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

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror