The Torah Is Sanctioned by God: In the Footsteps of the Abravanel
The Book of Deuteronomy poses a unique challenge for those who believe that God authored the Torah: It is presented as an address by Moses! This includes the book’s many laws, which are not introduced with וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה “And the LORD spoke to Moses,” which is ubiquitous in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Indeed, this phrase appears only once in Deuteronomy, after Moses has finished speaking, and God tells him to ascend Mount Nebo to die (Deuteronomy 32:48).
Human Speech in the Torah: Abravanel’s Explanation
In his introduction to Deuteronomy, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) opens a large discussion on this question:
שאלתי ובקשתי אם משנה התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל, רצוני לומר ספר אלה הדברים, היה מאת ה' מן השמים והדברים אשר בו משה אמרם מפי הגבורה כיתר דברי התורה מבראשית עד לעיני כל ישראל, אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים מבלי היות בהם שנוי וחלוף.
I asked and considered whether the mishneh Torah, “that Moses set before the Israelites” (Deut 4:44), that is, the book of Deuteronomy, was from God, of heavenly origin, and if Moses spoke the words in it from the Almighty’s mouth, just like the rest of the Torah from “In the beginning” to “before all Israel” (Deut. 34:12), that these and these are the words of the living God without any change or substitution.
או אם ספר משנה התורה הזה אמרו משה מעצמו חברו ואמרו כמבאר מה שהבין מהכוונה האלהית בביאור המצות וכמו שאמר הכתוב הואיל משה באר את התורה הזאת כדרך יודעי דעת ומביני מדע שיבארו על ספר כל הדבר הקשה דברים שכסה אותן עתיק יומין:
Or, was this mishneh Torah spoken by Moses, who composed it and said it on his own, explaining the commandments based on what he understood of God’s intentions, as the verse states, “Moses undertook to expound this Teaching” (1:5), in the manner of experts and learned men who explain everything that is difficult in a book, things which the Ancient One concealed.
To answer this question, Abravanel argues that although God authored the Torah, this does not mean that every word in the Torah originated with the Almighty.
האמנם ענין הספר הזה ואמתתו הוא שמרע"ה אמר הדברים האלה וביאר המצוה שנזכרו פה לישראל לצורך פרידתו ורצה הקב"ה אחרי שהשלים לאמרם לישראל שיכתב בספר התורה כל זה כפי מה שאמרו משה ואולי הוסיף בהם הגבורה טעמים ודברים בזמן הכתיבה
However, the true essence of this book is that our teacher Moses, of blessed memory, said these things, and explained the commandments mentioned here to Israel, in parting from them. And the Holy One, blessed be He, after Moses finished saying them, desired that it all be written in the Torah, as Moses said it. And perhaps the Almighty added explanations and other things at the time of writing.
הנה אם כן שאמירת הדברים האלה לישראל היו ממרע"ה לא היתה כתיבתה בספר התורה ממנו. כי הנה לא כתב הוא ע"ה אותם הדברים מעצמו. כי איך יכתוב דבר מעצמו בתורת האלהים אבל כתיבת זה כלו היה מפי הגבורה ככל דברי התורה...
Thus, although these words were said to Israel by our teacher Moses, of blessed memory, he did not cause them to be written down in the Torah. For he, [Moses] of blessed memory did not write these things on his own accord; for how could he write something on his own in God’s Torah?! Rather, all this was written from the mouth of the Almighty, like all of the words of the Torah…
Abravanel is aware that this seems like a surprising claim, so he supports it with an observation that is true for the entire Torah:
הלא תראה שנכתבו בתורה דברי פרעה בלשונו (שמות ה:ב) "לא ידעתי את ה' וגם את ישראל לא אשלח" (שמות ט:כז) "ה' הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים", ודבר בלק ודבר בלעם בלשונות מדברים בעצמ[ם], ודבר משה שאמר לש"י בשליחותו (שמות ג:יא) "מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה" (שמות ד:א) "והן לא יאמינו לי וגו'", ושאר המאמרים בלשון עצמו. ועם כל זה הנה כתיבתה בתורה היה פועל אלהים שהש"י אמר למשה כתוב כך וכך מלה במלה...
Do you not see that written in the Torah is the speech of Pharaoh, in his own words, (Exod 5:2) “I do not know the LORD and also I will not let the Israelites go,” (Exod 9:27) “the LORD is righteous, and I am my people are the wicked ones.” Also the words of Balak and the words Balaam in the various utterances, speak for themselves. Also the words of Moses that he said to the blessed Lord upon being appointed (Exod 3:11) “who am I to approach Pharaoh,” (Exod 4:1) “but they will not believe me…” and all the other things he said in his own words. Even so, the writing of all this in the Torah was an action of God, for the blessed Lord said to Moses “write such and such” word by word…
In sum, it is axiomatic that the whole Torah is from God. Even when the words originate with humans, God testifies that these words were said and they were recorded by Moses in the Torah upon God’s dictation.
