Articles written by Rabbi Jacobs: Human element in divine Revelation - Published in the Jewish Chronicle

MANY ORTHODOX rabbis — it is safe to assume — will devote their sermons on Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah , to the theme of Torah min hashamayim, “ Torah from Heaven.” They will bravely denounce any view other than that the doctrine means that every word of the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, was communicated directly by God to Moses during the 40 years the Children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness, as were the laws given to Moses during his stay, for 40 days and nights, on Mount Sinai.

Unless this view is accepted, it is roundly declared, we are speaking falsehoods when we sing, as the Sefer Torah is raised in the Synagogue: “And this is the Torah which Moses set before the Children of Israel according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses.”

Three questions have to asked: Is this the traditional view? Even if it is, are there now good reasons to reject it? And does it make sense for those who reject it, for good reasons, to affirm that they still believe in Torah min hashamayim?

Honesty compels one to admit that the view expressed above is the traditional one — if traditional means the way in which Mai-monides formulated the doctrine in his 13 principles of the faith. For all that, such teachers as Abraham ibn Ezra and Judah the Saint were prepared, even in the Middle Ages, to acknowledge that some verses of the Pentateuch must have been added after Moses.

Because Maimonides’s formulation became the accepted one, two separate verses — “And this is the Torah which Moses set before the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:14) and “according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses” (Numbers 9:23) — were conjoined to give expression to the “traditional” view.

In the context, the first verse does not refer at all to the Torah as a whole, but to the particular torah (“doctrine”) mentioned in the passage. The second verse relates to the journeys of the Children of Israel that were “according to the commandment of the Lord.” Nevertheless, the traditional way of understanding the doctrine of Torah min ha-shamayim undoubtedly held sway until modern times, when very many religious Jews, loyal to traditional Judaism, found that they had good reasons to reject it.

It is embarrassing, after all these years, to resurrect the old science-versus-religion controversies. Geologists demonstrated in the last century the immense age of the earth; astronomers, that the earth is not geocentric; anthropologists, that human beings have been on earth far longer, by hundreds of thousands of years, than the Book of Genesis seems to suggest.

All this makes it increasingly difficult to believe that the Torah is the result of a direct divine communication, and hence an infallible source providing completely accurate information on all matters.

The Torah itself makes no claim anywhere that every one of its words was communicated by God to Moses. A reader approaching the text as it stands would hardly conclude that the oft-repeated words, “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying…,” were themselves “spoken” by God to Moses.

It is all very well protesting that the critical view represents outdated, 19th-century pseudo-scholarship; but even if it were true, which it is not, that the Documentary Hypothesis has been demolished — it is still the dominant theory, albeit with re-finements, in modern biblical studies — this cannot mean that we can opt for the “traditional” view.

The Documentary Hypothesis is precisely that — an hypothesis, designed to answer the questions: since Moses did not write the Pentateuch, who did, and when? In reputable colleges and universities throughout the world, including the Hebrew University, the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, in the new commentary of the Jewish Publication Society, and in the Encyclopedia Judaica, it is now accepted that, Documentary Hypothesis or no Docu-mentary Hypothesis — that is a matter of scholarship, not of faith — the Torah is a composite work produced at different periods in the history of ancient Israel.

Unless one is prepared to say that God has planted false clues, the only way to cope with the overwhelming evidence of compositeness is to accept that there is a human element in the divine Revelation, that the Torah is not the bare text of the Chumash, but the sum total of Jewish teachings, in which our ancestors reached out haltingly to seek God’s will and to be found by Him.

If one holds such a view, can one still be said to believe in Torah min hashamayim? The answer is yes, once it is appreciated that Judaism, including the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim, has had a history and did not simply drop down, ready made, from heaven.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a), the rabbis describe as an “unbeliever” anyone who says that a single verse of the Torah is not from heaven but was uttered by Moses’s own mouth. Such an unbeliever, they add, has no share in the world to come.

When expressing this opinion, the rabbis were not concerned primarily with the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. That view was held, in their day, even by the unbelievers, who maintained that Moses did write the Pentateuch, but made it all up out of his own head.

Religious modernists do not say that Moses invented it, but that he was not the author of the entire Chumash. They still believe that whoever did write it was inspired by God. For those of us who see it this way, Torah min hashamayim is shorthand for saying that Judaism is a revealed religion and that this is, in fact, the main thrust of the talmudic passage.

Religious modernists believe in “Heaven” — in this context, the rabbinic synonym for God — and they believe in the Torah (the Jewish religion) as much as their ancestors did. But, in the light of modern knowledge, it is the “from” in the doctrine — “the Torah is from Heaven” — that has to be understood in terms of divine-human co- operation. In much the same way, the benediction, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz — “who bringeth forth bread from the earth” — does not mean that God brings bread ready made from the ground.

What is involved in all this is the comparatively newly found sense of history, an appreciation of what actually happened in the past, not what we are told happened. It is all a matter of plausibility.

Take, for example, the Book of Psalms. Before serious historical investigation began, the “traditional” view prevailed that King David wrote the entire book, including Psalm 137, which tells of events that took place more than 400 years later.

To anyone with the slightest historical sense, it is far more plausible to suggest that the Book of Psalms contains psalms produced in different periods but eventually collected under the title, “The Psalms of David,” because David, the “sweet singer in Israel,” was known as the originator of psalms to the glory of God.

In the same way, it is far more plausible to suggest that Moses, the “lawgiver,” attracted to himself later laws and that these are recorded in the Torah of Moses. Rabbinic law, too, is traditionally seen as part of torat Moshe, even though the actual laws are rabbinic.

If we are to preserve our intellectual integrity, a readjustment has to be made in the light of our present-day knowledge. To say this is not, of course, to claim superiority to the ancients, but simply to recognise that we now have access to facts that were not available to them.

Faith in God cannot be invoked to deny the facts, on the grounds that this is how the ancients saw it, any more than it can be invoked to deny that — as Maimonides states — the sun, moon and stars are fixed in concentric spheres going round the earth. Even though we can no longer view it that way, we can see — as Maimonides did, but in a more wondrous way — God as the Creator of the grander universe disclosed by scientific investigation.

To make this necessary readjustment is not to deny the essential truth of the Torah . On the contrary, our appreciation of the Torah is enhanced when it is seen in dynamic terms.

Many of us have come to appreciate that the idea of God giving the Torah to Moses — call it “myth” if you will, since the connotation of this term in scholarship means truth expressed in non-historical terms — suggests that Judaism developed by using the God-to-Moses paradigm as a way of expressing the idea that Judaism is a developing and yet eternal faith.

We can still sing, when the scroll is joyously raised: “And this is the Torah which Moses set before the Children of Israel according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses.” It is poetry, to be sure, but poetry so sublime that, beside it, pedestrian prosaic accounts pale into insignificance.

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