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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Read more at Marginalia

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

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat