The Centrality of Law
Parashat Mishpatim continues the story of mattan torah, the revelation at Mount Sinai, that began in the previous parasha, Yitro. This story has attracted a great deal of attention from modern biblical scholars because it is a banner example of the Torah’s composite nature: it mixes together several different memories of the extraordinary event that created, and continues to create, Judaism. By combining several originally separate stories of the revelation, the text as we have it in Exodus 19-24 contradicts itself in several ways.
To take one example, Exodus 19.3 tells us that God was on the mountain several days before God gave the Torah to Moses and Israel, but 19.11 and 19.18 tell us that God descended to the mountain right before the lawgiving, not several days earlier. In contrast to these verses, this week’s parasha makes clear (Exodus 24.10) that God was in heaven, not on Mount Sinai; the same perspective appears in Exodus 20.22. Deuteronomy’s retelling of this story (see especially 4.36) agrees with this perspective, emphasizing that God was in heaven throughout the revelation.
Four Sources: Four Accounts of Revelation
Many biblical scholars, myself included, detect three strands in these parashot, which are the same three strands we see throughout the first four books of the Torah. These strands, J, E, and P, existed on their own as independent traditions in ancient Israel before they were brought together to form the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
The current text of Exodus 19-20 and 24 contains repetitions and self-contradictions, but when one sits down to read just the verses belonging to the J version of the story, or just the E or P verses, these problems disappear. In place of a difficult narrative, we find three smooth, self-consistent stories that flow well.
These three versions of the revelation story — along with a fourth, from the D source in the Book of Deuteronomy — differ from each other in several ways. Each version (or “source,” as we biblical scholars usually call them) was written centuries after the event at Sinai, and each one preserves memories going back to it. Because the revelation was so overwhelming, the way people perceived what was happening must have varied; different Israelites noticed, and missed, different aspects of what took place.
The differences among the conceptions of what happened at Sinai grew during centuries of transmission, as historical memories diverged even more significantly from each other.  These divergent memories are preserved in the four sources. And yet these four sources also agree on something very crucial. Paying attention to the disagreements and, even more importantly, to what they share, allows us to discover a crucial message for modern Jews.
Disentangling the Revelation Accounts
Let me briefly sketch a few more of the differences.
The Name of the Mountain
A minor one involves the name of the mountain where mattan torah occurred: J and P call it Sinai, while E and D call it Horeb.
The Nature of the Revelation
More importantly, the four sources disagree about the fundamental nature of revelation: was it an auditory event or a visual one? P and J portray it as visual. In a crucial P verse in Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 24.17) P informs us that the entire Israelite nation saw the form of God at Sinai. “Yhwh’s presence on top of the mountain looked like a consuming fire in the eyes of the Israelites.” They saw God from afar, however, and not distinctly, since God’s incredibly bright presence was surrounded by a thick cloud.
In J, too, the revelatory event was visual, but J’s memory of the event differs from P’s. J tells us that only the elders, along with four members of Moses’ family, saw God. In this respect, J teaches that the visual event was more limited than it was in P, since it involved only a small selection of the nation.
In another respect, however, J’s memory of the way people saw God is more expansive than P’s, for the vision of God was surprisingly direct: the seventy-four representatives of the nation “saw the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was what looked like sapphire tiles, as clear as the very heavens themselves. Yet He did not slay them” (Exodus 24.10-11). According to many biblical texts, direct sight of God causes instant death. Here we learn that the elders became one of several exceptions the Bible mentions in regard to this norm.
D, and its main source, E go in another direction altogether: they portray the event as auditory, not visual. E teaches that the people heard God’s kol, which means either “voice” or “thunder” (or both: God’s voice may be overpowering and booming in a way that differs from a human voice). E emphasizes this auditory phenomenon, repeating the key-word kol seven times in its narrative of revelation.
D also underscores the kol and insists — probably in direct response to J and perhaps to an early version of P — that the people did not see God at Horeb (Deuteronomy 4.12, 5.15). In fact, they couldn’t possibly have seen God, since they were down on earth, while God was where God always is according D: up in heaven.
The Timing of the Revelation
The sources disagree on another crucial issue: the timing of revelation. In D and E, the giving of the law was an event that happened at a point in time, or rather at two points that happened one after the other. First God revealed the Decalogue or Aseret Hadibbrot, which all the people heard (though E and D disagree on whether they were able to make out distinct words within it); then God revealed the vast bulk of the laws to Moses, who passed them on to the nation. (In E Moses taught them to the people right then, at Mount Horeb; in D, he did not pass them on to the nation until forty years later, in Moab, just before they entered the Promised Land.)
In P, however, the lawgiving did not occur on top of Mount Sinai at all. Rather, on Sinai Moses received blueprints for building the mishkan, a portable sanctuary for God. The Israelites spent the next ten months building the shrine (Exodus 35.1-40.32). On the first day of what we now call the month of Nisan, the sanctuary was completed (Exodus 40.33), whereupon God entered the shrine (Exodus 40.34-38), called to Moses from inside the shrine (Leviticus 1.1), and imparted to him the laws of sacrifice (Leviticus 1.2-7.38).
