Source Critics May Be Right, but the Torah Has the Power to Change the World
I live with the commitment to the idea that the Torah is from God and that I'm obligated by God to live by the mitzvot. For me, this is as much about a loving relationship with God and Torah as an acceptance of obligation to abide by a distant law. While this is my framework, I have a respect for the academics who have demonstrated that the Torah was written by many authors throughout different eras.
I am not a Bible scholar, and my general orientation is toward believing academic experts where there is a general consensus, as there is here. I find rabbinic maneuvers to prove that every word of the Torah is the word of God to be meaningful at times, and forced at others. For me, though, the tension between a covenantal relationship with Torah and an academic perspective on it is not an irreconcilable conflict.
I understand the Torah to represent an evolving relationship with the Divine (both within this world and beyond this world). Of course, I do not know, indeed none of us know, in an empirical sense, what was said at Sinai, but I relate to the Sinai experience as having been the beginning of a key aspect of the relationship between the Jewish people and God, with everything good that emerged after that experience being somehow connected to that place and that time. In that sense, it doesn't really matter to me when the description of the experience was written down, or by whom.
The rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Torah was not revealed in a perfect Divine language but in an imperfect human language so that it could be properly understood, i.e., Dibrah Torah bilshon b’nei adam—The Torah was written in the language of human beings. This inevitably renders perfect interpretation or consistency impossible; in any event, mystical insights and psychological depth can never adequately be captured in language. Human experience is more profound than human language.
Even if the Pentateuch was written down over time (a position that the tradition itself embraces, at least to a degree), this does not detract from its Divine origin. The Talmud (b. Gittin 60a–b) debates how the Torah was written. Rabbi Yochanan argued that the Torah was given scroll by scroll, while Resh Lakish argued that the Torah was originally given in its entirety. According to Rashi’s interpretation, even for Resh Lakish the revelation of law happened at Mount Sinai, towards the beginning of the wilderness period, and Moses went over the legal passages in his mind throughout this period until God finally told him what to write at the end of the forty years.
While traditionally it is understood that God is the author, some traditional scholars believe that there still may have been more than one scribe. The Talmud (b. Baba Batra 15a) records a debate about the final eight verses of the Torah, which describe the death and subsequent burial of Moses, and eulogize him. On one hand, how could Moses have written that he died if he were indeed still alive? On the other hand, how could he have written that he died if he had already passed on?
Rabbi Yehudah (or Rabbi Nehemiah) argued that Joshua, and not Moses, wrote these verses, while Rabbi Shimon argues that every word of the Torah, including these, must have been dictated by God to Moses, but that these he wrote bidema (“with tears”). (Later commentators offer several interpretations as to the meaning of the words “with tears” in this context, from the metaphorical—that he wrote these verses while crying, to the literal—that the medium of writing these verses was tears rather than ink.).
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), at the end of his commentary on the Torah adopts the first position, and extends it to include the last twelve verses of the Torah. Elsewhere, ibn Ezra strongly implies that the other passages were also not written by Moses for similar reasons.
What about the ethical shortcomings in Torah laws? Yosef Albo, the 15th-century Spanish rabbi, explained that this is the reason that the Torah is accompanied by an ever-developing oral law (Sefer HaIkkarim 3:23):
לפי שאי אפשר שתהיה תורת השם יתברך שלמה באופן שתספיק בכל הזמנים. לפי שהפרטים המתחדשים תמיד בעניני האנשים, במשפטים והדברים הנפעלים הם רבים מאד משיכללם ספר,
The law of God cannot be perfect so as to be adequate for all times, because the ever-new details of human relations, their customs and their acts, are too numerous to be embraced in a book.
We can, and should, expect moral problems in the Torah, which originated within a unique historical context. We also should be ready to deal with other issues, such as narrative or historical problems. Indeed, in response to all such challenges, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) suggests that Judaism should “build the palace of Torah above it” (לבנות את ארמון התורה ממעל לה) as new ideas emerge and become a part of revelation. Based on this concept, Prof. Tamar Ross has argued that Jewish law evolves and expands, even calling her book Expanding the Palace of Torah, riffing off Rav Kook’s quote.
I personally believe that God did indeed reveal the Torah to our people. This is an existential, not epistemological, claim, and it may be that my soul is bound up with Torah in a way that perhaps revelation is retroactively true. The Torah is the most powerful and persuasive work I have ever read, and I feel spiritually elevated from my encounters with it unlike that which I experience with anything else. I feel the values of this tradition to be the most ethically poignant and compelling.
Yet the ultimate question for me is not whether one believes in the Torah, but whether one lives its deepest moral truths. It is not a leap of faith that is needed, which entails an embracing of that which one understands may not be true; rather one must suspend, or look beyond, disbelief in order to find self-actualization. The fact that we cannot find historical proof that the Torah is from God is not a reason to opt out of living by Jewish law and values.
Historical ambiguity is no excuse for disengagement. A philosophical agnostic who questions whether human reason can understand anything beyond worldly experience and thus claims that the revelation is merely a myth that cannot be taken seriously, risks becoming spiritually numb if tradition is therefore dismissed. Embracing Revelation may actually represent what is constitutive of our humanity (what makes us uniquely human), since the ability to grasp something phenomenal beyond our own limited experience is what demonstrates that humans have intelligence.
The wisdom and language of the Bible may be unparalleled in the western world in its power to inspire idealism and social change. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was certainly not naïve or unintelligent to root his social activism in the language of the Bible. This revealed tradition has the power to inspire us again and again to transform the world, to make a sanctuary where God can dwell. Perhaps questions such as “Is the Torah divine?” and “Are the critics right?” are the wrong questions to ask.
Instead, perhaps we should ask: How can we live with paradox and the humility of uncertainty? Rather than over-philosophizing as to “Who wrote the Torah,” we can ask: How can we build our character through the deep wisdom it offers, enabling us to heal the world.
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January 18, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic adult learning and leadership center, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Social Justice organization, the Founder and President of Shamayim, a Jewish animal advocacy movement, and the Founder and President of YATOM, the Jewish foster and adoption network. He holds M.A. degrees from Harvard University and Yeshiva University, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, along with two other Orthodox ordinations in Israel. Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of numerous books on Jewish ethics, including Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Jewish Ethics for an Evolving and Complex World (2014), Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018), and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020).
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