The Prophetic Documentary Hypothesis

Biblical scholarship is the single most uncomfortable matter for discussion among Orthodox Jews, particularly those familiar with the unanimous acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis by university scholars.

Orthodox rabbi Gil Student blogs:

You might recall the "Jacobs Affair", in which a prominent British rabbi published a book advocating the belief that the Torah (Five Books of Moses) is a composite work by multiple authors that contains different theologies, factual errors and other dogmatically problematic issues. Because of this, he was denied a position that would most likely have led to his becoming the Chief Rabbi of England.

His book was published not long after R. Mordechai Breuer had published his first essay detailing his approach to the Documentary Hypothesis, what has become known as the Theory of Attributes. In defending Rabbi Jacobs, the Jewish Chronicle cited R. Breuer as an example of a Rosh Yeshiva in Israel who had avocated a similar approach. R. Breuer responded with a letter to the editor explaining that he had been misunderstood; he agrees that there are multiple voices in the Torah (reflecting different divine attributes) but he fully accepts divine authorship of the Torah in its maximal formulation. The editor published the letter and then wrote that R. Breuer must have recanted out of fear for the political repercussions, which of course was not true. (On all this, see R. Mordechai Breuer, "‘Torah Min Ha-Shamayim’ U-Vikores Ha-Mikra" in Megadim 33 [2001], reprinted in Yosef Ofer ed., "Shitas Ha-Bechinos" Shel Ha-Rav Mordechai Breuer: Kovetz Ma’amarim U-Teguvos, pp. 307-309.) This was not the last time that his approach would be misunderstood as allowing for multiple authorship of the Torah.

II. The Orthodox Forum

R. Breuer presented an essay at the 1991 Orthodox Forum that was later published in the book from that conference, Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah. In that article, R. Breuer explicitly rejects the view that any part of the Torah was written by a human being. He writes (pp. 167-168; Shitas Ha-Bechinos, pp. 120-121):

From antiquity, our Sages have never considered equating the Five Books of Moses with other prophecy. They regarded the equation, not as proper faith, but as utter heresy. The status of Moses is inherently different from that of all other prophets. The latter saw God in a vision, through a glass darkly; they heard His voice as a riddle that required clarification and interpretation. When they subsequently transmitted God’s message to the people, when they wrote it down, they could not convey literally what they had seen and heard. Instead each adopted his own style and language. Moses was different. The loyal servant in God’s house, to whom God spoke as one converses with a companion; he perceived God through a clear glass, as it were, and heard His message expressed precisely. Therefore Moses wrote the words of the Torah as God spoke them, without injecting his own. Thus the Torah of Moses was literally min ha-shamayim [from heaven]; the Lawgiver summoned His prophet to the heavens themselves. "Like an author dictating a book to his scribe," God dictated the Torah to His prophet from beginning to end.

TZVEE POSTS: Actually nobody believes that God wrote anything. We all believe that an inspired Moshe wrote the Torah – check with Rambam. We believe with complete faith that inspired human beings wrote all of the books of Tanakh. Anyone who says differently is a heretic.

EZRA POSTS: The question remains, though, as to why the Author would contradict himself? If one accepts the traditional rabbinic explanations of the apparent contradictions, then there is no need to posit anything beyond Mosaic authorship, and R. Breur’s argument seems to be beyond the point. If one does not accept the traditional rabbinic harmonizations, however, then one accepting R. Breuer’s position is seemingly left with one Author who could not get his story straight.

JAMES POSTS: What I don’t understand is that nowhere in the Torah does it remotely make the claim that the 5 books of the Torah are all from Hashem. Anyone reading it without that prior belief would conclude that the Torah records many revelations from Hashem, along with lots of other things. I.e. when the Torah says, "And Hashem said to Moshe XYZ," the natural presumption would be that He said "XYZ," not that He said, "And Hashem said to Moshe XYZ." So how do we know that the entire 5 books was dictated by Hashem?

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: Gil, I hope you realize that the word "Torah," as used in the Torah (and possibly elsewhere in Tanach) means what it literally means: "Teaching." There’s no evidence that it’s used to mean what we use it as, namely, "The first five books of Tanach." The only exception would be places that explicitly say "Sefer HaTorah Hazeh…" but, again, that would simply mean "A book containing this teaching."

"And, no, it does not allow for a Prophetic DH because any supposed contradictions etc. cannot be explained away by multiple authors because they are the direct words of one Author."

So are you saying that the words, of, say, Yeshayahu, are not, in fact, the words of God in any form, ch’v’sh?