Written in Stages, but Still Dictated by God
While Abravanel’s analysis upholds the traditional (Maimonidean) tenet of divine authorship at the hand of Moses, it allows for a more complex view of how the Torah was put together. Instead of envisioning a forty-day marathon on Mt. Sinai of writing down the Torah from beginning to end, Abravanel sees God as communicating with Moses periodically, including after his long address on the plains of Moab, and telling Moses what exactly to include.
Abravanel’s view here fits with the view of Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud, that תורה—מגילה מגילה ניתנה “the Torah was given scroll by scroll” (b. Gittin 60a), i.e., that during the journey through the wilderness, God would periodically dictate a section of the Torah to Moses who would then write it down. Moreover, the Talmud even entertains the possibility that the final scene of the Torah was written down by someone other than Moses:
בבלי בבא בתרא טו. ...איפשר משה חי וכת[יב] (דברים לד:ה): "וימת שם משה עבד יי"?! אלא עד כאן כתב משה, מיכן ואילך כתב יהושע—דברי ר' יהודה (ואמרי לה ר' נחמיה).
b. Bava Batra 15a …“Is it possible that Moses was alive and he wrote ‘Moses, the servant of the LORD died there’?! Rather, up until this point, Moses wrote, from here and on, Joshua wrote.”—These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah (some say Rabbi Nehemiah).
אמ[ר] לו ר' שמעון: איפשר ספר תורה חסר אות אחת? וכת[יב] (דברים לא:כו): "לקוח את ספר התורה הזה"! אלא עד כאן הק'ב'ה' אומ[ר] למשה ומשה כותב, מיכן ואילך הק'ב'ה' אומ[ר] למשה, ומשה כותב בדמע.
Rabbi Simon said to him: “Is it possible that the Torah was missing even one letter? Yet it says [that Moses commanded the Levites] (Deut 31:26): ‘Take this Torah scroll’! Rather, up until this point, the Blessed Holy One spoke to Moses and Moses wrote, from here and on, the Blessed Holy One spoke to Moses, and Moses wrote in tears.”
The Talmud is only willing to consider the possibility that anyone other than Moses had a hand in writing the Torah as a last resort, and even here, it presents an alternative option defending the view that it was written by Moses in its entirety. Moreover, in either case, the clear implication is that the words were dictated by God, no matter who wrote them down.
The Torah’s Multiple Voices
Following Abravanel’s observation, when it comes to narrative, the Torah’s language, style, and tone may differ because much of it reflects the speech of different human personalities, who themselves have different ways of communicating. These verses comingle in the Torah because God sanctioned the inclusion of these words and deemed them part of the Torah. This observation has limited utility to explain the Torah’s diversity, since it covers only quotations and reported speech, including the bulk of Deuteronomy.
But how can we explain that often it is not original human speech in the Torah but God’s own demands and statements which take on different literary styles and perspectives? Mordecai Breuer has argued that God, as an infinite being, can speak from different vantage points and perspectives. I would take this a step further and note that it is not only God who can speak in different tones and ways, but we all speak with different voices.
Consider, for a moment, my rebbe, the late Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik. He spoke with many voices. The voice of a Talmudist demanding intellectual precision and clarity; the voice of a soft, caring pastoral counselor, guiding students through difficult challenges; the voice of a religio-legal expert explicating the intricacies of esoteric halakhot; the voice of a rebbe retelling stories of his past – inspiring us to reach higher. It was the sum total of Rav Ahron’s voices that made him the rebbe, the saintly person he was. So, too, each of us can develop, in our own unique way – diverse voices.
In the spirit of imitatio dei (imitation of God), this capacity gives us a tiny, tiny glimpse of God, who speaks with many styles: interpersonal and ritual law are spoken one way; narrative, wherein God speaks to or about biblical personalities in another; instructions on how to build the sanctuary, prepare priestly clothes in still another; the recall of things past inspiring us to forge a better future in yet another. While Bible critics see different styles and emphases as evidence of a multiplicity of authors, traditionalists – of which I am one – see the Torah as authored by the One God, speaking in multiple ways. In part, it is this totality that makes God – the One God.
Ethical Challenges to the Torah
Perhaps the greatest challenge to traditionalists are parts of the Torah that are unethical. If all of Torah comes from God – a God of goodness, a God of morality – how can we explain the Bible’s apparent imprimatur of slavery, genocidal war and treatment of women?
