Monday, July 29, 2013

Could Devarim be subjective? Or is this theologically treif?

In a previous post, I explained how apparent differences between Devarim and the rest of Torah might be due to the agenda of author.

For example, in Shemot, in a narrative section about Yitro, it makes sense to mention Yitro's input into setting up the court system. Whereas, in Devarim, where the authorial agenda is placed elsewhere (e.g. movement of power from Moshe to others), there is no purpose in mentioning Yitro, and so he is not mentioned. Yitro is simply irrelevant, and his omission is not a contradiction. Since this is a retelling, rather than a first telling, and the audience already is expected to be familiar with the Torah, there is no fear that Yitro's role will be lost to posterity, and so the author of Devarim can focus on what he wants. Devarim is thus an agenda-driven interpretation of the previous text, rather than a dry Biblical history based on otherwise unknown sources.

The reaction, by some, was that this would not be palatable to an uber-frum audience. [This is somewhat beyond the point, because my main thrust was that from an academic perspective, this theory is more nuanced, and the competing theory is simplistic and non-nuanced. Further, who says we care about this uber-frum audience.] But, I am not so convinced that this would not be so palatable to a frum audience.

Let us look at some of the objections people raised:
Charedi TMS [ed: Torah miSinai] means that everything was given to Moses. It would be impossible to say that Moses had some fancy intent to explain why he made certain choices.
I can simply point to a pasuk from last week's parsha, in a perek from which many apparent differences came, Devarim 10:12-13:
יב  וְעַתָּה, יִשְׂרָאֵל--מָה ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ:  כִּי אִם-לְיִרְאָה אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו, וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ, וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul;
יג  לִשְׁמֹר אֶת-מִצְו‍ֹת ה, וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם--לְטוֹב, לָךְ.13 to keep for thy good the commandments of the LORD, and His statutes, which I command thee this day?
Yeah, that's all Hashem wants. No biggie!

Turn to Berachot 33b:
R. Hanina further said: Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven,25  as it says, And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear.26  Is the fear of heaven such a little thing? Has not R. Hanina said in the name R. Simeon b. Yohai: The Holy One, blessed be He, has in His treasury nought except a store of the fear of heaven, as it says, The fear of the Lord is His treasure?27  — Yes; for Moses it was a small thing; as R. Hanina said: To illustrate by a parable, if a man is asked for a big article and he has it, it seems like a small article to him; if he is asked for a small article and he does not possess it, it seems like a big article to him.
In other words, Moshe said this from his own, subjective, perspective. This idea should not be earth-shattering. It is a pasuk, that this is a report of Moshe's speech. Devarim 1:5:

ה  בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה, בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר.5 beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, took Moses upon him to expound this law, saying:

Or, for example, in Devarim 1, we see that a blessing Moshe gave the Israelites was his own blessing, rather than a blessing from Hashem.

May the Lord God of your forefathers add to you a thousandfold as many as you are, and may He bless you, as He spoke concerning you!יא. ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵכֶם יֹסֵף עֲלֵיכֶם כָּכֶם אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים וִיבָרֵךְ אֶתְכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם:
May… add to you a thousandfold as many as you are: What is [the purpose of] repeating further [in the verse]: “And He will bless you, as He has spoken concerning you?” They [the Israelites] said to him, “Moses, you are limiting our blessings [i.e., our numbers being multiplied only a thousandfold]. The Holy One, blessed is He, already promised to Abraham (Gen. 13:16), 'so that if a man will be able to count [the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted]!’” [Moses] replied to them: “This [blessing of a thousandfold] is mine, but He will bless you as He spoke concerning you!” (Sifrei)יוסף עליכם ככם אלף פעמים: מהו שוב ויברך אתכם כאשר דבר לכם, אלא אמרו לו משה אתה נותן קצבה לברכתינו, כבר הבטיח הקב"ה את אברהם (בראשית יג, טז) אשר אם יוכל איש למנות וגו', אמר להם זו משלי היא, אבל הוא יברך אתכם כאשר דבר לכם:

Were this all Moshe merely speaking Divine speech, this distinction would make no sense!

