Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies, 52:1 (Spring 2001), pp. 146-154.
David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses. Westview Press, Boulder, 1997. 144 pp. $20.00 / £12.50.
Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 1999. 278 pp. £24.95.
Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 1999. 182 pp. £14.95.
All three authors hail from traditional Orthodox backgrounds. All three have strong emotional attachments to their origin. Each one has achieved distinction in some field of Jewish study. They have in common that it is precisely their study of Judaism which has, in the first instance, led them to entertain doubts as to the authenticity and integrity of the way Judaism is currently interpreted in Orthodox circles, whether haredi or even Modern Orthodox. These doubts have been intensified by historical and scientific study and by philosophical reflection.
In the works under review each author displays a wealth of scholarship, and each book would be worth reading simply for its scholarly content. Yet more is at stake. Each has a strong interest in defending his personal religious commitment against the perceived charge that it is inconsistent with scholarship and reason on the one hand, and with traditional Judaism on the other. For Halivni and Jacobs the apologia has an institutional as well as a personal significance. Halivni taught Talmud for many years at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he exercised a leading role in the formulation of Conservative halakha; in 1983 he broke with the Conservative movement over the ordination of women and subsequently founded the Association for Traditional Judaism, which sees itself as the true torchbearer of Zacharias Frankel’s ‘historical Judaism’. Jacobs was effectively excluded from the British (Orthodox) United Synagogue in 1963, and though he still considers himself ‘modern Orthodox’ has not only worked closely with the Rabbinical Council of the American Conservative movement, but is regarded as the spiritual mentor of a parallel movement in the U.K. Kellner, Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa, has not formally broken with Orthodoxy; his situation is that of many Orthodox Jewish intellectuals who are alarmed by the aggressive yet naive fundamentalism of the haredim, which they perceive as a travesty, or at least a distortion, of tradition.
The three approach their common problem with different emphasis and methods. Halivni, as befits the learned author of the most important text-critical notes on the Talmud in recent years, worries about the imperfections of the received text, whether of scripture or of the Oral Torah which ‘corrects’ it. Jacobs is concerned with the nature of revelation. In what sense can the Bible, despite its apparent moral lapses and factual errors, be construed as the word of God? If we abandon the historical doctrine that the Oral and Written Torahs were received in their extant form by Moses from God and faithfully transmitted to us, why should we follow their teachings? What is the basis for the authority of scripture, or of the rabbis as its interpreters? Kellner doubts whether all the talk about correct belief and doctrine is appropriate within Judaism at all; Maimonides’ formulation of the Thirteen Principles of the Faith was, in his view, an anomaly.
Peter Ochs, introducing Halivni’s volume, welcomes it as an exercise in ‘Postcritical Theology’, the purpose of which is ‘To “rescue” foundational documents, i.e. to read them in such a way as to be meaningful and relevant in the present day’. This is a benevolent, if in some respects misleading, description of the attempts of theologians to retain a stable vocabulary while assigning changing meanings to it. Halivni certainly wants to retain the traditional ‘vocabulary’, or way of talking, which states that God revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, but his acceptance of historical text criticism means that he cannot retain its full meaning.
It may seem strange that Halivni, who is so exercised about ‘the imperfections of the received text’, has little to say on the moral problems which so trouble Jacobs and others, such as how can a text which commends genocide of the Canaanite nations be regarded as holy? His recent autobiography provides a clue. In a letter composed prior to the vote on women’s ordination in October 1983, he commented:
I realize that I might stand accused of willingness to follow reason against tradition in pursuing critical study, but unwillingness to follow morality against tradition . . . My only defense is that I have greater confidence in our sense of reason than in what we consider moral. I consider the former more objective . . . (The Book and the Sword, p. 114)
This is puzzling, not least because Halivni so sharply separates reason from morals; it perhaps stems from his reflection on the apparent failure of moral reasoning to stem the Holocaust. However, the philosophical problems about the ‘objectivity’ of morals are no more relevant here than epistemology in general. What is significant is that most people, Halivni included, would surely be more confident to claim, e.g., that genocide is evil than they would be to assert that, to take one of Halivni’s examples, the ‘original’ text of Exodus did not say ‘an eye for an eye’. It is not easy to see how reason could demonstrate what the ‘original’ text of Exodus was, or indeed how any text-critical argument could yield greater certainty than the certainty we have on a moral issue such as the evil of genocide.
