Stay updated with the latest scholarship

You have been successfully subscribed
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting

script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Benjamin D. Sommer





Revelation and Authority: Author’s Presentation



APA e-journal

Benjamin D. Sommer





Revelation and Authority: Author’s Presentation






Edit article



The Revelation and Authority of a Participatory Torah

Revelation and Authority: Author’s Presentation


Revelation and Authority: Author’s Presentation

Introduction: Torah mi-Sinai and the Modern Jew

Does it make any sense to be shomer mitzvot if you accept the basic propositions of biblical criticism? Is it hypocritical to say “amen” to the blessing before the Torah reading if you don’t believe that God or Moses wrote the words that are then chanted out loud?[1] Can you put tefillin on or light Shabbat candles in good faith if you think the Pentateuch is, even in part, a human document?

Many modern Jews confront questions like these, which we might paraphrase more broadly as: can observant Judaism and modern biblical scholarship happily and honestly co-exist? These questions are at the heart of my recent book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition.

The core proposition of the book is that biblical scholarship and Jewish theology provide ways to show that the binding nature of Jewish law can be harmonized with modern theories of the Torah’s origins. I also examine the interplay between traditional Judaism and modern biblical criticism, arguing that the human authors of the Pentateuch[2] intend the documents they produced not only to convey God’s will as expressed in the revelation to the nation Israel at Mount Sinai but also to reflect Israel’s interpretations of God’s will and their responses to it. The biblical authors, then, prefigure modern Jewish thinkers who understand revelation as a process that incorporates both divine and human contributions.

The book’s close readings of biblical texts bolster theologies of thinkers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Louis Jacobs, who regard revelation not just as a top-down phenomenon but as a dialogue between God and Israel.[3] In emphasizing the role human creativity takes in fostering an organic and ever-growing Torah, it also resonates with themes found in the work of Orthodox thinkers Yochanan Silman, Tamar Ross, Rav Kook the elder, and Yitzchok Hutner, who also value the inventiveness of Jewish sages who help to create Torah in every generation.[4] 

Revelation in Parts of Exodus 19-24 and 32-34 (E) vs. Deuteronomy 4-5 (D)

Making use of the Documentary Hypothesis, I show that the narrative of revelation found in parts of Exodus 19-24 and 32-34, much of which derives from the E document, constantly forces the audience to wonder how the Decalogue[5] came to Israel: directly from God, entirely through the mediation of Moses, or in part directly and in part through Moses? These E texts encourage us to speculate about the possibility that God may not have conveyed distinct words at Sinai, so that Moses’ role in the lawgiving was substantial. E hints that God may not have spoken specific words at the revelation, or that only a few words were spoken by God, and that Moses may have interpreted or expanded upon God’s self-revelation by composing all or many of the words found in the Decalogue and in the legal passages found in Exodus 21-23.[6]

Deuteronomy 4-5 (the D source), however, insists that the whole nation heard God speaking specific words throughout the entire Decalogue. By extension, it implies that all the other laws were also verbally formulated to God and merely memorized and written down by Moses. Having heard God speak actual words in a human language during the revelation of the Decalogue, the people can assume that when Moses tells them that God conveyed other laws to him, Moses means that God really spoke using human language for those laws as well.[7]  

Participatory Revelation vs. Stenographic Revelation

Thus, we can see within the Pentateuch itself two views of revelation. I call one of these the participatory theology of revelation, because it maintains that both God and the nation Israel participated in creating the documents and traditions that resulted from God’s revelation to Israel. The participatory theology puts a premium on human agency. It bears witness to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of human subjects under divine command.

