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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Source Criticism Enhances Our Acceptance of the Torah





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Isaac S. D. Sassoon





Source Criticism Enhances Our Acceptance of the Torah








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Source Criticism Enhances Our Acceptance of the Torah

Traditional commentators endued certain Torah references with midrashic or esoteric purport in an effort to counteract those who mocked them. But in so doing, they were conceding the mockers’ evaluation of these texts as being, prima facie, inconsequential. Fortunately, source criticism helps us accept these texts without discomfort, obviating the compulsion to interpret them away.


Source Criticism Enhances Our Acceptance of the Torah

The late Hebrew root ק.ב.ל means “to receive” or “to accept,” depending on context.[1] When rabbinic texts use ק.ב.ל terminology to describe Israel’s response to the giving of the Torah, it denotes something more than passive receiving. Take the following passage from the 3rd century halakhic midrash, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Bachodesh 5):

רבי אומר, להודיע שבחן של ישראל, שכשעמדו כולן על הר סיני לקבל התורה השוו כולם לב אחד לקבל מלכות שמים בשמחה.
Rabbi said: “It is to Israel’s credit that when they all stood on Mount Sinai[2] to qabbel the Torah they were all united by a single intent [lit. single heart] to qabbel the Kingdom of Heaven with joy.”[3]

Clearly, Rabbi [Judah the Prince] is talking about deliberate and volitional responses. In other words, he envisages Israel at Sinai welcoming and embracing the Torah, which, presumably, for Rabbi comprises nothing less than Torah at its fullest.

It would appear, however, that in subsequent generations not every Jew was comfortable accepting the Torah, at least not as they found it.  In fact, some authorities even dismiss segments of Torah as worthless unless they are allegorized or explained away.

The Zohar and Ararat

This kind of conditional acceptance is voiced by more than one source – not least bluntly by the Zohar, the major kabbalistic work (originating, according to scholars, in 13th cent. Spain),[4] which questions why the Torah needed to supply the name of the mountain (or mountain range) upon which Noah’s ark rested:

ותנח התיבה בחדש השביעי בשבעה עשר יום לחדש על הרי אררט, ודאי האי קרא מכללא דאורייתא נפק ואתי בספור דעלמא מאי אכפת לן אי שרי בהאי או בהאי דהא באתר חד לישרי, אלא ללמד על הכלל כלו יצא…
[‘T]he ark rested in the seventh month on the seventeenth day of the month upon the mountains of Ararat’ (Gen 8:4) assuredly this is a scripture that departs from the generality of Torah[5] and comes as a common story. For who cares if it [the ark] rested here or there as long as it rested somewhere? But in reality, it departs in order to teach something that pertains to the generality [of Torah]…

The Zohar is evidently unable to come to terms with the idea of Torah paying attention to a geographic piece of alleged trivia. Instead of valuing it as adding color or as a historical nugget, the Zohar makes acceptance of the Torah text in question contingent upon its yielding hidden or esoteric significance. It even pronounces a malediction on anyone who suggests otherwise:

ומאן דאמר דההוא ספורא דאורייתא לאחזאה על ההוא ספור בלבד קאתי תיפח רוחיה, דאי הכי לאו איהי אורייתא עלאה אורייתא דקשוט…
A curse upon the person who says that any narrative in the Torah comes merely to tell us a piece of history. If that were so, the Torah would not be the supernal Torah, the Torah of truth…

The Zohar now extends its premise of the impossibility of Torah intending certain verses at face value, far beyond Ararat:

תא חזי מלך ב”ו לאו יקרא דיליה הוא לאשתעי מלה דהדיוטא כ”ש למכתב ליה ואי סליק בדעתך דמלכא עלאה קודשא בריך הוא לא הוו ליה מלין קדישין למכתב ולמעבד מנייהו אורייתא אלא דאיהו כניש כל מלין דהדיוטין כגון מלין דעשו, מלין דהגר, מלין דלבן ביעקב, מלין דאתון, מלין דבלעם… וכל שאר ספורין דכתיבין ועביד מנייהו אורייתא, אי הכי אמאי אקרי תורת אמת תורת יי’ תמימה…
If it is undignified for a king of flesh and blood to engage in common talk, much less to write it down, is it conceivable that the Supreme King, the Holy One blessed be He, was short of sacred subjects with which to fill the Torah, so that He had to collect such commonplace topics as the anecdotes of Esau and Hagar, Laban’s words to Jacob, the words of Balaam and his ass… and suchlike and make of them a Torah?  If so why is it called the “Torah of truth” (Mal 2:6) or “the perfect Torah of the Lord” (Ps 19:8)…?