The question of ‘original text’ leads us to consider Halivni’s basic position. I hope I am not being unfair in summarising it as comprising four claims:
- God revealed a perfect Torah. As Halivni puts it on page 6, ‘God broke into human history to reveal his will once and for all—a real revelation’.
- The Israelites, through their sins, ‘maculated’ it. (‘Maculate’ is technical jargon. Halivni does not explain why he uses this term instead of ‘corrupt’ or ‘falsify’, which is what he means, and what Muslims have often alleged was done by Jews and Christians to the revealed text. It is a seriously uncomfortable notion.)
- Ezra tried to restore the original revealed text.
- Ezra’s work is continued through the rabbinic tradition to the present day. Textual alterations may no longer be made, since Ezra’s text has been accepted as sacrosanct. But where rabbinic tradition differs radically from the accepted text, as in the case of lex talionis, we have evidence of ‘restoration’ of the original meaning. (This is dealt with at greater length in Halivni’s Peshat and Derash, Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York, 1991.)
The first pillar of this structure is that a ‘correct’ text was in fact revealed by God to Moses. This position differs from naive fundamentalism as Halivni does not claim that we possess the actual text, only that it once existed. He supports his contention by an argument (p. 6) resting on two premises:
- Jewish tradition claims that the Torah was revealed by God to Moses.
- No critical theory of the Pentateuch’s origins has been proven.
From these premises he derives:
- The traditional account has not been ruled out, and therefore remains available.
This argument has at least three weaknesses:
- What is at issue is the trustworthiness of tradition. The indubitable fact that a tradition exists does not demonstrate that the tradition is even prima facie reliable. This is especially so here, where (a) there is no evidence that the tradition originated in the days of Moses, and (b) we are concerned with an event which, if it occurred, was supernatural, and which would therefore require even stronger evidence than a ‘normal’ historical event, a point emphatically made in David Hume’s famous passage on miracles.
- It is true that no critical theory as a whole has been proven. Nevertheless, the traditional theory has been discredited. This might be compared with the evidence for Darwinian evolution. There are several competing theories about, for instance, the origin of Homo sapiens, but the ‘traditional’ theory that humans suddenly came into being as the result of a supernatural event less than six thousand years ago is certainly wrong.
- Halivni himself admits that the text we have is ‘maculate’, a product of human fallibility, a document with a complex history, and not the ‘original’ Torah. This is obviously contrary to the tradition, which never concedes that more than minor changes may have occurred. But if it be admitted that the tradition is unreliable, why should we rely on it as evidence for a metaphysical event that resulted in the production of some unknown yet perfect text of which we possess no more than the maculated remains? Surely there are much simpler ways to account for the extant texts.
Halivni draws a parallel with an argument of Rambam (Maimonides), who rejected the theory of the eternity of the universe on the grounds that since the proofs of its eternity were inconclusive we should follow the plain meaning of scripture. This is not a true parallel, since:
- The issue facing the Rambam was not the veracity of scripture: he took for granted (in his discussion of the eternity of the universe) that scripture was authoritative and prima facie literal. His question was (a) whether rational arguments demonstrated the eternity of the universe, and (b) whether, if so, scripture could be interpreted in accordance with that finding. Since, in his view, the rational arguments were balanced (there are some against), the literal interpretation of scripture could stand: however, should reason demonstrate the eternity of the universe, scripture might be interpreted accordingly. In Halivni’s case, however, the issue at stake is whether the traditional account of the origin of the extant scriptures is reliable; to adduce tradition itself in support of this contention is a petitio principii.
- Moreover, the universe undoubtedly is there, so the question as to its eternity is a real one. With regard to ‘revelation’ (whatever it means) the question is whether such an event ever took place; if it did not, the question as to whether the traditional account is reliable is otiose.
