Torah from Heaven: A Guide to the Four Questions
In every generation, new ideas and information force Jewish thinkers to reevaluate traditional principles. For some it was Aristotelian philosophy, for others it was the scientific revolution. In our time, modern academic Bible scholarship and the disciplines of history and archaeology pose serious challenges to traditional interpretations of Torah mi-Sinai (Torah given at Sinai) and Torah min Ha-Shamayim (Torah from heaven).
Four questions about the Torah’s divine origin have been debated for centuries:
- Do the stories of the Torah need to be believed as history in the sense of an accurate record of the actual past, or can they be mnemohistory, i.e. stories a culture reveres about its past?
- Is it essential to believe that the Torah was written by Moses and not any other prophet?
- Must the Torah reflect only one storyline or one point of view?
- Must the Torah’s revelation be perfect as it is, or can it be seen as crafted for the period of time in which it was initially revealed with the intention that it would be enhanced as society progressed?
Traditional scholars from medieval to modern times have offered varied responses to these questions. As is the case with many issues, Jewish Tradition (mesorah) does not offer a single definitive answer.
Question 1 – Torah and History
As early as the classical Rabbinic and medieval period, rabbinic authorities have suggested that certain accounts or parts of certain accounts should be understood in a literary, and not literal, way. The Talmud suggests that the Torah “exaggerates (lashon havay),” quoting the verse in Deuteronomy (1:28) which describes the Canaanite cities as extending all the way to the sky (b. Hullin 90b). Rambam believed that any account that referenced an angel had to be understood as a prophetic vision and not an actual occurrence, and he also claimed that the talking snake in the Garden of Eden and Balaam’s talking donkey should be considered allegory and a dream, respectively (Guide, 2:42). By offering this method of interpretation, Rambam contradicts an explicit statement of Chazal (m. Avot 5: 6), which considers the talking donkey as having existed in fact.
In modern times, the possibility of seeing much larger swaths of the biblical narrative as representing something other than real historical events has been explored. In an article in Tradition, Rabbi Dr. Shubert Spero suggests approaching the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood as ahistorical. As intuitive as this suggestion may seem to modern readers, it is important to note that, from the perspective of the text, there is no reason to believe that these stories are ahistorical any more than any other stories in the Torah! At no point in the narrative does the Torah have a subheading saying: “Up until now it was folklore, from now on it is history.”
Taking a step further than Spero, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, in his Morethodoxy post, quotes Rabbi Jeremy Wieder as arguing that if someone were not to believe in the historicity of the patriarchs and matriarchs — essentially all of Genesis — that this would not be a denial of any Jewish fundamentals. To give some perspective on how profoundly novel Rabbi Wieder’s suggestion is, this would mean that all the prayers and biblical claims that speak about a promise to the patriarchs and matriarchs would have to be understood as referring to an allegory or a fictional account.
The position staked out by R. Wieder is quite reminiscent of the position of R. Levi ben Avraham referenced in the responsa of Rashba (1:414, 415, 417) and R. Abba Mari ben Joseph of Lunel, collected in the latter’s Minhat Kanaot. R. Levi was reported to have suggested an allegorical interpretation of Abraham and Sarah as form and substance, and the twelve tribes and the constellations. Whether he meant this as an exclusive interpretation or as an additional hidden meaning was vociferously debated. Some like Rashba, R. Abba Mari and Rosh declared him an apostate. Others, like Menachem ha-Meiri and Yadiyah ha-Penini Bedarshi (Iggeret Hitnatzlut) wrote in his defense.
The farthest-reaching treatment of this issue known to me is by Rabbi Dr. Amit Kula, who writes in his book Existential or Non-Essential that historicity is not important. He applies this in his introduction to Abraham, and in chapter four he even extends it to the revelation at Sinai! For example, he writes (pp. 131-132; translation mine):
The key to accepting the Torah as binding is believing that it is the Torah of God; this key functions whether the revelation on Mount Sinai occurred or not… This is the root of any faith or apostasy: does the person accept the Torah as the Torah of God or not? The details of history have no bearing on this key question.
To Rav Kula, historicity of all the stories in the Torah is secondary to the meaning of these stories.
