or perhaps Moshe, who decided to send the spies, while Devarim clearly states that the idea was initiated by the people. Rashi suggests that both are true: Moshe capitulated to pressure from the people to endorse the expedition. Concerning the discrepancy surrounding the historical juncture at which judges were appointed, Abarbanel explains that the idea was raised prior to the giving of the Torah (as per Shemot 18) but implemented only following that event (Devarim 1). Such explanations, however, often exhibit a Johnny-at-the-Dike dynamic to them. No sooner is one hole plugged that another springs open. Having elegantly posited that Moshe fulfilled Yitro’s plan only after the Revelation at Sinai, Abarbanel must contend with Shemot 18:24-26, which seems to locate Moshe’s implementation of the plan right then— prior to Sinai. Abarbanel explains that those represent a telescoping in narrated time and actually depict events that occurred after the revelation at Sinai.

I will leave it to the sensitivities of readers of this essay to decide how well these approaches resolve the questions raised. My own feeling is that in many cases they do. Exegetical questions, for me, however, linger; while a canvass of the rabbinic exegetes will turn up resolutions to most of the questions, some have received no attention at all. Consider my fourth question above: According to the account in Devarim, Moshe offers stern rebuke to the spies and to the people immediately upon hearing their report. Yet, the account in Bamidbar seems to portray Moshe as nearly impotent in his dealing with the spies. The strong sense there is that he left the “heavy lifting” of contending with the spies to Calev and to Yehoshua, who, after all, were the only ones who really had credibility, because they had been there and had seen precisely what the others had seen. Why would the Torah portray Moshe as nearly impotent in Bamidbar, if, in fact, he had issued stern rebuke and demonstrated such strong leadership as reported in Devarim. I do not know of a classical exegete who relates to this question.

As I noted, some will find the attempts to harmonize the accounts more convincing, as multiple aspects of the same complex events. Others will be more skeptical of such attempts, or find the proposed answers simply fanciful. Abarbanel, for one, saw no harmonization possible with some of these questions. Consider his resolution of the question of who initiated the plan to send the spies, God or the people. For Abarbanel, it was God, as reported in Bamidbar. When Moshe lays the onus on the people in Devarim, says Abarbanel, he deliberately engages in falsification. For Abarbanel, had Moshe shared with the second generation the fact that God had initiated the plan which had turned out so disastrously, it would have caused them to lose faith in Him. Moshe, then, deliberately distorts the historical record “for the sake of Heaven”, as it were. I bring this simply to demonstrate that not all rabbinic exegetes thought harmonization possible. Even if one accepts the general harmonizing tendency taken by rabbinic exegetes, two questions still remain:

From an academic perspective, the source critical approach to the question at hand is subject to critique on six separate accounts

First, why is there a need to “cover” for so many seeming discrepancies in the first place? It is one thing to harmonize an occasional inconsistency. The narratives of Devarim 1-11, though, exhibit such inconsistencies in wholesale fashion. Some maintain that these chapters are Moshe’s subjective voice. That is, they are not “the Torah” speaking, but Moshe’s address to the people. From a narratological point of view, that is true. And it may be that Moshe here and there had his own slant on things, as we all do on major experiences that we endure. In that case, though, the presence in the Torah of both the original, “authentic” or “authorized” stories of Shemot-Bamidbar and Moshe’s subjective telling become problematic. What are later readers (like us) meant to take away from all this? Which version of events is real and which is subjective? If events really happened as depicted in the earlier four books, doesn’t that undercut our opinion of Moshe Rabbeinu, who then emerges as somewhat of a fabricator? How much license did he have to “bend” the facts?

Finally, consider all of the well-known differences between the Ten Commandments in Shemot 20 and Devarim 5. The Talmud (Shevu’ot 20b) explains that divine speech cannot be heard in all of its complexity in a single hearing. But in light of all of the discrepancies that we have seen in Devarim 1 alone, it would seem that the discrepancies exhibited between the two versions of the Dibrot are not exceptional (i.e. divine speech), but are part of some larger phenomenon whereby inconsistency is exhibited between Devarim and the earlier books in many areas of narrative. Perhaps Moshe could recast historical events, but did he have the license to “misquote,” as it were, what God Himself had said? These questions may not defeat the harmonization approaches but they require attention.