Much of the book is devoted to the interpretation of rabbinic texts with the aim of demonstrating that the rabbis were engaging in a process of ‘restoration’ of the original Torah. One instructive example is the treatment of shi’urim, the amounts determined by the rabbis as minima and maxima in measurements of forbidden or unclean materials, lengths of time and the like. According to Halivni, three different ascriptions are offered for shi’urim. According to Rav (BT Eruvin 4a) they are halakha l’Moshe mi-Sinai, laws given to Moses at Sinai; the Gemara (Sukkah 5b—Halivni counts this interpretation as separate ascription) interprets this to mean they are only traditional laws (hilkhata) with no foundation in scripture; while a parallel source (BT Berakhot 41a/b) indicates that they are only rabbinic laws (as opposed to hilkhata). (Note how the English ‘only’ by which Halivni translates אלא implies a devaluation which is not demanded by the Hebrew).
The discussion at any rate illustrates the tendency of the Amoraim, stronger amongst Palestinians than Babylonians, to ascribe laws with no scriptural basis to the category of halakha l’Moshe mi-Sinai, a sort of independent Oral Torah. Halivni is surely correct to interpret this as a reaction to the Tannaitic enterprise of reading everything into scripture, and to view it as the foundation for the subsequent rabbinic flight from direct scriptural exegesis in the field of halakha. Whether this reliance on independent Oral Torah rather than scriptural exegesis can be read as a way of restoring the original revelation is another matter, to which Halivni devotes his third chapter.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the meticulous scholarship of this book, especially by the historically sensitive handling of Talmudic passages. The theology is more questionable.
Louis Jacobs, in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, seeks not for the first time to defend the theological position of ‘liberal supernaturalism’, which he derives from Zacharias Frankel, on whom at one time he intended to write his PhD thesis. He himself states (p. 1) that the purpose of the book is to ‘prove’ the position he took in We have Reason to Believe: the possible meanings of ‘from’ in ‘Torah from heaven’ give leeway for this ‘fresh examination’ (p. 17).
The liberal supernaturalist ‘is liberal in that his reason compels him to adopt the critical historical approach . . . even though this involves a degree of rejection of the traditional view. He is supernaturalist because he sees no reason to deny the supernatural elements of his religion’ (p. 50).
There are two major problems with liberal supernaturalism. It is committed to belief in God and revelation, which is problematic for the sceptic. On the other hand, though it accepts the notion of divine revelation, it is somewhat hazy about what actually constitutes this revelation, and this is a problem for the traditional believer. Jacobs makes clear his position ‘that belief in God is entirely reasonable but that belief in the inerrancy of Scripture or the rabbinic tradition is not’ (p. 97).
However, he is surprisingly perfunctory in his advocacy of belief in God, or the supernatural in general. He admits the weakness of traditional ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, including that from religious experience, but hopefully suggests that if they are not valid proofs they are at least ‘arguments’, with inductive rather than deductive validity (p. 98), and cites with approval Richard Swinburne’s work on this, in particular Swinburne’s dubious claim that several weak arguments can add up to a strong one. What he fails to observe is that for the ‘scientific’ or philosophical mind which he is trying to satisfy the major problem is not so much whether God exists as whether the term ‘God’ is coherent or meaningful. Swinburne has at least recognized this, and has been careful to include amongst his works on theism a volume on the ‘coherence’ of God.
Jacobs writes far more about the content of revelation, which he believes includes halakha. Ever since Saadia took the Karaites to task for the arbitrariness of their biblical interpretation, Rabbanites and Orthodox have attacked reformist streams of Judaism on similar grounds. Jacobs is well aware that in abandoning the Orthodox perspective on the inerrancy of scripture and the perfection and immutability of halakha he is laying himself open to a a charge of arbitrariness, readiness to compromise with current fashions. If for instance he distinguishes on moral grounds ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ parts of Torah (p. 51), where precisely does he draw the line? Of more practical concern, where is the line to be drawn with regard to religious observance? He concedes ‘that the modern way of looking at the whole question of observance involves a strong degree of selectivity’’(p. 118), and that his criterion that ‘a ritual should be observed if its observance enhances the spiritual life of the Jew’ is ultimately rather subjective.
