The Unity of the Torah Shown Through Chiasms
Rabbi Fohrman on the Documentary Hypothesis
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Documentary Hypothesis claims that the Torah is a compilation of many manuscripts with several authors. Aleph Beta Methodology is a rebuttal to this claim - intertextuality, chiasms that span through many different sections of the bible - these and much more are a natural way to disprove the Documentary Hypothesis. In this short audio clip, Rabbi Fohrman discusess at length how his work organically takes the offense against these false claims, and how he rebuts the Documentary Hypothesis.
For more on this, take a look at A Tale of Two Names: Elokim and YHVH, a dynamic audio lectures series with Rabbi Fohrman that delves into Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and demonstrates how these two texts are proof of how the Torah is a unified book with one author - God.
Daniel: Yes. Rabbi Fohrman, I’m curious if you think that the existence of this chiasm is a compelling counterargument against the Documentary hypothesis?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, that's an interesting question. So I have some thoughts on that. I actually do think so, and not just this chiasm but other chiasms as well. I will say, first of all, I'm not an academic expert on the Documentary hypothesis. I have a layman's knowledge of it, not really an (inaudible 00:15:05). I've read parts of Richard Friedman's book on this and other things. From what I understand, the essence of the Documentary hypothesis -- and I’m also curious what, David Schwartz, what do you think of this? I'l just answer briefly, and I'll let David Schwartz say what he will here as well.
For me, there are some really interesting implications with the Documentary hypothesis. The Documentary hypothesis, for folks who don't know, is the theory that -- sort of the academic version of a theory -- that first began with Julius Wellhausen in the 1800s, the German Bible scholar. That the Bible is basically cobbled together by a number of different authors. There's an E author, there's a J author, and it began with an understanding of a sense that there are two different names of God being used in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 seems to present complimentary, and sometimes competing visions of creation. So why would that be?
Wellhausen came and said that it must be that the Bible in a composite work and has been put together by more than one author. The only way to explain this is to say that there is more than one author. The only way to explain what is seeming to be duplicate stories, like Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, Creation 1 and Creation 2, and other stories is to assume there's one author. He looked and said, not only do we have two creation stories but we have the name of God, Elokim, in one creation story and we have Yud-Hey and Vav-Hey in another creation story.
So evidently, we've got two different names of God. That's a clue that we've got two different authors. There must have been an author who looks at God as Elokim, and another author that looks at God as Yud-Hey and Vav-Hey. Never the twain shall meet. Right? It's two different things. This is basically the Documentary Hypothesis.
So the question is, do I view a chiasm like David's as helping to rebut that? My answer, kind of, is yes. By the way, Rachel, if you're still listening, I am home now and I'm just going to log in on my computer. It says the host will let you in, so I think you have to let me in on my computer. So if you can do that.
Rachel: Yes. It just popped up for me Rabbi Fohrman and I let you in.
Rabbi Fohrman: Great. I'm going to get off here and rejoin here so hopefully you guys can see me or hear you.
Rachel: Yay, there you are. We're so glad you made it home safely Rabbi Fohrman.
Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you, I am too. Certainly better than the alternative. So just to continue, the reason why I think that this has implications for the Documentary hypothesis is because if you think about it, how in fact should Orthodoxy confront the Documentary hypothesis? It's a very interesting question. Typically, the way that many people confront the Documentary hypothesis, I'm not such a fan of. What you say is, if I believe that the Torah's not a composite work that wasn't written by multiple authors, it was written by one author. So how do I deal with this academic challenge?
So one say of confronting the Documentary hypothesis, which I think is weak, is to say, well the folks who have the Documentary hypothesis, they raised a number of questions. Those questions aren't new. We're aware of those issues and traditionally we have answers to them. So I'll look and say the Ramban also noticed that there was a creation story in Genesis 1 and a creation story in Genesis 2. The Ramban has a theory about it and here's how the Ramban explains it. The Chazal also noticed that there was this name of God and that name of God, or there was a duplicate story here and a duplicate story there. So we have our answers to these questions and the Documentary hypothesis people have their answers to the questions.
Now that's a perfectly fine answer. Not taking away from it, it's okay. It's not a knock-you-out of the park, answer against the Documentary hypothesis. The reason why is it strikes me as an answer like that is playing defense. You're not playing offense against the Documentary hypothesis; you're playing defense against it. What you're saying, basically, is that you noticed these things. You think they point to a solution, but I also have solutions, and here's my solution.