The other, better-known, view can be termed the stenographic view of revelation: it views the Pentateuch’s specifics as having been verbally formulated by God and delivered to Moses, who wrote them down word-for-word. E wants us to consider both views of revelation and does not allow us to conclude which is definitely correct. D wants us to adopt a stenographic view.[8]

Later interpreters in the rabbinic, kabbalistic, and philosophical traditions develop participatory and stenographic (or maximalist and minimalist) theologies of revelation down to our own day. Classical and modern Jewish interpretations of God’s self-disclosure at Sinai reinscribe debates that took place among the Pentateuch’s authors. Older points of view emerge in newly productive ways in talmudic, medieval, and modern Jewish texts.[9]

The Torah a Proto-Rabbinic Book

It follows, then, that an overarching unity connects biblical religion and postbiblical theology in spite of — indeed, because of — the Torah’s lack of internal consistency. Consequently, I argue, the Pentateuch is really the first rabbinic book, because, like the Mishnah and the Gemaras, it presents multiple, conflicting points of view, all of which are sacred and authoritative in the sense that they provide crucial guidance for a religious Jew. Thus the famous logic of the talmudic rabbis in b. Eruvin 13b and b. Gittin 6b — אלו ואלו דברי א־להים חיים [“Both these and those are the living words of God”] — already is a formative principle for the editors of the Pentateuch in the late biblical period.

To be sure, the Pentateuch, unlike the Mishnah and Gemaras, does not identify the authors of the different positions and thus does not explicitly identify the conflicts as conflicts. On the other hand, in one respect the Pentateuch’s transmission of disagreement is even more extreme than the Mishnah’s or the Gemara’s: whereas the latter sometimes tell us which opinion is to be regarded as correct and which as incorrect, the Pentateuch provides no guidance on how to resolve its contradictions or how to decide which opinion to follow.

Establishing Continuity between the Torah and Rabbinic Literature

Ironically enough, then, my biblical-critical approach to the Pentateuch allows me to overturn the attempt of some biblical critics to detach the Bible from traditional Judaism.  I also overturn attempts by some traditional thinkers to claim that biblical criticism is not in the spirit of Judaism since biblical critics argue that that the Torah contains contradictions.

Instead, I show how deeply and typically Jewish the Bible is. What rabbinic texts call הוויות דאבּיי ורבא, the arguments for which the classical rabbis are so famous, begin already in the first chapters of Genesis. What we think of as later ideas or movements in Judaism in fact have biblical predecessors.[10] In this respect, even though this approach on the surface seems theologically liberal or radical, it is quite traditional, showing that the long trajectory of Jewish thought is a consistent unity.[11]

This approach cuts a Gordian knot for modern Jews who recognize the persuasiveness and intellectual power of biblical criticism yet reject attempts by biblical critics to reduce the Bible to a mere historical artifact, an interesting but antiquated collection of texts from the Iron Age. Many contemporary religious Jews (and also many religious Christians) hope that the Bible, even when viewed as the ancient anthology that it is, can remain a living scripture for communities of faith in the present and the future.

An essential goal of my book is to explain why a religious person can be open to findings about the Bible that seem non-traditional or even anti-religious. There need be no contradiction between the religious commitments and the critical imperatives of a contemporary biblical interpreter, because some of what we think of as modern theologies reformulate and expand a concept of revelation already found in the Bible. Liberal theologians of the twentieth century pick up threads that biblical authors wanted readers to pick up; in fact, biblical authors expended considerable ingenuity weaving those threads into biblical accounts of the events at Sinai.

Using the Documentary Hypothesis to Defend the Central Place of Halacha in Judaism

Another sense in which this book is highly traditional, from a Jewish point of view is that I utilize the Documentary Hypothesis to bolster normative understandings of the place of the law in Judaism.[12] This is the case because all four sources agree that revelation was lawgiving and that a binding covenant, which included laws, was the result of the revelation.[13]

To be sure, J, E, P, and D disagreed about a great deal when it comes to the revelation: how, precisely, it occurred (verbally or in a way that is beyond language),[14] when it occurred (in one fell swoop at Mount Horeb, or over the course of decades),[15] and, not least, what are the laws it produced (to choose two random examples: how one should perform the Pesah sacrifice, by boiling it or by roasting it,[16] or whether female slaves have the same right to go free after six years of servitude that male slaves enjoy).[17] But however much they differ on specifics of the law, they agree that to live as a member of the nation Israel involves, first of all, obeying a law. The centrality of law to Judaism, then, is one of the upshots of my critical method of reading the Bible.

