02/11/2013 12:17 EST | Updated 04/12/2013 05:12 EDT

The Bible Myth Dividing Orthodox Jews

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US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office in front of First Lady Michelle Obama during the 57th Presidential Inauguration ceremonial swearing-in at the US Capitol on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. US Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

A new book arguing the Torah (what Jews call the Old Testament) was not, as the story goes, dictated by Yaweh to Moses on Mt. Sinai is causing a stir in the Orthodox Jewish community. In Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, England's Rabbi Norman Solomon argues the concept of "Torah Mi Sinai" (that the Five Books of Moses were dictated, word for word, by god to Moses on Sinai and that that is the version of the Torah Jews read and study to this day), which is the foundation of Orthodox Jewish thought, is nothing more than a myth.

While historians have long supported Solomon's thesis, with convincing proof moreover, it is earth-shaking for Orthodox Jews that one of their own would suggest it, even though Solomon argues revealing "Torah Mi Sinai" as a myth does not delegitimize the words of the Bible. As Rabbi Dr. Martin Lockshin explains in a glowing book review, Solomon believes "the claims that 'Torah is from heaven' and that Moses wrote the Torah are, in a certain sense 'true,' as they are Judaism's 'foundational myth.'" In other words, no matter how or when the Bible as we know it was cobbled together, the Sinai story still matters, even it isn't really accurate because generations of Jews were taught to believe it was accurate.

Lockshin has been denounced by the Vaad Harabonim of Toronto (a conglomerate of the city's most prominent Orthodox rabbis, who lean toward the "ultra" end of Orthodoxy) for daring to suggest Solomon might be on to something. The group responded to Lockshin's review with a statement: "Halacha [Jewish law] rules, unequivocally, that the denial of the godly origin of 'even a single word' in the Torah ... contravenes this principle [of 'Torah Mi Sinai'] and constitutes 'kefiroh baTorah' [heresy]."

A prominent Toronto Orthodox rabbi, Daniel Korobkin, followed with an op-ed aimed at Lockshin and Solomon in the Canadian Jewish News in which, among other things, he questioned whether Solomon, who, according to Lockshin, describes himself in his book as a "skeptical" Orthodox Jew, should in fact be considered an Orthodox Jew: "after examining the stated creed of the movement for Reform Judaism, one concludes that Rabbi Solomon has become a Reform Jew. And that's fine; people change all the time, and he wouldn't be the first Orthodox Jew to leave the fold and become 'enlightened' (although he is about two centuries late)" -- and Korobkin cynically called on Lockshin to retract his praise of Torah from Heaven.

The rabbis' response to Solomon and Lockshin was appalling and indecent -- indeed, a great deal of the business of this rabbinic board, and others like it, leaves a bad taste in my mouth -- and reveals how terrified the Orthodox hierarchy is by the idea of modernizing religion to correspond to new revelations from the academic world.

Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit a small amount of sympathy for the position Solomon's book is putting Orthodox leaders in. Altering the narrative of the Bible heritage is profoundly more dangerous to the continued viability of Orthodox Judaism than the recurrent debates about how to reconcile modern life with what the Bible says -- to take but one example, regarding homosexuality.

The latter is a matter of massaging textual interpretation and making accommodations (or not, as is often the case) for the development of humankind -- a sensitive issue, no doubt, but one that has come up before and been successfully dealt with, at times in positive ways that have made the religious sect stronger by rendering it more welcoming and diverse.

But what Solomon is suggesting is no less than a direct threat to the future of Orthodox Judaism. If the principle that god dictated the Torah to Moses at Sinai is false, then the entire movement begins to unravel -- if that isn't true, what else isn't true? Most Orthodox Jews' beliefs would be shattered in an instant -- and Solomon's notion of "foundational myth" is not going to be much of a consolation prize.

I'd probably have more sympathy for the rabbis quarrelling with Solomon and Lockshin, though, if they weren't mostly to blame for this predicament. They continue to choose not to educate their young people to think critically, embrace difference and thrive on mental gymnastics (beyond those on such frequent exhibit in the Talmud). In doing so, they have failed to develop the kinds of strong minds that could process the idea of a Sinai-less Bible, let alone learn to appreciate -- religiously -- the Bible for the myth it is.