Channeling the Divine
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. – Abraham Lincoln
So where does this inquiry leave me? First, to me, the Torah began to have the appearance of a layered document. While I am not an advocate of the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) per se, the Torah seems to have evident signs of being an edited work which makes use of multiple sources and contains layers of redaction. The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives and lists. At first I toyed with the possibility that these might be literary devices, but this only works for some of the examples (and not for many of them).
Second, religious practices as well as aspects of the Jewish belief system have changed and developed over the generations. The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e., that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.
The Mistake of Binary Thinking
Faced with this awareness, I turned back to my religious self (which I had kept on hold for a few years) and asked whether this new perspective should change anything about my lifestyle and commitments. One part of my brain cried out: “If Judaism’s claims are not accurate then it is fake and must be dropped.” However, such a claim about the irrelevance of my religious life felt fundamentally dishonest to me, since I felt that that the path I was on was a meaningful one, one that tapped into a divine path.
I realized that some Jewish thinkers are caught in a binary system: either every word of the Torah was literally dictated by God to Moses, hence perfect, or the Torah was written by people, hence flawed. I wish to abandon the binary system and offer something else: a faith-position of sorts.
In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. These different modes themselves are probably not binary; I imagine that a person can be in prophetic mode to a greater or lesser degree, depending on his or her level of inspiration and spiritual sensitivity.
The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, certainly function this way. Each prophet speaks and writes in very different styles—some even express contradictory notions to each other—and yet each is considered to have been a true prophet. This is better explained as human channeling of the divine rather than divine dictation to a human recorder.
The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way.
To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form the Torat Hashem! (God’s Torah).
The Wave Theory
Revelation derives from the channeling of the divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.
I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud.
In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.
To be clear, these are my tentative thoughts. They should be understood as one man’s attempt to embrace two things he believes to be true: Torah min ha-Shamayim on one hand, and the methods and (many or most of the) conclusions of academic biblical scholarship on the other hand.
(Rabbi Farber’s discussion of rape in Deuteronomy was accidentally included here from an older draft. At his request, it has been removed and now appears as a separate post, with more elaboration: “Marrying Your Daughter to her Rapist: A Test Case in Dealing with Morally Problematic Biblical Laws.” – David Steinberg)
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March 27, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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