The Torah Is a Record of a Divine-Human Encounter
When I was a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, our Bible professor, Stanley Gevirtz z”l, taught us to use and appreciate the tools of historical critical study. The biblical text was to be read and understood within the context of the Ancient Near East, not as divine revelation. I once asked Dr. Gevirtz if we could devote at least some of our time to delving into the Torah’s spiritual meaning for each of us. “Such things,” he insisted, “should be pursued outside of class.”
I have never believed that God literally revealed the Torah to Moses at Sinai. The theological teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber helped me find divine wisdom in Torah without having to believe in “Torah mi-Sinai.” Heschel said it best: “The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally.”
While studying the composite strands of the documentary hypothesis, I kept coming back to Rosenzweig’s contention that the “R” was not for “redactor” but for “rabbeinu.” These seemingly diverse documents, I would realize, were not randomly stitched together, but, as Israel Knohl suggests, reflect an ancient Jewish pluralism, which offers contemporary Jewish life a powerful model of finding strength in diversity. Rather than seeing the Torah as a collection of disjointed variants of theology and religiosity, we can appreciate the richness of its diverse religious voices and modalities.
For me, the Torah is the human record of an ancient divine-human encounter that has inspired thousands of years of interpretation, and it remains the foundation of my religious life. To believe that the Torah is not the literal word of God is not to drain it of its profound religious importance but rather to anchor our most central religious text within the parameters of what we learn from modern scholarship and thought. Believing that the scroll we venerate has been shaped by human beings gives us permission, even an obligation, to continue to reform the Jewish tradition we love. In this light, changes such as gender equality in Jewish life are not violations of divine revelation but rather signs of the vitality of our ever-evolving religious tradition.
I’ll never forget the Shabbat morning service at the Westwood Minyan in Los Angeles, where I witnessed Professor Gevirtz lean in to kiss a Torah scroll during a hakafah on Simchat Torah, when the Torah scrolls are all paraded around the shul. At that moment, I understood that one could be at the same time a renowned historical-critical scholar of biblical literature and a devout practitioner of liberal Judaism. That synergy continues to animate my own religious life.
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January 20, 2022
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Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Before that he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale, New York, and earlier, as the rabbi of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, where he created the first homeless shelter in a New York City synagogue. Jacobs was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York where he also earned his M.A. in Hebrew Literature, and has studied for two decades at Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is a senior rabbinic fellow. One of Jacobs’ current foci is as an advocate for an Israel that is secure, Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic, with a vibrant Reform Jewish community.
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