When Rabbis Over-Step

I love this story because I love seeing rabbis who fancy themselves authorities in matters they know little get humiliated when they try to squash others.

Rabbi Hirsch fancied himself the leader of German Orthodoxy. He attacked Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman‘s PhD thesis on the historical development of the Mishna. Hirsch called it heretical.

Hirsch was no Talmudist. He was no Talmudic scholar. By contrast, David Zvi Hoffman was the greatest Torah scholar of the past 200 years.

David Zvi Hoffman’s thesis was defended by Rabbi Asriel Hildesheimer, a Talmudic scholar, and the Chief Rabbi of England, Nassan Adler. Thus Hirsch’s attempt to squelch Hoffman was itself squelched.

I learned all this in Dr. Marc B. Shapiro’s second lecture on David Zvi Hoffman for Torah in Motion.

Dr. Shapiro: "The very notion of studying the halachic system, studying about halacah, was entirely new. Until then, and for most [Orthodox] until today, people study halacah and Talmud, not about these subjects. They are not concerned about the development of a sugya, the development of the legal theory, the form, the redaction of the Talmud… What sections of the Talmud came first and later… These are questions academics are concerned with.

"If you are going to write a historical study of an amora (Talmudic sage after 200 CE) or a tanna (Talmudic sage prior to 200 CE), you are obviously going to look at historical development. Hirsch declared that Hoffman’s book was heretical and must be put away. He insisted that Hoffman for at least five years, preferably ten years, refrain from writing so that he would mature and see the error of his ways.

"I’m sure that Hirsch thought that when Hoffman was given this verdict, he would just quiet up and accept it. Like Nathan Slifkin, Hoffman did not back down… He felt comfortable in ignoring Hirsch.

"This episode showed that Hirsch was not in control of German orthodoxy."


Dr. Shapiro was sloppy with his language when he said that David Zvi Hoffman refuted the Biblical critics. He didn’t refute them. He only rebutted them.

David Zvi Hoffman set out to refute higher Biblical criticism. He was the first and the last Orthodox sage to tackle Biblical criticism. Rav Soloveitchik did not touch this stuff nor the academic approach generally. He propounded a lot of fancy philosophies but Jews today don’t leave Orthodoxy because of philosophy. They leave because they don’t find Orthodoxy intellectually credible in its insistence of a unitary Torah given to Moses by God 3200 years ago when virtually every academic who has studied the evidence has concluded the Pentateuch is a post-Mosaic composite work riddled with errors.

At the beginning of his commentary on Vayikra (Leviticus), Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman says he is committed to certain beliefs such as the divinity and unity of the Torah, even if the evidence goes against such beliefs.

Well, that’s inspiring to the seeker of Truth!

As my secular friend Fred Nek says, have you ever heard of anyone becoming religious as the result of a search for truth? Not bloody likely.

Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman’s attacks on Biblical criticism had no effect on Biblical criticism because they weren’t academically credible. They were works of apologetics, not truth-seeking.

Dr. Shapiro says he would not refer to Cassuto as Orthodox. He did not have a traditional position on the authorship of the Pentateuch.

For two years, Marc B. Shapiro was a TA at Harvard for Bible scholar Dr. James Kugel, author of "Who Wrote The Bible?".

Marc: "I know him… He does wear a big black yarmulke. He’s a shomer Torah mitzvot and they call him Orthodox, but if Orthodox has anything to do with traditional dogmas regarding Torah, he obviously isn’t. If it has to do with [Torah observance], then he is, as is Cassuto and [Zechariah] Frankel and Louis Finkelstein."

Hoffman was no fan of lower Biblical criticism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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