Broadening the Boundaries of Revelation and Authority
Benjamin Sommer’s theology, as expressed in his book Revelation and Authority as well as in his summary essay, is poised, precariously but excitingly, close to the fault line that runs between academic scholarship and theological reflection. Professor Sommer sees no necessary contradiction between the two. Rather, he suggests that sensitive use of contemporary methods can help inform and enrich our theological discourse.
Sommer’s ambitious plan is to offer a religious perspective rooted in modern scholarship, harmonized with Halakhic conformity and religious commitment. His approach is ingenious and informative, offering a perhaps unexpected parallel between the thinking of certain modern interpreters of Judaism – Heschel and Rosenzweig are highlighted – and the range of opinions to be found within the various voices inherent in the text of the Pentateuch as it has come down to us. Sommer is one of a group of scholars (I am thinking of such individuals as Marc Brettler, James Kugel, and Jon D. Levenson) suggesting to contemporary readers that a range of “unorthodox” concepts can be found “hiding in plain sight” within the biblical text.
Playing Chess against Multiple Opponents
Reading his work conjures up the image of a chess master playing simultaneous games against different opponents. To those who assert that there is only one authoritative way to understand the moment of revelation and the origin of the Bible, he counters with the insights of Biblical research. To those who conclude that once we allow for historical development there is no basis for commitment to a traditional Jewish life, he offers a strenuous defense.
His main purpose appears to be providing modern traditional Jews with a way to wrap tefillin as they wrap their minds around the Documentary Hypothesis. He refuses to accept the proposition that either you treat the Bible, and Judaism as a whole, as an artefact to be deconstructed and analyzed, or you accept its traditional demands without inquiry. Rather, by understanding the Bible to be the earliest example of Oral Torah, it can be preserved as “an authoritative guide for our practice, a crucial anthology for our study, and an essential source for our identity.”
Limiting Participatory Theology to Practicing Jews: A Reform Perspective
I am a Reform Jew, engaged in the education of future generations of leadership. Nothing in Sommer’s project as outlined here is foreign or antithetical to my worldview. However, by asserting that “the Catholic Israel that decides what is Torah does not include all Jews; it is limited to those Jews who observe the law,”  Professor Sommer insists that the invitation to participate in the Torah’s dialectic of diversity and piety is not open to all. He has decided who falls into this category, and strongly implies that Jews whose theology is more liberal than his own have failed to make the grade.
Liberal Jews do not come out well from this book since in a number of comments the author disparages a rejection of Jewish law. He asserts that “[t]he awesome responsibility of interpreting and applying God’s command cannot be an exercise in shaping the tradition in our own image, in making it hew to our predilections.” It is clear that he suspects folks more liberal than him of doing precisely this:
…[I]n the past two centuries, segments of the Jewish community have flirted with a wholesale rejection of the notion of a binding legal authority. This is a recent development when viewed in the long trajectory of the Jewish people’s existence, and it is too early to say whether this approach will endure within the nation Israel. Previous flirtations with antinomianism suggest that it will not.
If Sommer is suggesting that Jews who are not committed to halakhah lack serious commitment to Jewish learning and observance, that is a case he is entitled to make. However, as a representation of the best of Liberal Jewish thought, this should not be allowed to pass without comment.
Dismissing Serious Reform Thinkers
Various men and women who engage in a profound level with the Bible and with the sense of being commanded are not to be found in Sommer’s analysis. Where is Eugene Borowitz and other covenant theologians, where is Rachel Adler and other feminist theologians, where is Leo Baeck? It is true that Franz Rosenzweig, often seen as a forebear of contemporary Liberal Judaism, figures prominently in the book, but Professor Sommer is at pains to portray him as “a traditionalist in his attitude toward hiyyuv [obligation].” Martin Buber receives the occasional mention, but the reader of this work would have no sense of Buber as a creative Jewish thinker.
These leading non-Orthodox thinkers – Adler, Baeck, Borowitz, Buber, and Rosenzweig – along with others, offer an approach to Torah which is serious and engaged, but falls outside the parameters of normative halakhic discourse. Some, like contemporary scholar David H. Aaron, use the tools of contemporary scholarship to undermine conventional wisdoms and emphasize the indeterminacy of the text. Some, most notably Martin Buber, seem intent on rejecting the binding nature of Jewish law however understood, while others – the approach of Jakob Petuchowski comes to mind – are committed to norms. They are simply convinced that these norms must be adduced in a new way in our modern context.
