Homework Assignment (sort of)

I was going to write a follow-up post, but decided on second thought to provide some preparatory material first. The following article by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun was first published here. I apologize for inconsistencies in translation and/or errors in grammar or spelling. It’s been a while since I translated whole sentences (don’t ask). Read the whole thing through, paying careful attention to his arguments even if you disagree. It will help to understand my next post, which should be up next week.


[Translator’s note: all emphases were in the original]

“God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this [!]” (Tehilim 62:12)

Usually, this passuk is interpreted with an exclamation point. I don’t understand why I found it in the contact sheet with a question mark. My friend and comrade Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein wished to write poetry (out of the tension of inner conflict, by his lights), and he came up with rather confrontational rhetoric against Rav Breuer’s method for teaching Tanach (“A problematic method, which derives from a world of rather sharp contrasts and contradictions”, as per his words), against Rabbi Bazak and his arguments, and almost in passing, against the naïve method of myself and my students, which try to extract good from bad, and end up with more “waste than food” until the point that “the minority is batel against the majority and becomes entirely waste” as per the definition of Tosfot TB Beitza 14, 2).

This whole discussion, which was supposed to be conducted as an internal discussion in our beit midrash, has been printed in the ‘contact sheet’, distributed outside the yeshiva, and it has even found its place on the yeshiva’s web site. During the debate an error arose: There has never been a discussion, or an evening, with the title of “Did the Tanach happen?”, and there was never any debate among us on this question. This title was taken from an article by Rav Yuval Cherlow, which was published in Megadim 32, the whole purpose of which was to make the entire public debate on these questions seem unimportant, even ridiculous. Rabbi Cherlow is thus almost acting in concert with Rav Lichtenstein, and for this purpose he used a provocative title. The fact that not everyone understood this only demonstrates the need for caution when choosing titles.

As opposed to this, an evening did indeed take place on the subject, with the declared purpose of arguing against the denialist position, which had appeared in many places (including the Haaretz magazine and scientific publications). After this position became known, a wide-ranging demand arose for us to respond and deal with their arguments. This  was necessary as per the method of our forebearers (the Rambam, the Ramban and many others), and there was no way to seriously contend with the denialist position without bringing the one who caused the storm to the discussion.

The comparison of those who deny the historicity of the Tanach with Holocaust deniers is not a correct comparison, kind of like trying to prove two non-congruent triangles to be congruent: Holocaust denial today, while its witnesses are still alive, is complete rishus. In thousands of years (who knows?), it may be that God forbid good but skeptical people will fall into the trap of denial, and God forbid we may also have to deal with them directly.  The deniers of the Tanach’s historicity claim that they admire it – even if as “an ideational truth and not an historic truth” – and even though we in Am Israel – “This is not the path we lean to, nor towards this opinion will we look” – we know that there were those in Am Israel who tended to this position, and it is difficult to put them outside the pale.

The Path of a True Believer

Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein does not distinguish at all between the facts which science demonstrates and the theories through which those facts are explained, and therefore he attacks us for making use of the theories of Biblical Criticism. It is clear and obvious, that we do not believe in these theories. Our goal is to present alternative explanations to those presented by Biblical Criticism, through a commitment to deal with the facts with Biblical Criticism discovered, which are easy to spot and difficult to reject.

We will try to demonstrate with an example: Anyone who has never seen limestone under a microscope – perhaps he doesn’t know or cannot believe that all limestone rocks and mountains are made up of billions upon billions of skeletons, snails and clams of varying types which sank to the bottom of the sea. I am sure that most people, including most Torah students, know that there are some fossils in the rocks, but think that the rock itself is lifeless, much like the rocks in Eilat and the Sinai. They do not grasp the fact that all of the limestone rocks of all of the mountains are built from skeletons of maritime animals. This fact was revealed to us only through modern means, which God –the creator of Heaven and Earth – saw fit to give us, in all our unworthiness, to observe His handiwork. Now that this fact has been discovered – it cannot be ignored.

Human intelligence was created by the Creator blessed be he – along with all our bodies – and we have no recourse but to use our intelligence, make use of the knowledge we have gained with its help, and integrate it into the study of Torah. If we don’t do so, we cannot be mekayem the mitzvah of Talmud Torah according to the path of Chazal. It is possible to admire the Torah, love it, fear it, stand at attention in its presence and dance with it – even without intelligence, and even without opening it. But, in order to “learn and teach, guard and do and be mekayem” – we need to use the intelligence God gave us.

We will try to use another example: Through modern telescopes it is possible to see galaxies of stars with the naked eye, and it is also possible to calculate the distances between us and them. Additionally, it is possible to calculate the tremendous speed at which each galaxy is moving away from us. Sometimes it is possible to see a distant star thousands of light years away from us, and see behind it a galaxy, which is hundreds of millions of light years away from us. These are facts, which can be seen, checked and calculated. The present scientific interpretation to these facts is that our entire universe was born in a primordial burst of light.

