Current Approaches to Revelation and Torah
Scholars and religious thinkers have suggested various approaches on how to conceptualize revelation, “Torah min HaShamayim,” in light of academic scholarship. The following are brief outlines of some of these approaches.
1. Cumulative Revelation
The Torah was given at a certain time and in a certain place. For this reason it needed to speak to the people in words and concepts appropriate to them. When the Torah was given, slavery existed, so it tries to regulate the practice, making it more ethical. When the Torah was given, female relatives of enemy combatants were raped and taken home to be wives to the soldiers. The Torah tries to ensure that such women are treated with some respect and get standard marital rights. When the Torah was given, men were the active citizens and women were on the sidelines, hence the Torah speaks mainly to men, and in a male voice.
None of these things represents a core ideology of the Torah, rather, each represents a cultural compromise with a social and historical reality. However, as the world progresses and it sheds its patriarchy, grants citizen rights to women and abolishes slavery, all of which have already occurred in our society, revelation will adjust itself to these realities. Our goal is to understand how the Torah applied the divine ethical and religious standards to its period of time and try to learn from that how to apply it to ours. What the first two rules have in common, for instance, is that they require basic protections for the vulnerable. The third implies that all relevant parties to the covenant need to be addressed directly—all the men were invited to Sinai. Since nowadays women are active participants in society, they should be invited to participate as well.
Although this theory is mainly an attempt to deal with the dissonance between values as they appear in the Torah itself, in Chazal, and in modern times, it can also be used to deal with the contradictions in the Torah itself. If by its very nature revelation must evolve to speak to the times, then the various contradictions in the Torah can be explained by stating that they each represents a revelation in a different time and place. The fact that these revelations were placed together in the same book is hardly surprising, considering that other examples of Jewish holy books like the Talmud are filled with contradictory opinions. It is the job of Jews to consider the entirety of revelation from beginning to end, especially the earliest examples of revelation which make up our holiest book, the Torah.
Further Reading: Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (HBI Series on Women; Boston: Brandeis, 2004).
2. Myth of Origin
Myth and history are two different genres. Whereas seeing Torah as originating in an actual revelation at Sinai is not tenable historically, it is a very effective narrative or tangible formulation of the idea that the Jewish way of life is an actualization of the divine will. As such, the belief that Torah is from heaven functions as an effective and fundamental myth. This myth interprets Jewish history in such a way as to grant meaning and significance to the formation of the Torah, the Oral Torah and the customs adopted by Jews over the centuries. The myth of Torah and Sinai expresses in narrative form the deep-seated feeling or belief that the Torah and the destiny of the Jewish people are intertwined with the divine in a real way.
Further Reading: Norman Solomon, Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012).
3. Core Revelation
Despite the many contradictions in the Torah, an overall pattern does emerge. The ancestors of Israel were chosen by God to be God’s people. The covenant between Israel and God is based upon loyalty to God and observance of God’s commandments. These commandments contain ethical requirements, such as not stealing or murdering, treating the widow and the orphan with care, and proper pay and treatment of workers. They also include ritual practices, such as offering the Passover sacrifice, avoiding certain forbidden foods, supporting the priesthood with tithes, and honoring the Sabbath and holidays.
Although the details of these various commandments may contradict, the essence of the revelation, including the law and the covenant, can be maintained. According to this theory, the core traditions may go back to a revelatory moment in history, perhaps to Moses himself, but these traditions remained oral and were disseminated throughout the Israelites. Different versions of these traditions were written down at different times in different places and were eventually combined into the Torah, producing the complex and somewhat internally inconsistent account of revelation that we have today.
Further Reading: Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 (Anchor Bible Series; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), “Introduction.”
4. The Maculate Torah
According to this theory, the Torah was once revealed to Israel at Sinai, but over time the text of the Torah became corrupt (=maculated). For this reason, the Torah is riddled with contradictory details. Although not in charge of the physical text, a group of pure loyalists attempted to keep the original revelation alive during the dark First Temple period. The Torah scroll that Ezra brought back from Babylon to Israel was his attempt to restore, as best he could, some semblance of accuracy to the original written word. Ezra was not entirely successful, so the rabbis were needed to reframe all of the halakhot in the Torah in their proper forms. This explains why the halakhot in the Talmud appear so divergent from those in the Torah.