As a faculty member in a liberal seminary, I was particularly struck by a comment early in the book:
Several generations of liberal Protestant and Jewish clergy have gone forth to their pulpits convinced that anything of a religious nature they might say about scripture was probably wrong, and that any attempt to relate scripture to their congregants’ lives would be anachronistic, naïve, and intellectually dishonest.
The Liberal Jewish option is portrayed as flirtatiously anarchic, like a drunken adolescent on a binge. It would appear that we answer to no rules, have nothing significant to say to our congregants about our foundational texts, and are heading out of the Jewish people. I do not believe that portrayal to be fair or accurate, and I am not sure it is truly Professor Sommer’s position. Rather, perhaps, it is a price to be paid in engaging what he considers to be his primary audience, who is looking for squaring a commitment to traditional halakhah with a belief in many of the results of academic biblical criticism.
Using the Documentary Hypothesis for Religious Insights
In fact, however, many readers to the left of Professor Sommer’s focus will find much to engage and enrich them in his book. By espousing the Documentary Hypothesis as a tool of insight rather than a theological wrecking-ball, Sommer offers an exciting picture of varying accounts of Revelation preserved within the Bible. The parallel he draws between Heschel and Rosenzweig and the schools of thought to be found within the Bible itself is fascinating. His resistance to attempts to detach the Bible from later Judaism is salutary and thought-provoking.
As I read him, Sommer believes that a modicum of diversity is not antithetical to tradition. It is tradition. This position, with which I agree heartily, opens up a Pandora’s box of theological challenges, with which modernizing Jews have been grappling for two centuries. I am not ultimately satisfied by his attempt to open that box just wide enough to include his own approach while snapping it shut on the smarting fingers of others.
Patrolling the Border between Scholarship and Torah Study with Heschel
It is a pleasure to see Abraham Joshua Heschel feature so prominently in this book, written by a professor at the very institution where Heschel taught for almost three decades. Much in the book is strongly in line with Heschel’s enterprise. Like Sommer, Heschel was keen that the Bible be read as Scripture and not artefact. He presented a challenge to different kinds of Bible readers. Heschel challenged the traditionalist to see more diversity within sacred sources, he also criticized the modern Biblical critic:
Into his studies of the Bible the modern scholar brings his total personality, his increased knowledge of the ancient Near East, his power of analysis, his historic sense, his honest commitment to truth, as well as inherent skepticism of biblical claims and tradition. In consequence, we have so much to say about the Bible that we are not prepared to hear what the Bible has to say about us. We are not in love with the Bible; we are in love with our own power of critical acumen, with our theories about the Bible…
Like Sommer today, Heschel in his day patrolled the borderlands between scholarship and faith. Almost all of Sommer’s characterizations of Heschel are accurate in my view. A notable exception is to be found in the startling assertion that “Heschel’s belief in the persistence of prophecy into the Middle Ages and perhaps later… is not essential to his thought.” In fact, such a belief was central to Heschel’s approach to the dynamics of tradition and change, and Sommer would have done well to adopt it.
For Heschel, the constant potential for prophetic intuition was linked to “a theory in Jewish literature containing a profound parabolical truth which maintains that the Torah, which is eternal in spirit, assumes different forms in different eons.” I believe that Heschel’s maneuver, finding a license for progress within the sources of tradition, is in keeping with the spirit of Sommer’s project.
Hopes for a More Inclusive Expansion of this Theology
Abraham Joshua Heschel drew on the sources of Jewish tradition from the earliest strata of Biblical creativity to the present day, and sewed these various sources together to form a fabric of contemporary Jewish commitment. I hope that Professor Sommer will continue the exploration he has undertaken in Revelation and Authority and consider ways in which those who understand halakha in ways different to his own, or those for whom the strictures of halakhic conformity seem unnecessary or impossible for them, are nonetheless present at Sinai. In the meantime, I will share his work with my students, in the knowledge that it is bound to inform, inspire and challenge them.
I have suggested that Professor Sommer is poised on a fault line, exploring the tectonic plates upon which generations of Jewish belief and practice have been founded. This is an important and precarious enterprise. Sensitive readers and livers of Torah from many denominations are in Sommer’s debt. The promise of more courageous probing of our seismic assumptions is to be greeted with relish and anticipation.
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January 4, 2017
July 28, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Michael Marmur is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost of HUC-JIR. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Hebrew University and a B.A. from Oxford. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder.
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