Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber on Faith and Biblical History

Very few rabbis have both a PhD in humanities and also functioned as a Dayyan (Isidor Grunfled, Herzog, Bleich). Zev Farber has a PhD in Biblical history and yadin yadin. He just published a manifesto of his beliefs on faith and criticism. It is a well thought out position paper of what he believes. Here are some excerpts totaling about a third of the essay. This is the time to compare his position to that of Kugel, Ross, Berman, and the others. The discussion here is to be about the theological and philosophic issues, not the denominational ones. I placed his concluding section first, then followed the order of the essay.


Beyond strict adherence to halakha, part of being a Torah observant—or Orthodox—Jew is believing in the divinity of the Torah, that the Torah is devar Hashem, the word of God. In this essay I have tried to describe how this is possible while still embracing the findings and methods of modern academic scholarship which appear to me to be convincing. What is “the sum of the matter”? Here are my beliefs in short.

I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah is from heaven, and that the entirety of the book is nevua (prophecy) and represents the encounter between God and the people of Israel.
I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, meaning the uniqueness of the Torah as being of a higher order than any other work in its level of divine encounter. The story of the revelation at Sinai in the Torah I understand as a narrative depiction of a deeper truth—the Torah is God’s book and the divine blueprint for Israel and Jewish life.

I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses, from “Timnah was a concubine” (Gen. 36:12) to “I am the Lord your God,” are holy.
I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal’s interpretation.

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Every generation has its challenges, both intellectual and social. As committed observant Jews, it is our job to keep the tradition alive by adapting the message of God to respond to these challenges, without fear and without apology, but with intellectual honesty, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual integrity. We must always be ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts. Only in this way will we succeed in facilitating the growth of Torah observance in our day and allow the Torah and its message to flourish.


Our engagement with Torah cannot remain stagnant as the world continues to turn. Our Torah has proven to be timeless, but this doesn’t mean that it remains the same. Chazal call the Torah a torat chayim, a living Torah. Living implies growing; living implies continued vibrance.

As has happened many times in human history, the world is going through a Kuhnian paradigm shift in its understanding of its past and the foundations of its religious identity.What was once thought to be history may, in the light of developing understanding about history, science and society, now be understood as mnemohistory, a technical term which means the study of constructed memory.

This shift goes deeper than questioning miracles or allegorically interpreting tales such as the Garden of Eden with its talking snake. It runs deeper than the realization that the Torah contains difficult and seemingly contradictory accounts of certain events. Over the past few decades, much of the narrative of ancient Israel’s origins, from the patriarchs to the conquest, including the Exodus, the wilderness experience and Sinai, have proven problematic to reconstruct as historical. Certain accounts have been subject to re-characterization as legend or constructed memory, and not necessarily historical fact.

Fundamentalist objections to this paradigm shift include those who cast aspersions on historians or professors of religion, those who espouse conspiracy theories about a war on God, and those who intimate that the so-called objective scientific approach is anything but.

Nevertheless, many traditionally-observant Jews wish for an engagement with Torah free of apologetics and irrational claims. Can our religious way of life and our faith that we are part of some larger divine plan survive the loss of its “historical” underpinnings, now relegated to the status of legend or narrative allegory by the vast majority of academic historians? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes!

Since my teenage years, I have been aware of the tension between academic biblical studies and Torah mi-Sinai as presented by some of my teachers. For years, as I was mastering my yeshiva studies, I put these concerns aside with the implicit understanding that I would return to them when I became more grounded in traditional learning. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I signed up to study biblical history at Hebrew University.

As I began my studies, I started to learn Tanakh with the historical-critical approach. As I deepened my facility with this methodology, I realized that I was constantly engaged in apologetics with myself, subscribing to readings of texts and theories that I would not be included to subscribe to if it were any other subject and if my beliefs were not at stake. This was intolerable to me since if I could not be honest with myself, I was lost before I started.

Over these years, I became proficient in the nuts and bolts of ancient history and academic biblical interpretation, learning Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin so that I could read important material in the original.6 I learned about source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, literary theory, and a variety of other tools that academic biblical scholars use when studying the text.7 As I became more adept at this, I began to notice a myriad of problems. I will offer here some illustrative examples.

So where does this inquiry leave me? First, it appears that the Torah is a layered document. While I am not convinced of the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) per se, it seems that the Torah has evident signs of being an edited work which makes use of multiple sources and contains layers of redaction. The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives and lists. At first I toyed with the possibility that these might be literary devices, but this only works for some of the examples (and not for many of them).

Second, religious practices as well as aspects of the Jewish belief system have changed and developed over the generations. The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e. that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.

Faced with this awareness, I turned back to my religious self (which I had kept on hold for a few years) and asked whether this new perspective should change anything about my lifestyle and commitments.

