It Ain’t Necessarily So

These Orthodox Jews Are Challenging Commonly Held Beliefs About the Torah

The Torah’s stories ‘contain contradictions and its laws are sometimes cruel and morally problematic.’ Says who? This Orthodox website, which offers alternative commentaries on the Jewish holy texts

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011, Dr. Rafael Zer, editorial coordinator for the Hebrew University Bible Project, uses a magnifying glass to read a biblical script, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For many Jews and Christians, religious beliefs dictate that the words of the Bible are divine, unaltered and unalterable. But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this foundation text of Western civilization has always been more fluid than these beliefs would suggest, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Who wrote the Torah? Was it handed down in one fell swoop? And did the stories in it really happen? The official Orthodox Jewish position is that the Torah was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai some 4,000 years ago and yes, everything written in it pretty much happened.

Which means that if you are Orthodox and skeptical of the so-called “Torah from Sinai” doctrine, you might not want to draw too much attention to yourselves — lest you be accused of heresy.

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That’s why Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship), an online collection of commentaries on the Jewish holy texts, deliberately kept a low profile for the first six years of its life. After all, its main mission — introducing religious Jews to contemporary biblical scholarship, which assumes that the Torah was written by people over time and should not be taken literally — could be seen in some quarters as subversive.

So there was little incentive to make the flagship website of the project, TheTorah.com, attractive, intriguing or even user-friendly when it launched in December 2012. As TABS co-founder Rabbi David Steinberg notes, “It served my purpose to keep it under the radar, and the fact that it looked so raw — almost like a blog — and was hard to navigate was actually convenient for us.”

But there’s only so long an online database of this sort can be kept under wraps, especially when hundreds of academics and rabbis, Jews and non-Jews alike, have contributed more than 1,000 articles.

Rabbi David D. Steinberg, left, Marc Brettler, Rabbi Zev Farber and David Bar-Cohn in Jerusalem, February 2019.
Courtesy of Rabbi David Steinberg

“We realized that we’d grown to the point where we’d become a fact on the ground and needed a new home,” says Steinberg. “In the past month alone, we had 70,000 people come to our site.”

This September, TABS launched its new and upgraded website. Articles and essays are now broken down according to topics and authors, and the homepage changes on a regular basis, rather than remaining static as it had in the past. In short, unlike its precursor, the new website looks like a proper online platform.

According to Steinberg, most of the funding for the revamped website came from private individuals — mostly Modern Orthodox Jews who preferred to give anonymously, he says, because of the edgy nature of the project.

More than a mere technical feat, this digital face-lift marks the official “coming out” of a project that has and will continue to spark controversy in the Orthodox world — mainly because it is operated by a team of self-identified Orthodox Jews who are not afraid to point out that modern notions of science and history don’t necessarily jibe with the stories in the Torah.

Indeed, as the site’s editor Rabbi Zev Farber notes in an essay contemplating the “Torah from Heaven” doctrine: “Women were not created from the rib of a man, snakes did not lose their legs because of sin, the terrestrial world was not drowned in a flood four thousand years ago, and at no time in history did humans live for 900 years. The same is true for the Torah’s description of history. The world [was never] made up of 70 nations, each the descendent of one of Noah’s sons. Israelites are not all descendants of a man named Israel any more than Americans all descend from a man named America or British from a man named Britain.”

The problem is not only one of accuracy, he goes on to say, but that the Torah’s “stories and legal collections contain contradictions, and its laws, although often inspiring, are sometimes cruel and morally problematic.”

These, the words of an Orthodox rabbi.

An 18th-century edition of the Torah on display in Cologny, near Geneva, October 2019.
AFP

A Rashi decision

The driving force behind TheTorah.com is Steinberg, who comes from an ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) background and is a graduate of both the prestigious Gateshead Yeshiva in northern England and the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Ironically, for someone who has devoted so much of his time in recent years to an academic endeavor, he never attended college or university.

Born in Bnei Brak, Steinberg grew up in Manchester, England, and after moving to the United States nearly 20 years ago was hired as a rabbi for the Orthodox outreach movement Aish Hatorah. Like most Orthodox Jews, he says he grew up relying on medieval commentators to gain a better understanding of the Torah. But he was often frustrated by the answers he received.

“You can’t compare what we know today about the world, about history and about archaeology with what Rashi knew nearly 1,000 years ago,” he explains, referring to the medieval French rabbi who is perhaps the best-known commentator of all. “So to study just Rashi today makes no sense when there are so many new scholars out there in the world of academia who can really enrich our understanding of Torah.”

Coming from outside the world of academia, he knew that if he wanted to set up an online database of contemporary biblical scholarship, he would need to enlist the help of a professional. Furthermore, he wanted someone religious who saw no contradiction between Jewish observance and biblical criticism, and who would lend legitimacy to his project.

Marc Brettler, a big name in the field who was professor of Bible Studies at Brandeis at the time and is now a professor of Judaic Studies at Duke, seemed like the perfect candidate. Affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy, Brettler is the co-author of “The Jewish Study Bible” (2004) and “The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously” (2012), and author of “How to Read the Jewish Bible” (2007). It took a few emails and one long face-to-face meeting, and Brettler was on board.

A screengrab from TheTorah.com website.
Screengrab from TheTorah.com

Explaining how he ended up becoming a critical Torah scholar, Brettler notes in an essay published on the website that he attended an Orthodox day school, where biblical criticism was generally ignored “except for a brief warning not to take any courses that deal with it in college.” He obviously did not follow that advice and when he discovered biblical scholarship in college, he says he became “hooked.”

“The questions that it dealt with were not new to me, but the answers that it offered were, and they were more elegant, simple, and compelling than what I had been taught earlier,” he wrote.

Steinberg and Brettler later recruited Farber, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School that is affiliated with the more liberal Open Orthodoxy movement. Recently, David Bar-Cohn, a rabbi and author now pursuing graduate studies in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, was brought on board to oversee the website’s transformation. 

So as not to shake things up too much, in the early days TheTorah.com commissioned articles almost exclusively from religious academics. Slowly, it began expanding its reach and including rabbis and scholars outside the Orthodox Jewish world — in fact, outside the Jewish world entirely.

Its main focus was and remains commentary on the Torah portion of the week (parashat hashavua). But a quick browse through the upgraded website reveals articles on topics with a less timely angle, ranging from “How the prohibition of male homosexual intercourse altered the laws of incest” to “Do animals feel pain? Balaam’s donkey vs. Descartes.”

When the project was first launched, Steinberg had been living with his family in a closed ultra-Orthodox community in Passaic, New Jersey. He has since relocated to the more liberal Jewish community of Riverdale, New York. Explaining the move, he says: “No one wants to be called an apikores [heretic], and everyone wants to marry off their children. I’ve got seven of them.”

Writing in the Orthodox journal Cross-Currents in July 2013, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer — a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (the umbrella organization of the Orthodox movement) — gave voice to what many detractors were thinking when the project initially went live. Referring to the widely held position of many of its contributors that the Torah had more than one author, he wrote: “This is heresy of the highest order.”

It was this sort of feedback, Steinberg says, that caused him to hover in the shadows until now. But indicating his newfound sense of empowerment, he adds: “We’ve managed to build this up to something so big that if someone wants to attack me today, I say ‘gesundheit!’”