The Zohar concludes by restating emphatically that for the Torah to be true, divine, and perfect, no part of it can be allowed to fall short of Zoharic expectations; expectations that are allegedly supported by Psalm 19 and Malachi.  Anything else is frivolous and unworthy of God’s dignity:

אלא ודאי אורייתא קדישא עלאה איהו אורייתא דקשוט תורת יי’ תמימה, וכל מלה ומלה אתייא לאחזאה מלין (אחרנין) עלאין דההוא מלה דההוא ספור לאו לאחזאה על גרמיה בלבד קא אתיא אלא לאחזאה על ההוא כללא קאתי
But assuredly the holy, exalted Torah is a Torah of truth, the perfect Torah of God, and each and every word signifies sublime things, so that any given narrative, besides its meaning in and for itself, throws light on the generality [of the Torah].

So the Zohar’s critique rests on two premises:  

  1. When Psalm 19 enumerates the virtues of God’s “perfect” Torah, it has in mind the full text of the written Pentateuch.
  1. The Zohar has certain preconceptions of what qualifies as “perfect” or “sacred” and what as “commonplace.”

Furthermore, the Zohar treats its preconceptions of what is or is not sacred as axiomatic, requiring no further justification. By the same token, it assumes that “sacred” segments of the Torah can be taken at face value, and certainly have no need of being explained away.

King Manasseh’s Scoffing at the Torah

The Zohar, however, was a latecomer to the business of expressing discomfort with Torah verses that do not meet one’s standards. A baraita (tannaitic statement) in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 99b) adumbrates the Zohar. Attempting to illustrate what Numbers 15:30 means by a “person who acts defiantly” [6](הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בְּיָד רָמָה),the baraita holds up King Manasseh as its parade example:

זה מנשה בן חזקיה, שהיה יושב ודורש בהגדות של דופי. אמר: וכי לא היה לו למשה לכתוב אלא ואחות לוטן תמנע ותמנע היתה פילגש לאליפז וילך ראובן בימי קציר חטים וימצא דודאים בשדה
This refers to Manasseh Son of Hezekiah, who examined [biblical] narratives to prove them worthless. Thus, he jeered, had Moses nothing to write but, “And Lotan’s sister was Timna” (Gen 36:22), “And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz” (Gen 36:12) “Reuben went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field” (Gen 30:14)?

The baraita’s condemnation of Manasseh’s scoffing at Torah passages that he deemed inept is unsparing, inasmuch as it applies to him Numbers 15:30. On the other hand the Gemara’s discussion following the baraita, shows surprising forbearance towards Manasseh.

“Come to think of it” the Gemara remarks “what are we to do with Timna or the mandrakes that Reuben found in the field?” Each “superfluous” text is then endowed with an improvised didactic lesson. For example, here is the lesson the Gemara derives from the Timna verses:

תמנע בת מלכים הואי… בעיא לאיגיורי, באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה, הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן עשו. אמרה: מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו, ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת. נפק מינה עמלק, דצערינהו לישראל. מאי טעמא – דלא איבעי להו לרחקה.
Timna was a royal princess… desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, “I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.” From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her.

According to the Gemara, a proper reading of the verses teaches that applicants for conversion should be given the benefit of the doubt. But this is nowhere even implicit in the text.