The Relationship Between Written Torah and Oral Torah (Tradition)

Another significant consequence of including the participatory model of revelation in our understanding of the creation of the Pentateuch is its effect on our perception of the relationship between scripture and tradition, or, in Jewish terms, between תורה שבכתב (Written Torah) and תורה שבעל פה (Oral Torah). Most, though not all, rabbinic and medieval texts regard the former as consisting of God’s own words and the latter, though part of that same revelation, as consisting of words written by human beings. But if, as the participatory theology holds, the Pentateuch results from a dialogue between God and Israel, then its words include or even consist entirely of human formulations.

It follows that for modern Jews who believe in a participatory theology, the sharp distinction between the kinds of revelation reflected in the Written and Oral Torah falls away. Scripture is simply another form of tradition; its words are tentative and searching rather than definitive, for they respond to the disclosure of God’s will at Sinai but are written by humans rather than God. The participatory theology, then, implies a new understanding of Judaism’s canon: there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Genesis 1.1.

Given the centrality of the doctrine of two Torahs in rabbinic religion, this sentence seems shocking, but it need not be. Many rabbinic texts that introduce the distinction between the two Torahs also subvert it.[18] Some biblical passages distinguish between dynamic oral traditions and fixed written texts, but many minimize that distinction. I suggest that many classical Jewish texts show that Jews may legitimately regard Written Torah as but one manifestation of Oral Torah. The participatory theology teaches that God’s will comes to Israel through a tradition including but not limited to scripture.

Authority of Jewish Law

Jewish law, then, receives its authority from the God who wills that Israel must obey it; but the specifics of the law were written by human beings. At Sinai, God conveyed the command, “Israel must–.” or “Love Me, by–.” or “To show your loyalty to Me you have to–.”, but the verbs that follow have been written by human beings ever since. To use Rosenzweig’s language, the command (Gebot in German) is divine, but each individual law (Gesetz in German) is human.

Any law in Judaism, then, may betray is human side, and thus perhaps also some imperfection. It follows that the nation Israel has to obey the legal system as a whole, but also that the nation Israel has some degree of freedom to modify given laws when an ethical imperfection resulting from their human formulation becomes evident, or if new economic, social, or technological conditions make some amendment truly necessary.

Evolution of Jewish Law Over Time

In other words, from the viewpoint of a participatory theology, it is to be expected that to some degree Torah and its laws evolve over time.[19] Jews in each generation formulate responses to the event at Sinai, even as they study, preserve, and cherish the responses of preceding generations

Participatory theology legitimizes change while at the same time putting limits on its pace and extent, a balance that functions as an important corrective to some contemporary scholarship. For example, modern scholarship on legal revision and interpretation in ancient Israel emphasizes cultural change, disruptions of tradition, and conflicts between new doctrines and older authorities. These discussions sometimes suggest that continuity was no more than a gesture for biblical scribes who revised earlier biblical laws and teachings, a rhetorical trope they used to ease their program of overturning tradition. But this position overstates, in a way I find disturbing, the extent to which biblical and rabbinic traditions endorse revision within legal and theological tradition.[20]

The presence of legal innovation in the biblical law codes (for instance, as D reworks E, and as H amends P) ought not blind us to the fact that scribes were justified in stressing the place of their new compositions within the tradition. After all, both the revising texts and their predecessors concurred on a basic structure of thought and practice: They all affirm that Israel owes covenantal loyalty to one deity. They all declare that each Israelite must enact that covenantal loyalty by obeying a law. At the end of the day, it is somewhat trivial whether that law requires the Israelites to boil the ritual meal for Passover (as D maintains) or to roast it (as P insists). What matters is not the specific action the law requires but the fact that the law does require.