I realized that some Jewish thinkers are caught in a binary system: either every word of the Torah was literally dictated by God to Moses, hence perfect, or the Torah was written by people, hence flawed. I wish to abandon the binary system and offer something else: a faith-position of sorts.

In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. These different modes themselves are probably not binary; I imagine that a person can be in prophetic mode to a greater or lesser degree, depending on his or her level of inspiration and spiritual sensitivity.

The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way. To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God create a mesorah in which distinct documents, traditions, redactional comments, and other sources can evolve into the Torat Hashem (God’s Torah).

Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.

I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud.

In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.

Once upon a time, history and lore were closely intertwined. Legends and myths, blended with nuggets of cultural memory, explained the distant past.

But matters did not—could not—stop there. The Torah traces the lineage of Israel’s first founding father, Abraham, back to Noah. But if Noah is not a historical character, what about Abraham? Additionally, it is hard to ignore the symbolic elements of many of the Abraham stories. Many of his sons—if not all of them—founded their own nations. Scholars began to realize that the family history being offered in the Torah was really a schematic attempt—the technical term is etiological narrative—of the Israelite writers or story tellers to explain the relationships between themselves and their neighbors.

The same holds true of the description of the development of Israel. The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves: “We are all one family because we are all children of the same father.” These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.

Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century). However, even when historiography and biblical history overlap, they are hardly one and the same.

The stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troublesome.

This vision of Torah may appeal to some but, ironically, I find it both unappealing and even sacrilegious. The Sages tell us that the Torah predates creation—although I understand this as a non-literal claim, it implies that the Torah had no choice but to turn out the way it did. The stories were destined to be told, irrespective of the historicity of its characters and their actions.

Many may feel a pang of fear when sacred stories of the past are referred to as lore—when mnemohistory is understood as something different than factual history. However, the most powerful force in most societies is not history. Societies are driven by their lore—their legends and their stories.

The same is true for biblical stories and characters. The stories of the Torah reflect the ways the prophets of old refracted their encounters with divine wisdom through the prism of mnemohistorical narrative. Adam is the story about why humans are here, and Noah is the story about the precariousness of our position and the existential need to be good people in order for our existence to have meaning. The stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are about who we (Israel/Jews) are as a people and how we found God/God found us; the Exodus and Conquest tell us about Israel’s mission as a nation and our covenantal relationship with God. (Read the Full Version-Here)

13 responses to “Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber on Faith and Biblical History

  1. I consider your paradigm to be very empowering to the individual Jew who is told that he must check his own faith at the door and in essence substitute the faith of someone more learned than they. In your approach, the Torah is a continuous transmission and we apprehend it through the intellect and also through our own individual prophetic (for lack of a better term) insights and abilities.

  2. Rabbi Farber’s definition of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim and Torah mi-Sinai seem to be very different from how I understand them. His “pintele yid” doesn’t want to give up, but his intellect is rejecting these core concepts. Ultimately, he trusts in his intellect more than in the tradition he has received and learned. My approach is to accept the tradition as a fact and try to ascend the “path of the just”, and hope that I achieve greater understanding as the years go by, but not to be worried or feel like a hyocrite

  3. I have a few problems with this approach.

    1. Farber is claiming a greater degree of intellectual honesty than previous approaches (such as the literary-theological or allegorical) to coming to terms with some of these issues. I fail to see how his approach is more intellectually honest. Isn’t he just drawing the lines in slightly different places? He concludes that the layers of which the Torah is composed were written by prophets operating in the prophetic mode. This conclusion is also one that he would never have reached in an area of inquiry in which he did not have a preconceived religious stake. Wouldn’t your standard academic scholar claim that the stylistic, content, and methodological similarities between the Torah texts and other contemporary text demonstrate scientifically that the Torah texts are no more prophetic than others?

    2. I feel like his decision to accept the idea that the Torah is written in layers by different authors at different times seems somewhat arbitrarily based in his personal intellectual experiences. Almost all of the concerns he raised are really addressed by acknowledging the a-historicity of the biblical stories. That conclusion can be reached easily by resorting to some of the approaches he criticizes (again, such as the literary-theological or allegorical). The only “evidence” for the layered approach are the cases in which there are different accounts of the same stories/laws. Farber pays lip service to the fact that historical/literary evidence is not the same type of evidence we have in the “hard sciences,” even as he attempts to blur those boundaries by quoting scientific paradigm shifts to bolster his claims by association. To be sure, there is much that academics have discovered which makes a *simple* every word of the Torah was dictated by God and it is absolutely literally historically accurate approach untenable. However, the suggestion that the evidence points to Farber’s particular attempt at homogenization is equally untenable. It seems all too likely that he arrives at this approach because he has been intensely exposed to source critical views.

