Debating the Divine Origins of the Torah

May 5, 2023 | Tamar Ross
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In the anthology The Revelation at Sinai: What Does “Torah from Heaven” Mean?, the philosopher Yoram Hazony criticizes the attempts of some Jewish theologians to reconcile traditional notions of revelation with academic theories about the origins and composition of Scripture—including a doctrine sometimes called “unfolding” or “progressive” revelation. Tamar Ross responds to Hazony’s brief engagement with her own ideas of “cumulative revelation,” and explains what makes them distinct:

Although successive hearings of the Torah may appear to contradict the original message of Moses at Sinai, that message is never replaced. It always remains as the rock-bottom cultural-linguistic filter through which new “hearings” are understood. Thus, it is the potential meaning, rather than wording, of the Torah attributed to the original revelation at Sinai that is constantly being unfolded, via the changing cultural contexts to which it is exposed.

Jewish traditionalists following Maimonides and his interest in protecting the supremacy and inviolability of Mosaic law from the upheaval of further claims to prophetic inspiration have never denied the possibility of discovering new meanings in the text. They differ from the cumulativists simply in their preference for attributing recognition of the text’s manifold interpretive possibilities solely to the work of the scholars of every generation, who can and do uncover more of its original meaning without the benefit of divine intervention.

Thus . . . my preference for describing new ideas as “revealed” rather than “uncovered,” no less than earlier manifestations of this trend in the Talmud and in the tradition of the Tosafists and their followers, does not rest on differences of opinion regarding the centrality of Moses and Sinai, but rather on alternative religious sensibilities regarding the manner in which God interacts with the world, which—in ḥasidic writing and the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook—are extended even further to notions regarding the spiritual significance of history and the development of the human spirit.

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