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Benjamin D. Sommer





Revelation and Authority: Author’s Response



APA e-journal

Benjamin D. Sommer





Revelation and Authority: Author’s Response






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The Revelation and Authority of a Participatory Torah

Revelation and Authority: Author’s Response


Revelation and Authority: Author’s Response

My thanks to all the participants in the symposium for their comments and to Project TABS – for hosting this symposium. Space permits me to comment on only a few of the important issues raised in these papers.

Biblical Studies or Jewish Thought? (Ganzel)

Tova Ganzel asks whether the book belongs to the field of biblical studies or to Jewish thought. I don’t quite agree that we need to classify the book as belonging to one field as opposed to the other. One of the points of the book is that we need not think in either/or terms; the Tanakh is an anthology that gathers together texts by the earliest Jewish thinkers, whose debates recur and take new forms in later Jewish history.

Ganzel is right, nonetheless, to identify my book as being, first and foremost, a work of Jewish thought. The purpose of the biblical scholarship that appears throughout the book — the discussion of the Pentateuchal sources, the comparisons to ancient Near Eastern texts, the close readings of biblical texts in light of norms of ancient Hebrew grammar, syntax, and narrative style — is to allow us to understand the biblical authors more fully so that their voices can be part of the ongoing discussion that is torah. The perceptions of God among those authors and their interpretations of revelation can strengthen, clarify, nuance and challenge the teachings of Jewish sages such as Rabbis Akiva and Yishmael, Rashi and ibn Ezra, Rambam and the kabbalists, S.R. Hirsch and A.J. Heschel.

Why Revelation at all? (Ganzel)

Ganzel is also correct when she says that I could have argued that Sinaitic reality is entirely and solely human. But I chose to regard revelation as heavenly in origin though filtered through human categories of cognition. Thus the record of revelation — that is, Torah — is of mixed parentage; it is the result of divine communication and human perception, shaping, and reaction.

The reasons I accept the idea that what happened at Sinai begins with a divine source are, as Ganzel points out, opaque. That particular faith-judgment of mine is the starting point of the project I pursue in this book, and ultimately it is, like all faith-judgments, not subject to objective justification or amendable to a defense that might be accepted universally. One can decide to accompany me on the interpretive-theological journey that results from this starting position, or one can decide not to.

A person who does not share my starting point can nonetheless evaluate my results as consistent or inconsistent; and that person can learn a good deal along the way even if a disagreement about the starting point precludes that person from accepting my conclusions at the end.

The Problem with Non-Verbal Revelation (Fleischacker)

Sam Fleischacker raises crucial questions about the sort of non-verbal revelation I describe in the book. For a command to be a command, he maintains, it must have some cognitive or propositional content. That content, Sam explains, need not be verbalized out loud or in writing; it can be conveyed through a bodily gesture, but such a gesture “bears meaning only among creatures who also use words, into which they can translate the physical act.” 

I think that Fleischacker has identified a real problem in my description of God’s revelation to Israel: in describing revelation as nonverbal, I overstate its distance from cognitive or propositional content. Indeed, I contradicted myself within a few sentences when I wrote that the Israelites heard “nothing specific” but experienced a divine command (page 90). If they knew it was a command, then there was, at least, some specificity in what they perceived.

For the revelation to be translatable into a human language at all, it must have somehow carried some cognitive content (even if the cognitive content was not articulated in actual words). Sam’s critique thus prompts me to state my view more precisely; I only wish I had sent him my manuscript before I published it. I should have written that there was cognitive content, for I argue that the Israelites translated what they perceived at Sinai into the proposition, “There is a God who commands us.”

Cognitive Content with Little Verbalization

Yet, against Fleischacker, I think it remains the case that there can be a communication and even command that has cognitive content but little or no explicit linguistic or verbal content. It is, after all, not uncommon that two people who love each other or just know each other well can convey cognitive content nonverbally, with a glance or some motion of the eye. Within a couple, it is hardly uncommon for one person to convey nonverbally the message, “I want you to do something.”

Now, it is frequently the case in relationships that by “something” the person communicating really means “the specific something that I have in mind, which you should be able to guess, verbalize, and carry out with total accuracy.” But there are also cases in which a person really means a non-specific something, and what that something turns out to be is the choice of the recipient of the message. It is the recipient’s ability to invent a something that works well that makes that person’s execution of the command moving or poignant as an act of love.

So Fleischacker is correct to claim, against me, that in my own model of revelation at Sinai, there must have been content, even if that content was conveyed nonverbally. But it remains possible that this content was limited to conveying God’s desire that Israel express obedience, and that the specifics through which the obedience is expressed were to be constructed by Israel.

Reformulating as Two Propositions

Perhaps we should say, then, that at Sinai God conveyed two propositions. If we translate them into language, we can render them as follows:

“I am God, who saves, who saves you, who took you out of Egypt.”
“I want you to love Me, to show covenant loyalty to Me, by obeying commands.”

Precisely where in these two statements the human act of interpretation and paraphrasing begins to move beyond the divine message can never be known. I would suggest that the core difference between traditional Judaism on one hand and Christianity (and classical Reform, especially of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) on the other is how we answer that question, especially in relation to the second proposition.

In regard to the issue of cognitive content inherent in a nonverbal revelation, Sam may have described my own thesis better than I was able to. It is telling that this especially constructive criticism comes from a philosopher, from a scholar outside my own guild, and this circumstance reminds us of the value for biblical scholars of discourse with theologians and philosophers.[1]

An Over-Emphasis on Legal Obligation? (Marmur)

I deeply appreciate the honest words Michael Marmur contributes to this discussion. Marmur is correct to note that a crucial conclusion I learn from the various biblical records of revelation at Sinai is that for a theology to be described as authentically Jewish, it must encompass a notion of legal obligation, or iyyuv. In spite of their differences about what happened at Sinai, the Pentateuchal sources (E, P, D and J) agree that the result of the events at Sinai is a covenantal relationship between the divine overlord and the vassal Israel.