III. Critiquing Source Criticism

Source criticism has a simple and comprehensive solution to all of these issues: The narratives of Devarim were written by a historian who rewrote the earlier history he had received in line with his own ideological agenda. He had no interest in preserving the earlier, and to his mind, inferior versions of the story, and thus no desire to harmonize the accounts. In one stroke, all of the discrepancies are accounted for.

Here is where we must take a closer look at the critical theory. Precisely from an academic perspective, the source critical approach to the question at hand is subject to critique on six separate accounts. While I am only one scholar, I do not write here as an individual critiquing the consensus but as one writer summarizing a sustained scholarly critique of many in recent years.[2. E.g. See the online critique of source criticism by scholar David Clines here: link.]

First, source criticism must give an accounting of the final shape of the Torah before us. If these are the works of competing and opposing historians, how and why were their conflicting histories sown together? The author of the Samaritan Pentateuch (c. 5th-4th c. BCE) was so bothered by some of these discrepancies that he edited the text to harmonize the accounts. Couldn’t the hypothesized redactor of the Torah see these problems as well? Why did he choose to retain multiple, conflicting accounts? It is often surmised that the Torah is an anthology of different traditions of Israel’s history, and that the upheaval occasioned by the destruction of the Temple and the Exile forced Israel’s leaders to bring these traditions together. This posits a form of composition that has no precedent anywhere in the ancient world. Nearly every ancient culture that we know of experienced cataclysm at one point or another in its history. Nowhere do we see that the embattled culture responds by assembling its conflicting historical traditions under one cover. The one distantly similar phenomenon sometimes cited as a model for this hypothesized form of redaction is in fact the most telling: In the second century, the church apologist Tatian combined the four accounts of the life of Jesus found in the gospels into a single work known as the Diatessaron. Yet, as he did so, he took four often conflicting works and endeavored to produce a harmonious narrative. The source critical approach posits exactly the opposite: originally integral and coherent narratives were combined producing disharmony.

Moreover, this theory of an anthology of histories has no external evidence. There is no epigraphic record (inscriptions or documents) from either the land of Israel, Babylon or Persia that mentions this process. There is no epigraphic evidence of either the version of history found in Devarim or of the alternative versions found in the other books as separate, independent works. Nor is there any evidence for this approach within the other books of the Tanakh itself. That is, we do not find any book outside of the Torah that seems to rely solely on the history found in Devarim or solely on the version found in the other books. The theory that the Torah represents an anthology of traditions of Israel’s history stems solely from the supposition that these histories are contradictory. Once these discrepancies are interpreted as contradictory, a hypothesis must be adduced to account for their combination under one cover.

Second, it is unclear what motivates the so-called historian who is credited with having written the accounts of Devarim. When someone wrote a history in the ancient world (and maybe also the not-so-ancient world…), it was with an agenda in mind. The difficulty this presents for the standard source critical approach is best understood with reference to a retelling of history elsewhere: the account of the two monarchies in Divrei Hayamim as opposed to the account found in Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim reveals several consistent phenomena that distinguish it from Shmuel and Melakhim. Divrei Hayamim recounts virtually no disparaging accounts of the life of David. Divrei Hayamim places much more emphasis on the Mikdash than is found in the earlier books. The book’s writer demonstrates a clear agenda of promoting the Davidic dynasty and temple.

But what of the hypothesized historian who composed Devarim? Here, it turns out, it is difficult to identify a consistent agenda for the details provided across its several stories. It isn’t as though Devarim is a “pro-Moshe” account while the earlier versions are “pro-Aharon,” or Devarim “pro-David” while the earlier accounts are “pro-Sha’ul.” We would expect an altered history to reflect a consistently different theme than its rejected version.

Why don’t we have multiple versions of the accounts of the judges within the book of Judges?

Truth be told, there is one difference that runs throughout the accounts of Devarim: Israel is consistently portrayed more negatively in the stories of Devarim than in the other accounts. For example, while God told Moshe to send spies in Bamidbar, in Devarim it is the people who push Moshe to do so. Moshe is punished for his own sins in Bamidbar but in Devarim he is punished for the people’s sin. This emphasis does not explain every detail but it is highly present in each of the retold narratives. But whose interest—priestly, Davidic, northern, southern, etc.—is served by retelling the stories in this way?