My starting point when dealing with these laws is to recognize that they conflict with other central principles of Torah such as tzelem Elohim (Gen 1:27, 9:6), that all humans are made in God’s image, and kedoshim tihyu (Lev 19:2), the command for Israel to be holy as God is holy. Rather than seeing this conflict as proving different authorship of the Torah, I see these principles as sacredly reminding us to re-evaluate these laws – as I believe the oral tradition does – from the prism of these broader divine ethical imperatives.
In keeping with Moses Maimonides’s argument in the Guide of the Perplexed (3:32), that sacrifices were retained in the Torah because the people at the time could not envision worship of God without them, I suggest that outlawing repulsive social norms—such as slavery or wholesale slaughter of enemies—to which people were accustomed would have been bound to fail, and would even have inhibited meaningful change. Instead, the Torah allows them on paper, while insisting they be ethicized to a higher level – with a vector pointing in the direction that the law one day be completely voided, as eventually happened with the law of the wayward son (Deut 21:18–21) or the slaughter of Amalek (Deut 25:17–19).
The Sotah Laws: An Example
A good example of this process are the sotah laws, according to which a woman accused by her husband of adultery must drink a specially prepared liquid that will determine whether or not the accusation was true, and make “her pelvis drop and her belly burst” if it is true (Num 5:11–31). Such a ritual is out of sync with our ethical sensibilities.
It can be suggested, however, that this law was instituted as a response to “honor killing,” a horror prevalent in many parts of the world to this day. Honor killing allows a husband or a close relative who suspects a wife or sister or daughter of immorality to kill her without trial. Could it be that sotah laws were introduced in response to this horror, insisting, however, that the accuser cannot act unilaterally. Rather, the matter is transferred to the aegis of the priest, who oversees an elaborate, complex investigation of the suspected woman.
Indeed, the Talmud spends page after page restricting the circumstances in which these special waters are drunk. Even if all these obstacles are overcome and the accused woman drinks them, the Mishnah declares that the effects of the waters are suspended if the sotah has done something meritorious (Sotah 3:4). In fact, if her husband was himself unfaithful, the waters are inoperative (Sotah 28a). Indeed, the Talmud declares that after the destruction of the Temple, as society changed, the sotah laws were entirely suspended (Sotah 9:9).
Contradictions Construct Meaningful Torah Teachings
I would like to stress one further point. An a priori commitment to Torah from heaven can also produce enriching and powerful teachings that are denied if one assumes multiple authorship. For example, academic biblical scholars often interpret inconsistencies by claiming that the contradictory verses came from two different documents. But this is not the only way to handle inconsistent presentations.
Take, for example, the biblical presentation of Moses. The same Moses who, when first encountering God, claimed “lo ish devarim anochi” (I am not a man of words; Exodus 4:10) now, in the Book of Deuteronomy, is the prophet of many words: “Eileh hadevarim asher diber Moshe” (These are the words that Moses spoke; Deuteronomy 1:1). It is precisely from attempting to make sense of such a difference in presentation that beautiful teachings surface. In this case, Moses, who, at the outset, found it difficult to speak (Exodus 4:10), went through a transformation and became the most eloquent of speakers, reminding us all that everyone has the capacity, with God’s help, to evolve, to grow, and to reach new heights.
In recent years I’ve had the honor to learn with my son Dr. Dov Weiss. Dov has become my rebbe; blessed is the parent who grows to want to be like their children. When we learn in chavruta I begin with Rashi, while Dov begins with the Targum, Septuagint, and Vulgate. Through Dov, I’ve been deeply moved by the brilliance of biblical academic analysis. In the end, however, this approach has reinforced my belief in Torah min ha-shamayim.
For me, the Torah is a sacred text reflecting dvar HaShem, “the word of God,” in dynamic covenantal partnership with all of us – imparting powerful living, loving lessons. As Dov once shared with me – “Abba we learn the same text: I try to find out what the text means; you try to find meaning in the text.”
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Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit, founder and co-founder, respectively, of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has semichah (Orthodox rabbinical ordination) from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (1968), and is the author of Haggadah for the Yom HaShoah Seder (Jonas, 2000); Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups (KTAV 1990); Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Jewish Lights, 2008); Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality (Maggid, 2014); Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist (Toby Press, 2015); and Journey to Open Orthodoxy (KTAV/URIM, 2019). In 2017, YCT presented him with a Festschrift (ed. Daniel R. Goodman): Black Fire on White Fire: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Avi Weiss. His thematic commentary on the Torah, Torat Ahavah – Loving Torah, is scheduled to be published (Summer 2023).
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