Can Orthodox Jews Struggle With Torah?

A woman once told me that she’s too religious for her Reform temple but because she struggles with the Torah, she can’t be Orthodox. Watch below to see what I told her.

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Allison Josephs About Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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  1. Melissa says:

    I liked this video, as I think it is important to recognize that struggle (both on an individual and communal level) is an inherent part of religion — growth necessitates introspection and struggle, and cannot occur in the presence of complacency. However, I wish you would have taken this opportunity to address this topic on a deeper level. For example, what do you mean that struggle is not only ok but also an integral part of our religion/”name” of our nation? How does one deal with struggle while remaining within the confines of Jewish life? When does struggle become problematic? Thanks! Looking forward to your response.

  2. Aaron Goldberg says:

    I often struggled with the concept that the entire Torah was given to Moshe by Hashem. Eventually, after a great deal of study, I came to the conclusion that the Torah was written by many different men over a very long period of time. The Torah is often brilliantly accurate but occasionally includes the prejudices common among the time and place of the various authors. It was a very uplifting experience. I even found a book which has the Torah broken down into 5 different groups of authors and goes through the entire Chumash, stating which group wrote each verse. I don’t think this is 100% accurate but it is much closer than another theory. It became much easier for me to observe the halacha. When I speak of halacha I mean the Orthodox version, not some watered down variation. Real Judaism is about observance of halacha. Other than belief in the one true Hashem, a Jew is allowed to believe anything.
    I hope this woman has since joined an Orthodox synagogue, as it is clear she would be much happier there. I find it very hard to believe anyone would ask her what she “believes…”

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Aaron. The Torah’s Divinity is obviously a big topic for an Orthodox Jew to struggle with. While it certainly can’t be proven to be from God, it it also can’t be proven to be man-written. My husband’s professor at Columbia (where we both studied undergrad) made an amazing point on this topic and she wasn’t even Orthodox – more traditional. Biblical criticism always says “Moses didn’t write the Bible” but we don’t believe “Moses wrote the Bible.” We believe God did. The complaint is that no man would have written in such a non-sensical order because we expect literature to flow in the classical sense with beginning, middle, and end. But in a post-modern world, a book could be all over the place and the disorder could be how its meaning is layered. She asked “Why wouldn’t or couldn’t a Supreme Being do a postmodern version with layers of meaning embedded within?” Again – not a proof, just something to consider…

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      It’s not so simple that a Jew can believe anything he wants to believe. There are 13 principles of faith, categorized by Maimonides – the “Ani Maamins,” as they are popularly known. One of these is that the Torah we have is exactly as Moshe received it (https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-13-foundations/foundation8/).

      As far as Biblical criticism, it answers a lot of questions we answered millennia ago. Different names of G-d? We have a tradition that it depends on whether G-d is exercising His attribute of Mercy or of justice. Two authors of Isaiah? The Talmud tells us that Isaiah was murdered by King Menashe, after which his disciples completed transcribing his prophecies. Biblical criticism answers many such questions that don’t really need answering because the Sages were already aware of them and answered them.

      • I don’t want to be sarcastic for long, but — it’s good you figured all of this out definitively!

        There is obviously much to biblical criticism. Guys dressed just like rabbis (black felt kippahs and tzistzis) are very involved in the academic study of biblical criticism (guess what? They may have views that don’t comport with yours, and they may have even studied this a LOT — in depth and primary documents. Also, you might even find yourself agreeing with them if you took a few years to study with them in an academic setting, because I’ve never heard of any haredi who did bother to actually get into the primary research who didn’t find it at least coherent.)

        But that’s not the problem. The only problem of course is that in the OJ community, people seem to have to run around proclaiming the Torah as “from G-d.” And this is “obvious and clear.”

        Never mind that’s really an assertion. Just an assertion.

        This is what is wrong with movements – they fear and deny outside voices. They suppress and distort and omit.

        I think all voices should be included in the search for emes.

        The OJ world resembles the goyishe pre-Enlightenment world. Driven more by fear of outside voices. Driven by control of minds. Driven by tricking, pretending and most of all image consciousness.

        Guess what? It is boring to assert confidently, but out of real ignorance of the other side (who I notice can NEVER speak for themselves inside OJ.)

        But control feels good. Now that — I understand. I don’t agree, but I understand. Controlling voices and information, however is built on weakness. And it is built on viewing fellow OJ Jews as marionettes.

        And while it feels good and right, it is actually disgusting and wrong. And not from G-d, but man.

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

          You’re entitled to your opinion but please remember that so are others. You say that the other side can never speak in Orthodox Judaism but here you are, voicing a contrary opinion on an Orthodox Jewish site. You have decided that other people’s ways are “disgusting and wrong,” though I imagine you’d cry oppression if someone dared to suggest that about your own. (By the way, you used the word “goyishe,” which *I* think is disgusting and wrong!) You decry certainty (i.e., “this is ‘obvious and clear'”) but you are very sure of yourself (“There is obviously much to biblical criticism”). You say that other people’s positions are “just assertions” but you make assertions about Orthodoxy that are at best broad generalizations and at worst patently untrue.

          We can certainly agree to disagree, but it’s a two-way street. If you want others to respect your opinions, you have to respect theirs in return.

          • i’m not saying the living part of OJ is wrong or disgusting. I think it is very admirable.

            I do think the triumphalist thinking, the intellectual approach is problematic.

            I come from an open world. A world of open inquiry. With no fear of ideas. It’s the modern world – and it is messy and problematic and full of shtus and good things and it is very real and also full of fantasy and sickness.

            The Jewish people invented this world. It is what the shtetl once looked like.