The reason why I think it's a weak answer to the Documentary hypothesis -- I'm curious David, whether you agree with this -- but for me the reason why I think it's weak is because there's one thing which makes my answer in that case weaker than the Documentary hypothesis. Which is Occam's razor. Occam's razor is the general philosophical principal that all things being equal, the simplest answer is the best answer. So if you find 25 different indications in the Torah of what you think are multiple stories or something like that, or what you think are the names of E or the names of J, or all these different indications. You have a simple explanation for all those 25 problems. Your explanation is there were five authors, so it's a problem. It's not so simple to say there were five authors for something but at least you have a single unified explanation for 25 issues.
Whereas, for me, if I’m playing defense, I have 25 different answers to those 25 different issues. I have an answer here, I have an answer there, I have answers there. All things being equal, 25 different answers to 25 different issues are usually not as compelling as one answer to 25 different issues. That's why it feels to me like you play defense when you do that.
So what would it look like to play offense against the Documentary hypothesis? Or what would it look like to have a more compelling response to the Documentary hypothesis? To me the virtue of this is the chiasms and things like that which David has found, I believe are those stronger responses to the Documentary hypothesis. One of the reasons why they're stronger by the way is that it's not even that David, by finding his chiasm, was motivated by trying to undermine the Documentary hypothesis.
If you asked David, I'm sure he'll tell you that he was not trying to undermine the Documentary hypothesis. He was just going through the sedrah, doing his thing, trying to look at the Bible without any preconceived notions, and he found something. What he found happens to be a significant for the Documentary hypothesis. The reason why it's a challenge is because the real way to respond to the Documentary hypothesis is at the 50,000-foot level, ask yourself what really is the soul of the Documentary hypothesis? The answer is the soul of the Documentary hypothesis is the argument is fundamentally a fragmented work. Which is that it looks like a unified work but really, it's fragmented. Really there are fault lines. We can see the fault lines, there are five different authors and here's where the different authors are. Right? That's how the Documentary hypothesis works.
How do you go on the offense against it? What you have to say is what looks like fragmentation to you is in fact unity. I can show you that there's unity that underlies the fragmentation. Now that's a way of saying, I'm giving you a single answer to your 25 different problems. That is the Bible uses literary devices and I will show you the unity under what looks like fragmentation to you, David's chiasm is exactly something that does that. If David shows you that there is an elegant literary structure which has -- how many elements are there David in your chiasm?
David: Around 80 or something like that.
Rabbi Fohrman: Around 80 elements to his chiasm. So there are 80 elegantly structured elements that are in perfect Atbash order, perfect backwards order. By the way, chiasms were a thing in the ancient world. The Bible isn't the only document that uses chiasms. It's a thing in the ancient world. The Bible is probably one of the most sophisticated uses of chiasms. You don't find them as significant as in the Bible. If you're interested in academic literature on this, Yehudah Radday's essay in the book, Chiasmus in Antiquity, is the thing to read. Radday's essay is on chiasms in the Torah but the rest of the book will give you other examples of documents and antiquity with chiasms. Which are generally pretty rudimentary. The Bible elevates it to a real art form.
The virtue of what that is, is that what David has found is a very elegant structure that is fundamentally unified. Ask yourself how do you have a document that was thrown together by five different authors with a redactor who did his best to try to cover the tracks? How do you create a chiasm out of that? It's very difficult to do. It's hard enough for you, imagine you as an individual author. If you're Miriam or you're Carole or you're Rachel, and you decide you want to write a book at the length of Genesis or Exodus, try writing a book that has a coherent story line that has an 80-part chiasm in it. It's not so easy to do. Even for one author it's not so easy to do. You can imagine a really smart author being able to do it.
Can you imagine five authors being able to pull that off without collaborating? Five authors in coemption with one another, with competing ideological agendas? Each trying to get their way in with competing stories, managing to pull off an 80 part chiasm? That would be if David Schwartz's chiasm wasn't the only chiasm in the Torah, but it's not. There are many of them. These structures are all over the place and they point to the unity of vast tracks of the Torah. To me that's a way of really going on offense against a much more satisfying rejoinder to the theory. That's my feeling. David, I'm curious as to your thoughts.
David: Sure. So I want to first say that I can confidently say that I'm even less of an expert in the Documentary hypothesis than -- I know you said that you're not but I'm even less, I’m sure. So I don't really know too much about it, but here's how I think about answering the question anyway. It touches on a lot of the points you made.