The shrine was then formally dedicated in an eight-day ceremony, after which God resumed the revelation of laws, starting with laws of (what we call) kashrut and ritual purity and moving on to a variety of ethical, economic, and ritual laws; this lawgiving continued through the end of the month (Leviticus 11-25 and 27). Moses (and occasionally his brother Aaron and his nephew Elazar) received additional laws at the tent-shrine during the subsequent month (Numbers 5-6) and throughout years during which the Israelites wandered through the wilderness on their way to Canaan (e.g., Numbers 18-19; 27; 28-30; 35-36).
Thus for E and D, lawgiving was an event, while for P it was a process. This process in P involved some give-and-take between God and Moses: Moses and various Israelites on occasion requested clarification and even amendment of laws already received, which God supplied (Leviticus 24.10-23, Numbers 9.1-14, 15.32-36, 27.1-11, and 36.1-9).
What exactly was revealed?
Most importantly, the sources disagree on what the law actually is. E provides the text of the laws Moses brought to the people in Parashat Mishpatim and the last part of Parashat Yitro, in Exodus 20-23. P’s laws are found in passages throughout Leviticus and Numbers. D’s are found in Deuteronomy 13-26. J presents a few crucial laws about Israel’s distinctive identity that were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34. (That passage also includes several festival and ritual laws in Exodus 34.18-26, but most recent biblical scholars have concluded that those are a later composition that builds upon J, E, P and D passages and does not belong to any one of them.) More often, J teaches various laws outside the Sinai story, within narratives that tell of a particular law’s origin (for example, in Genesis 32.33, Exodus 4.24-26, Exodus 16.4-5, and Exodus 16.16-30).
As scholars have long noted, the laws stemming from the four sources often contradict each other. To take a famous example: both P and D require all Israelite families to slaughter and consume an animal as a Passover ritual. But they differ on details: in Exodus 12.5, P stipulates that the ritual meal must consist of a lamb or a kid, while D, in Deuteronomy 16.2, allows the animal to be a cow or a bull as well. Further, in Deuteronomy 16.6-7 D requires the meat to be boiled, but in Exodus 12.8 P directs Israelites to roast it. In fact, at 12.9 P specifically says not to boil it. Here it seems that P knew the D law, but disagreed with it.
Revelation as Law
In spite of the sources’ considerable disagreements in regard to revelation—how it happened, when it happened, and most of all what the actual law is—they all agree on something fundamental: revelation was lawgiving. For each of the four, God’s self-disclosure at Sinai/Horeb was not merely about conveying theological ideas or about creating an emotional connection between humanity and the divine (though revelation may have included elements of these); for all four, it was about mitzvah, about command.
It is worth pausing to note this, because revelation could be imagined in other ways. The philosopher Martin Buber, for example, insisted that law could have nothing to do with real revelation, which, he believed, consists of an intense I-Thou encounter between God and a human being.  This approach is alien to the perspective that emerges from the Torah’s narrative — not only in the Torah as we now have it, but also in the narratives of each of the four sources, or torot, from which our Torah was created.
The Torah preserves multiple points of view regarding many issues. In fact, it sometimes presents us with an outright machloket or argument over crucial questions of belief and practice; thus D specifically rejects the notion found in J and P that revelation was visual, while P specifically rejects D’s directive to boil the Passover offering. But in some matters the Torah speaks with one voice, and the centrality of law to the relationship between God and the Jewish people is one of them. The famous Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen pointed out that traditional Judaism has no term for revelation but speaks only of lawgiving (mattan torah). Cohen’s observation is true not only of Rabbinic Judaism and not only of the final version of the Torah but also of J, of E, of P, and of D.
Documentary Hypothesis and Centrality of Law
Many traditional Jews regard the Documentary Hypothesis with suspicion, even if deep down they suspect it might be right, because they think that it has nothing to contribute to our lives as Jews. I’ve tried to show that the Documentary Hypothesis can help us to hear older voices in the Torah, early opinions in the long conversation that is the Jewish religion. Sometimes hearing these voices allows us to recover an important point of view that might otherwise have been lost, or a minority opinion on some matter whose importance is only now becoming clear.
In the stories of lawgiving, however, it is the unanimity of the voices on one particular issue that yields a vital teaching for our own time. Whatever our differences, we are still engaged in the shared undertaking that is Judaism as long as we continue to uphold the centrality of law in Jewish life.
Some Israelites boiled their Passover offering. Others roasted it. The Torah makes room for both types of practice — but not for the view that one can choose to forgo the ritual altogether, or that individuals can make up their own rules for carrying it out. In our own day some Jews wait six hours after eating meat before they have dairy foods; others wait three hours, and a few wait 72 minutes. All these options are mentioned in classical rabbinic texts and in traditional communities as legitimate. But eating milk and meat together, is simply not an option.
Currently, there are religious Jews who think that greater participation for women in leading prayer is forbidden by Jewish law; other religious Jews have argued that Jewish law can expand to encompass such participation. Following in the path of the Torah that finds room for four voices that sometimes disagree with each other, we can respect both options, at least potentially, as Jewishly legitimate. But not praying at all — that is, ignoring the law that requires Jews to pray on a daily basis, or treating that law as a recommendation that individuals can accept or reject –would go outside the bounds of the conversation that the Torah and its sources foster.
J, E, P, and D agree that God’s revelation to Israel expresses itself through law. The unanimity of the Torah’s four voices on this issue shows us that it doesn’t matter so much which pesaq, which halakhic ruling, you follow; what matters is that you’re following one at all.
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January 16, 2014
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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.
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