    3. I find it unhelpful when Rabbi/scholars who are claiming to advance the cause of attempting a more academically sophisticated approach to Torah do so by writing in a manner which would not pass the academic bar. If Farber is seriously trying to convince people to reconsider how they approach Torah, it should not be in the form of “you must accept x,y,z academic doctrine, because trust me the evidence supports it.” The goal should be to expose people to the academic approach of seriously grappling with evidence based reasoning. As such, he should have presented evidence in a more even handed, academically thorough way. For instance, he cites the lack of evidence that the Jews were in Egypt. No footnote, no discussion. Sarna has claimed that there is a period in Egyptian history which could support the basic contours of the story if not all the details. Is Sarna a totally unfair apologist? Has he been discredited by the academy in the last few decades? I have no idea. Give me some evidence. But Farber shouldn’t just put out bold claims without evidence. Even if he is right, he defeats what should be the larger purpose which should be to engage MO Jews in seriously dealing with the issues in an sophisticated way, not to convince readers of any one particular set of conclusions.

  4. Noam. I think you are being unfair. He is advancing the claim of a more academically sophisticated evidence based approach to Torah. His theology creates a new framework for understanding terms such as Torah Min Shamayim. The new framework does not conflict with the academic approach and it provides more than enough space for the personal God of Judaism. What it does not provide is apollogetics for the old way of looking at things. He has no need under his theory to either confirm or deny Sarna’s work because his paradigm shift places his faith above this or that historical fact.

  5. “in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times.”

    With respect to the author and his worthy project, you may be able to understand how an ideal or halacha functioned in its time, but abstracting the supposedly pure idea is itself nothing more than an act of interpretation which isn’t in any non question-begging way better or distinguishable from another interpretive strategy except insofar as it reflects the preferences of the interpreter. There is no Archimedean point from which to decide which interpretive strategy is truer to the original idea or has better captured the essence of the original.

    Recognizing this problem you retreat in the next sentence with “Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.”

    This seems to be a point in favor of some kind of historicist-traditionalist hybrid. But then why not leave aside the historicist aspect? Perhaps the claim that a historicist search for the essence of a halakhic ideal is now the preferred method of arriving at religious truth appears to rest on the idea that every generation (person?) is supposed to use the (best?) interpretive tools at its disposal to hear God’s message. By what standard are historical-critical methods the best? Perhaps each individual supposed to use the ones that she finds to be the most compelling? Soon we can have halacha according to Derrida, Cover, Bakhtin. Zizek etc. etc.

    The problem is partly alluded by your (mis)application of the term “Kuhnian paradigm shift.” What distinguishes Kuhn’s notion of scientific change is that after a revolutionary paradigm shift scientists are very suddenly no longer speaking a language compatible with the older theoretical paradigm. To say this has happened many times in history regarding the world’s “understanding of its past and the foundations of its religious identity” is overstating things considerably. But let’s agree that something like this has happened at some point in the fairly recent past in the transition to the modern period. Kuhn realized that contemporary scientists tended not to notice that anything so radical had occurred and simply see science as a continually progressive enterprise. Kuhn’s theory and most of philosophy of science is a meta-discourse that has no effect on how scientists work or think. This is probably just as well.
    Science works fine with the slightly narrow and perhaps slightly naive view of the scientific consciousness. Religion may also function best with the narrow and slightly naive religious consciousness. By all means argue otherwise–but make that argument. Is the prophetic mode now self-conscious historicist contextualizing of Halacha? Please explain why.

  6. It would not surprise me if R. Farber’s article becomes samizdat among bochurim in Charedi Yeshivot. R. Farber offers a meta-theory that is accessible, credible, constructive and yet also achingly honest. One can quibble with various details, to be sure, but that misses the forest for the trees.

    From my perspective, one of the standout passages (that you did not quote) is:

    “What does a religious person do with in the face of these developments? One reaction is to say that without grounding in historical fact, any religion is valueless and should be jettisoned. In other words, this school of thought believes that the value of Torah is based upon the belief that what it says happened, happened – literally. To me, this implies a paper-thin respect for Torah. I have seen people turn from total observance to nothing after realizing that the biblical narratives were not historical but symbolic.”