I guess the first step is establishing that this chiasm is what I'll call real. First thing, you have to get conviction about is, is this a real thing? Just to give the analogy, around 20 years ago most people will recall there was a lot of hype about the Bible Codes. Where you skip a certain number of equidistant letters and there were secret codes embedded in the Torah. There was a lot of hype about that. There was a mainstream book that was a best seller about it. People were very excited about it until the whole thing -- to my understanding -- was completely, 100 percent, debunked. Because of the fact that you could do the same thing with works of Shakespeare, it was no more than random chance. (Inaudible 00:27:39) very complicated, but things don't look like they're extremely unlikely. Depending on how you present it they're not unlikely, they will happen.
So it wasn't real. The Bible Codes was not real. So the first step is, is this chiasm real? For that question, my answer is I feel very confident that it is but that's a subjective question to some degree. So that's the first step in analyzing it. So if you accept the premise that this chiasm is real, meaning that it's not just cherry-picking certain parts. Or it's not just a coincidence, otherwise, but it's way too elegant, as Rabbi Fohrman used the word, or it's way too structured to be something that's just randomly there. That's the first step. As I say, I think that is the case here.
Once that's the case so then I guess the next question is, even putting aside -- there are really two questions. One is the Documentary hypothesis. The second one is just divine authorship of the Torah rather than huma authorship of the Torah. Even if it's, as Rabbi Fohrman said, even if it's just one author. I don't think it's compelling proof, but I think it is certainly has some significance, to me at least, pointing in the direction that it's not authored by even one person for the kind of reasons that Rabbi Fohrman said. That there are so many parts to it and it's hard to create, while also building the story with all its richness that we all know that the Torah has otherwise. It's hard to create such a complex and extended hidden pattern in it.
This is way beyond my expertise, but I assume that's especially the case in antiquity. Rabbi Fohrman had mentioned that there are other instances of chiasms in antiquity, but I simply don't know whether it's the case that there are ones that are this extensive over such a long body of work, which is the first half of the Torah. I don't know if that is something that exists. If it is then that would rebut this point I’m making right now. If it doesn't, then I would say that that's noteworthy.
See that's just a question of whether even if there's one author, but human authorship of the Torah versus Divine. Then the next question would be, does is specifically debunk the idea of multiple authors, rather than one author? Putting aside whether that author is a human or divine, but multiple humans, I'd say or one human?
So there, I think that the devil's in the details. It depends on -- anyone who's an expert in documentary hypothesis can look at -- you know, pull apart the very specific sections that are supposedly written by A, B, C, and D, and see if an editor would be able to compile them in such a way that would preserve their structure or there's no -- it's like some kind of jigsaw puzzle where people who know the pieces well enough can understand.
There's probably a simple answer, yes or no. Can this be assembled together from the pieces in a way that would preserve the structure? Or no, in order to have the structure it would have had to be, you know, pieces that documentary hypothesis espousers say are written by A, and piece written by B. They would have had to have torn apart A into different parts. So it doesn't even fit within the theory of documentary hypothesis. So that I think depends. The devil's in the details. So I simply don't know the answer to that.
The only other thing I was going to say if I remember my train of thought, is -- yeah. I forgot, but it will probably come back to me in a minute. That's kind of how I would think about it.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Just to pick up on that for a moment you know, Carol on the chat mentioned, but according to the documentary hypothesis, most theories are that there was an editor or what's called a redactor --
David: Right. That's what I was going to -- yeah.
Rabbi Fohrman: -- who assembled the various parts. So theoretically, you could rescue the documentary hypothesis by saying sure, the original documents were scattered from these five different authors and they were put together, but there was a redactor who assembled it.
However, if you say that, you have to posit a really, really, smart and active redactor. In other words you need a redactor who's good enough to take five completely disparate documents and put them together into this seamless thing, which is far beyond the capability of almost any human author to be able to create. So you could posit that, with a very, very smart refactor. An exceedingly smart redactor, but at this point I would argue that the gap between the documentary hypothesis and the traditional view of the Torah starts getting smaller and smaller. The documentary hypothesis under that approach is very close to the traditional view of the Torah. I'll tell you why.
David, right? Could you imagine after 120 years, you go up to heaven and you get a chance to talk to God. So let's play after 120 years, I'll play God and you play David. So I say David, welcome to heaven. Besides all of your professional accomplishments, I really want to offer you my congratulations at having found this chiasm. It was amazing. You helped find some of these little Easter eggs I put in, pardon the pun, and you were able to bring that out into the world. I'm really, really happy about hat.