Third, it is difficult to understand why the hypothesized historian chooses to rewrite precisely these seven or eight stories. The author of Divrei Hayamim, too, retells history selectively, but he covers the whole period of the monarchy. In Devarim, the historian inserts changes in wholesale fashion in every story he recounts. Yet, it is also clear that he is familiar with the Exodus from Egypt and with the Patriarchs. Is it not strange that he saw fit to change so much about a seemingly minor story such as the appointing of judges but has nothing at all of his own to say about the Exodus or the Patriarchs?

Fourth, the hypothesis of a separate and competing history is compromised by the fact that the accounts of Devarim do not constitute a stand-alone work. Divrei Hayamim never refers the reader back to Shmuel and Melakhim. Readers may make connections themselves between the texts but Divrei Haymim never asks the reader to do so. From an academic perspective, one can read Divrei Hayamim as a stand-alone history to be read entirely in place of Shmuel and Melakhim, and the story makes sense (even if Chaza”l, typically, did not read these books in this way). Crucially, this is not so of the accounts in Devarim. Even as Devarim introduces changes, it also relies on the reader’s knowledge of the earlier versions. Devarim presupposes the reader’s ability to fill in details known to us only from earlier stories, such as the reference to Calev’s exemption from divine wrath (1:36), the sin of Baal Peor (4:3), God’s anger at Aharon (9:20) and the punishment that befell Miriam (24:9). The accounts of Devarim, therefore, are not stand-alone alternative histories but rather supplements that refer back to the earlier versions it supposedly rejects, expecting the audience to be familiar with them.

Fifth, the narratives of Devarim have a peculiar narratological aspect about them. Most of the stories in the Tanakh are related in third person, by what is sometimes referred to in narratological terms as the “omniscient scribe.” The “narrator” in most passages is detached and objective, representing God’s view of things, as it were. Were the accounts of Devarim the work of a competing historian, why would he present his version in the subjective voice of Moshe? Consider, especially, the fact that Moshe recounts his own failures within these narratives. These accounts are not presented as objective fact but as a call to recollection. Repeatedly, Moshe tells Israel to recall what happened ba’et ha-hi, “at that time” – some nine times over all. Wouldn’t this competing historian want to portray his version in the same authoritative voice of the “omniscient scribe” as is found nearly everywhere else?

Sixth, and finally, why is this phenomenon of extended conflicting histories limited to the Torah? We have, it is true, two histories of the monarchy, Shmuel/Melakhim and Divrei Hayamim, but those have come down to us as two separate works. Within the Torah we have two histories of the wandering in the desert – one in Shemot-Bamidbar and one in Devarim. Why don’t we have multiple versions of the accounts of the judges within the book of Judges? Or of the career of Sha”ul, within the Sefer Shmuel? If there were, in fact, competing traditions of Israel’s history that were all anthologized at a certain point in time, why are accounts retold in this fashion within a single work only in the Torah, and only with regard to a portion of the desert history?

Now, some readers might find some of these challenges more compelling than others. And some will maintain that the source critical approach is still more compelling, religious belief aside, over the harmonizing strategies surveyed earlier. I would suggest that when the competing explanations before us are each problematic, a viable option is not to choose between them but to frankly admit that we don’t have good options on the table in front of us.

IV. Looking For Answers

But, to conclude this essay, I’d like to construct a “prospectus” of what we would want to see in a more satisfying explanation of the narrative discrepancies between Devarim and the other books. That explanation would include the following nine facets:

  1. Rather than seeking to harmonize differences in Johnny-at-the-Dike fashion, it should recognize that the discrepancies are real.
  2. It should explain how and why contradictory accounts are included together under one cover.
  3. It should draw from a documented and existing precursor for such literary activity.
  4. It should draw from a literary precursor that conceivably has some relation or connection to the time period and literary genres of the Torah (unlike, say, the Diatessaron, discussed above).
  5. It should explain why these wholesale contradictions are found not with regard to the entirety of history in the Torah but specifically with regard to the period of the wandering in the desert.
  6. It should explain why the dominant thematic difference between the conflicting accounts concerns the degree of waywardness attributed to Israel during this time.
  7. It should explain why this phenomenon is exhibited in the book of Devarim and not other books of the Torah, or, even, other books of the Tanakh generally.
  8. It should explain why the retold history (i.e. the Devarim account) is not narrated in the standard third-person narration of the omniscient scribe but rather as a leader calling upon his followers to “recall” things they already know.
  9. It should explain why the retold history differs widely from the earlier accounts and at the same time seems to rely on them (i.e. the reference to Calev’s exemption from divine wrath (1:36), the sin of Baal Peor (4:3), God’s anger at Aharon (9:20) and what befell Miriam (24:9)).

I will lay out an explanation that satisfies these nine criteria in Essay 4, but we have much work to do before that. In the next essay, Essay 2, I will address the theological issues surrounding a reading of the Torah in ancient Near Eastern perspective.

(Next installment is here: link)

About Joshua Berman

Joshua Berman is a professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University. He learned at Yeshivat Har-Etzion and has semikhah from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Among his books are The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (repr. Wipf & Stock, 2010) and Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford, 2008), a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Scholarship.


  1. A fantastic article. Informative, well written and, most importantly, more concerned with finding out what is true, rather than what is “orthodox”. A true intellectual Kiddush Hashem.

    However, I really don’t understand this paragraph:

    “Sixth, and finally, why is this phenomenon of extended conflicting histories limited to the Torah? We have, it is true, two histories of the monarchy, Shmuel/Melakhim and Divrei Hayamim, but those have come down to us as two separate works. Within the Torah we have two histories of the wandering in the desert – one in Shemot-Bamidbar and one in Devarim. Why don’t we have multiple versions of the accounts of the judges within the book of Judges? Or of the career of Sha”ul, within the Sefer Shmuel?”

    Why can’t Devarim and Shemot-Bamidbar be considered separate works? Isn’t this assuming what one has yet to prove (namely that the Chumash is a unity).

    Further, there *are* conflicting accounts of the career of Shaul. It’s very easy to pick out the repeated stories in Shmuel Aleph after the first 8 chapters and make two coherent narratives. Conversely, it’s almost impossible to make the story as we have it add up (i.e. in one scene Shmuel defeats the Pelishtim after assembling all the people together and then rules them for many years, then in the next scene we’re oppressed again and Shaul has to do it all over). Presumably the difference is the accounts of Shaul have been harmonised (so to speak) by splicing them together, whereas Devarim stands on its own, but doesn’t that take us back to my first question?

    • Thanks, Gabriel, for your question and comments. You are, of course, correct that many scholars find multiple Saul stories in Shmuel I. But that opinion is predicated on the assumption of an editor weaving stories, to cover his tracks. That’s just my point – the Torah never does that with these histories. Even if you assume a later redactor (as your question does), the question is why do the histories remain distinct,rather than being woven. That’s what I meant by *extended* conflicting histories.

      • But presumably Devarim is one book and Shemot-Bamidbar is a different book. If so, I don’t see what the difference is between this and Melakhim/Divre Hayamim, unless you assume that the Torah is a unity, but isn’t that exactly what is in contention?

        Oh, I think I understand. Because Devarim assumes knowledge of Shemot-Bamidbar in order to make sense, therefore it is an example of extended conflicting narratives in a way analogous neither to Shmuel Aleph or Melakhim/Divrei Hayamim.


        If so, couldn’t you argue that it rather presupposes knowledge of a variety of stories about our ancient past, but not necessarily Shemot-Bamidbar per se?

        • Gabriel – I love your thinking “out loud” in the response section – yes, you got it! Now, your question is a good one: maybe Sefer Devarim is referring to some other work, not necessarily to Shemot-Bamidbar. However, note this: Sefer Devarim never refers to entire stories that we are entirely unfamiliar with. It really does seem a “tampering” with stories that we do know from Shemot-Bamidbar. And even if a scholar wished to posit that Devarim was familiar with some source other than our Shemot-Bamidbar, my interest here is how we account for the final product. Regardless of what Sefer Devarim presupposes, what can explain bringing together the narratives of Sefer Devarim and the paralllel but differing narratives from the earlier sefarim.

  2. Seth Avi Kadish

    Professor Berman, I identify very closely with your sentiments in the first section of this essay. I also want to commend you for taking the time and effort to tackle these issues in a way that makes them accessible to the public, and Rabbi Gil Student for encouraging this.

    I recently tried to express something similar (at about Torah and the Humanities, but in a cruder fashion. Some 20-25 years ago, when I was privileged to study Bible on the graduate level at BRGS with truly outstanding scholars, I read early expressions of the “state of flux” that you describe, though I didn’t get the sense back then of any state of crisis. But the field is so vast and complicated that only professionals who keep up-to-date can really express credible assessments. That is why it is so important that you and others touch upon these issues in public and popular forums. Others like myself, who are not Bible scholars, cannot.

