By Rabbi Eric Kotkin
If you had told me that 13 years after graduating from college I’d even be addressing the issue of “documentary hypothesis,” I’d tell you it’s not possible. From everything I’d understood even when I was a Judaic-studies major, it was a tired old theory that had little actual support from hard evidence other than the fact that rejecting it meant that scholars might have to entertain the Biblical narrative as authentic. DH is the theory that the Biblical works were written much later than we claim they were and are the product of multiple authors who actually did a rather poor job of gluing the texts together. In short, none of these original documents have been found, most people have no clue what this is, but it’s still the gospel in universities.
I did not think that anyone claiming to be Orthodox would ever start getting into it. However, very recently DH is coming back in vogue on websites such as Morethodoxy.org and TheTorah.com. Some authors have actually come out in favor of some version of it—maybe not exactly what academics say but not substantively different—which means that they have rejected the Revelation of Har Sinai and the existence of the Avot as having actually happened. Others have said that while they personally believe in these events, those who maintain the more radical position can defend their beliefs and therefore should be considered within the pale of Orthodoxy. Basically what this means is they accept Har Sinai and the Avot as a kind of popular folklore, but not actually historical the way Orthodox Judaism has always maintained.
This should be cause for alarm. As we have seen from the Reform and Conservative movements, once Torah MiSinai goes out the window, everything else follows suit. If you maintain that we aren’t the descendants of Avraham Avinu, then there are certain halachot that are just cruel to keep in place. How can you stop a kohein from marrying a divorcee based on just folklore and not on the fact that they are actually the descendants of Aharon HaKohein? As a general rule, shouldn’t halachah be more flexible if it’s the product of “divine inspiration” rather than a direct statement from G‑d Himself? The Conservative movement certainly felt this way, and you can see how that went.
The major difference between DH in academia and DH on the pulpit is the damage it can do to our community. Regardless of whether or not it’s well substantiated, it’s definitely appealing. Jews who are already having difficulty sticking to the tradition will most certainly want to go to a rabbi who is willing to take a much more lenient approach, regardless of whether such an approach is halachically valid. It also is much more compatible with Western sensibilities, which can lead to further adulteration and ultimately assimilation. After all, if Western ideals are the game to beat and we have to justify our beliefs in terms of them, why not just go with the Western sensibilities? I don’t believe someone who maintains DH can answer that question satisfactorily to keep a Jew on the straight and narrow. v
Rabbi Eric Kotkin is the founder of TheCollegeRabbi.com, the online chaplaincy for Jewish college students. He is a musmach of Rav Ephraim Greenblatt and Yeshiva University’s RIETS and is an Ed.D. candidate at YU’s Azrieli School of Education.