Another example of Moshe having fancy intent when making certain choices in presentation is the distinction Chazal make between Devarim and the rest of the Torah in interpreting juxtapositions:
The Gemara (in several place, e.g. BT Yevamot 4a) notes that although there is a dispute among the Tannaim as to whether or not it is appropriate to make contextually-driven inferences (known as "S'mukhin") in the Torah, this dispute only obtains in reference to the first four books of the Torah. In other words, whether we can infer details of one law from a "neighboring" law simply by virtue of their juxtaposition is subject to debate among the scholars of the Mishnah. This is, however, not true with regards to Sefer D'varim - there is a consensus that juxtaposition is meaningful in D'varim and that such inferences are valid. This principle is known as "Darshinan S'mukhin b'Mishneh Torah" - we allow for juxtapositionally-driven inferences in "Mishneh Torah" (D'varim).

(Of course, that does not mean that one cannot darshen in Devarim, which then reflects Divine word choice. Also, who says that Moshe's authorial intent did not reflect Hashem's will?)

Another objection, from a chareidi perspective (or from non-chareidim attributing this to chareidim) is that any imprecision is theologically unpalatable, since it would be a falsehood. For instance, in response to the idea that Moshe is giving a quick summary of the masaot after Har Sinai, to show that Aharon died elsewhere, but that the reader is expected to know that of course Aharon died at Hor Hahar, the following comment:
That would be fine with a human writer living in the 7th century BC, yet i find this hard to reconcile with the concept of torah min hashamayim. What sort of a God is this, who doesn't care about creating accurate historical recounts of the past? isn't he the one who is supposed to have said "midvar sheker tirchak"?
Or, in response to the general idea of changed wording or details, e.g. the omission of Yisro's role:
1. Given that our tradition views the Torah as very precise document i.e. every single word and maybe even every letter is not supposed to be redundant, so whether one says different traditions or applies your suggestion, the question remains how does our traditional view allow for conflicting details of narratives. Was Moishe being disingenuous? Did Moishe never hear of “ha-omer dover b’shem omro”? or did he simply forget details? I really don’t see how this works.
From a chareidi perspective where every word or letter is meaningful to the extent that this answer would be a problem, the question does not even start. That same chareidi perspective has midrashic explanations, based on these slight divergences. And one uses these meaningful extra letters as a basis for a parallel Oral tradition which answers up any contradictions.

From a less extreme perspective, for the frum perspective I was never saying that these accounts were sheker, or that Moshe was being disingenuous. I was simply saying that he focused on what he focused on, and spoke in the language of man. Dibra Torah kilshon benei adam.

For an example from Midrash, let us consider the manna. As I discussed in a previous post, the Torah says that it became wormy and rotten:

20. But [some] men did not obey Moses and left over [some] of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid, and Moses became angry with them.כ. וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹתִרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִמֶּנּוּ עַד בֹּקֶר וַיָּרֻם תּוֹלָעִים וַיִּבְאַשׁ וַיִּקְצֹף עֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה:
Rashi writes regarding this as follows:

and became putrid: This verse is transposed, because first it became putrid and later it bred worms, as it says: “and it did not become putrid, and not a worm was in it” (verse 24), and such is the nature of all things that become wormy. — [from Mechilta]ויבאש: הרי זה מקרא הפוך, שתחלה הבאיש ולבסוף התליע, כענין שנאמר (פסוק כד) ולא הבאיש ורמה לא היתה בו, וכן דרך כל המתליעים:

And that Mechilta:

וירם תולעים ויבאש - הרי מקרא זה מסורס. וכי מרחיש ואח"כ מבאיש, אלא מבאיש ואח"כ מרחיש, כענין שנאמר: ולא הבאיש וגו'. 

The driving force behind this midrash is a belief in spontaneous generation. Obviously, first something must become putrid and only afterwards become wormy.

One might well ask regarding this midrash:
What sort of a God is this, who doesn't care about creating accurate historical recounts of the past? isn't he the one who is supposed to have said "midvar sheker tirchak"?

The answer is that the transposed order is not "sheker" and it is not an "[in]accurate historical [ac]count". Rather, it is a way of speaking, a dibra Torah kilshon benei adam. See how many times Rashi writes that something is mikra mesuras or is mikra katzer.


Y. Aharon said...

R' Josh, I agree with the thrust of your argument. Those infatuated with the methodology used in Biblical Criticism tend to sieze upon any differences as an indication of different traditions and authorship. I see that tendency as a superficial reading and reconstruction of the text. As you pointed out, Devarim contains a rewriting of earlier material rather than independent accounts. Moshe was free to create a different emphasis. If he wished to minimize the role of Aharon and to omit the role of Yitro and Korach, he had both the ability and reason for so doing. There is sufficient reason to avoid mentioning Yitro and Korach, for example. Yitro disregarded Moshe's plea to remain with them and left for Midian. He thereby cut himself off from mainline Jewish history. It would also have been awkward and distressing to mention Korach when his sons were prominent and respected Levites.

