Theology, Not Biblical Studies
Wearing Two Hats
It gives me great pleasure to thank Ben Sommer for his fine book Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, which launches a discussion of a foundational issue in the lives of those of us who live in both the “academic” and the “rabbinic” worlds. Where do we belong? Thus, I wonder: In my comments below, should I wear my academic “hat,” or my “hat” as head of a midrasha and yoetzet halakha (halakhic advisor)?
These are two distinct roles. As a biblical scholar I deliver academic lectures and write articles for academic journals. As head of the Bar-Ilan Midrasha I deliver Torah classes. From time to time, in both roles, I discuss with students and colleagues, both male and female, and with rabbinical figures, both male and female, the interface between these two worlds. Thus, am I supposed to respond to this book from the intellectual-academic perspective, or should I take this unusual opportunity to share my thoughts on the religious Jewish world and my commitment to religious observance?
Jewish Thought, Not Biblical Studies
In considering these questions, I decided to follow Sommer’s lead. Although Sommer has tried to situate his book (oral communication), “between biblical studies and Jewish thought, where the boundaries between the two are blurred,” to my mind, the book belongs almost entirely to the field of Jewish thought rather than to biblical or ANE studies.
This despite the fact that some of the issues it raises—such as the meaning of, and relationship between, the words רואים (“seeing”) and קולות (“lightening”) in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, or the relationship between the chapters describing revelation in Exodus and Deuteronomy—have all been discussed in academic biblical forums.
Such academically based discussions do not reflect the essence of this book, which is a delicately balanced, nuanced discourse surrounding the axioms held by believers. The book focuses on fundamental questions of belief and practice, and instead of offering vague answers, develops a dialogical Jewish biblical theology.
In essence, although the book speaks the language of biblical studies, it is a work of theology. It should be evaluated in relation to a growing body of literature, often associated with postmodernism, that suggests that it is impossible for a scholar to avoid personal biases, and that that works of academic scholarship inevitably involve theological and other preconceptions.
The Emic (Insider) Perspective of the Book
The central question of the book is: What actually happened at Sinai? What did this divine revelation include? And, in addition, how should the answer to these questions impact one’s role or participation in the dual worlds of academic biblical studies and observant Judaism?
This book is written from “within,” where Sommer loudly and often makes his identity as a modern religious Jew visible. He makes no attempt to treat the questions raised in his book “objectively,” or “externally.” This is already evident in the “Acknowledgements” in which he dedicates the book to his daughter Sarah on reaching “the age of the commandments” and in the conclusion where he sums up his mission: “Our task is only to nurture, protect, and create Torah with as much honesty as possible, to live that Torah, to teach it, and to pass it on” (p. 250).
Written Law Is Oral Law
Sommer in essence rejects the distinction between the Written Law—characterized by divine authorship, and human writing—characterized as lacking sanctity. Or to put it in his words: “Is the Torah artifact or scripture? Is it entirely the product of human writers, or does it have an origin that goes beyond this world?” He responds that it is both, developing throughout the book what he terms “a participatory theory of revelation.”
Sommer addresses the question of whether Moses was the sole mediator of the divine word (E, P), or alternatively, whether the entire people heard the divine word unmediated (D), and suggests that perhaps the event actually combined both possibilities.
In considering these questions Sommer notes the ambiguity of the biblical description of the Sinaitic revelation—noise, lack of clarity, sight, and speech—and looks at the various minimalist and maximalist interpretations of this event. He concludes that from the moment of its creation, the Written Law was actually Oral Law, and contained significant human elements.
An Unfolding Torah
This was the inception of a process that acquired profundity over generations. Relying on the “bold notion of revelation that we find in the work of Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel [that] recapitulates one of the most ancient Jewish understandings of revelation and the law” (p.120), Sommer adduces a human element in revelation from its very start. Accordingly, there is no need to adhere to the dichotomy between the written and oral laws. Because it was delivered orally, the Written Law is oral law. Already in the biblical period the Israelites composed an oral law in response to divine revelation. And this response was manifested in laws and commandments and the obligation to obey them.