For the first time in history, an incredible match was made between modern scientific interpretation and Chapter 1 in Bereshit. However this is a mixed blessing, since the scientists have proven in their calculations that the ‘Big Bang’ occurred 15 billion years ago, and thus the astonished believer has only one option: to interpret the pesukim in the Torah that God gave, to match the facts which arise from the World He created! The true believer cannot deny facts, since by this he denies, God forbid, that God created this world that we discover and observe. Similarly, the true believer cannot deny the Torah that God gave us, as well as that one God created the world, giving us both the Torah and our intelligence. Therefore, a contemporary believer has only one road, which has two opposite lanes:

  1. Check Chazal’s yearly calculation, which appears in “Seder Olam”, and discover that Chazal didn’t start the counting from the creation of the world but from the creation of man – and determine that ‘man’ is our civilized man, with his cultural continuity, and no other similar life form. Thus we will understand that “six days” are not “days” of 24 hours but a code used by the Creator of the World and Giver of the Torah to inestimable and unfathomable eons.
  1. Argue that the Torah is not coming to clarify processes and phenomena in Creation, but only to teach us the mitzvah of Shabbat. Therefore, it is unimportant that science is speaking now of a primordial burst of light, in a matter that matches the Torah’s language so well, and even if science gave an entirely different description of the natural world – the Torah would lose nothing of its value. According to this method, there is no real meaning to the Torah year count, and the descriptions of creation are only metaphors, meant to implant the concept of Shabbat and its Mitzvot.

Each person may choose their own path, but in any event, two of the three paths which Rav Lichtenstein listed are barred for the true believer.

On such did the Ramban say in his perush on the Torah regarding the rainbow:

“And we – we are compelled to believe the word of the Greeks, that from the heat of the sun on the moist air the rainbow is born…” (Ramban, Bereshit 9:12-13)

Davka the true believer, who cannot deny the facts of creation, is invited to interpret them just as he interprets God’s word in the Torah.

The Facts of Biblical Research

Biblical research is filled to the brim with theories, detached conjectures and interpretive inventions which grow on the basis of preconceived notions. But the foundations for all the research are facts which cannot be denied: Many parshiyot in the Torah – such as the parshiya of creation, the story of the flood and Ma’amad Har Sinai – were written in double, or more, descriptions, and there are clear contradictions between the double descriptions or the different ‘bechinot’. In particular, there are differences, contrasts and contradictions between the Torat Cohanim in Vayikra and the words of Moshe to all of Israel in Devarim.

The first to deal with the questions, repetitions and contrasts were the midrashim of Chazal, but they did not do it systematically, and not always according to the plain meaning of the text. Our great commentators offered wonderful solutions in many places, but only a few looked at the Torah from an overarching perspective and conducted a systematic examination of these phenomena. Indeed, there are some examples of a general perspective in the commentaries of the Rambam, Ramban and the Abarbanel; but all of them combined do not encompass most of the problems, and they do not give us overall explanations to solve them.

Unfortunately, God graced davka the wise men of the Nations and those who seceded from Adat Israel, to look at the Torah with their human intelligence (like any other literature), and thus it was davka they who realized the full extent of these problems. True – some of their motives were rooted in sheker, and many of these researchers had an agenda to remove the Torah’s holiness and abolish the testimony which has been passed down from generation to generation, to support casting off Torah and Mitzvot and deny Revelation and the idea of the Chosennes of Israel.

Precisely because of this, we must learn and understand why these facts were discovered by the forces of destruction. We will try to understand why the People of Israel has abandoned the study of Tanach, and we will dwell on the terrible results of this – among them Jewish ideological secularism, which has caused destruction in the vineyard of Israel for over 200 years.

Now, ostensibly we have three paths – though in practice only one – to deal with the Criticism:

  1. Ignore everything, and believe in our hearts that it is all lies and rishut – not just the theories but also the facts. This path is pure foolishness. Even if all the Chachamim and all the Gedolim gathered together, they could not remove a single pasuk from the Torah, nor a single star from its place in creation.
  1. Get swept up by the kefira, God forbid, and place the obligation of the Torah and Mitzvot on the basis of the acceptance of klal Israel throughout the generations. In other words – accept the Written Torah in the same way we accept the Oral Torah, from the world of Chazal to the latest poskim, as a wonderful creation of the spirit of God which beats within Israel. This path contains a grave danger, whose results we have already seen.
  1. Deal with the problems which we discover in the Torah, with the repetitions and the contradictions, by way of alternative interpretation to that of critical research. With this path we openly reject the assumptions and the conclusions of Biblical Criticism, and try to prepare a path of believing interpretation, which takes the facts into account and builds a structure of belief on top of it (See Rav Kook’s statements in Adar Hayakar, p. 36-43; Orot Hakodesh 1, Khochmat Hakodesh 9).