    But, while R. Farber’s meta-theory may help in combating the OTD problem in the Charedi world, I think the impact within Modern Orthodoxy is more important as it provides a context in which Academic Jewish Studies can be more honestly integrated with one’s religious life. In this regard, it seems to be a solution set to the problem set articulated by Prof. Moshe Halbertal in 2011 (see particularly, the lecture available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHrgn4k7E20 — starting at 21:57 for the final 10 mins; now also available as an essay in http://www.bialik-publishing.co.il/product_info.php?products_id=1595). Or to cut to the essence:

    ראשית, המושג ‘תורה מן השמים’ הוא בעייתי ביותר, גם בהגות ימי הביניים. יש כאן לדעתי לא יותר מאשר ‘מחויבות פונטית’, כלומר להאמין במשהו מילולי, שלא באמת מבינים, וגם לעולם לא נבין עד הסוף. כמו נוסחה מתמטית. ל’תורה מן השמים’ היה מעמד כזה במשך דורות רבים. שנית, אדם לא מאבד את אמונתו בעקבות כך שעובדת היסוד של אמונתו התערערה. כשם שנכנסים לאמונה כך יוצאים ממנה. איש לא נכנס לחיי מצוות עקב אישור אמונת היסוד, ולכן גם היציאה אינה עקב ערעור של אמונת יסוד. צורת החיים הדתית כל כך מעורבבת באמונת היסוד, כמו גשר דו כיווני, לא כמו יסוד לבנין.

    That said, there is an obstacle on the road that will either stop momentum from this new force of energy, or will be pushed aside: the literalist reading of Rambam’s 7th and, especially, 8th Ikkarim that has become de rigueur dogma in recent decades. But, if we’re being honest, that is a problem with even Prof. Joshua Berman’s work. For example, in the article mentioned in your last interview with him, Prof. Berman writes:

    “To be sure, the author of Deuteronomy did not expect that a broad readership would be familiar with the niceties of Hittite treaty formulation. My assumption, however, is that the practice of retelling accounts in those treaties is a reflection of what was common practice: when an authority figure—a king in a treaty or a bard in a village—retold a story, his audience focused on how the message had changed, not on the strict factual nature of the claims. Nor should it surprise us that Deuteronomy calls on its readers to access accounts that we find today in the other books of the Pentateuch.”

    I think it takes a split mind to reconcile that with Rambam’s Ikkarim — as I do not think it can be answered with a straight face why God would transmit to Moshe Torah She’b’Chtav in the context of Hittite diplomacy/politics, in their literary style. And, if it is because Dibra Torah b’Lashon Bnei Adam, why would the generation of Ma’amad Har Sinai, emerging from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, care either? It is hardly consonant with what we know about their concerns and sociology based on the Mikra.

    R. Farber’s article provides a meta-theory that now provides room for the more detailed work of Prof. Berman and others within a Modern Orthodox (as opposed to fundamentalist Orthodox) context.

  7. To what degree is Zev Farber position different than Tamar Ross’?

    They both accept all of the assumptions of academic Bible study and reject the historicity of the Exodus, Sinai and the conquest of Israel.

    The only difference appears to be the language they use. Tamar Ross uses early modern and Modern Kabbalistic terminology while Zev Farber uses neo-spiritual language?\.

  8. Beyond the questions of texts and history, I would be interested to hear Farber’s attitude towards reward and punishment (in the past, present, and future), the messianic age, and resurrection. These are also regarded as “principles of faith” – I suspect they are actually more fundamental in some ways than the revelation-related ones – yet the article gives me the impression of a purely deterministic worldview with little to no room for these concepts.

  9. Dr. Farber seems to be also arguing for a different approach in practice:
    “When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and re-apply them to our times. ”

    I.e. you can subtract the ideas that don’t “fit with the times” and keep the rest in modified form. This sounds similar to the Conservative/Jacobs “Liberal Supernaturalism” view mentioned on http://thetorah.com/current-approaches/.

    • But what is the ideas in their relative purity are counter the ideas of the modern age? Is he going to be intellectually honest about that? They can’t possibly all happen to fit in with Leftist-Liberal Groupthink…

  10. Is Farber serious when he thinks that the g’dolim of each generation have been guided by prophecy or ruakh hakodesh? In other words, is this an argument for continuing prophecy of some select individuals ala the Mormon church or some kind of Lutheran-Protestant idea that we are each individually given the gift of divine inspiration in our reading of the tora? I assume it’s the former (and encompasses everyone who the community has followed until now. Because if it’s the latter, we wouldn’t have much of a community and halakha wouldn’t make much sense (why follow what someone else had as divine inspiration when I have it too and it mine says something completely different).

    But then, if I understand this correctly, shouldn’t we be even more dogmatic in our approach to halakha/hashkafa? In other words, if hashem is guiding how we have interpreted the tora until now (and how it was stitched together when we go back to the written text), then we can’t really look back at anything historically and decide to interpret it differently now. Or if some of us do, they may turn out in a few hundred years to have been wrong because hashem will have the community following someone else…

    My only guess is that eh believes this ruakh hakodesh period ended at some point. But when? After khumash? After y’hoshua? After ester? After ezra? After r’ y’huda hanasi? After ramba”m?

    • At the close of the prophetic era, starting at the time of the first exile and ending when the last prophets passed away.

      • That’s traditional Judaism. However, that is not what Farber said:

        “I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud.

        In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God.”

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