I think there’s an important irony you’re missing by making this entire post, and it really has nothing to do with the ultimate factual question of who wrote the Torah. Proponents of the Omphalos theory (or Intelligent Design, for that matter) may not want to admit it out loud, but what they’re essentially saying is, "Modern science is 100% correct in every single observation they’ve made- age of the universe, evolution, all of it. But, you see, it only *looks* that way. God *made* the world look that old, or guided evolution over that span of time, or whatever." But again, they’re essentially conceding every factual point.

The beauty of their claims, of course, is that they’re impossible to prove or disprove. The puzzler is what exactly they think they’re accomplishing.

I imagine you’ll deny this vehemently, but theories like R’ Breuer’s, and posts like these (I’m not claiming the post reflects your views, by the way, especially considering that you dodge directly answering such questions) are essentially much the same thing: They concede (if if they don’t do so too loudly) every claim made by Bible scholars like Kugel. "Sure, the text *looks*- and very obviously so- like it was written by many people with many points of view. But, you see, Hashem *made* it look like that."

I will admit that I’m not too sure that such a claim can’t be proven or disproven, in a theorectical sense of course, as we have no original texts one way or the other and likely never will.

One last thing: I’m not sure why people quote Rishonim and Acharonim on the question of changes in the Torah (minor or not) when the Gemara, Midrashim, and other Talmudic-era works say so quite explicitly- that Ezra, for example, essentially edited the Torah and so on.

Come to think, the Tanach says such things as well, or strongly hints at them, but as we get our ikkarim from the Talmud and not Tanach, we can (and should!) focus on that.

ANON POSTS: The Chareidim’s main problem with Slifkin was not the age of the universe per se, but rather the infallibility of Chazal. The Chareidim could not accept that Chazal could be ‘wrong’ in Science. Chazal ‘have’ to be ‘right’ in everything. Meanwhile the MOs have no problem compartmentalizing – Chazal were ‘right’ in Torah, but ‘wrong’ in Science. Meanwhile the Conservadox crowd like Kugel/Halivni are able to compartmentalize even further – Chazal were ‘right’ about Torah SheBaalPeh, but were wrong about Torah Shebichtav. All of these positions come with their own incongruitities and all need a little bit of kvetching, but again, since when did a bit of kvetching bother anyone?

As to why the Conservadox are comfortable compartmentalizing like that, even though it gives the average MO shpilkes, and likewise why MOs are OK with Chazal being wrong in Science whereas that view makes Chareidim scared of going OTD, that’s more of a sociological question.

GiL STUDENT POSTS: There is no parallel at all. You are suggesting that Chazal were wrong on a fundamental theological issue. You are suggesting that our basic theology, the core of our religion, evolve over time. As R. Breuer writes in response to Prof. Knohl, if you are willing to say that then we aren’t talking about the same religion. Maybe Chazal were also wrong about God? About the chosenness of the Jewish people? About revelation in its entirety? In the end, you wind up with Reconstructionism at best. That isn’t my religion.

There is no evolution of our religion in regard to Chazal and science for two reasons: 1) it’s science, not theology and 2) our religion has consistently asserted that Chazal can be wrong about science going all the way back to the time of Chazal.

DANIEL POSTS: I consider myself to be open-minded. My large library contains, besides the traditional selections, Seforim by Rav Shaul Lieberman, Rabbi Slifkin, as well as My Uncle the Netziv and Making of a Godol (improved edition). In other words, I’m not a so-called zealot.

That said, I must confess that these discussions giving any credence whatsoever to a view that even one word of the Torah was not dictated from G-d to Moses (or perhaps to Joshua, in the case of the last 8 verses) makes me very uncomfortable. The main defense of Rabbi Slifkin’s works from those who would ban them is that they are fully consistent with Rambam’s 13 Ikrim. The same cannot be said with the theory under discussion.

LOGICIAN POSTS: I do agree that R. Breurs statement "that this is all beside the point. It matters less who put the words into writing and more who composed them" rather emphatically suggests that Moses did not write the entire Torah and in fact it does not even mean anything that he does. As long as those people who wrote it were transmitting God’s words then the theology is not threatened. Brought to its logical conclusion that could mean J and P.

Y. AHARON POSTS: "Chazal were authoritative in halachic matters, but not authoritative in non-halachic ones". Those non-halachic matters include knowledge of the world, its creation, and its history. Even in halachic matters their authority is provisional. That is, we currently are not in any position to overturn any talmudic torah derivation or, even, ordinance (although there is a time-honored tradition of reinterpretation of talmudic enactments by acknowledged sages). However, the Rambam asserts that a future Sanhedrin will have such power.

Now some people are leery of entertaining such ideas seeing them as an path to non-Orthodoxy or, even, agnosticism. That danger is present, but the readers of blogs are already exposed to more "heretical" ideas – including those on this blog. I choose, instead, to address myself to those MO types with similar thoughts, and to offer encouragement. The frozen state that our religion seems to be in will not last forever. The earth is warming and a thaw is inevitable.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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