The removal of the boundary between Written and Oral Law enables Sommer to go a step further and to redefine the development of halakhah over time as a new layer of the giving of the Torah itself, which is from now entirely Oral Law. Thus, Sommer argues that a person who obeys pentateuchal law actually obeys the human interpretation bestowed on the encounter between God and the Jewish people throughout the generations. Sommer concludes that this obedience has a large degree of subjectivity, is open to interpretation and, as it is humanly and not divinely defined, cannot be perfect.
Thoughts and Questions
This proposal raises several thoughts and questions:
Sommer uses the term “transcendent” in the book when discussing how the “transcendent” becomes “immanent” (for example, on pp. 45 and 56), but it is not clear what counts as transcendent for him. I found it surprising that in the end he decides that there is “something” transcendent that is not relative or human, limited as this may be. But this something remains vague. I have trouble discerning what God is according to this conception, and what truth about God can we say is objective. I find myself wondering how prayer works in Sommer’s model. In addition, I am still unclear on how we can discern what objective or transcendent aspect of God was revealed at Sinai, if any, and why did he choose to describe this (and only this) as “revelation”?
It seems to me that, following the path he laid out, he could have argued that Sinaitic reality took place in this world, in our eyes, for us, and that it is entirely and solely human. Thus, the reason for his insistence on revelation being divine remains opaque. This likely has important implications for understanding how accepting עול מלכות שמיים—the heavenly yoke (of commandments)—fits into his theology.
Continuity of Revelation
I am further unclear in what sense Sommer delimits a continuum from the giving of the Torah (however that is defined) to our day, considering the gaps in the presentation. The book essentially skipped from the Bible directly to the Pharisees and rabbis. How are we to understand the intervening period?
Let me buttress this observation with a related point: Sommer’s assumption that the sense of obligation to observe the commandments as manifested in daily praxis by halakhah-observing Jews is based on the Sinaitic revelation is not inevitable. The rabbis treated this question in the well-known talmudic statement: “It [Torah] is not in the heavens.” A more accurate description of reality, in my opinion, is of observant Jews for whom the Bible, in many respects, has been marginalized. They are not troubled by the question of what actually happened at Sinai and do not make any assumptions on this basis regarding the status of the Bible, or its legislative authority, or the status of the laws contained therein.
In short, Sommer’s concept of continuity of revelation does not appear to speak to the perspective of the very community he points to as the carriers of this participatory revelation.
Dialogical Theology vs. An Entirely Divine Torah
The problem is compounded by Sommer’s suggestion that those who view the continued observance of the Torah as contingent on a dialogue with previous generations should feel even more obligated to continue to observe and develop the law. I am not sure that this is the case in reality. In fact, we could argue contrariwise that those who view the Torah (in its entirety?) as divine, and not human, display a stronger sense of obligation. In relation to this, I would note the renaissance of Israeli Jewish/rabbinic culture over the past decade.
I also wonder whether a dialogical theology is really the only possible conclusion from Sommer’s work. Would Sommer be prepared to apply the parameters he sets out for his predecessors to his own conclusions? In other words, is his own approach relativistic, temporary, and given to historical acceptance?
Let me end by saying that despite my comments and critiques, I would like to thank Professor Sommer for his honesty, partnership, and for the opportunity to engage in this theological discussion, and most especially for encouraging us to return to fundamental questions and assumptions.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 4, 2017
July 19, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Tova Ganzel is a lecturer in Bible and Halacha at Bar Ilan University, and the former Director of Bar Ilan’s Midrasha program. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan and is trained as a yo’etzet halakha (women’s halakhic advisor). A former Tikvah Fellow, she is the author of A Visionary’s Oracles – From Destruction to Restoration, Studies in the Prophecies of Ezekiel [Hebrew], and one of the editors of People of Faith and Bible Criticism [Hebrew].
Essays on Related Topics: