Torah & Norman Solomon
By: Jeremy Rosen
Published: October 2nd, 2013 on The Jewish Press
Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.
Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.
I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.
Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.
But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.
Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.
It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.
Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale". The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
- The book at Littman: Torah from Heaven by Norman Solomon (2012)
Norman Solomon's discussion will appeal to those who seek to identify with a religious community, but who are troubled by the claim of divine authority made for the scriptures of that community. Ranging across several academic disciplines, it is addressed to people of all religions who find their heads and their hearts are not in accord with each other. It is accessible to a general readership interested in the relationship of scripture, interpretation, and religious authority, though scholars will find original observations and historical interpretations in many areas. It should find a ready place in university and popular programmes in Jewish studies, general theology, and philosophy of religion.
About the authorNorman Solomon retired in 2001 from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where he was Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought. He remains a member of Wolfson College, Oxford, and of the Oxford University Unit for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously Director of the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish/Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham.
Dr Solomon was born in Cardiff, and educated there and at St John’s College, Cambridge. He has been rabbi to Orthodox congregations in Manchester, Liverpool, London, and Birmingham. He is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies, Vice President of the World Congress of Faiths, and a Patron of the International Interfaith Centre.
His other books include Judaism and World Religion (1991), The Analytic Movement: Hayyim Soloveitchik and his School (1993), A Very Short Introduction to Judaism (1996), Historical Dictionary of Judaism (1998), and The Talmud: A Selection (Penguin Classics, 2009), as well as numerous articles and reviews. From 1985-91 he was editor of the quarterly Christian Jewish Relations.
Dr Solomon has participated in interfaith dialogue in over twenty countries on five continents; in 2004 he was Scholar in Residence at Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney. Awards he has received include the Sir Sigmund Sternberg CCJ Award in Christian-Jewish Relations (1993) and the Distinguished Service Medal of the University of San Francisco (2000).
- A note from his website: http://www.normansolomon.info/torahfromheaven.htm
➽...and Solomon's article on the book itself:
The golden calf that Orthodoxy must slay
By Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon, October 20, 2013 (The Jewish Chronicle Online)
|Moses holds the Ten Commandments,|
by Joos Van Wassenhove (15th Century)
It is also all those commentaries out there competing for attention. Not that I like everything I see in commentaries. Hertz now seems to me rather dated and too concerned with demonstrating the superiority of the Torah to other cultures, which he not infrequently misrepresents. Artscroll can be quite crazily fundamentalist, as when it claims (p48) that in 1760 BCE “all the national families were concentrated in present-day Iraq”. Really? The Chinese too, and the indigenous Americans and Australians?
Etz Hayim, the popular Conservative commentary, has a more positive approach to historical research and is also not afraid to address contemporary issues, if from a safely liberal perspective.
There are other avenues to explore. The commentaries we find in the synagogue are mostly shy of source criticism; to Hertz, indeed, it was the arch enemy. Yet the Bible itself often cites external sources; altogether 24 different sources, ranging from a “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14) to archives of the kings of Judah, Israel and even the Medes and Persians (Esther 10:2).
The books have a history and were compiled with reference to earlier documents. Even so, when the great commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) hinted at the late composition of Genesis, he had to cloak his ideas in obscure language for fear of being denounced as a heretic. And when modern source criticism began in earnest in the 17th century, its advocates were constantly put on the defensive by traditionalists — Christian as well as Jewish — who thought that the idea that there was a process by which the books had come to be as they are undermined traditional faith in scripture as the Word of God.
I understand the traditional view. Throughout the Middle Ages, expert consensus was that the Five Books of the Torah now in our hands are word for word, letter for letter, what God dictated to Moses in the Sinai desert 3,000 plus years ago; the Rambam stated specifically that the Aleppo Codex, completed by Ben Asher in the 10th century, was a precise copy of the text handed to Moses.
Expert consensus has, however, moved on as new evidence has become available. No one has found the hypothetical documents J, D, P and E that scholars claim were woven into what are now the Five Books of the Torah; if indeed they existed, they may have remained oral and never been written down. The direct evidence that our “received” texts achieved their present form only gradually is nevertheless strong, and comes from biblical manuscripts and ancient versions.
The earliest biblical manuscripts so far discovered, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, are just over 2,000 years old; roughly speaking, they correspond to what we have in our Sifrei Torah. But only roughly speaking. No early manuscript agrees exactly with the Aleppo Codex.
That codex falls within the Masoretic tradition, one of three known ancient scribal traditions, the others being the Hebrew on which the Greek Septuagint was based, and the original Samaritan version; and the Masoretic text itself comes in several versions. What is quite clear is that our “accepted” text has emerged only gradually, after many centuries of selection and refinement.
Traditionalists are simply in denial of the evidence. Does this matter? Yes, not least because it leads to harassment of serious scholars such as the American Orthodox rabbi, Zev Farber, who are pressured by colleagues to renounce what they believe to be the truth — in his case, that the books of the Bible have a compositional history, and did not fall from the sky fully-fledged in the exact form we have them today.
It matters because it is a denial of truth and faith must never be based on falsehood. It matters because it deprives the Orthodox of a whole world of insight into the meaning of scripture, not as a code for decryption, but as living testimony to the life of the Jewish people in their relationship with God through two millennia, an aspect being thoroughly worked out in the divrei Torah by Orthodox scholars that appear on Rabbi Farber’s website www.thetorah.com.
In sum, contemporary Orthodoxy, in a misguided attempt to uphold sacred texts, has fallen prey to a new idol, a new “golden calf”. The holy text itself has become the idol, as a closed biblical fundamentalism diverts people from the real message of Torah while setting up the “received” text as the object of faith.
- Check out this other post of mine:
THE NAME OF GOD
- As well as this one:
TORAH FROM HEAVEN
- ...and this article by Rabbi Solomon: Relating Truthfully to Morally Problematic Torah Texts
- Also this one by David Silverberg: Torah Min Ha-shamayim: The Divine Origin of the Torah