Maimonides’ Reaction to Manasseh

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204) follows in the Gemara’s footsteps in his Mishnah Commentary (Introduction to Perek ChelekSanhedrin ch. 10):

ואין הבדל בין ובני חם כוש ומצרים ופוט וכנען, ושם אשתו מהיטבאל בת מטרד, או אנכי ה’, ושמע ישראל ה’ אלהינו ה’ אחד, הכל מפי הגבורה והכל תורת ה’ תמימה טהורה קדושה אמת.
The verses “The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan” (Gen 10:6) or “And his wife’s name was Mehetabel daughter of Matred” (Gen 36:39) are no different from “I am the LORD your God” (Exod 20:2) or “Hear O Israel” (Deut 5:6). All is from the mouth of the Gevurah  [the Omnipotent One][7] and all is God’s Torah: perfect, pure, holy and true.
ולא נעשה מנשה אצלם כופר ופוקר יותר מכל כופר אחר אלא לפי שחשב שיש בתורה תוך וקלפה, ושאלו התאריכים והספורים אין תועלת בהם… אלא כל אות שבה יש בה חכמות ונפלאות למי שהבינו ה’, ולא תושג תכלית חכמתה, ארוכה מארץ מדה ורחבה מני ים.
Manasseh was not reckoned by them [the Rabbis] more heretical and heterodox than all other heretics except because he thought the Torah consists of core and husk and that its dates and stories are futile …. In reality, every one of its letters has in it wisdom and wonders for the person to whom God has given insight. Still, its ultimate wisdom is unattainable, ‘Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea’ (Job 11:9).

Although Rambam insists here that all the Torah’s elements are co-equal, he seems to be saying that when it comes to meaning not all parts are commensurate. Some – the type that embarrassed Manasseh in particular – deliver their wondrous meaning only to individuals “to whom God has given insight.” Thus, the equality of all elements that Rambam proclaims turns out to be a dogma that must be adopted on faith.[8]

Rambam may well have served as the Zohar’s inspiration for the two-tier hierarchy: texts that are to be taken for what they say because they satisfy the reader’s expectations, and texts such as those concerning Timna or Mehetabel that do not meet those expectations and must be explained.

Rambam’s Reasonable Explanations (Guide)

Rambam’s treatment of the subject in his Guide of the Perplexed diverges from that of his Commentary on the Mishnah in two significant ways. In the Guide, he is less dogmatic, offering what he introduces as reasonable explanations to Torah texts “which have caused many people to stumble.” He writes:

Know that all the stories that you will find in the Torah are necessary and useful for [a proper observance of] Torah… [For example] the enumeration of the tribes of the children of Seir… is made with a view to one single commandment: exterminating only the seed of Amalek [Deut 25:19] …[I]f there had been no setting forth of these genealogies with their particulars, all of them  [the descendants of Esau-Seir intermarriages] could have been killed through neglectfulness… [Supplying these genealogies] was an act of justice on the part of God lest a tribe be killed indiscriminately in the course of the extermination of another.[9]

The other major departure of Maimonides’ Guide from his earlier Commentary on the Mishnah is the expanded range of Torah texts he equates with the Seir genealogies “which have caused many people to stumble.” He includes under this heading the Travelogue of Numbers 33 and such ostensibly repetitive verses as Numbers 9:19-22. Shortly we shall return to this anomalous and unprecedented expansion of Maimonides.

Vexations and Expectations

Expectations, it would seem then, are the key to all the vexation. Those scriptures that do not overtly contribute to the agenda that a reader such as Manasseh expects the Torah to promote, unsettle him.  All the vexed interpreters surveyed so far seem to believe that human beings and their affairs are too profane for Torah unless they serve a recognizably religious purpose or are integral specifically to Israel’s covenantal history.  Still, the scriptural texts at which they caviled were no more than sporadic snatches.

Is Nothing Other Than Mitzvot Worthy Enough? 

The Midrash Tanchuma excerpt espoused by Rashi at the very start of his commentary outstrips anything seen so far, as it expresses a wholesale repudiation of Genesis and the first eleven chapters of Exodus.

אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם (שמות יב ב), שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל.
R. Yitzhak said: “He should not have begun the Torah except from ‘This New Moon shall be for you’ [Exod 12:2] because that is the first mitzvah Israel were commanded.”[10]

So nothing but mitzvot are suitable Torah content; and even then not any mitzvot but only those vouchsafed to the Jewish people as a whole, which disqualifies the few mitzvot found in Genesis that were given to individuals.