The first path led to and is leading to the destruction of the world of Torah. Most of the secular Jews who left Torah in Eastern and Western Europe discovered the problems of the Torah, realized that their Rabbis had no clue on the matter, and left Judaism. Some of them became enthusiastic Zionists, who were moser nefesh for the rejuvenation of Israel, but the third and fourth generations of that group are drifting further and further away, to the point of endangering our existence.

The world of Torah in the Land of Israel was rebuilt after the European Holocaust, and is living now in a euphoric atmosphere of historic success. Therefore, it assumes that it is possible and necessary to continue to ignore the Criticism. Every year I meet boys and girls – bnei Torah and knowledgeable of Torah – who discover the big questions  either from reading or during their studies at university. These youth go first to the Rabbis who taught them Torah, and discover (in most cases), that the Rabbis do not know the basic facts, and they wrap up everything in slogans of emunah, and with the foolish argument that “it is assur to use human intelligence to understand the Torah”.

Every ben Torah, and certainly Rabbi Lichtenstein, knows that the entire world of Chazal is built on the idea that the Torah can be interpreted by the human intelligence given to us by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and only by this intelligence. Chazal even objected vociferously to the position of the sects of the Second Temple, who argued that the Torah can only be interpreted by prophecy and ruach Hakodesh.

I see the shock that our youth endure, and I know for certain that it is only a matter of time until the facts which stand at the base of Biblical Criticism reach into the world of Torah. It is impossible to ignore it for long. Our Rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, said a number of times that the world of Torah in the land of Israel today reminds him of the European world of Torah before the Great Collapse. Young people would do well to listen to a great man, who saw a world built then destroyed then rebuilt, also in the sense of the deep crisis of faith in the yeshiva world. Continuing to ignore the issue, and specifically continuing the use of baseless slogans, could lead to deep crisis.

The second path we listed above is the one used by religious intellectuals who grow in the academic world, and it is against them that Rav Breuer wrote his article in Megadim 30. Keeping Torah and Mitzvot without believing the Torah’s own testimony that it is God’s Torah from Heaven – it is doubtful if it is sufficient to pass down a way of life for even a generation or two. I do not want to put them outside the pale, especially since Rav Kook in his great vision left them an opening of an answer (Adar Hayakar, p. 38-39); but this path seems to me no less dangerous than the first, and in my estimation – will also lead to crisis. More than that: this path has a whiff of weakness and surrender to foreign attitudes which have never been proven, just because they are based on undeniably correct facts.

The only path open to us is the third path, and it is on this path that we based the study of Tanach in Har Etzion Yeshiva and in the Institute for Teacher Training. This path contains a number of foundational assumptions:

  1. 1. We all believe in Torah from Heaven – that it is not a human creation, and it is not the result of several generations of composition, but was given to Moshe by God, in the manner interpreted by Chazal. It pains me that I even have to state this, as though there were any other option, God Forbid.

  1. 2. All of us think that there is no necessary connection between the facts (the problems, repetitions and contradictions), and the assumptions and conclusions of Biblical Criticism. Therefore, we do not teach Biblical Criticism at all – not Rav Breuer and his students, not me and my students, and not others. We teach Tanach through ideational-interpretational dealing with the facts, and not through the conclusions of critical research. Anyone who says that we teach Biblical Criticism is wrong, and is guilty of being motzi shem ra, with all its ramifications.

  1. 3. All of us think that we must not ignore the facts, and part of the religious obligation of Torah study in our day includes dealing with these problems. The argument that “if all of this true – how did the previous gedolim not discover it before us”, is not in any way a valid argument, just as it is pure foolishness to say that modern physics is incorrect because the Rambam accepted Aristotlean physics.

Any talmid chacham that is not willing to delude themselves knows that before the Rambam they did not speak, think or study Torah according to his methods, either in halacha or machshava. The same holds true for the ba’alei Tosfot, the Ramban, the mekubalim etc. The Kadosh Baruch Hu reveals the wonders of his world and his Torah to each generation, according to his determination, and clearly there are in the world and the Torah entire fields that are presently sealed to us, which are destined to be revealed in future generations. There is nothing novel or problematic about this: every generation studies Torah and becomes familiar with the world with the tools given to him by God – the Creator of the World, the Creator of History and the Giver of the Torah. Only the refusal and the willful ignorance leads to a situation where these tools were given first to complete apikorsim, causing damage and crisis, until God-fearing heroes arise to return the Torah to its abode with the new tools given to us by God.

Beyond these three agreed-upon principles, there are also different opinions and methods among us (as there is in any Beit Midrash where Torah is learned lishma). Rabbi Breuer and his students go on one path, which is entirely informed by pure yirat Hashem and incredible Torah wisdom. We all owe him a great and incredible debt for his two great enterprises: The Masora, and his honest and brave interpretation of the Torah, creating all the while a faithful alternative to Biblical Criticism. That being said, I do not consider myself bound to accept all the assumptions and conclusions of Rabbi Breuer. This is especially since I grew up under my father z”l, who was a man of languages and Bible and deeply involved in both, and under my mother z”l, who spent a lot of time dealing with the historical-cultural aspect of Mesopotamia and the Hittites.

My path is different than that of Rabbi Breuer’s on at least three important points:

  1. 1. I am not bound by the division of parshiyot base on ‘behinot’, as accepted by the critical literary research, and I deal with each and every parsha on its own. Already prominent linguists (like Abba Ben-David and my father z”l) proved, that with the same literary tools one can arrive at different divisions, and there are definitely expressions and descriptions that lead to a different division of ‘behinot’. It is precisely the literary and historical-cultural facts which bring me to the conclusion that the Torah is a single work, in which there are different ‘behinot’, different styles, contrasts, contradictions and layers.

  1. 2. Rabbi Breuer deliberately ignores the historical aspect of Biblical research. I consider myself obligated to deal with these aspects, for the same reasons that obligate him to deal with the literary aspects of Biblical research. In spite of the difficulties, I believe that it is possible, especially in light of what has been discovered in past years.

  1. 3. The concepts of science and scientific logic have undergone a sea change since Rav Breuer began formulating his method. The rules of contradiction, which were considered absolute then, are now seen as reflecting the limits of our understanding. The theory of relativity, the Heizenberg uncertainty principle, the duality of light and Quantic logic, are leading us into a new world, in which contradictions and opposites can reflect different ‘behinot’ in the world of nature as well.

In light of modern science, we are completely exempt from the theological corner into which Rav Breuer was pushed, and believes in it as complete truth. Human intelligence, which can understand how the light in nature can be both energy which spreads in waves and be a stream of particles at the same time, even though these two concepts contradict each other, can understand – quite easily – how two contradictory descriptions express two sides (or two ‘behinot’) in one truth, in one concept and in one reality. In truth, the source for this concept was already in existence in the statements of Chazal, who taught us: “zachor and shamor were stated in one commandment, what the mouth cannot say and the ear cannot hear!” (in other words at once). Indeed, as the pasuk in the psalm says: “God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this [!]” (Tehilim 62:12).


I am compelled to add one more thing. For years now, and even more so since Rabbi Breuer’s article against Dr. Israel Knohl, the following libel is spread: “Rav Breuer is a complete tzadik, and he has a deep and unique concept. But his students have gone too far, and arrive at complete denial in Torah min hashamayim, God Forbid.”. The proof – Rav Breuer’s article “Against Knohl”, which derived from his deep fear that perhaps his students had accepted the “Knohl method” (Translator’s note: which accepts DH).

Rav Breuer’s deep concern is an undisputable fact. All the rest is libel. I personally know most of the people in question, and I know, that anyone who went too far did so as a result of their studies in Bible departments in the universities, and not as a result of their studies with Rav Breuer, or in Herzog College, which is attached to the Yeshiva. As a matter of fact, there are in both the yeshiva and Herzog College talmidei chachcamim who are fluent in Tanach, whose entire faith-based and Tanachic world was built in this place. They started as students and today are now teachers, and there is no flaw or defect in their faith, God Forbid. Anyone who doesn’t believe this is invited to see for themselves.

Even among those who studied Bible, philosophy, history and related fields in universities, there are many believers. However there are also those who went far afield onto the path which I defined above as dangerous, alongside the fact, that they remained loyal to keeping Mitzvot, thank God. This phenomenon does not happen at Herzog College, not among Rav Breuer’s students, and not among the other students.

Now, people are beginning to spread the same “wisdom” about me: “Rabbi Yoel is a tzadik, but his students went too far…”. In two cases I asked to know who were my students who “went too far”, once I received an evasive answer, in another an unfocused story, of students in a certain yeshiva, who are not my students at all, and never were (and I don’t believe they really “went too far…”).

All critics can invite me and hear me out, and can read and give a substantive response. I find unacceptable the methods of banning which are used in religious circles, and which are lead by people, who never studied these issues in depth, and are unable to respond substantively. Those who wish to discuss the fundamental questions of Bible study are invited to delve deep into Bible and languages first, then we will be glad to hear him out, while paying proper attention to the important educational issues involved.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Homework Assignment (sort of)

  1. Pingback: It’s Time to Move On | QED

  2. Pingback: Religious Maturity, Or The Atheist Avrech and You (Part Two) | QED

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s