Further, for the law to be genuinely a law and not a lifestyle, it is imperative that the decision about the specific practice (roast or boil; or, to take a later example from rabbinic law: waiting three hours after meat before eating dairy or waiting six) be made not by each individual but by a larger entity that transcends the individual. At any given moment, the legal system serves as that entity—that is, individuals can choose among existing legal options, but on their own they cannot invent new options or disregard laws if they continue to be observant of Jewish law as law rather than as lifestyle preference. Over time, as the system itself evolves, communities of observant Jews play that role, for ultimately such communities decide which changes are acceptable and which are not.

When sages such as the authors of Book of Deuteronomy or a medieval halachic authority like Rabbeinu Gershom[21] alter certain specifics within the legal tradition, and when an observant community comes to accept, reject, or modify those alterations, they are hardly breaking with tradition, as some modern scholars claim. Breaking with tradition, it seems to me, involves something more fundamental–for example, claiming that the law is not binding, that it does not require but recommends, which is to say that it is not law at all.

Rejecting an occasional Gesetz or law is a normal activity within a tradition over time; truly subverting the tradition would involve rejecting the Gebot, the divine command underlying the whole legal system. On the other hand, any revision of a specific law within a legal tradition is an act of continuity rather than of rupture, for such revisions make it possible for the legal tradition to endure. Here again traditionalism and progressivism work together.

Reception Among Orthodox Readers

I conclude with a final note that may interest many readers of the Since the book’s appearance a year ago, I have been surprised by the enthusiastic responses it has received from Orthodox readers. I find myself at Orthodox institutions not infrequently of late, since my two older children attend an Orthodox high school, and also because I am in the midst of a year of אבלות for my mother ז”ל, and various complications of my schedule sometimes make it necessary for me say Kaddish at Orthodox synagogues rather than at JTS or at the Conservative synagogue where I am a member.

In these settings, both in the United States and Israel, I have found that Orthodox rabbis, teachers and laypeople often speak to me about the book with great enthusiasm and approbation. In fact, I think I have spoken or corresponded with as many enthusiastic Orthodox rabbis who have read the book as Conservative ones.

This surprised me, since I would have thought that my embrace of the Documentary Hypothesis would render my book a clear example of כפירה or heresy from an Orthodox point of view. I have come to suspect that there are not a few observant Orthodox Jews who believe that the biblical critics are probably more-or-less right about the composition of the Bible and yet who believe no less that Jews are obligated to observe Jewish law — and to observe it not as a bunch of communal folkways or as an entry ticket to a community they enjoy, but as מצוות, as divinely authorized commandments.

Further, I think that the people who have these two beliefs also have a deep intuition that these beliefs are not contradictory. But these people can’t quite justify that intuition; they don’t have the tools to articulate why believing that human beings wrote the Pentateuch need not undermine their commitment to עול מלכות שמים (accepting divine sovereignty) and to עול מצוות (accepting the binding nature of Jewish law). Perhaps the some Orthodox Jews are enthusaistic about this book because it provides just those tools they were looking for as halakhically observant and intellectually open Jews.

Conclusion – סוף דבר

A one-sentence summary of the thesis of my book might be: Just because you don’t believe in the stenographic version of תורה מסיני, that doesn’t mean you are פטור from putting on תפילין every day or lighting Shabbat candles every week. (To paraphrase: just because you no longer accept the idea that every word of the Torah was written by God, does not mean that you should assume there is no divine command underlying Jewish law.) There may be a lot of Jews out there who have long suspected this is the case. Perhaps my book has helped them to clarify and defend this perspective, and to put on תפילין or light נרות של שבת without any sense of bad faith. If that is the case, then I am very thankful to the Source of all revelation that I have been able to make a contribution to the ongoing conversation that is Torah.


January 4, 2017


Last Updated

November 21, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Benjamin D. Sommer joined the JTS faculty as professor of Bible in July 2008. Dr. Sommer is spending the 2012–2013 academic year on sabbatical as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as a member of the Convergence and Divergence in the Study of the Pentateuch research group.