'Torah from heaven'

Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon, Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Lecturer in Theology, University of Oxford

Mon 30 April - Thurs 3 May 2001, 5.15pm daily, including a community lecture Sun 29 April, Mamlock House

Venue: Arts Lecture Theatre in the Arts buildingUniversity of Manchester (Building 67 on Campus Map)


1. Monday 30 April: 'Torah from Heaven: the Tradition'

Jews, Christians, Muslims and others turn to sacred scripture for inspiration and instruction. Most do this with an open heart and a critical mind, seeking spiritual and moral guidance together with basic information on religious institutions and ritual. Others suspend critical judgement, expecting to discover in scripture not only perfect guidance but detailed information on all aspects of life, including science and history.

Yet the Bible makes no such claim for itself. Indeed, none of its books lays claim to consist, as a whole, of words literally dictated by God, even though several of them contain speech attributed to God. Whether such reports are intended as verbatim reports of God’s words, or as attempts to capture the ineffable in human language, is rarely made clear.

It is unclear how, when and why the books in our Bibles achieved and retained canonical status. Moreover, the evidence of ancient versions and of the Dead Sea Scrolls casts doubts on the accuracy of the received texts, and even on the notion that there is such a thing as an "authentic" text. The question "What constitutes Torah?" cannot be answered outside the context of rabbinic teaching.

The foundational writings of rabbinic Judaism articulate a more precise notion of divine revelation. "Moses received the Torah at Sinai" implies (a) Moses did not compose it himself, (b) God revealed the extant text of the books from Genesis to Deuteronomy and (c) within the context of scripture those Five Books are specially privileged; Philo’s understanding of "Torah" as "law" had taken root. In documents from about the third century onwards a further notion is articulated; God revealed not only a Written Torah, but a complementary Oral Torah defining the interpretation of the written word.

In the Middle Ages Masoretes laboured to establish "correct" Torah texts, philosophers elaborated doctrines of revelation, leading to definitions of heresy, and mystics developed systems representing the Torah, or at least its commandments, as God’s garment or limbs.

The modern era commenced when Spinoza reversed the roles of science and scripture; henceforth, scripture was to be subjected to the scrutiny of human reason. In reaction to literary, historical and moral criticism of scripture and traditional hermeneutic, new concepts of Torah were developed. Whilst Mendelssohn advocated a strongly literary approach to scripture the Gaon of Vilna regarded scripture as a supernatural depository of all knowledge; both approaches are reflected in nineteenth century Jewish Bible commentary.

Amongst more recent approaches is J.D. Soloveitchik’s representation of Torah as an a priori system impervious to history or to external moral challenge. The extravagant claims of ArtScroll or Bible Code fundamentalism reflect a similar if less sophisticated attempt to place Torah beyond rational criticism.


2. Tuesday 1 May: 'The Counter Tradition: Hard Questions'

People often look on the Middle Ages as the Era of Unquestioning Faith. Far from it. The Middle Ages were an Era of Suppression. At no time were definitions of faith, or traditions of interpretation, free from challenge. This is demonstrated by the frequent emergence of dissident movements, usually condemned and persecuted as "heretical"; the term "heretical" presupposes an authority imposing standards of "orthodoxy".

Whilst the more long-lived groups within Judaism, such the Sadducees and later the Karaites, demonstrate an active critique of the rabbinic tradition, the evidence for the critique of scripture itself is harder to document, since most of the literature in which it was expressed was suppressed and is only known to us through citations or even vaguer references in the works of its detractors.

Yet careful investigation demonstrates that side by side with the development of tradition there has been a counter-tradition with which it has interacted, and to which it has mounted constant defence.

In the early period, covering that of the rabbis, some evidence of the counter-tradition may be pieced together from references in pagan writers as well as from reports in the rabbinic writings themselves of "debates" with pagans, Christians and others. Another major source is The Christian Church Father Origen’s treatise Contra Celsum; though the pagan philosopher Celsus puts part of his critique of Christianity in the mouth of a Jew, other sections contain arguments directed against the Hebrew Scriptures.

Other evidence comes from the awareness shown in the rabbinic writings of contradictions and problems in scripture. Both Philo and the rabbis, for instance, draw attention to the duplication of the Creation and other narratives; the rabbis, reinterpreting the Biblical story of David and Uriah, show that they are sensitive to moral problems in scripture too. Eventually, the rabbis developed a "reconciling hermeneutic" to dissolve away the problems and contradictions. But the questions had been posed, and remain within the counter-tradition.

Perhaps the most notorious Jewish "Bible critic" of the Middle Ages was Hiwi of Balkh, Afghnistan. Unfortunately, all that is known of his 200 questions on the Bible has to be gleaned from opponents such as Saadia Gaon and Abraham Ibn Ezra, the latter of whom nevertheless dropped enough hints of the non-Mosaic composition of parts of the Torah for Spinoza to draw inspiration for his own critique.

Historians such as Azariah dei Rossi and Leone of Modena in early modern times drew on non-Jewish and previously ignored Jewish sources to reconstruct Jewish history in a broader context and in so doing undermined confidence in the accuracy of rabbinic tradition.

It is not surprising that the architects of the Science of Judaism in the nineteenth century felt that, far from attacking the integrity of Judaism, they stood in a long line of critical tradition, a line clearly drawn in a little known work on Biblical Criticism published by Menachem (Max) Soloweitschik and S. Rubascheff (Zalman Shazar) in Berlin in 1925.


3. Wednesday 2 May: 'Repairing the Breach: the Defence of Tradition'

Whereas throughout the Middle Ages the principal task of Jewish apologetic was defence against the competing claims of Christianity and Islam, in early modern times in the West the emphasis shifted to the defence of tradition against charges of inconsistency, irrationality and immorality.