            But the “New Jewish” world is different. No intellectual system that calls people heretics for their thought can really be superior. Today, OJ says it “knows” Judaism is factual — it doesn’t “think” it or “hope” it or discuss real feelings much.

            The communists in the Soviet Union tried this: “communism is superior and the truth, and the west is decadent and weak and classist.”

            But no one could travel abroad to see for themselves. And no outside media was allowed in. And you got your news filtered through TASS and Pravda.

            Compare it to the West where people can come and go as they please. Read and write and feel what they want. Discuss and argue and evaluate.

            Which one treats you like a marionette? The gentile world (pre-enlightenment) was guilty of this; not the Jewish one. Now it is reversed.

            Which is fairer to the individual? We even have a communist party here in the West! And you can learn all about Marx and labor economics and communism in colleges everywhere — and/or go next door to the business school and learn all about how capitalism works (actually both do that.)

            Which one — the Soviet Union or the West has a system that treats you as a person? Which would you rather live in? Which one has real strength, and self confidence? Which one is pathetic and controlling and like the Wizard of Oz?

            The Jewish world at one time was MORE modern than the outside world (Jews are called the first Modern People.) When Jews were forced to live together they could be MORE open with their ideas.

            Than the secular world became “Jewish” — open in thought — and church authority was demolished as was the rule of kings — and the JEWS then felt they had to go the opposite way! More like the rigid and brittle gentile world – fear of open thought, loss of control.

            The OJ world IS MUCH more goyishe than the goyishe world now! Once they took down the shtetl walls, all hell broke loose when it came to free thought. The gentiles saw the Jews had it right — and adopted Jewish modern thinking. The Jews saw assimilation come, and adopted rigid, absurd, tightly controlled, fearful goyishe thinking. We switched places.

            And it’s ALL, ALL men talking. NOT G-d.

            G-d couldn’t care less if we debate his existence, but it can scare MEN very much.

            And yes, our seculars lives are DISGUSTING in many ways. I’m not offended – SPEAK I say, SPEAK! EVERYBODY – SPEAK. But, the sec world comes by it honestly, i do believe that.

            I am tired of the CONTROL of thought. I am tired of people smiling as they do this. I know they LOVE control — so do I, it is delicious to feel it — but it is wrong. It FEELS RIGHT to control thought. But it IS WRONG. And it IS MEN, NOT G-D who cares about this. Remember that: IT IS ALL ABOUT MEN, not G-d.

            Remember that NAZIS and COMMUNISTS LOVED CONTROL. Because it is SEDUCTIVE to feel control. The “New Jewish” world is SEDUCED by a love of thought control. The old Jewish world? Not so much.

            Kol ha kavod, tuv

          • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

            Thanks for your comment, Tuv, but perhaps there are parts of the Orthodox Jewish world you are not familiar with where questions are allowed…you’ve been given space here, now haven’t you?

        • The second paragraph of your comment has the most substance, but even it should be corrected, as below. Actually this is quite a docile blog and taking you to task might be out of place, so maybe just this time.

          It’s not at all obvious that biblical criticism amounts to much, or even anything. Guys dressed all kinds of ways were very involved in the academic study of biblical criticism and found it flawed (guess what? They may have views that don’t comport with yours, and they may have even studied this a LOT — in depth and primary documents. Also, you might even find yourself agreeing with them if you took a few years to study with THEM. A small number of outstanding Orthodox scholars (haredi and otherwise) of whom you apparently have no clue about, got into the primary research and didn’t find it coherent.

          • i’m glad to hear that there are scholars who go their own way — OPEN debate is the issue and the goal of any community that respects the individual. Just don’t lie or deceive — there are tons of scholars who see the DH as coherent and compelling. the OJ world should admit this because it should not DISTORT the story. Stop asserting and ducking the questions and calling everyone a heretic. Pretending and tricking is boring. And a consuming obsession with image is also telling.

            JEWS: your fear is making you controlling of others and creating a lot of weird misery and strange intellectual stiltedness. Take a lesson from the modern world: the wheels will not fall off the wagon if you stop strangling every idea you disagree with or fear.

            How’s that for a mixed metaphor?

            Kol tuv,
            tuv

          • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

            Thanks for your comment, Tuv, but as I written on this site when I spoke of emunah (faith) there are reasons to believe and there reasons to doubt and IMO, faith is ultimately a choice http://jewinthecity.com/2013/04/you-gotta-have-faith-faith-faith/ There are many of us out there in the Orthodox world who are OK with tough questions.

  3. i guess my hope is that one day there is no “orthodox world,” just a Jewish world that is out of (anyone’s) control and messy – like it use to be.

    This leaning towards a church-like Jewish world is making Jews into fundamentalist Christians (it is really getting hard to distinguish between the two in terms of their world view.)

    It used to be great to be an iconoclast in the shtetl; now, it’s downright dangerous – to physical, mental and probably spiritual health.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tuv. I’m definitely a fan of Jewish unity, but to be fair – Orthodox Jews did not start naming denominations. Reform broke away first, then Conservative broke off of that. The reason this video was about “Orthodox Jews struggling with Torah” is because we’re the only ones who believe the Torah is unchanging. The non-Orthodox movements have disengaged from the struggle by simply editing out the parts that bother them. Then you have Orthodox Jews who accept blindly and aren’t bothered by the challenging parts. What I’m trying to give voice to hear is that struggling with God and Torah, IMO, are foundational parts of Judaism.

      And yes – there is extremism growing in parts of the Orthodox world. Here at JITC, we are trying to grow a community of tolerant, thinking, spiritually growing Orthodox Jews.

  4. Debra Greenberg says:

    Thank you for the amazing video, Allison.

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