Thursday, December 08, 2005

Textual criticism of the Torah: a response to R. Yaakov Menken Pt I.

A post on Cross-Currents by R. Yaakov Menken seeks to demonstrate the Documentary Hypothesis to be null due to the textual accuracy of the Tanakh. (It must be pointed out that the DH is concerned not only with the Torah, but the entire Tanakh's origins. In this case, R. Menken seems only concerned with the Torah itself. Although to remove the other books from consideration in a discussion about the DH or textual accuracy of Tanakh is a methodological flaw, I will take his point about Chamisha Chumshei Torah as a point of departure and mostly deal with it alone.)

The logic is that our Torah has so few variant readings that, I suppose, it can be considered as if the few just don't count, in contrast with Christian Bibles having thousands of variant readings and Qur'ans having (no number is given) variant readings. However, we who have been scattered across the globe, have basically no variant readings.
There are only about 10 differences between Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite texts. Most of these are differences of spacing only, meaning one text has a compound word where the other divides the two words (leapyear vs. leap year). Others are “vavs and yuds,” optional letters which ensure proper pronunciation of the underlying root word. The only letter difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is whether a particular word ends with a silent aleph or silent heh.

So there are no thousands or hundreds or tens of variant texts. There are no changed paragraphs, switched passages or omitted sentences. There isn’t even a single word pronounced differently in any valid Torah scroll, anywhere in the world. Any text with a broken letter is considered unfit for use, much less one with an extraneous or omitted letter, much less one with an extraneous or omitted word.

What does this have to do with the Documentary Hypothesis? Simply put, someone had to do an incredible sales job on the Jewish nation. At one point—according to the Hypothesis—there were different texts created by different groups, which means that the descendents of each group revered its own version. Then along comes a redactor who puts them all together, and then manages to convince all of the groups that not only is this the correct text to follow, but it has always been the right text, and therefore must be copied with an exactitude known nowhere else in human history. That someone managed to do that seems a miracle in and of itself, which is of course the very thing the DH was designed to avoid.
In summary, there are two issues: the remarkable textual consistency of the Torah from ancient times and the idea that this fact means that the Torah text could never have been consciously tampered with, certainly not by combining and editing four different texts.

Now, of course our Torah is today very uniform and consistent. Its also been remarkably and essentially preserved in its original language. Our soferim pay meticulous attention to detailed laws that ensure integrity of the texts. Furthermore, when the Torah is read aloud the following safeguards are in place: the reader himself can catch mistakes. An astute oleh le-Torah can catch mistakes. And the congregation can catch a mistake if the reader reads something that is written incorrectly. And if a mistake is noticed the Torah is immediately removed from circulation until repaired.

But getting a little back into history we have to conider the work of the Masoretes, baalei masorah, who standardized spelling and pronunciation. Consider, the Gemara says that we are not experts in plene and defective spelling (maaleh and haser). This even has halakhic implications. If a Torah is found with a mistake of this type then it is not rendered unkosher, since, the fact is that maybe the error is really 'correct.' Only other types of errors render a Torah unfit. Halakhic authorities like the Chasam Sofer invoked the 'we are not experts' rule in explaining why there is no blessing for the writing of a Torah, a mitzvah de-oraysa. If that's the case than why is that our Torahs essentially do, in theory, have exact conformity in the plene and defective spellings? After all, the Gemara implies that we wouldn't. The answer is that we wouldn't, and in Talmudic times they didn't, but for several centuries after the Talmudic period the Masoretes worked to standardize even the plene and defective spellings. So now we do--except that we don't really and we especially didn't until about 500 years ago.