I do not claim an ability to answer all the apparent discrepancies between Devarim and the other Chumashim, I would just emphasize the reverence that is expected of a believing Jew towards the Torah. One should exert oneself, it seems to me, to resolve apparent discrepancies within the context of a uniform authorship and divine imprimature.

Tal Benschar said...

Your use of the word "subjective" is too loaded to convey what you are trying to say. It implies someone writing with a personal agenda, as opposed to a different perspective or for a different purpose.

Take the retelling of the appointment of judges story. The purpose of repeating the story is to give Musar -- as Rashi states on the spot -- the Jewish people were so contentious, that Moshe had to set up a court system to handle it. In this way, they missed out on learning from him directly. From the perspective of giving rebuke, the fact that Yisro was the one who suggested it is an unnecessary detail.

It doesn't mean that either story is any less "true" than the other, certainly neither are sheker, ch"v. All it means is that one gives over a mussar shmuess differently than one gives over an historical recounting of events.

(To use a modern example, the Iggros Moshe, Dibros Moshe and Darash Moshe were all written by the same person, but each has a different style because each has a different purpose and perspective.) said...

Without going into the substance of your post, if your thesis is not kefira then a prominent mainstream commentator (and Rashbam and Bechor Shor are mainstream) would have said this already. If you cannot find any great commentator who preceded you, you need to take a good, long, hard look and ask why not.

joshwaxman said...

Tal Benschar:

Indeed, "subjective" is a loaded word. I was trying to echo the flavor of the various commenters who objected. Though it is "subjective" in the sense of a speech by a person (as in proof #1, that Moshe said something was easy because for him it is easy).

First, that is a strange thing to say. Rashbam himself believed in the פשטות המתחדשים בכל יום. And coming up with a new idea is not kefira. Though you are right, maybe from a chareidi perspective it might be.

But if you did go into the "substance of [my] post", as well as read the background posts, you might well find that #1 this is rather obvious, and #2 I am giving evidence that **Chazal** in fact held this about Devari. (Though the application is to a degree novel; however, I don't think anyone in Rashi's day was saying 'Yisro wasn't mentioned, so this author knew not Yisro', and had anyone said this to Rashi or Ibn Ezra, I believe he would have looked at them incredulously and said just this, applying this obvious and known idea, that this is Moshe's mussar speech, with a purpose, and the purpose does not include crediting Yisro.) I didn't specifically target Rishonim (though Rashi was mentioned once) because I was focused on Chazal.

Joe said...

being one of those commentators you mentioned, I'm happy that you addressed my question at length.
"The answer is that the transposed order is not "sheker" and it is not an "[in]accurate historical [ac]count". Rather, it is a way of speaking, a dibra Torah kilshon benei adam. See how many times Rashi writes that something is mikra mesuras or is mikra katzer."
my problem with this view is that it's quite different writing two alternative views of the same event that don't contredict each other. for example, when moses says that fear of heaven is easy, that's true, because to him it's easy. yet it's also true that for the rest of us it's a dificult task. or take the ויבאש וירום תולעים. this does not necessarily *contradict* that in fact it happened in a different order, the pasuk just says that these two things happened, it doesn't say explicitly how it happened.
but your example about aron's death is a flat contradiction of the actual event. aron either died at מוסרה or at hor hahar forty years later. there is no way of saying both are true, therefor, we must admit that the torah lied in one of these accounts. that's called a contradiction, not a different version of the same event. and this would be equivalent to the torah writing explicitly that fear of heaven is an easy task for EVERYONE. imagine a history professor writing two different versions of where and when president lincoln was killed in the very same book, without addressing the contradiction.

joshwaxman said...

First, other commenters were taking other points as being sheker, so I was addressing this collectively.

Second, you posted this comment after I linked to my follow-up post, in which I made my point clearer that one can say (perhaps kvetch, perhaps not) that this is not a contradiction, but a way of writing, in shorthand. And that it means that Aharon died in the course of later masaot. And how Ibn Caspi (to be posted in short order, post already written) says the same.

Which is why I answered in this post about weird Biblical linguistic constructions, and how they are not falsehood.


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