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.

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

The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank