Can Belief in the Divinity of the Torah Be Reconciled with Biblical Criticism?

Feb. 13 2019

In his book Revelation and Authority, the Bible scholar Benjamin Sommer seeks to harmonize the tenets of Judaism with the current academic consensus that Jewish Scripture, and the Pentateuch in particular, were culled together from a number of disparate sources. To do so, Sommer develops a theology of “participatory” revelation, in which prophets don’t simply record God’s word but receive wordless divine communication that they then translate into human language through their own understanding. He uses this theory to explain the historical evolution of Judaism and deal with disturbing biblical teachings without denying that God’s law is in some sense binding. Jon D. Levenson writes in his review:

Professor Sommer brings the whole range of Jewish learning to bear—biblical, rabbinic, and medieval texts, and modern Jewish theologians, not to mention the occasional ḥasidic rebbe. But the book is not only a learned study: it is also a rarity in the Jewish world—a theologically serious book written by a Jew who is not only a scholar but also a practitioner of Judaism. Unlike so many in Jewish studies—especially Jewish scholars specializing in biblical studies—Sommer does not hide behind historicism but instead addresses the existential relevance of his material without embarrassment. He engages in what Christians tend to call “systematic” or “constructive” theology and does so, moreover, in a way that seeks to be both faithful to the pre-modern tradition and responsible to the methods and findings of modern critical thought.

Yet, to Levenson, there are serious flaws in the book’s arguments, perhaps most crucially in its claim that revelation is not limited to Moses but is available to many “human beings who respond to the revelation at Sinai” and even to all Israelites:

To me, and again locating ourselves only within the cultural universe of biblical Israel in general and the Pentateuch in particular, this move from the figure of Moses to human beings in general represents a dangerous slippage. For it drastically underestimates the unique and unparalleled role of Moses as the chosen intermediary of divine revelation. Here, an analogy with glossolalia, the speaking-in-tongues practiced by some charismatic Christians, might be helpful. The person with the gift of tongues makes sounds that ordinary people cannot decode; in order for the sounds to be comprehended, an interpreter must translate them. But that ability to interpret tongues is itself thought to be a spiritual gift. It is not a natural human endowment, and therefore it is not a strong analogy to the composition of biblical texts as modern historical critics tend to understand it—that is, as a purely human process.

Moses does indeed participate in the process of revelation, but only because of a gift with which God has graced him. He is the unique mediator of the laws; he is not their formulator. The radical, principled difference between the biblical and the historical-critical understandings of the process of composition must not be minimized. The former makes unapologetic use of notions of supernatural endowments that the latter excludes from the conversation a priori. To me, Sommer seems so eager to validate the participation of humans in the process of revelation that he fails to do justice to the special subcategory of humans called prophets and to the unique and unparalleled role among among them that much biblical and post-biblical tradition ascribes to Moses.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Marginalia

More about: Biblical criticism, Conservative Judaism, Hebrew Bible, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays, Theology

 

Despite What the UN Says, the Violence at the Gaza Border Is Military, Not Civilian, in Nature

March 22 2019

On Monday, a UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry issued its final report on last spring’s disturbances at the Gaza border. Geoffrey Corn and Peter Margulies explain why the report is fatally flawed:

The commission framed the events [in Gaza] as a series of demonstrations that were “civilian in nature.” Israel and its Supreme Court, [which has investigated some of the killings that occurred], framed the same events quite differently: as a new evolution in Israel’s ongoing armed conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. Consistency and common sense suggest that the Israeli High Court of Justice’s framing is a more rational explanation of what occurred at the Israel-Gaza border in spring 2018.

Kites, [for instance], played a telltale role [in the violence]. When most people think of kites, they think of a child’s plaything or a hobbyist’s harmless passion. In the Gaza confrontation, kites [became] a new and effective, albeit low-tech, tactic for attacking Israel. As the report conceded, senior Gaza leaders, including from Hamas, “encouraged” the unleashing of waves of incendiary kites that during and since the spring 2018 confrontations have burned thousands of acres of arable land within Israel. The resulting destruction included fires that damaged the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which conveys goods and gasoline from Israel to Gaza. . . .

Moreover, the incendiary-kite offensive was an effective diversion from the efforts encouraged and coordinated by Hamas last spring to pierce the border with Israel and attack both IDF personnel and the civilian residents of the beleaguered Israeli towns a short distance from the border fence. . . .

The commission also failed to acknowledge that Hamas sought to use civilians as an operational cover to move members of its armed wing into position along the fence. For IDF commanders, this increased the importance of preventing a breach [in the fence]. Large crowds directly along the fence would simplify breakthrough attempts by intermingled Hamas and other belligerent operatives. The crowds themselves also could attempt to pour through any breach. Unfortunately, the commission seems to have completely omitted any credible assessment of the potential casualties on all sides that would have resulted from IDF action to seal a breach once it was achieved. . . .

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Lawfare

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Laws of war, UNHRC, United Nations