Question 2 – Mosaic Authorship
The Torah itself never actually says who wrote it. Deuteronomy 31:9 refers to Moses writing down “this book,” but does not make clear what it means by this phrase. R. Ovadiah Seforno (c. 1475-1550, Italy), for instance, believes that it refers to the part of Deuteronomy that the king will read, as described in b. Sotah 41a. Ironically, despite the fact that this is the only verse in the Torah that references Moses writing it, R. Abraham ibn Ezra includes it in his list of verses that Moses didn’t write (Deut. 1:2).
Other books in Tanach do make reference to “the book of the Torah of Moses” (Josh. 8:31, 23:6; 2 Kings 14:6; Neh. 8:1, 2 Chron. 34:14). However, this term also contains some ambiguity. Is it called this because Moses wrote it or because it contains a record of the laws of Moses? Israel Knohl points out that in the Bible the laws of the Torah are sometimes referred to as being from God’s servants, the prophets (Daniel 9:10, Ezra 9:11). It is noteworthy that the references to torah in the Bible that most likely refer to the Torah as we know it all come from books which both tradition and modern scholarship believe are late, such as Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.
The statement that Moses wrote the Torah can be found in b. Baba Batra 14b: “Moses wrote his book, as well as the book of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote his book and the last eight verses in the Torah. Samuel wrote his book and the books of Judges and Ruth…” However, it is worth noting that with regard to the assertions about Joshua and Samuel, Don Isaac Abarbanel, in his introduction to the Former Prophets, offers an objection.
When I probed the verses, though, I saw that the opinion that Joshua wrote his book was highly unlikely… because of verses which attest to the fact that Joshua did not write them… The verses indicate that Samuel did not write his book in the very same way.
Despite the fact that Chazal state explicitly who the author of each book is, Abarbanel argues against some of their conclusions. Apparently, these suggestions were not obligatory traditions/mesorah but reasoned assumptions. For this reason, Abarbanel saw them as open to be challenged. If the list represents nothing more than reasoned suggestions, the first entry in the list may be seen the same way. Nevertheless, Abarbanel does not apply this logic to the Torah at all. In fact, he strongly attacks Ramban and ibn Ezra (the former unfairly perhaps) for implying that there are verses in the Torah not written by Moses (Num. 20:1). In this Abarbanel follows Maimonides in insisting that every verse in the Torah was penned by Moses himself. Although it is true that Maimonides claims the belief that Moses wrote the entire Torah as a dogmatic necessity, it seems clear that many rishonim dispute this point and allow for the possibility of other prophets having a hand in the writing of the Torah.
The suggestion that other prophets had a role in writing the Torah has been put forth by ibn Ezra, R. Yehuda Ha-Chasid, and some others, and goes all the way back to the above mentioned Talmudic suggestion the last eight verses in the Torah were not written by Moses but by Joshua. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow wrote a short responsum on this issue where he defends the legitimacy of the claim that someone other than Moses wrote a number of the verses in the Torah.
[O]nce people believe that the verses of the Torah stem entirely from a divine origin, there is no prohibition to expand that which our sages said about the final verses of the Torah to other verses, since the essential point that remains consistent throughout is that the Torah stems from the word of the “mouth” of God.
An even more radical iteration of this theory is also found in Rav Kula’s book (p. 171, trans. mine).
I think that it would not be considered heresy to say that the Torah was transmitted in a diffuse fashion as part of the Israelite lived experience, over a long period of time, perhaps hundreds of years, by way of great people who knew God’s mind, prophets, judges and leaders, who arose among the Israelites and humanity. This possibility does not detract from the divine status of the Torah. No less important, I believe that this possibility has the potential to carry upon its back the energy of a lively and vibrant religious faith. For if the origin of the divine Torah is not in a historical Mount Sinai event, still all its constituent elements are true.
When Rav Kula says “true,” he means this in the deep sense, but not the historical-literal sense, as discussed in the previous section.
This view has also been embraced by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon, in Torah from Heaven.
‘Torah from Heaven’ is mythos not logos, poetry, not prose; romance rather than history (315)… As ‘myth of origin’ it seeks to present Torah as a unified whole… Within this context, the halakhah of Judaism may be seen as emanating from Sinai, and as reaching full expression through rabbinic interpretation and Jewish practice. This is not an historically tenable position, but an interpretation of history through faith; history can neither confirm nor disconfirm a non-physical origin, nor can it make a judgment as to what constitutes the full or ‘authentic’ expression of Torah. Torah, as viewed through ‘Torah from Heaven’, is a unified whole—that is what ‘Torah from Heaven’ is about (317).
