Monday, December 26, 2005

Debate with Fkm on a whole mumbo-jumbo of issues regarding tradition... Pt. I

Fkm posts a response to my earlier post regarding the documentary hypthesis. Basically, the thrust of my argument (or position if you want to call it that) is that the documentary hypothesis (or some version of it) isn't an unreasonable, violent reading of the text. It is rather a logical conclusion from a combination of a variety of tools of modern literary analysis. Further, I asked, why Hashem wants or requires us to believe otherwise (or indeed if He does require this) given that using the tools of the trade, so to speak, the conclusion is that the Torah seems to be compiled from sources, and at a later date than the period in the wilderness. In other words, its much the same question many people ask about the age of the universe, old v. young.

His responses, thirteen as I count 'em, are as follows, his is black and my paraphrase in blue, since I want him to see that I've understood him correcty. He can see how I understood his points and correct anything that I've misunderstood. I've also added some of my thoughts that I think do justice to his words but are not explicit in them--it is for this reason that you should read his post. First, a note: why am I doing this? It is not because I am a "frum skeptic" or because I want to debunk or destroy or that I want him to be wrong. I want him to be right (at least in essence if not in particulars). But I want to be convinced of it and so far this is just not terribly convincing:
1) Asking "why God would write something in a way that seems like there are multiple documents" is futile. How can anyone assume to know how it should be written if God actually dictated it?
DH starts with the a priori assumption that the Torah has human authorship (you mean we should take seriously the notion that God TALKS to PEOPLE? tsk, tsk, how naive.) and takes it apart from there. This elementary point is totally missed.
You can't argue that God could not have written it because "its not the style that we've come to expect from someone like God". All the evidence in favor of DH rests on analyzing the way HUMAN literature is usually written. Who says this analysis is appropriate for Divine literature?

1. No one can assume how God would write a Torah or what a divine document should look like. Saying that a Torah ought not have these anomalies is saying that we know what the Torah should look like. How can we know that? Furthermore, how do we know that the kind of analysis one uses in analyzing human-authored literature is appropriate to analyzing divine-authored literature?
The truth is that my position has nothing to do with claiming to know what a divine text should look like. The issue is really more about if it was written by one person and at the time tradition assigns to its authorship (roughly 3300 years ago). Of course, in theory, a divine text could look like anything. If we assume that the kinds of analysis we use in analyzing literature in general doesn't apply to the Torah then we are positing that tradition only utilizes a unique type of analysis not found in any other connection. But that's untrue. There is precedent in a whole host of traditional sources for all type of modern analyses used, whether comparative philology or principles like en miqra yotzi mi-dei peshuto or even comparative religion. At least some of the exegetic middot (principles) of R. Yishmael are not unique tools of analysis. Not only that, many modern scholars freely acknowledge their debt to the Jewish commentators of all ages and have about as much respect for them and their scholarship and their insights that we do.
2) The claim of Divine Authorship for the Torah doesn't come from HOW the Torah is written. No one is claiming that the Torah has a uniquely "divine style" which is what DH is purported to be refuting.
The claim of Divine authorship comes from the assertion that millions of witnesses claimed to have experienced God communicating information to Moses. That's it.
Debating this historical assertion has nothing to with DH.

2. The claim of divine authorship for the Torah has nothing to do with the style of writing, unlike, say the Islamic claims about the Qur'an as exquisite an unmatched literary masterpiece that humans can't produce. The claim of divine authorship rests on a form of the Kuzari principle (how can 600,000 people be convinced they saw something they didn't?).
Granted, but if so, then can we agree that we can no longer talk about extraneous things like the "best-seller" status of the Torah or its enormous influence on culture and attitudes in the world? Just kidding. I like those things, but Fkm seems to preclude them from any discussion about the Torah. If all we're left with is the How Can 600,000 People Be Wrong and Would Our Parents Lie To Us argument, need I explain how unconvincing that particular argument actually is? The argument only convinces people who were already convinced, which should tell you something about how sound it is. Before anyone points out to me that R. Micha Berger has a unique interpretation of the so-called Kuzari principle, he rejects the principle-as-proof argument.

3)A related issue to DH is the appearance of anachronisms in the Torah. This gives people the impression that it must have been written/edited at a later time than the events recorded in the Torah. But this is a mistake. You cannot read ANY text in a vacuum. Only the producers of the text can have a definitive opinion on how the text should be understood. And the custodians of this text (Rabbinic Jews) have plausible explanations for the anachronisms from the perspective of divine authorship. These explanations cannot be dismissed simply because a secular scholar would never have arrived at them independently.
Take Shakespeare for an analogy. I think it is simply mistaken to judge Julius Caesar on its purely historical merits if it was not in fact written strictly as history. The exact same thing is true with the anachronisms in the Torah. The Torah intended to convey the actual historical events, while relating to the geographic CONTEXT of the Jews living at Sinai when this text was actually written.
The Torah wasn't written for historians to glean names of cities or inhabitants of the places in the "real time" of the events being recorded.
It was written to give the recipients of the Torah a grasp of the location of the events (or greatness of people like Moshe which also troubles secular scholars) being described.
Of course I'm not saying the events weren't historically true! They certainly were. I'm only saying the frames of reference were geared to the immediate recipients of the text. This understanding actually supports the "hypothesis" that the text of the Torah was fixed at the Sinai period and NOT earlier or later.

Also, there is nothing misleading about God wanting the Jewish people in the desert to be aware of Moshe's greatness. It's only misleading if you assume Moshe was authoring the Torah himself and ignore the Torah's own claim of Divine Authorship.
That's creating an artificial problem.
The skeptic is misleading himself with his assumptions.

3. All anachronisms in the Torah have plausible explanations from within the Jewish tradition. These cannot be dismissed simply because modern scholarship wouldn't arrive at these solutions independently. Fkm then goes on to remind us that the Torah isn't a history book (tell that to your rebbe :) ) and as such is not useful to scholars.
Plausible is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? Is every explanation convincing? We'd all like to think that every peshat given by every traditional source speaks to us, but that just isn't so. We can be coy and say 'lulei de-mistafina...' but the facts are that not every anachronism is explained convincingly for everyone. There is also a methodological difference at play. Modern scholarship can't accept what it perceives as ad-hoc hypotheses without internal or external evidence (and it cannot be stressed enough that modern scholars who do this themselves are just as, if not more, unconvincing). If one were to draw maps of ancient Canaan and demonstrate that the Philistines of Gerar in the Patriarchal period were different than the Philistines in the period of the Monarchy, that would be one thing. But not every traditional answer explains anachronisms away in this fashion. Furthermore, there are difficulties noted by modern scholarship that were not noted by traditional sources, because in order to note them one would have had to be aware of modern scholarship. An obvious example is the problem of the Philistines I just mentioned (with its possible or even probable solution). It's true that Tanakh correctly records that they originated in the Aegean islands, but the question of how Philistines had settled Philistia during the Patriarchal period was only noted when it became clear that they hadn't arrived until centuries later.

4)The question is then asked: But why should anyone approach the Torah as a divine text in the first place?

It is reasonable to accept the explanations of those who are universally regarded as the custodians of the text from day one. (whenever that may be) It really does come down to the existence of an unbroken chain of transmission-- informing us of the intentions of the Author of this text. No other group of people have been as vigilant in preserving the text of the Torah and it meanings as Rabbinic Jews. This much is uncontested. That gives Rabbinic Jews a certain degree of general authority regarding how the Torah should be understood in general terms.
Let's use the Shakespeare analogy again:
Imagine William told all his family and friends the following statement before he died: "My works that are set in historical contexts were not written as strictly history but as literature."
And let us say that all of those family and friends faithfully perpetuated this statement from generation to generation without any gap.
Then comes along the academic community and because a lack of controversial topics to write theses on, start to analyze Shakespeare as strictly history. The professors claim that the stories SEEM to be describing actual historical events! They do contain real historical figures don't they? That's evidence enough for them that Shakespeare wrote it as real history! They then proceed to make a living by creating departments in universities and publishing books dedicated to punching large holes in the historical descriptions. All this while the descendants of Shakespeare are crying "foul" at the top of their lungs.
What should the objective observer of this situation choose?
The Academics' theories or Shakespeare's descendants?
I don't see a meaningful difference between this and our situation with DH.

4. In response to my query about why one should approach the text as divine in the first place, particularly if they aren't Jewish (we do not, after all, accord this courtesy to the holy texts of other religions when we first examine them): the unbroken chain of mesorah. It was regarded as a divine text from day one, and by the original audience who experienced actual Revelation. These are our ancestors. Fkm then uses a reverse analogy, by way of Shakespeare. Since Shakespeare's plays aren't historical documents, if some current in literary analysis decided that they were--and even convinced most people--that wouldn't make them actually historical. And what if there were descendents of Shakespeare who knew exactly what they were who were crying foul? They wouldn't be wrong even if they remained a minority. In fact, the academic establishment would be wrong, however convincing they managed to be.
The reasoning here is circular. It's tradition that says there is an unbroken mesorah. If you already believe there is an unbroken mesorah then naturally you will approach the text as divine. Fkm is certain that the text was perceived the way we do "from day one." How does he know this? The unbroken mesorah. How does he know how old the mesorah is that its unbroken? The unbroken mesorah.
5) Next objection: How do we know that the Rabbinic Jews didn't make up these explanations as they went along? Maybe there is no unbroken tradition as they claim? How can we know for sure? There is really no way of knowing if David Ha-melekh had his soldiers write gittin, is there? We can prove that Jews have believed it for many, many centuries, but how can we bridge the gap of more than a thousand years between him and our earliest written source for that?