If I'm -- so I'm discussing this with you and you say God, you know, I appreciate that. I say David, I'm going to give you a chance to ask me any one or two questions that were always on your mind as a reward for your efforts for understanding biblical themes. So David says well great, God. I really have been waiting 120 years to ask you some of these questions.
So here's my first question. You know, in my day and age the documentary hypothesis was like a big thing. It's like, what do you have to say about the documentary hypothesis? Like, you know, there are these different -- they think there were different authors here. What do you think about that?
Now, here's an interesting thing. What might God respond to that? Well, one possibility is God might respond, oh, those documentary hypothesis, they're crazy. They see multiplicity where I see unity, and your works like chiasms show that that's true. That's one possibility, but David, what if God answered -- could you see the possibility of God answering something like this to you? God would say, well, you know, at a certain level, David, both you and they have a point.
So you say God, what are you talking about? Are you saying that there's no divine authorship of the Torah?
David: God, you're an apikores (heretic.)
Rabbi Fohrman: Right? God, you're a heretic, right? So God says well, give me a chance to explain. Now, of course the Torah is divine, but let me explain what I mean. David, He says like put yourself in my shoes. I'm God. I'm trying to give the Torah t the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Do they have any oral traditions of their history, or do they not have any oral traditions of their history? When they come to Sinai, like, am I giving them something out of the blue, or do they know who Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were? They know who Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were, presumably. Do they have any oral traditions associated with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Yeah, they do. Might there be conflicts between a certain tribe's understanding and another tribe's understanding? Sure, that's the way it works.
Okay. Now put yourself in my shoes. I'm God. What am I supposed to do with that? Am I supposed to just give them this document that flies in the face of all of their traditions and it's like, new and it's completely different from what they understand? Like, that would be jarring. I'm not going to do that. What would be the clever thing to do? The clever thing to do would be for me to play redactor. In other words, what I'm going to do is I'm going to take those oral traditions and I'm going to sew them into something new. I'm going to make them -- because I'm smart, I'm like a really good editor, God says, I'm like a super good editor, like a divinely good editor, like insanely good. So I can take these disparate traditions which were very different and conflicting in some ways, and weave them together with an internal harmony to convey something much deeper than any of this tradition is. That is well beyond any one of these ideas in these traditions with multiple layers of meaning and chiasms in it to show its unity and to help reveal its meanings that are only evident 2,000 years, 3,000 years out when people like David Schwartz shows up and finds the stuff and puts it out to the world. That's how he did things. Sue me.
So what would you say, David? Would you say, like, I want my money back, God? Give me a different heaven? You would say, like, I could live with that, God. Right?
David: Sure. Yeah.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Like, I can live with that. So in other words, what I'm saying is that at a certain point, the gap between the documentary hypothesis and the traditional view, once you start positing this super smart redactor, then the only difference is that they call the super smart redactor some nameless super smart redactor, and I call the super smart redactor, God.
Part of the reason is because I think the super smart redactor probably has capabilities that are beyond human capabilities. Even, maybe, in the age of computers, but certainly in the age before computers. What I'm saying is that there's not that much of a gap between them.
Let's take one more question, and then David and I will jump into our conversation, if there's any --
David: Just as a quick aside, I just wanted to mention -- again, I really know almost nothing about the documentary hypothesis, but I do feel that I know enough that I've heard, here and there, that I think the documentary hypothesis, even in secular circles, had been mostly backed off from. Meaning, I think in the academic world, there was a big movement towards the documentary hypothesis, and then I think that there have been newer theories that have critically reassessed the documentary hypothesis and decided that it is not accurate. Not meaning that they said, you know, that they started going to synagogue and deciding that it's all from God, but the documentary hypothesis itself, I think, has been mostly superseded by other theories. Not that I really understand what that means, but for those who are interested in looking into it more, I think that's the case.
Rabbi Fohrman: I've heard that as well, but I'm not sure what the -- like you, I'm not quite up on what that means. My sense is that they haven't backed off of multiple authorship, but there's a lot more confusion, I think, among what that might mean. But I still think that discoveries like yours are things that any serious academic proponent of the documentary hypothesis would have to contend with in a significant way.