Now, Marmur is slightly imprecise when he suggests that I regard loyalty to the halakhic system of law as a litmus test for theological legitimacy in Judaism. Historically, there have been other covenantal-legal systems besides the Rabbis’ halakhic system. The halakhic system emerged during the first millennium CE to replace earlier systems, and it is entirely imaginable that other systems of covenantal obligation may one day replace the halakhic system; indeed, it is possible that we are living in an era in which such a replacement is slowly developing.

Marmur’s critique, however, prompts me to clarify two points.

Rosenzweig and Heschel – Two Examples of Many Possible Choices (Even-Chen)

First, although my book is in part a polemic against classical Reform thinkers who reject the binding authority of Jewish law, there are Reform thinkers who articulate an idea of covenantal obligation, though they reject rabbinic halakhah as binding. This is most prominently the case for Leo Baeck and Eugene Borowitz, but also perhaps for Abraham Geiger.[2]

To be sure, in my book I don’t attend to the way these thinkers’ ideas relate to what I call participatory theology, just as I never attend to the work of Mordechai Kaplan, Max Kadushin, Elijah Benamozegh, Eliezer Berkovits, or David Hartman, to name Conservative and Orthodox thinkers whose thought can profitably be connected with participatory theology. In my book, I focused in depth on two modern Jewish thinkers, Rosenzweig and Heschel, rather than providing a diffuse treatment of a dozen thinkers.

In this regard, Alexander Even-Chen’s contribution to this symposium is especially useful, as it relates my work to various medieval Jewish thinkers and clarifies my relationship to Heschel. I very much hope that other scholars will take up the conversation by writing on participatory theology (perhaps I should say, participatory-covenantal theology) in the work of other modern and medieval thinkers. Such a discussion will no doubt lead to some disagreements with my construction of the participatory theology. Those disagreements will refine, advance, and modify my proposal in what I am sure will be positive ways, some of which will surprise me. 

Living and Participating in Israeli Society Fulfills iyyuv by Definition

Second, it is important to note the existence of one group of Jews who do not live by halakhah but who are committed to a Jewish iyyuv: Jews who are not shomer mitzvot but who are citizens of the State of Israel. Simply by virtue of their being part of a Jewish state and by carrying out the responsibilities of citizenship there, their lives are part of a Jewish covenant in ways that involve deep commitment and, very often, serious sacrifice.

From the point of view of a theology of iyyuv, it can never be said that a Reform or “secular” Jew living in Israel is less religious than a halakhically observant Jew living in the diaspora (or, for that matter, than a aredi Jew living in Israel). All biblical theologies of covenant emphasize land and polity as central expressions of the covenant. Consequently, from the point of view of biblical theology, living in Israel and discharging the obligations of citizenship there are serious Jewish commitments involving covenantal obligations at the most fundamental level.  

Can One Believe in Revelation and Biblical Criticism? (Malino)

Jonathan Malino addresses a central concern of my book, which is whether one can, with intellectual integrity and consistency, believe at once in revelation at Sinai and in biblical criticism. He interrogates whether biblical criticism allows or disallows belief in an event in which a divine being communicated with a group of people at a hilltop or mountain in the wilderness south of the land of Canaan sometime in the Late Bronze Age.

Malino maintains that because biblical criticism cannot prove that this event occurred, it requires us to suspend belief in the participatory theology (or any theology based on that event). Now, because biblical criticism never will be able to prove that such an event occurred, on a practical level this means that the suspension of belief can never end, which is to say: we must reject any such theology.

I think that Jonathan simply misunderstands the nature of biblical criticism and its sphere of discourse. Biblical criticism can answer some historical questions, and it cannot answer or even address others. An example of the former would be, “Did Abraham and Isaac really interact with Philistines, as Genesis portrays them as doing?” Biblical criticism shows that they could not have done so, since Philistines first arrived in the Land of Canaan only centuries after the Patriarchal Era.

An example of the latter would be, “Did Abraham and Isaac really exist?” The evidence that falls within the realm of biblical criticism doesn’t allow us to answer this second question one way or the other. Granted, one can in theory imagine that some day a document might be discovered by archaeologists that would allow biblical critics with the right linguistic training to answer this question with a “yes.” But biblical criticism can never prove that two Levantine donkey-nomads named Abraham and Isaac could not have existed (even though it can prove that certain aspects of the narratives portraying them in Genesis must be anachronistic).

Similarly, the historical and philological tools of biblical criticism have no bearing on the question of whether God exists, whether that God really chose the nation Israel, and whether that God communicated with that nation when they were standing at the foot of a particular mountain.

Granted, if a person claims that he or she believes something because the Five Books of Moses say so, and then the historical reliability of the Five Books is called into question by biblical criticism, that particular reason for believing is undermined. But people have varied reasons for believing in God’s revelation at Sinai and the obligation for Jews to keep mitzvot, many of which are not effected by critical analysis of the Pentateuch. In the end, questions of faith are outside the ken of biblical criticism’s philological and historical tools.

A person who believes in the methods and findings of modern biblical criticism can, with perfect integrity and consistency, either accept or reject the idea of revelation at Sinai. If we accept the historicity of that event, biblical criticism can refine our understanding of the texts that describe it. But biblical criticism cannot help us to make a decision regarding the historicity of that event or the reality of the God who is the ground of that event.


March 29, 2017


Last Updated

September 23, 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.