If two Jews equal three opinions, what do you get when you mix five rabbis of various denominations to answer a topic as important as the origins of the Torah?
Answer: A rather heated discussion, to say the least.
Five Los Angeles rabbis dove into the topic "Who Wrote the Torah?" at a panel discussion held March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. The event, sponsored by KOCHAV: The L.A. Jewish Living Network, drew an audience of about 300 people, and was based on readings from the similarly titled book "Who Wrote the Bible," by Richard Elliot Friedman.
The issue of biblical criticism has been hotly debated over the past few years, marked by archeological findings which question if and when events described in the Torah occurred. The discussion, raised in a very public way last year in a series of provocative sermonds by Rabbi David Wolpe, also comes at Passover time, when Jews are asked to remember events from the Torah and live as if we are experiencing them ourselves. For many in the community, it is a pleasant, if awkward, fiction; for others it is a reenactment of a literal truth. This divide in philosophy was one of the driving forces in the debate at VBS.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City took the most offense at Friedman's book, which analyzes the Torah as the product of various authors over time, rather than a divinely inspired holy text. Muskin argued passionately against Friedman's theories, railing against what he called his "sloppy methodology."
The panel discussion quickly moved from a critique of Friedman's work to a debate between the rabbis of what each believed about the divinity of the Torah. Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple clearly stated that to accept the Torah as written directly by God via Moses is to accept many unacceptable practices. "If all the theology I had to believe in was Deuteronomy, which basically says that suffering comes from sin, I could not be a believing Jew," he said. "To me it is incredibly clear that it, the Torah, was written over time by various people."
Rabbi Mimi Wiesel, assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and moderator Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, tended to agree with Leder. But Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel tried to strike a balance: "I do believe there was a divine experience at Mt. Sinai; I do not believe the full five books were given at Sinai but in stages over the 40 years in the desert." Like Leder and Wiesel, Bouskila said the most important thing for every generation was "to seek out the divine" within the Torah.
"Who wrote the Bible is an essential question," Muskin said later in his concluding remarks. "If it was humans, that has one ramification, and if it is divine than it has another ramification. It becomes the definition of what you believe your Judaism is and what kind of Judaism you are going to observe."