    Regarding the first section, I agree that, among devout Jews, there is far more self-reflective examination of “Orthodoxy” than of biblical scholarship. I understand your disappointment with this as a biblical scholar, but I think it is the result of two factors (beyond the simple fact that most of us don’t have the tools to do so):

    1. The intellectual challenges to Orthodoxy are wider than biblical scholarship, which is probably the most acute area of conflict but far from the only one.

    2. “Orthodoxy” is a very problematic idea from a religious perspective. Traditionally it is God’s Torah we are supposed to be living by, not Orthodoxy. And what we are supposed to belong to is Israel, not the Orthodox community. As Orthodoxy is increasingly radicalized and continually redefined in new ways by groups in radical conflict with each other, and when it seems to become ever more divorced from what many devout people honestly think of as the Torah, it simply begs Jews who see themselves as Orthodox to think again about what that means.

    “Orthodoxy” becomes even more complicated when it is associated with systems of Ikkarim. As in some other areas, what is “traditional” has been ironically turned on its head in modern times, and thus we find that outmoded medieval systems that were challenged as corruptions of the Torah by the rishonim have become for many the very definition of Orthodoxy. This is a very real problem that has serious consequences for healthy avodat Hashem, as I plan to argue elsewhere.

    And finally, a trivial technical question: You once had a personal website about your book,, where there was an eloquent video. It seems to have disappeared. Can I find it somewhere (because I’d like to refer to it in an essay)?

    • Sorry, Seth; I had that site up when Created Equal came out, but have since taken it down. thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      • Seth Avi Kadish

        I hope you’ll put the video back up somewhere. I need the part about how coming from an unconventional perspective can open up new doors, for a description of Rav Hasdai Crescas.

    • “Orthodox” is a shorthand. If you prefer, you can say “people who accept and follow God’s Torah” but people might look at you funny. The ikkarim likewise are convenient as a shorthand. According to those who rejected ikkarim (such as Abarbanel, but not e.g., Ramban, Rashba or R. Yehuda Halevi), it is easier to be a heretic–if you reject anything in the Torah.

      • Seth Avi Kadish

        WFB: That “Orthodox” is shorthand is what I used to think, and maybe it was true back then. But it today it is shorthand for social codes and ideologies that have little to do with the Torah.

        As far as Ikkarim, I’ll be writing about them elsewhere.

  3. Perhaps there may be something like “pareve pinch” for (at least) external criticisms. Doesn’t Devarim (13:2-4) explicitly say that G-d may test us with suggestions arising from empirical evidence?
    כי מנסה ה’ אלקיכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אוהבים את ה’ אלקיכם בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם
    See also Sifre ad loc.:
    “אמר ר’ יוסי הגלילי ראה עד היכן הגיע הכתוב סוף עובדי עבודה זרה ינתן להם ממשלה אפילו על חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות, אל תשמע להם, מפני מה, כי מנסה ה’ אלוקכם אתכם לדעת הישכם אוהבים. אמר ר’ עקיבא חס ושלום שמעמיד המקום חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות לעובדי עבודה זרה, הא אינו מדבר אלא במי שהיו נביאי אמת מתחילה וחזרו להיות נביאי שקר”
    It seems pretty explicit; according to R. Yose HaGlili G-d may actually test us by changing the laws of science, whereas R. Akiva holds G-d would only do so having formerly reliable sources send us false information.

  4. For me, at least, this has opened up some new channels of thought. It’s just that much of the information jumps by me a little too fast and too sparsely. I often wish that academics would take a tip from pop-sci writers, filling in all the blanks step by step, leading the reader to the right conclusions along a carefully planned runway.

    For one thing, I need to hear more about David Carr’s “full-scale empirical study of compositional strategies.” It’s as though I’m supposed to know this—but I don’t. Or perhaps I’ll have wait for the book.

    Other very broad references have also left me quite in the dark.

    Perhaps more crucial, what exactly is the “orthodox” alternative? How **was** Shemot-Bamidbar written, versus Dvarim?The text itself implies that one is a contemporaneously written record, while the other is oratory. Does that serve to answer the questions you raise? Because without an alternative, it’s hard to judge the value of the critique.

    Now you’ve got me thinking: What will happen if we present a description of the writing of the Chumash that is both plausible to the secularist and not uncomfortable for the open-minded orthodox? Where will that take us? Will it make Torah that much more real, or will it inadvertently divest Torah of its perceived sanctity?

