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SBL e-journal

Alexander Even-Chen





A Torah of Participatory Revelation in Context



APA e-journal

Alexander Even-Chen





A Torah of Participatory Revelation in Context






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The Revelation and Authority of a Participatory Torah

A Torah of Participatory Revelation in Context

Situating Sommer’s theology of participatory revelation and halachic fluidity among other Jewish thinkers and writings: Heschel, Maharal, Rosenzweig, and the Zohar


A Torah of Participatory Revelation in Context

Not Accepting the Human –Divine Dichotomy of Torah

Can observant Judaism and modern biblical scholarship happily and honestly co-exist? Can someone who accepts that the Torah is a product of multiple human authors also accept the binding nature of mitzvot?  These questions that Ben Sommer addresses are among the most important questions a person of faith, who adopts the tools of modern historical research, must ask.

As Sommer notes, it is possible to separate the religious meaning of the Bible from the conclusions of academic research, claiming that the latter do not obligate the man of faith. Many rabbis have, in fact, argued that belief in a literal Torah from Heaven can be maintained even in the face of academic findings, which imply human involvement.[1]

Nevertheless, other approaches have been proposed that stress the partnership of humanity in the authorship of the Torah, and this is the path that Sommer takes in his book that outlines “participatory revelation.”

Differing Perceptions of Revelation in the Bible

At the crux of this issue stand various perceptions of the meaning of divine revelation. One perception stresses that the text of the Torah is the actual word of God that God expressed in human language in order to transmit the divine will. This could be called the “dictation model” of revelation. Although popular in many religious circles, this approach is not in line with the conclusions of historic research.

One especially significant aspect of Sommer’s analysis is that the “dictation model” is not necessarily claimed in the Torah either, which contains different approaches to divine revelation. For example, Sommer explains that in some parts of Exodus, which stem from the E source, the role of Moses is accentuated. In E’s conception, the recorded version of the revelation reflects the way in which Moses understood the divine will. In Deuteronomy, however, the concept that the Torah is the actual word of God is more pronounced.[2]

Going Beyond Heschel: What Is the Role of the Sages?

To get a better sense of Sommer’s contribution, it would be useful to put his theology in conversation with the conclusions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom Sommer notes as a formative influence.  Heschel opines that the development of the Torah continued even after the sealing of the Written Law,[3]  and that in Rabbinic Judaism, the Written Law is the beginning of the Torah and not its end.

Heschel takes this point further, arguing that humans are God’s essential partners in the authoring of the Torah. In words that encapsulate his teachings, Heschel writes: “If there are no sages there is no Torah [4] (אין חכמים אין תורה).” As support of this notion, he cites a midrash with the following metaphor:

כשנתן הקדוש ברוך הוא תורה לישראל, לא נתנה להן אלא כחיטים להוציא מהן סולת, וכפשתן להוציא ממנו בגד.
When God gave Israel the Torah, it was given as wheat, from which to extract the semolina, and as flax, from which to craft clothing.[5]

To put it in Heschel’s words, the sages are obligated to translate the deep religious insights of the Torah itself, which they perceive in moments of enlightenment, into practical, everyday language. From this perspective, Sommer’s theology would be problematic for Heschel, since it shrinks the role of the divine in the process of writing the Torah overly much. In other words, Sommer’s Torah would be a little “too human” for Heschel.

Maharal’s Theology: The Tikkun of Torah 

In developing his theology, Heschel cites Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague 1525-1609), who presents the sages not only as partners with God, but as complementing His enterprise. Everything that was created in the six days of Creation requires repair (tikkun) and action (asiyah).[6]Humanity’s duty is to repair creation. The Torah states (Gen 2:3),

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת.
God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it he rested from all His work that God had created to perform.

Maharal and Heschel emphasize the end of this verse with a creative reading that takes people as the subject of the final verb:  “that God created in order [for humans] to act upon.” In other words, on the seventh day God completed the laying of the foundations that would enable people to do, to continue forming and completing the act of creation.