Yeah. I mean, along those lines, I'll just throw something else in also. We have a course in Aleph Beta also which you can find called "A Tale of Two Names". It's something which I did on Monday mornings back in 2017, I think it was. Basically, it's interesting because it really starts from the same place that the documentary hypothesis starts. It starts from the two Genesis stories and the two different names of God, which is where Julius Wellhausen began. The only difference is that he began there and saw fragmentation, and I began there and saw unity.
Basically, what I did is I said -- my discovery wasn't a chiasm, but what it was a series of intertextual parallels between the two sides. Basically, what I saw in this course, and I won't get into it now because we're talking about David's chiasm, but if you want to look on Aleph Beta, look at the course. You can find it. Basically, the thesis of the course, which I elaborated over 13 lectures, is that if you take Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, the two creation stories, and you actually line them up on a page next to each other, in Hebrew, you can draw a line across the page. You can draw 25 lines across the page.
In other words, the stories actually correspond to each other in 25 different ways, and it ends up that the two stories are actually commenting on each other. Any time there's something ambiguous in Genesis 1, the corresponding part of Genesis 2 will explain it to you. Basically, what it is, is that there are two different perspectives on Creation. It's as if you can tell the story of Creation from two different ways. The two different ways I discussed were basically what I called creation through artifice or organic creation. Creation through artifice is building; organic creation is planting.
How did God make the world, did He build or did He plant? Was it organic creation, or was it building creation? In building creation, I'm engaged in artifice, I'm engaged in using my mind to put things together. I'm building a universe. I'm an architect building a universe. That's Creation 1. Creation 2 is the same vision of creating the universe, but I am a gardener, so to speak, creating the universe. Everything comes from somewhere. Everything sprouts from something. Everything develops from somewhere else. It's almost as if you think even of the theory of evolution within biology, that's an organic theory. It fits, in a way, with Genesis 2, but not with Genesis 1 which is viewing things differently.
So which is the truth? The answer is, the truth is in neither or both. This goes back to almost a mystical idea, I think, which I think also is important to talk about if you are really thinking deeply about the thesis of the documentary hypothesis being multiple authors or not. Like, let's say there is on author. So why would there be -- how come there's a name of God that's an E name of God, and how come there's a J name of God? How come there are two different Creation stories? Isn't that confusing?
So the general response that I would give to that, is that one of the most fundamental things we believe about God is that God is one. But God is one because He comes from a place beyond space and time, and His unity transcends space and time. To the extent that we live in a world of space and time, we don't live in a place that's one. Space and time themselves fragment our environment. If I'm here, I can't be there. If I'm at this moment in time, I can't be in any other moment in time. Everything in our experience is not one, but two or many.
So the way we work analytically -- so that expresses itself, the nature of our environment expresses ourselves in our analytic ability with our minds, too. As David or anybody else here will tell you, if I think about something deeply, I begin to take it apart into pieces. I say okay, so there's an idea. But what are the elements of that idea? I take it apart into pieces. So the way human beings work is they take things apart, and that's how they begin to understand them.
So God, in a concession to human beings, says, how am I going to explain who I am, a simply unity in the way I do things, to human beings that don't work that way? How am I going to talk about what I do in a world of space and time? So the answer is that I'm going to approximate the unity of what I do. I'm going to filter that into a world of multiplicity, and I'm going to talk about things as if there was a multiplicity going on. So to try to explain the mystical way in which I created the universe, I'll say, well you could see it as if I'm building, or you could see it as if I'm planting. The truth is some sort of mystical unity of both of those which is very difficult for somebody living in a world of twos to wrap their mind about.
You could say, well God, what's Your nature as a God? Are You a compassionate God like Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei would have us understand? Or are you a God of justice like Elokim would have us understand? So God will say, well, you know, I use these different names so that you human beings who like to take things apart will be able to take me apart and say, well there's this quality that I have, there's that quality I have, but the truth is that it's all fiction because I'm beyond that. I'm a unity that transcends all of that, but I can't talk to you about it in any way other than through the lens of your multiplicity.
So hence you have things like duplicate stories, and hence you have things like different names, and all these elements of what seems to be repetition -- and I would argue, by the way, even chiasms are like this, because what is a chiasm really, but a story with different elements that are composed of pairs that all sort of comment on each other? These pairs are almost, in a mystical kind of way, taking a unified idea and breaking it apart into this pair that has this quality versus that quality of it. But somehow, the pairs respond to each other and unify, and their message is in how they connect to each other, not just in their separation from one another.
So that's my little soapbox argument about the documentary hypothesis.