Consider also that our oldest copies of Tanakh are about a thousand years old. Our Tanakhs are based on these and are known as the Masoretic Text. The ancient evidences do not confirm the Masoretic Text exclusively. For one thing, there are Dead Sea Scroll versions of parts of Tanakh that differ from our own. Then there is the Septuagint, a translation of the Tanakh made by Jews centuries before the Common Era. While working backwards from translations is a risky business (especially when we do not really known what methods the translators were using) there are places where we are certain as to what they were translating and the Septuagint implies a variant Hebrew text. Sometimes the variance is relatively minor, sometimes major. Not unoften this difference is reflected in the Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew versions, which means that the Septuagint was translated from the same text-type or a similar text as the Dead Sea versions. There was also Masoretic text-types among the Dead Sea Scrolls (but not identical to the Masoretic Text, henceforth 'MT'). This means that, minimally, there were different texts of the Torah in Second Temple times.

Now this is not to say that the Septuagint is the superior text, or that the text it was based on was superior to our own text. In fact, it isn't. There are obvious errors in the Septuagint (e.g., translation based on the confusion of the letter daleth and resh, which look similar). This is only to say that such an alternate text existed, without a doubt, a thousand years before the earliest evidence for our own text.

And if that doesn't do it for you, what of the variant readings found in the Talmud and midrashim? These aren't issues to dismiss. They were known to the ge'onim, rishonim and aharonim and discussed by them.

Again, all of this does not mean that our Torah is lacking in integrity, although that depends how one defines integrity. If by integrity one means that they are letter-for-letter reproductions of Moshe's Torah then, sadly, they lack that integrity. In fact the Sha'agas Aryeh ponders if it is possible to fulfill the positive commandment to write a sefer Torah being as we are uncertain if our text's are identical with Moshe's. The point is that at a point in time the variants begun to be standardized by individuals, the Masoretes. Since our Torahs are Masoretic it is not surprising that ours are remarkably uniform. The question is, where they always remarkably uniform? Of course this gets into what "remarkably" means. But there is no question that there was a time when Torahs were less uniform. There are ancient versions which tell us this and there is the Gemara itself which tells us this. Not only that, if he head on to the Middle Ages we find two things. One, we are in possession of an enormous number of Torah manuscripts from the Middle Ages, from Spain to Ashkenaz to Italy to North Africa. Guess what? There are lots of variants. The second thing is that these variants were totally known by the chachamim of the day. They knew about it and were concerned about it and wrote about it and studied them and worked like bees to try to straighten out the situation.

In the comments section R. Menken posted that "A scroll written from anything other than another Kosher scroll is invalid and cannot be used" which isn't true. And even were it true, this means nothing if the scroll being copied from isn't an excellent, perfect scroll, as was often the case in the Middle Ages (and to a lesser extent today). With the advent of printing the appearance of variants in texts, so well known to any scholar of the era pre-printing, became obscured. If everyone in shul is following the kriah from the same Chumash, how will they know that there is an error in the Chumash? Most people, in the final analysis, are not experts in the text. At minimum one needs to regularly do shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum weekly for years, which itself is meaningless if they aren't exposed to a variety of texts. To this day there are variants in popular Chumashim.

And all that said, the post at Cross Currents pertains to lower textual criticism. This isn't identical to higher criticism at all.

The implication is that our ancestors would have been dupes if four sources were sewn together, as it were, to make a uniform Torah text. Since, we assume, they weren't dupes then there could not have been four sources.

But consider this: ask a random sampling of reasonably intelligent frum people how the Talmud came to be. Assuming you get any kind of answer at all, most will say "Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote it." Uh, did they? We don't know. In fact, we know they didn't write all of it, because persons named in the Talmud lived half a century after Ravina died. But that isn't the point. Let's say they did write it. Are people who say they wrote it dupes for thinking "Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote it" when it is obviously based on many earlier sources? Who knows what the earliest generation of Talmudists thought about its composition? We have no idea. Maybe the earliest generation of Torah-ists knew that the Torah was based on four texts and didn't care. They didn't care when the script was changed. After all, the leaders were, if not Nevi'im, then benei Nevi'im and soferim besides.

More to come in part II, including a more exhaustive examination of what lower textual criticism is and how or if it pertains to the documentary hypothesis. Which, by the way, I am not saying is sound, but only that the Cross Currents post has no shaychas to it or to the historical situation with the MT.

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