Rabbi Solomon views Torah min ha-Shamayim as a spiritual truth, or as a way of expressing the divine nature of the Torah. However, he does not believe in the historicity of the narratives, and thinks such a belief is unnecessary, and even problematic.
Question 3 – Multivocality
The Sages recognized as well that contradictory versions of the same story or law seem to exist in the Torah. In fact, contradictions between biblical texts are one of the main impetuses for midrash. For example, Gen. 1:27 says that humanity was created as man and woman, implying at the same time. However, in Gen. 2 man is created first and woman later on from his rib or side. The Sages are aware of this contradiction and offer various solutions. Rav Yehudah (b. Ketubot 8a) suggests that God originally planned on creating both but then changed plans. Alternatively, R. Yirmiya ben Elazar (Genesis Rabbah 8:1), probably inspired by Plato’s Symposium, solves this contradiction by suggesting that the first human was created androgynously, and was only later split into two humans each with a distinct gender.
In the medieval period, some commentaries were willing to state explicitly that sometimes the Torah told two different versions of the same story. For example, Rav Yosef Bechor Shor (12th cent. France) points this out with regard to the two accounts of the quail in the desert, one in Exodus and one in Numbers, each with conflicting details. Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well, explored this type of interpretation with regard to the two versions of the creation story, in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith:
We all know that the Bible offers two accounts of the creation of man… It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it (pp. 9-10).
The most developed treatment of this approach among traditional scholars can be seen in the work of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Breuer.
When discussing what he calls “the liberal solution” (not his preferred solution), where the Torah is assumed to have been written by a prophet or prophets, similar to other biblical books, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer writes (163):
By this logic, Moses could not have composed all the documents included in the Torah since… their content and style indicate different authors at different times. If Moses is the author of the Torah, as we normally think of an author, it is all the more difficult to believe that he would contradict himself so frequently, as the documents appear to do.
Even according to what he calls “the traditional alternative” (his preferred solution), Rabbi Breuer still admits that the Torah is filled with contradictions, but believes that doing so reflects God’s own multivocality (pp. 170-171):
Let us review the salient positions of Biblical Criticism, as applied to the Torah. First, there is the thesis that the Torah contains discrete documents integrated by an editor whose work is evident throughout the Torah. We must acknowledge these arguments because we too assert that God’s Torah, in its plain sense, speaks “the language of human beings.” When read by the rules that govern human speech, the Torah is consonant with the scholarly evaluation of the text… This is the position we have staked out. God, who is beyond the limitations of time and space, prepared the Torah, declaring in utterance what man can comprehend only as a combination of different sources.
It is difficult to emphasize sufficiently how novel or “untraditional” R. Breuer’s “traditional” interpretation is. His model goes much further than that of Bechor Shor or R. Soloveitchik, since he accepts the division of the Torah into four distinct documents, following the divisions of advocates of the documentary hypothesis. According to Rabbi Breuer, the Torah is filled with contradictions and multiple perspectives encoded in four distinct documents that were woven together by an editor. It is only that he believes that all of these documents are the word of God and the editor was Moses.
Question 4 – Perfection of the Torah
In several places, the Torah describes Mosaic prophecy as being greater than other types of prophecy (e.g. Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10). Expanding on this biblical statement, the Sages talk about Moses’ prophetic vision as being clearer than that of any other prophet (b. Yebamot 49b). This would imply that Moses’ understanding of Torah was greater than that of any future Sage. Nevertheless, the Talmud in places suggests that the Torah expands and becomes more sophisticated over time.
For example, b. Menachot 29b records a story where Moses goes to the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva and does not understand the Torah he teaches. Moses is so impressed by Akiva that he even asks God why God did not give the Torah to Akiva and not Moses. This story strongly implies that the Sages believed that the Torah Moses understood was something different—even something less—than what the Sages themselves (personified by Rabbi Akiva) understood.
The idea that the Torah can change its meaning and adapt is also implicit in the works of the rishonim who espouse what Moshe Halbertal calls “the constitutive model” of halakha. These major rishonim (Ramban, Ritva, Ran; 13th-14th cent. Spain) believe—with some nuanced differences—that Torah changes and adapts in every generation depending on the interpretation of the Sages.