Subjectivity is indeed the key to this book. Not that it lacks scholarship and erudition, but rather that it constitutes a very personal, and very mature and honest, statement of ‘where I stand’. Jacobs writes with a deep nostalgia, nostalgia for the Orthodoxy he naively identified with in his youth, nostalgia for the Jewish mysticism he encountered in his early enthusiasm for Habad. He wants to hold on to these things, he values Jewish unity which might be fractured if he were to depart from the Orthodox over matters such as gittin, yet he cannot give his intellectual consent to the traditional edifice that he still loves.
In subjective mood he mulls yet again over the ‘Jacob’s affair’—perhaps a little self-indulgently, seeing that he has already written about it at length in his autobiography. If his chapters on Orthodoxy and Reform are occasionally impressionistic, they yield a precious insight into his own way of thinking and feeling, as does his surprisingly curt dismissal of Reconstructionism (p. 175).
Yet despite the essentially subjective approach there is hardly a page on which one is not illumined by the interpretation of some rabbinic passage on other. In chapter 10 (‘Modernism and Interpretation’—there is no hint, by the way, of postmodernism) he tries to wed the theological approach to the historical critical one by considering three significant Jewish themes, one of which is the enjoyment of life (pp. 214-225). He carefully examines the statement in the name of Rav at the end of Yerushalmi Qiddushin that ‘A man will in future be called to account for everything his eyes saw and he did not eat’, a statement which has been used by Abba Hillel Silver amongst others to demonstrate Judaism’s positive attitude to life. With learning and dexterity he is able to show dial Rav’s remark is not only no basis for hedonism, but must be placed in a wider rabbinic context.
There are occasional lapses and contradictions. An account of lower criticism (pp. 37-38) fails to mention the Scrolls, and ‘historical criticism’ is traced only to Ibn Ewa (what about Hiwi of Balkh, for instance?). On page 65 we read that ‘Heller, like his contemporary Azariah dei Rossi. . .’, yet dei Rossi died in 1578 and Heller was born only in 1579. ‘It is no accident that no real Reform movement has emerged among the Sephardim’ (p. 132), yet ‘The Reform movement in Britain began with a meeting in 1840 of 19 Sephardim and 5 Ashkenazim’ (p. 165). But these are minor blemishes on a mature and rewarding work which is perhaps summed up in the plain and honest words (p. 238) ‘. . . my dissent from fundamentalist Orthodoxy: that it is untrue to the facts.’
In the first six chapters of this book aimed at a popular readership Kellner presents his understanding of what religious faith means in ‘classical’ Judaism. The title of the final, seventh chapter, ‘How to Live with Other Jews’, discloses his final agenda. He is troubled by the conflicts and divisions generated amongst Jews by the tendency of the haredi religious leadership to define ‘authentic’ Judaism in credal terms. As an expert in medieval Jewish philosophy Kellner thinks he can lay much of the blame for the present discord on the shoulders of no less a figure than Maimonides, or at least on the way Maimonides is often interpreted.
In his seminal book, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel (Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1986), as well as in several smaller studies, Kellner has pressed the view that the Maimonidean enterprise of defining Jewish belief was misguided, uncharacteristic of Jewish leaching as articulated in classical sources such as the Talmud. There is of course nothing novel about his view of Judaism as oriented around praxis rather than pistis: the problem is how to handle the numerous statements in the classical sources that imply and sometimes explicitly demand belief in some proposition or other. Notable amongst these is the Mishna Sanhedrin X: 1 listing those ‘who have no portion in the world to come’.