Rabbinic Judaism rejects independent "biblical theology" since the only authentic way to read scripture is as it is interpreted by the Oral Torah preserved by the rabbis. Any attack on the rabbis is ipso facto an attack on scripture; the two are indivisible, and their authority stands or falls together. Apologists such as Maharal of Prague and Shmuel Edels ("Maharsha") therefore composed commentaries on the aggadic portions of the Talmud in order to defend the rabbis against the charges of fantasy and irrationality which were being leveled by Jewish as well as Christian critics.

Such defence did not stand up in the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Mendelssohn and his collaborators, in the Biur, attempted to avoid a radical break with the past by focusing on the literary qualities of scripture and emphasising its ethical and aesthetic values. They fail, however, to address the serious philosophical issue of the how anyone can know that a particular text is "divinely revealed", whatever that may mean; the issue was explored by Fichte in 1792 and a serious Jewish response published by Salomon Ludwig Steinheim in 1835. A century later, Buber and Rosenzweig were to debate whether revelation can carry content beyond the "presence".

Elijah, the "Vilna Gaon", led reaction to the Enlightenment approach. He maintained that "Everything that was, is and will be, is included in the Torah. And not only principles, but even the details of each species, the minutest details of every human being, as well as of every creature, plant and mineral—all are included in the Torah." The difference between the way that Mendelssohn and the Gaon read biblical texts is evident in their treatment of homonyms. For Mendelssohn, as for Ibn Ezra, homonyms are a powerful literary device; for the Gaon, the aesthetic value is irrelevant, and each homonym is believed to possess precise and distinct meaning.

Mendelssohn and his circle did not express doubts that the textus receptus of the Pentateuch had been literally dictated to Moses, and that texts of the other books of the Hebrew Bible were composed under divine inspiration and preserved unchanged. This only became an acute problem with the development of historical criticism and the recovery of other ancient Near Eastern texts in the nineteenth century. , Isaac Shmuel Reggio (1784-1855), was among the first Jews to make emendations to the Biblical text, and this quickly became the norm amongst German Reformers.

Our story, however, focuses on the extraordinary proliferation of Bible, especially Pentateuch, commentaries, by Orthodox "defenders" of the faith. Even here there was a difference of approach. Some Germans, for instance David Hoffman, took it on themselves to do battle with historical criticism in its own terms; the well-known English Pentateuch commentary of Chief Rabbi Hertz belongs in this category. But more commonly the approach was to demonstrate the coherence and supernatural insight of the text as interpreted by the rabbis. This was the way of Jacob Zevi Mecklenburg, of Meir Leivush Malbim, of Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, of Baruch Halevi Epstein, and others who drew inspiration from the approach of the Gaon, and has led to modern fundamentalisms such as that of the ArtScroll publications.


4. Thursday 3 May: 'Torah from Heaven: An Interpretation for our Times'

Is there any way to interpret the concept of Torah min ha-Shamayim which is both conformable to tradition and consistent with the findings of historical and scientific scholarship?

Hegelian thinkers such as Nachman Krochmal and Samuel Hirsch formulated the concept of "progressive revelation", a process of ever-increasing consciousness of the immanent Divine Spirit. The neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen denied that revelation referred to any historic event; it characterizes a trait of man, who through the possession of his rational faculties becomes the bearer of divine revelation. Such notions make room for the findings of historical and scientific scholarship, but so severely attenuate the concept of Torah min ha-Shamayim as to make it irreconcilable with tradition.

Buber focused on the personal, dialogic aspect of revelation, the encounter of the Presence of God, not the communication of ideas or instructions; Rosenzweig and Heschel developed, in addition, its communal, covenantal aspect, allowing the commandments to arise through human response to God's revelation. This is somewhat closer to the traditional view, even though these thinkers all abandon the model of Moses as God’s scribe.

On the other hand, an Orthodox thinker such as J.D. Soloveitchik completely ignores the findings of biblical scholarship and creates an image of Torah as an independent a priori realm confronting both the "religious" and scientific realms.

More recently, feminist, post-Holocaust and a variety of "postmodern" interpretations of revelation have been put forward.

Between 1997 and 1999 David Weiss Halivni, Louis Jacobs and Menachem Kellner all published defences of traditional forms of belief. All three authors hail from traditional Orthodox backgrounds and have strong emotional attachments to their origin. Even if none of their works gives an intellectually satisfactory defence of Jewish belief as expressed in traditional sources, they have brought to light the history and development of Jewish belief and breathed new life into the venture of reformulating traditional Judaism. Halivni has highlighted several rabbinic texts which might be taken as indicators of the possibility of a more flexible approach to the concept of "sacred revealed text"; Jacobs has made clear what it is about the Orthodox vision that is of lasting value; and Kellner has shown the relevance of the mediaeval debates.

The precise formulation of my own reconstruction of the Torah min ha-Shamayim concept will be given in the lecture. I shall argue for the clear separation between historical studies of Bible and Talmud on the one hand, and theological construction on the other. Historical scholarship must in principle be accepted, and on that level moral and other critiques, where justified, should not be resisted. From an historical point of view the notion of Moses sitting on the mountain and taking verbatim notes must be rejected. Nevertheless, the "divine dictation" image may be utilised as what anthropologists would refer to as a "myth" (in a very different sense from the ordinary use of the word), that is, a concept which focuses the relationship of God, Torah and Israel. The error lies not in the claim that God revealed the Torah, written and oral, to Israel at Sinai, but rather in the insistence on a literal, historical interpretation of what is in reality a transcendent image, not an historical statement.