    Also–and especially after reading Seth’s comments–I’m quite uncomfortable with the word “orthodox” here. I suppose the meaning is not in the contemporary sense, but as a description of the classic sources—i.e. chazal and rishonim. But I see already that tying this to a discussion of orthodoxy hits a gid ha’nasheh that might better be left alone at this point.

    Awaiting more with baited breath.

  5. Prof. Berman – are we limiting the discussion to only source criticism methodology in the quiver of MBS (if so – why aren’t other disciplines that support or contradict important or can you really only isolate one methodology)? and why only devarim vs the rest of the chumash and are there not other issues in the other four books that source criticism questions?

    “We possess over a million texts from the ancient Near East.” can you expand on this to how many are in hebrew and date to the historical moses period. also, are there other ancient texts (considered sacred by someone) from that time period as well as others to compare to each of the five books? if so, which time period does our chumash(or parts) look most similar?

    In the end, is it possible from an academic viewpoint to end up with one author in the time period of the historical israelites in the desert? will it be the most convincing answer to data/evidence/texts that we currently know of? lastly, can devarim be viewed as a midrash to the previous 4 books in some way?

    • Ruvie – let me take your questions one at a time.

      1)While there are indeed multiple scholarly approaches to the question of the composition of the Pentateuch they nearly all assume that the narrative portions of Seer Devarim are incompatible with and compete with the versions found in the earlier books.

      2) You are certainly right that all of these approaches together point out many things that seem inconsistent within the Torah. I do not exclude them because they are unimportant. But I do believe that there are many different issues involved; it isn’t a one-stop shop to answer all questions. So I’ve started with this issue. It’s a really big one, and it’s one that from my experience, and by that I mean also my own personal expereince, is a question that any sensitive person would ask themselves going through Sefer Devarim: how are these stories compatible with what the Torah told us earlier? I’m planning, iy”H, a similar series on discrepancies in law, which is a completely different ballgame, as I see it. Alas, we can only take one issue at a time.

      3) 1 million texts – this is almost painful to discuss. The amount of Hebrew writing that we have found from the entire First Temple period anywhere in the land of Israel can probably be written on 1-2 sides of a single page. Most writing from that period was on papyrus and does not survive. In Mesopotamia, much was written on clay (which we don’t have here in Israel) and in Egypt we have inscriptions from the walls of tombs and temples, and some papyrus, preserved due to the climate. The texts from the ancient Near East provide us a treaure of comparative texts with which to better understand many things in the Torah. Some of these texts, such as the Code of Hammurabi, preceed the Mosaic period. Others, such as the Late Bronze Age (15th-13th c. bce) Hittite treaty texts are muich close in time. Other texts that bear some similarity are later. In each case where we see some similarity we need to ask whether the comparative text we are looking at was spefific for its age, or whether what we have found in the ground from one period is merely a specimen, or copy of an older text.

      4) As to the questions in your final paragraph – read on essays 3 & 4 of this series – due out next week!

  6. Professor Berman,
    I greatly admire your scholarly look at the issues of Torah composition from the point of view of the believer. I am reading your series of articles at the challenge of my friend and teacher Rabbi David Woolf, in response to a contrary article I sent to him.
    As a student who is very far from a scholar, I found myself yelling responses to 2 of your premises.
    1) The Dead Sea Scrolls can be “documented precursors of the Torah” if you do not fix a date of the Torah’s creation without any physical evidence.
    2) In your Critiquing Source Criticism section, you ask whose point of view would be enhanced by taking a more negative tone toward Israel. To me, an obvious answer is the Rabbi’s and or Priests who have means and motive to amply reasons for faith and observance as they see fit. It strengthens and amplifies the reasons to follow and support their dictates.
    Thank you for your work with its insights.


    • I’d rather hear from Dr. Berman himself, but:
      1) even the non-masoretic of the Dead Sea scrolls are not relevant to the question at hand – would someone make a compromise documents by keeping the contradictions… .
      2)Portraying the wilderness generation more negatively, to my intuitions, would serves no obvious reason to amplify faith. The expressed intent is to censure that generation, I see no indication of that as a “means and motive to amply reasons for faith and observance” for future generations.

      The stated argument above is that there are no *obvious* reasons, as Dr. Berman wrote – hypothesis abound.

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