Monday, May 01, 2006

Bible Criticism: Follow-Up

The following post is taken directly from a comment I just posted here in response to an earlier comment to the same post. I feel the topic is sufficiently interesting and important (and that I have enough to say about it) for it to deserve a post of its own.

Please be aware that the site to which I link below ( is, unless I am mistaken, a site dedicated to convincing orthodox Jews to abandon orthodoxy (or maybe Judaism entirely; I'm not sure).

I read the article (in English - the translation is at times a bit clumsy) by Naftali Zeligman to which I believe Mr. Holloway was referring (it can be found here). Most of it is, I think, correct, and in fact I was taught much of the information it contains in my Intro to Bible course at Y.U. (which was a superb course; I will again express my appreciation for it to my professor, Dr. Moshe Bernstein). I think that most of its contents are worthwhile knowledge for people who aren't yet familiar with the material it contains. I object to a few of its assertions, however. To wit:

1. See the paragraphs beginning "Go and see" and "Understand: Reish Lakish", in which Mr. Zeligman cites the record in Tractate Soferim of the discrepancy found in three Torah scrolls - two scrolls had one reading, one had another - resulting in the authorities' deciding in favour of the reading of the two (the majority). Mr. Zeligman comments, "Perhaps it was the two books that were in error." If one believes that the Torah's origins are divine, then it is not unreasonable to posit that God "fixed," so to speak, the outcome, so that the "proper reading" (whatever that means) would prevail. The process might not have been as prone to error as Mr. Zeligman implies.

2. In the paragraph beginning "One who wants to expand", Mr. Zeligman quotes Dr. Menachem Cohen, who, for all I know, may be entirely correct. I disagree, however, with Mr. Zeligman's summary of his words. Mr. Zeligman interprets Dr. Cohen as saying that "the sanctity of the text [of the Torah] is only a human convention ... for it is clear ... that the Torah text has indeed greatly changed in the course of the centuries." I do not believe that this is what Dr. Cohen writes (nor, more importantly, do I believe that it is the truth). The correct principle, I think, is that the Torah text's sanctity does not derive from any precise sequence of letters and words, but from the fact that a (non-heretical) group of Jews has decided, using the proper halachic process, to accept a particular version of the text as valid. In other words, God (not just the Jewish people) assigns sanctity to our text of the Torah because we, following the procedure God wants us to follow, have adopted this text. God similarly would have assigned sanctity to variant texts when they were in use as a result of the correctly applied halachic method. The sanctity of the text is not a "human convention," as Mr. Zeligman would have us believe. It's very divine; it just doesn't work as simplistically as we might have been taught it did in elementary school (or yeshiva gedolah!).

3. Mr. Zeligman, in the paragraphs beginning "Then the high", "The great lights", "Thus wrote the", "Even the Cuzari" and "And though the", discusses the report in the book of Kings of the discovery of a Torah scroll in the Temple. He quotes largely from mainstream orthodox sources, but at the very end attacks the Kuzari's assertion that the Torah was forgotten by most, but not all, of the nation: Mr. Zeligman says that it was entirely forgotten by all, and that the Kuzari, in claiming that a small number of Jews had preserved their religious tradition, was just hypothesizing wildly and desperately to make excuses for his own belief. I would first point out that this issue seems not to be directly related to the accuracy of our written Torah. More importantly, however, I find it quite difficult to believe - all religious convictions aside - that over the course of, let's say, 60 years, there was such a complete and utter destruction of the Jewish religious traditions (which the same book of Kings records were firmly entrenched under King Hezekiah, King Manasseh's immediate predecessor) that no one - not one single person - was familiar with the old ways and beliefs. Is there any record of such a thing ever happening - of a long-held national belief system being completely supplanted, vanishing without a trace, in little more than half a century? I can't think of any such instance, but I know of many counter-examples. Thus, I find the Kuzari's supposition far more plausible than Mr. Zeligman's.

(Additionally, if, again, we assume that the Torah was given initially by divine revelation and that God was "behind" it, one would assume that God would have ensured that his instructions would not have been totally forgotten. But I think the Kuzari's argument stands firmly even if one leaves this consideration aside.)

Addendum: The correct parts of Mr. Zeligman's article, while challenging to various beliefs held by many orthodox Jews, do not undermine the validity of Judaism. To me this is obvious; if anyone wants elaboration, ask a question in the comments and I'll respond (or change my position, if need be!).


Anonymous said...

can you please contact me about this post - i read mr. zeligman's arguments and haven't found persuasive answers. my email is thanks

DES said...

Anonymous: I have emailed you.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I don't know if it is proper to post a comment to something written seven years ago! But if yes, I wish to comment on your supposition that G-d "fixed" the outcome of the shloshah sefarim discrepancies. Even if this were true, the core problem remains: the resultant text, "paskened" al pi rov, was not like any of the three that they used to determine the true text. How can it be that the "correct" Torah did not exist among the three that were found and only now, at the time of the psak al pi rov, came into being? Avi Goldstein, Far Rockaway, NY

DES said...

Avi, How do you know that the resultant text was not like any of the prior 3?