This holds true even for the Torah itself. The sages according to Maharal are the tikkun and the completion of the Torah.[7]

כך התורה באה לעולם כמו שבאו לעולם כל הדברים הטבעיים שלא באו לעולם מבוררים לגמרי רק כי האדם השכלי צריך לברר אותם.
This is how the Torah came into the world, just as all natural entities (e.g., wheat or cotton) came to the world, which do not appear in the world in an entirely processed way (i.e., useful for humans), rather humans, with their intelligence, must process them.[8]

Their role thus complements that of the prophets.[9] While the prophets brought God’s word as it was revealed in moments of enlightenment, the sages use their intelligence to develop, translate, supplement, and augment the Torah.

Defining the Divinity of Torah

Heschel distinguishes between revelation and Torah, and significant audacity inheres in this distinction. The moment humanity is given such a decisive role, complicated theological issues arise, such as the possible relativization of the Torah, because the perception of the sage who translates the word of God is human perception, dependent on circumstances of the time and place.

Heschel’s “Moments of Elevated Consciousness”

Heschel objects to this type of relativization, and opines that it ignores the “secret of inspiration.” He instead refers to moments of enlightenment during which individuals are elevated beyond the bounds of human consciousness and exposed to the infinite sphere of divine mystery.

The Written Law is the recording of the prophets’ journeys in that mysterious realm. Their words were inspired by deep religious rapture and cannot be fully analyzed using the tools of human literary criticism. The halachic sages are also functioning, whether consciously or unwittingly, under divine inspiration.

Rosenzweig: God’s Presence in the Redaction

Franz Rosenzweig, in his response to the Documentary Hypothesis, claimed that biblical criticism was insufficient to describe the religious significance of the Torah. Even accepting, historically and scientifically speaking, that the Torah is made up of documents, it was the redactors (R), who turned these texts into the Torah as a way of coalescing the holiness of the individual documents and bringing out a fuller a picture by combining them into one.[10]

Treating the Torah as a unity is an expression of the stance that everything in the Torah is “the words of the living God (דברי אלהים חיים).” Traditionally, the Torah’s unity was assumed since it was seen as all coming from Moses’ writing down of God’s revelation. Rosenzweig attempts to maintain this concept while accepting the basic premises of critical scholarship by speaking about “unification” as opposed to “unity.” This unification of the sources, and reading the texts in light of each other, is, for Rosenzweig, what we mean by God’s manifestation in the Torah.

Rosenzweig’s maneuver here is similar to that of R. Joseph Tuv Elem Bonfils (14th cent.), in his Tzafenat Pa’aneach, who defends the legitimacy of ibn Ezra’s belief that certain passages were written by prophets other than Moses, by saying (Gen 12:6):

ואחר שיש לנו להאמין בדברי קבלה ובדברי נבואה מה לי שכתבו משה או שכתבו נביא אחר, הואיל ודברי כולם אמת והם בנבואה?!
Now since we are bound to believe the words of tradition and prophecy, what difference does it make if Moses wrote it or if some other prophet wrote it, since all of their words are true and and they are via prophecy?![11]

In a similar vein, Rosenzweig argues that once we accepted that the Torah as a unity for the purposes of Judaism, what does it matter whether it began as a unity or it was unified by redactors?

The Torah as the First Rabbinic Book: Heschel and Sommer

For Heschel, the written Torah, like the oral Torah, reflects the encounter between humanity and God, as it is a kind of interpretation of revelation. This is the aspect of Heschel’s philosophy of revelation most contiguous with Sommer’s, who explicitly notes his use of Heschel for this concept. Sommer notes, “the Pentateuch is really the first rabbinic book, because, like the Mishnah and the Gemaras, it presents multiple, conflicting points of view…”

Nevertheless, unlike Sommer, Heschel stays far away from the secular feeling engendered by the discourse favored in critical approaches to the Torah. Although he does relate to layers of development of Judaism over time, he treats each development as a new revelation of holiness. Thus, the written and oral Torahs develop, but each is seen in its totality as another layer of holiness added to the tradition. Sommer’s treatment of the development of Jewish tradition is quite different in flavor, and reflects much more the texture of discourse one finds in standard critical treatments of the Bible and rabbinic literature, emphasizing differences within each corpus.