Kellner distinguishes between vague and defined belief:
Judaism teaches that God exists and is one: it further teaches that God provides for all creatures. The Written Torah and the Talmud make no sense if we fail to affirm these teachings; they are absolutely central to the Jewish conception of the universe. That does not mean, as we have seen, that the tradition found it important to reach a normative, obligatory opinion concerning the actual, specific content of these teachings: it certainly made no effort to reach agreement on their implications and consequences. (pp. 22-23)
It would seem to follow from this that a Jew ought to go around ardently proclaiming God’s existence, unity and providence, but entertaining no clear notion us to what any of this means. Presumably the same applies to belief in Revelation. No doubt the majority of ‘ordinary’ believers are every bit as hazy in their beliefs as Kellner would have them be. They are equally hazy about how their motorcars, their own bodies or the laws of gravitation work, but bumble along reasonably well in normal circumstances. There are, however, other people around who make it their business to understand motorcars, medicine and physics, and the rest of us depend on their expertise. It seems perfectly clear to me that at least from the time Jews first made contact with Greek intellectual notions, and far more so today when they are exposed to a more mature intellectual culture, that those who are capable of so doing need to formulate their convictions in a coherent manner, as Maimonides attempted to do in his time.
Whether people ought to fight each other about their beliefs, or exclude each other from their faith communities, is quite another matter, and this is where Kellner is right to castigate the haredim for their insistence on doctrinal correctness: ‘Labelling non-Orthodox Jews and interpretations of Judaism as heretical is too exclusive, while true pluralism is too inclusive’ (p. 130). But it would surely be far more to the point to argue the incorrectness of haredi doctrinal assertions than to insist on the vagueness of traditional Jewish teaching. Is Kellner perhaps reluctant to do this because he fears exclusion from the Orthodox ranks? Or, more charitably, because he fears for the future of Jewish unity, ‘not whether Jews will have Jewish grandchildren, but how many different sorts of mutually exclusive Judaisms those grandchildren will face’.
Kellner’s own solution is a little paradoxical, considering his firm rejection of the ‘essentialist’ notion of the Jewish people. He writes (p. 111), ‘God made a covenant with the Jewish people . . . I want to urge that we start with that notion of the Jewish people as basic’. Since he believes that the Jews are a people, not through sharing some metaphysical essence but because they have a common legal system, viz. the halakha, it is the only-too-definable halakha which, for him, constitutes the basis for Jewishness. I do not find the argument that the Torah ought to be interpreted in the way that best ensures the social cohesion of all Jews, loosely defined, at all convincing.
If Kellner was right, and ‘authentic’ Judaism was to be defined in halakhic rather than doctrinal terms, would this diminish controversy? Not very much, in all likelihood. The Neo-Orthodox, including Kellner himself, might be happier, since in principle they regard themselves as bound by a divinely revealed halakha, even though they interpret it in a more liberal fashion than the haredim. But so far as other Jews are concerned, the imposition of halakha a criterion of their Jewishness is no less divisive than the imposition of credal criteria.
Few readers will be swayed by the thesis of this work, but many will be entertained and all will learn from the erudite yet accessible discussions of medieval Jewish thought (why do the useful ‘Biographical Notes on Jewish Thinkers’ on pages 160-61 list so few who did not live in the Middle Ages?). I particularly enjoyed the splendid discussion in chapter 1 of the God of Abraham versus God of Aristotle debate which, contrary to the common assumption that it was sparked off by Blaise Pascal, was alive and well centuries earlier.
None of the works reviewed gives an intellectually satisfactory defence of Jewish belief as expressed in traditional sources. Yet the labours of the distinguished authors were by no means in vain. They have brought to light the history and development of Jewish belief and breathed new life into the venture of reformulating traditional Judaism. Halivni has highlighted several rabbinic texts which might be taken as indicators of the possibility of a more flexible approach to the concept of ‘sacred revealed text’; Jacobs has made clear what it is about the Orthodox vision that is of lasting value; and Kellner has shown the relevance of the medieval debates. All this is a far cry from the contemporary haredi hostility to modernity, and arguably closer to the reality of Jewish tradition.
The task of the theologian is to safeguard the continuity of the faith community by enabling the faithful to use traditional forms of expression whilst at the same time subtly modifying their meaning in the light of changing social and intellectual perspectives. Some may regard this as progress, others as subversion. Whatever it is, all three authors have contributed richly to its achievement.
 He repeats this claim on pp. 241/2 of his autobiography Helping with Inquiries (London, 1989). He reviews the events of his break with the United Synagogue in the Introduction to the present volume.
 On pages 7/8 he claims that the Oral Torah, substituting pecuniary compensation, ‘restored the biblical commandment to its original state’.