We saw how the Gemara, after reluctantly acknowledging Manasseh’s objections, went on to extract appropriate morals from the putatively redundant texts. We also saw this model duplicated by the Zohar and, mutatis mutandis, by Rambam. R. Yitzhak’s expedient for rehabilitating the chunk of scripture he all but disavows[11] is not by assigning it a moral message. Instead, to the question “So what is the reason He opened with bereshit?” the answer offered is political:  Should the nations of the world challenge Israel’s claim to her land, Genesis and Exodus 1-11 will demonstrate that her right to the land was a right granted by the Creator.

What the Torah Ought to Be

The common denominator of these sources is the disconnect that they sense between the Torah’s actual content and their preconceptions of what it ought and ought not to include. To be sure, some of them attribute their expectations to rhapsodic descriptions of Torah found in Psalms and Job. Still, at the end of the day, dissatisfaction runs through them all.

Source Criticism Allows for Fuller Acceptance of the Torah

Fast forward to the present, I would like to submit that today’s recognition of the Torah’s discrete strands – and indeed discrete visions – allows for fuller acceptance of Torah.

Manasseh Criticizes J and E

Almost all the texts targeted by Manasseh and his successors belong to the Torah source that scholarship identifies as the non-Priestly JE (or J and E). When read on its own terms, this source yields its vision of God and of humanity with an immediacy and realism that is unequaled.  Who cares about Ararat – or, for that matter, the bdellium and onyx (Gen 2:12)? Why care if it was fig leaves that Adam and Eve sewed (Gen 3:7), or if Hagar sat down at the distance of a bowshot (Gen 21: 16)?  J and E cared; and it is quite humbling to be able to connect with the domesticity and profound humanity that are among the hallmarks of these sources.

The Perfect Torah of D

In a Talmudic passage not yet examined, R. Shimon ben Lakish declares that “many scriptures are fit to be burnt”;[12] among them two from Deuteronomy (namely Deut 2:23 and Deut 3:9), which provide information about Israel’s neighbors. The type of strategy we saw deployed by the Gemara to palliate Manasseh’s strictures is repeated for this incendiary pronouncement. Thus, Deuteronomy did not entirely escape the detractors either.

Ironically, it is likely that the Psalm to which the Zohar appealed to argue for the perfection of God’s Torah had Deuteronomy in mind, since this is the only Pentateuchal book whose vocabulary parallels edot with hukkim and mishpatim[13] just like Psalm 19 with its torahedut, and mishpatim etc. (cf. Psalm 119). And as we saw above, the Zohar and other medieval writers assumed the Psalmist had the entire Pentateuch in mind.

Priestly Torah 

The one source that escaped almost all the classic detractors unscathed[14] was P or the Priestly source, most likely the latest Pentateuchal source.  Not even P’s repetitious lists detained them, and perhaps one can hazard a guess at the reason. As noted earlier, what the Manassehs of the world seem to regard as legitimate Torah content, are overt religious instruction such as mitzvot and Israel’s covenantal history. And those topics, often minutely dilated upon, are precisely P’s focus.

Accepting the Non-Uniformity of the Torah

Indeed, the Manassehs might well have treated P as paradigmatic, and, whether consciously or not, might even have used P as their measure of Torah compatibility. But once we acknowledge each strand’s integrity, each strand’s unique goal and method of teaching about God, about the world and Israel’s place within it, the compulsion to force conformity between them falls by the way side. No longer does one voice speak over the other nor do they have to shout each other down.

Tuning in to Deuteronomy, we hear Moses’ impassioned exhortations and dynamic addresses. JE’s anthropomorphisms and larger than life array of vibrant men and women, saints and villains, enthrall us. P we learn to appreciate in its own right, and as the counterbalance to JE; it is the source that tends to de-personalize the Deity and de-emphasize individuality and the human spirit. In short, our appreciation is enhanced because we allow each respective source to speak to us in its inimitable voice.

Multivisionary Torah

Having made peace with the individual components of the Torah facilitates acceptance of the amalgam of all the diverse visions and their framework that make up our single, unitary Torah. And so, rather than running away or going into denial, the path is paved for a celebration of this Torah of many visions whose combined and consolidated whole is greater and nobler than the sum of its parts.


January 30, 2018


Last Updated

June 18, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash An Adventure in Torah: A Fresh Look Through a Traditional Lens (KTAV 2023), and most recently the co-editor with Rabbi Steven H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2023).