The idea that the Torah was designed for its time but would need to adapt and improve over the course of human history has been used to explain a number of mitzvot that different great medieval figures found problematic. One of the most famous examples of this comes from Maimonides’ treatment of sacrifices, where he argues that it would have been better had God abolished them altogether, but they were a necessary form of worship in the biblical period, so God made do with modifying instead of canceling them (Guide 3:32, 46).
This position was reiterated by R. Joseph ibn Kaspi as well, in his Gevia’ ha-Kesef,
…most people strive to imitate their forefathers. For this reason Moses in the Torah told us to offer sacrifices, even though in truth they are an abomination.”
In more recent times, Rav Avraham Kook used this idea to explain the Torah’s sanctioning of slavery. He argues that the Torah modified slavery to make it as moral as possible since during biblical times slavery was a key element of society. However, he claims, as the world is perfected over time, slavery will cease to exist (Ein Eiyeh 2, 214-215.). Rav Soloveitchik was purported to have made a similar point with his observation that, “Halacha is a floor not a ceiling.”
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm takes a similar approach. In his article dealing with Amalek and the Torah’s requirement to annihilate them all, Rabbi Lamm suggests that Judaism has evolved past that requirement in our day. He calls this idea “developing morality” and suggests that the Torah contains within it the seeds for its own spiritual growth.
It is not, therefore, a matter of judging the Torah from the vantage of our newly acquired “superior” morality. It is not a genuinely novel, historic moral conception that we pit against the Biblical moral tradition, but it is the evolving contemporary consciousness that has encouraged us to rediscover what was always there in the inner folds of the Biblical texts and halakhic traditions. Our moral sensitivity leads us to find warrant in the Torah heritage.
In his book, The God who Hates Lies, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman suggests that part of the Jew’s service to God is keeping his or her own sense of morality in conversation with halacha.
To continually ask, Which God are we worshipping? Is to introduce a critical catalyst for self-correction. It is to offer a way for individuals and communities to negotiate aspects of the tradition they find problematic, allowing personal subjectivity as a way of both deepening and critically evaluating one’s religious practice. Rather than searching for moral guidance within the legal precedents and exegetical maneuvering of the halakhic library… we must search for it in the image of God our moral conscience desires to learn from and compels us to choose… There is a natural impulse about what is decent and just. We should allow that impulse to surface within our religious system, rather than burying or dismissing it (59-60)…. I hold rather that the more tradition is steeped in the lived reality of the intellectual culture of our time, the more vibrant it becomes, the more it retains our respect (154).
Hartman believes that in order for Torah values to come to light in their purist or most developed form, they must be constantly probed and evaluated by the practitioner’s moral sense. Since ethical norms change over time and differ somewhat from place to place, the morality of the Torah, in Hartman’s system, must by definition adapt.
A similar and perhaps more theologically radical version of the idea that the Torah adapts over time has been put forth by Dr. Tamar Ross, in a theory she calls cumulative revelation. In Expanding the Palace of Torah, Ross argues that God’s involvement with the Jewish people is continuous and that the tradition is refined over time (p. 201).
[T]he fluid notion of Torah suggested by these softer conceptions presents the Sinai revelation of God’s word as the initiator of a series of revelations in the form of inspired interpretations throughout the ages. The ideal meaning of the Sinaitic revelation is eked out only with these accumulated interpretations. The various strata are then absorbed as an integral part of the primary text, expanding upon and sometimes even transforming its original meaning…
In an interview for the Kavvanah website, Ross clarifies further (#6):
My approach accepts the Torah in its entirety as the expression of God’s unfolding in history, and revelation as immanent in human activity. Even passages in the Torah which appear problematic to us today, and the historical context which triggers our discontent and moves us to seek new interpretations, are part of that process.
The overall idea of cumulative revelation is that God begins the revelation at the point where the people and prophets can understand it, but the ideas become refined and adapted over time as God “reveals the Torah” to the Jews on a continuing basis.
These are only some illustrations of the variety of answers on the four central questions that I noted above, indicating that there is significant openness and debate rather than a single, sanctioned, official position. This debate continues today, and it is not surprising given how sensitive these matters are, and how close to the core of the religion, that emotions run high. Those of us who want to live in two worlds of wisdom, the secular and the traditional, must continue to explore these questions in an open and honest fashion. Such exploration enhances, rather than detracts from, serious Jewish commitment and observance.
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August 15, 2013
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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