This difference between Heschel and Sommer is underlined in a terminological difference. Heschel speaks of the desire to get close (להתקרב) to God, whereas Sommer speaks only of “encounter” between God and humans. The distance between the human and the divine is more palpable in Sommer’s work than in Heschel’s. 

A Critique of Sommers Theology: One God with Fluid Commandments 

Over the generations, many changes have occurred in the notion of divinity and, on the whole, theologians have been highly critical and polemical in their works. What one scholar perceives as a holy concept is perceived as sacrilegious or heretical by another.  The Torah’s “fluidity,” i.e., that God left the details of the revelation and even the mitzvot fluid, is a case in point. The concept is central to Sommer’s thinking. He even argues that such fluidity is clear from the makeup of the Torah and that this variety is typical of Judaism, ubiquitous in biblical and rabbinic texts. This argument could create the (false) impression that fluidity is a commonly held ideal in Judaism.

Despite such statements that support this impression, such as “the Torah has seventy faces” [12](שבעים פנים לתורה) or “these and these are the words of the living God” [13](אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים), the opposite is often the case. Many more Jewish sources present a rigid ideal of one Torah and one truth, in other words, the opposite of fluidity.[14] See, for example, Maimonides statement in the Guide of the Perplexed (3:34, Pines trans.): “Governance of the Law ought to be absolute and universal.”[15]

Kabbalah as Model of Fluidity in Torah

Sommer uses models from Jewish mystical systems to support his idea of the development of Jewish practice over time and, more significantly, for the idea that contradictory viewpoints and practices in Judaism are all part of the unity of Jewish thought and practice. This approach has merit. From a theological perspective, divine fluidity can actually indicate the infinite power of God and the volitional nature of God’s actions, and such an idea is manifest in Jewish mysticism.

The theory of multiple divine emanations (sephirot) is an example of this fluidity, in which the infinite God can be manifest in various forms. Even with all the differences between the nature of each emanation, the source of the tensephirot all emanate from the Ein Sof (Unending One; אין סוף), which is the kabbalistic term for “God” in God’s fullness.[16]

Fluidity as Polytheistic

Mystical descriptions of God such as this do invoke the dual concepts of unity and diversity. Nevertheless, some monotheistic purists have objected to this system as being too polytheistic. Gershom Scholem, who wrote Jewish Gnosticism with this point in mind, notes that the tree of sephirot contains, just as its polytheistic analogues do, real battles between good and evil. Indeed, according to the Zohar, although the Ein Sofis above all the sephirot, the relationship between the individual sephirot is exceedingly similar to the descriptions of battles between good and evil gods that we find in polytheistic mythology.

Sommer, however, tries to argue against the pagan spirit in this mysticism, writing that it is not really related in any way to wars between gods in the pagan world, but I believe that his interpretation of the kabbalistic material itself is not in consonance with the spirit of these sources. Nevertheless, the model of Ein Sof and sephirot are an integral part of Jewish thought, and can probably be used fruitfully by those, like Sommer, who wish to present a more complex and varied picture of divine revelation, especially one that continues to reverberate throughout the ages and even into our own time.


January 4, 2017


Last Updated

August 27, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Alexander Even-Chen is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He holds a Ph.D., M.A. and B.A. in Jewish thought, all from the Hebrew University and rabbinic ordination from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. Among his many publications are A Voice from the Darkness, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Phenomenology and Mysticism (Hebrew), The Binding of Isaac – Mystical and Philosophical Interpretations of the Bible (Hebrew), and (with Ephraim Meir) Between Heschel and Buber. A Comparative Study.