Answer: There is one solid piece of evidence that is often overlooked. The Jewish People are very VERY good at preserving traditions. This is fact. Granted, some of it gets lost, and some gets added. But if I living in the 21st century can so easily recognize and identify with the Judaism of the Pharisees of 2,000 ago, what REASON do I have to doubt that the Pharisees couldn't have GENUINELY preserved and identified just as strongly with the Judaism of the biblical Israelites?

Let's give them the credit to not outright falsify and invent an unbroken tradition. The Talmud has detailed records of the Takkanos and Gezeiros of biblical figures such as Moshe, Yehoshuah Bin Nun, Dovid and Shlomo HaMelech. Barring outright deception, this clearly shows that they did indeed identify with them.
Bottom Line: If we can show that we've managed to faithfully preserve Pharisee Judaism, it logically follows that they can be trusted to have been preserving Israelite Judaism.
Why do we always need outside historical verification in order to accept a truth about Jewish history already coming from a reliable source?
Why does it have to be academically respectable enough for "them" to accept before we can accept it ourselves?
It is simple cultural and religious insecurity. (This happens to be the entire theme of my critique against Slifkin as well.)

5. How can it be shown that the mesorah is in fact totally original and ancient? My example was to question whether David ha-melekh actually had his soldiers write gittin before they went into battle. Fkm responds that "The Jewish People are very VERY good at preserving traditions. This is fact." Fkm does acknowledge that there are glitches, but if he can identify with the Pharisees of 21 centuries ago so readily, what reason does he have to doubt that the selfsame Pharisees didn't preserve the traditions of 1300 years earlier? Not only that, it is pure cultural insecurity to think that we've made mistakes just because historical scholarship says that we have made some of them!
Some of these things are going to overlap in other bits. Suffice it to say that Fkm's position is impressionistic. Who says the Jewish people are VERY good at preserving traditions? Tradition. If we're not going to admit any findings from outside of tradition (such as historical scholarship) then of course from a traditional viewpoint what is, is as was. If he can so readily identify with the Perushim I'd ask how he know how readily the Perushim could identify with him? Besides, how is he prepared to identify with a bare-headed Tanna, for example. We strongly identify with our 1st century ancestors as filtered through our own colored eyeglasses. And I'm not at all arguing that we've made an unnatural progression from then to now. Getting back to the example of David ha-melekh, how do we know that this isn't of the same time of midrash aggadah which has Avraham Avinu making an eruv tavshilin? In other words, it isn't literal. Surely Fkm agrees that not all midrashim are literal? And if we don't know for certain which are and which aren't, doesn't that illustrate the very point that there is no remembered continuity from the battle practice of David to the present day? And even if we decide arbitrarily that the memory was preserved for more than a thousand years for Chazal, what about the time since? Have we remembered this information or have we seen it written in a book? Fkm tends to conflate what we find written with what we remember. How many elements of the mesorah are there from ancient times that were NOT written? Do we have a single example of a halakha delievered from 3000 years ago in an oral chain that was never comitted to writing?
6)Another related point: I don't buy the argument that the upheavals of Temple destructions and exiles must have forced a sea change from biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. Rav Hirsch in Collected Writings Vol 5 laid that canard to rest long ago.
I can't imagine any upheaval greater than the social and political upheavals of the past 2 centuries. And nevertheless, here we are- stubborn Rabbinic Jews- and we're not exactly on the decline anymore either.

6. According to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch the 'canard' that the upheaval of exile caused a sea change from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the past two centuries of Jewish history with its unprecedented upheaval hasn't caused an end to Rabbinic Judaism.
This argument can be found in traditional sources as well and as such is no canard. For example, R. Zadok Ha-kohen draws a sharp contrast between the period of the Nebhi'im and the period after and considers the loss of nebhua to have enormous implications for Torah she-be'al peh, namely that the end of the former was required for the flourishing of the latter. Further, we've got 3000 years of Jewish religion and culture to guide us through our own upheavals. They did not have the same resource on the same scale when suddenly they were launched weeping by the rivers of Babylon? Yes, this is a dwarves on the shoulders of giants argument. We cannot underestimate the theological and cultural upheaval the exile caused (twice, in fact). The fact that there is a persistent denial of this means only that great changes can occur under our noses without us really appreciating the enormity of it, which undermines his point. Consider that the Europe that was is basically not really remembered except by those who are still with us who lived it. This is at the heart of the hagiography/ Artscrollization debate currently flickering, if not flaming, these days. And this particular debate only began, really, in the 1980s after decades of silence.

To be continued (points 8-13)....

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