I have a congregant, let’s call him Shimon. Shimon is a BT (used to be Steve). Shimon is a quality person, has a good job and a nice family. Fairly typical and clichéd, at least in my community. Shimon and his wife met in college, and at the time neither was orthodox. While in college, Shimon’s wife attended a Discovery seminar and eventually dragged Shimon along. Both were impressed by the seminar and through college and afterwards moved to becoming more and more observant. They became fully orthodox about a year before getting married and subsequently settled in our community. They now have three great kids, all of whom go to a black hat yeshiva. Because Shimon was originally attracted to orthodoxy through the Discovery seminar (I will refer to this type of material as Discovery seminar material with the realization that the Discovery seminar doesn’t have a monopoly on this understanding), he takes the authenticity of the Torah quite seriously. He needed to, he had to; the Torah’s authenticity was what had drawn him into the fold, and its centrality to his orthodoxy did not diminish over time. Of course, most orthodox take the authenticity and the supposed unchanged nature of the Torah seriously, but Shimon was incredibly taken by this concept and unlike some of us, it was ideas, and not ritual, that animated him.
During a recent parsha class, we were discussing Devarim and touched upon the idea that parts of Devarim are repititions from the rest of the Torah and some of that repetition differs from the other sources. In the class, our focus was upon the traditional commentaries and how they account for these discrepancies. Nothing earth shattering.
Shimon, however, approached me after the class. He was troubled because he had recently read that some prominent scholars and the like discount the interpretations we discussed, and instead posit that Devarim is a distinct book written by a different author than the rest of the Torah. This too is not all the earth shattering as anyone who has even the most basic understanding of the Documentary Hypothesis is aware of this position. But Shimon hadn’t heard or considered this possibility before—even as it stared him directly in the face—and it troubled him. He wanted to discuss.
Personally, while I understand and respect the traditional attempts to reconcile Devarim with the rest of the Torah, I find the arguments for a separate author more convincing. But, that isn’t the answer that Shimon wanted to hear, and Shimon isn’t alone. Moreover, I understood that this was no small issue for Shimon, as different authors or differing time periods eviscerates the entire premise of the Discovery seminar and undercuts the basis of how he is organizing his life. There are some who can be confronted with these somewhat heretical ideas and simply move on, dismissing its relevance to their lives and in their religious practice. Shimon, having committed his life to an idea now under assault, turned to me for advice.
So what to do? I explained that there are two distinct approaches, an orthodox perspective and the Documentary Hypothesis perspective, though there are multitudes in between. I laid out the reasons and arguments for each and then explained that, in reality, the two approaches are coming from entirely different angles. The orthodox approach assumes a single author – God, while the other makes no such assumption. That being the case, it is unremarkable that two entirely different conclusions are reached. This satisfied Shimon, his life and ideals and choices beginning to make sense again. With great difficulty, I restrained myself, wanting to ask him the basic question that if the orthodox position assumes God as the author, is it really all that surprising that Discovery would marshal proofs which ended up with the same conclusion as the initial assumption? That is, what is so attractive about Discovery is that it appears to be scientific, a verifiable method of showing the torah to be true. But, if the entire exercise is predicated on a false assumption, then the entire house of cards falls. Or, if they were honest, these seminars could acknowledge they are employing this assumption to reach its conclusion.
Indeed, such criticisms are appropriate not only for Discovery but to many of the interpretations that are taught throughout orthodoxy. What is amazing is that the so many can go on blissfully unaware, much as I did. For example, the well-known passage in the Gemara Kiddushin concedes that from Talmudic times, at the very least, the Torah is a flawed document. The Gemera explains that we are unsure which words should be written with or without a vav or the like. Again, this by itself may be unremarkable but it doesn’t appear to then prompt anyone to ask the obvious question regarding various proofs or the authenticity of the Torah. Or, where did the idea of keri and ketiv begin? How can we have, in some instances, one word appear in the text but when we verbalize the text an entirely different word is employed? Doesn’t this indicate a dispute regarding the text of the Torah? In our everyday lives, if someone handed you a document that was written one way but then told you when you read it aloud you insert different words, would that sound plausible? The simple answer is that there are and were conflicting texts and these are desperate and ingenious attempts to harmonize the disparate texts.
As I watched Shimon walk away, happy, secure and satisfied with all that had transpired, I was hoping he would turn back and ask, finally and simply, why? Why is there this massive repetition, much of which is not aligned with the previous version? Why are there two versions of the Ten Commandments? Why do we need a revelation, a divine, perfect, unchanging Torah? Why do we need myths and fairytales and hokum to keep us orthodox?
Discovery and Aish and similar programs will continue to peddle their wares to and fro, gathering the ignorant and the weak and the confused, preying on all that makes us frail and vulnerable, all the while gathering up souls like so much a cattle rancher. And then they come to me, to ask, to be certain, and to receive confirmation that whatever questions they are confronted with are simply small speed bumps in their long and dedicated service to Hashem. And, I give it to them, all of them, all the while hoping that they begin to question all that I have just taught them. That is my struggle.