Further Reading: David Weiss-HaLivni, Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses (Radical Traditions; Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
5. The Interpreted Torah as Service of God
This approach admits the truth of the findings of modern academic Bible study, but believes this to be of academic interest only, with no relevance to the Torah or the study of Torah for Judaism. This model argues that Judaism is not about the Torah, but about the traditional, rabbinic interpretation of Torah. What the words may have meant in their ancient context has no bearing on the proper Jewish interpretation of these words, once one accepts the Oral Torah as the primary vehicle of access to God and revelation for Jews. Proper service of God for the faithful Jew means actively engaging and interpreting the Torah along the trajectory plotted by the Sages in an attempt to keep the Torah a flexible and living document and not a petrified and obsolete one. In this sense, academic study, although useful for historians, is a step-backwards for the religious, Torah-observant Jew.
Further Reading: James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), chapter 36. James L. Kugel, “Kugel in JQR,” http://www.jameskugel.com/kugel-jqr.pdf
6. Torah Is Not Dogma
Tell someone “I believe in you!” and you’ve said something about your personal connection to that person. Say “I believe that to visit the dentist once a year for a checkup is sufficient” and you’ve made a factual claim that may or may not be true, and may or may not be important to you on a personal level. In other words, there is a fundamental difference between belief in someone versus belief that something is true.
The classical Judaism of the Torah, the Midrash and the Talmud is a Judaism about belief in, not about belief that. The Bible and the Talmud rarely if ever touch upon the question of whether God exists. God is there, and powerfully so. The question is not whether God exists, but what our relationship is to God (and God to us): One of love or hatred? Respect or disgrace? Loyalty or betrayal? The God of biblical and halakhic Judaism is a personality, not a concept.
All of this changed in the Middle Ages, when Maimonides formulated his 13 principles of the Torah. He forcefully claimed that a person is Jewish (or not) based on the acceptance of 13 intellectual propositions. In other words, being Jewish depends on what you think, not who you are and how you act. For a great many of his medieval critics, this position of Maimonides was his greatest and most dangerous distortion of the Torah. And more problematically the “required beliefs” in many Orthodox Jewish communities have expanded far beyond Maimonides’ actual 13 principles. Maimonides’ approach has arguably helped to enable and feed intolerance and internal warfare within the Jewish people in our own era.
Returning to the Torah as part of a personal and communal relationship with God, a covenant, rather than as a set of required beliefs, or dogmas, cannot resolve all of the difficult tensions between Torah and academia. But it does make a great many of them fall by the wayside, and reduces the rest to issues that can be confronted with nuance and intellectual maturity, rather than as all-or-nothing conflicts.
For an extensive and readable defense of the idea that Judaism reflects belief in rather than belief that see, Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999).
7. Sanctified by the Community
According to this approach, the fundamental insights of academic biblical studies are true. The Torah is a composite document that has developed over time; it is not always historically accurate, and indeed should not be taken as a historical or as a scientific treatise. Nevertheless, the historical-critical method and traditional Jewish observance are compatible, as the dogmatic content of Judaism is not binding.
Whether one affirms revelation or not, the Bible remains a sacred work. However, its sacredness is connected to the Jewish community that declares it to be sacred. The earlier Jewish community, the real and spiritual ancestors of the Jews, understood the Bible to be sacred, and we follow their example. The Bible, in this approach, becomes a sourcebook for current Jews, who select, reevaluate and interpret its texts to give meaning and substance to contemporary Judaism.
Further Reading: Marc Zvi Brettler, The Bible and the Believer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Afterword.
8. Aspects Theory
Noting that the Torah writes from a number of perspectives and in a number of voices, this model suggests that the multivocality of the Torah is original, purposeful and divine. This point has been argued both at the literary level as well as the theological level. On the literary level, it has been argued that complexity and multivocality can be understood as a literary style; just because it does not fit well with contemporary notions of consistency and narrative flow does not mean that it doesn’t have a logic of its own. On the theological level, an infinite God may have created a text that reflects more than one authorial voice and more than one perspective on the meaning of revelation and the nature of covenantal law. The stories about the ancestors may also be said to benefit from having been told from multiple perspectives.
Further Reading: Mordechai Breuer, “The Study of Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven: Compatibility or Contradiction,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah (ed. Shalom Carmy; Orthodox Forum; Northvale: Aaronson, 1996), 159-180. Yosef Ofer (ed.), Shitat ha-Beḥinot shel ha-Rav Mordechai Breuer: Qovetz Ma’amarim u-Teguvot (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 2005).
9. Liberal Supernaturalism
According to this approach, some sort of revelation occurred in the past and is the inspiration for the Torah and what follows. However, there is no way to know what was revealed and what was not. For this reason, each generation must figure out for itself what appears to be divine in the Torah and what is dross. The main focus of this approach is not the contradictions in the Torah but rather the apparent moral failings of the Torah, including massacre of women and children, unfair treatment of the bastard child (mamzer), execution of homosexuals, selling off of young daughters, etc. This view has been a popular position taken in the Conservative movement.
Further Reading: Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999).
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May 9, 2013
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