Near the conclusion of the Torah service, the congregation points to the Torah scroll and recites a combination of two biblical verses: “This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites, at the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses,” neatly expressing what biblical scholar Benjamin D. Sommer calls the “stenographic theory of revelation.” In his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides made this his eighth principle of faith: “We are to believe that the whole Torah was given to us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God” and “that it came to us through Moses, who acted like a secretary taking dictation.” The authority of later Jewish law and exegesis, or “Oral Torah,” is, in turn, grounded in the divine origin of this “Written Torah,” which was given at Sinai.
From Spinoza on, this principle has met with widespread rejection among modern thinkers. Beginning in the 19th century, academic biblical scholars questioned whether the events described in biblical stories had actually happened and whether biblical books had been written by their purported authors. Most importantly, they developed the famous Documentary Hypothesis, proposing that the Torah as we know it was not written by Moses—if he ever existed at all—but redacted from four distinct sources: J, which speaks of God using the Tetragrammaton; E, which prefers the name Elohim; the priestly source, P; and the author(s) of Deuteronomy, known as D. Although this literary-historical framework has been challenged by newer and ever-more complicated theories, it remains the cornerstone of academic biblical studies.
Jewish responses to these developments have been mixed. The Orthodox establishment has largely condemned or ignored them. In contrast, non-Orthodox communities have gradually come to accept and even embrace source criticism. However, because these communities tend to place less practical emphasis on halakhic obligation, their acceptance has done little to assuage Orthodox fears that traditional Jewish law will collapse if it does not have a more or less stenographic Written Torah at its base. In Revelation and Authority, Sommer argues that source criticism does not diminish, and in fact bolsters, the Torah’s claim to convey divine commands. An established biblical scholar, Sommer is also an observant Jew on the faculty of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. These identities come together in the book. “I speak not only as a biblical critic or historian of ideas but also as a religious Jew,” he says frankly. “My goal is not merely to describe and analyze but to defend and advocate.”
Sommer regards Sinai as a real historical event of the highest significance for Jews, including himself and his readers, and he wants to show that such a view is historically and philosophically respectable. In doing so, he articulates a new (and yet, he argues, not so new) theological paradigm for restoring the Bible to a place of both authority within and continuity with Jewish tradition. At the same time, he defends and indeed demands creative interpretation of the Torah as the means of this authority’s realization. For this old-new paradigm, source criticism is not part of the problem. It is an integral part of the solution.
At the heart of Sommer’s project is a contrast between the stenographic theory of revelation and what he calls the “participatory” theory, which “puts a premium on human agency and gives witness to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of human subjects under God’s authority.” If the stenographic theory appears traditional, then the participatory theory sounds liberal and modern. However, Sommer argues that source criticism reveals that both have biblical foundations.
Sommer begins by analyzing the different theologies of revelation in each of the Torah’s sources. In D, he finds the clearest articulation of the stenographic theory. “It was a sound [qol] of words [devarim] that you heard” (Deut. 4:12) at Sinai, Moses reminds Israel. In other words, God proclaimed the covenant’s content unambiguously to the whole people. In contrast, the E account in Exodus—on which D is based—is intentionally ambiguous. It too uses the word “qol,” but without the qualifier “of words.” Since qol can mean both “voice” and “sound,” Sommer points out that E does not tell us whether “God answered Moses with thunder, or with a voice that spoke specific words.” As premodern Jewish interpreters already realized, E raises the possibility that what happened at Sinai was a revelation not of divine content but of divine presence, which had to be rendered into words by Moses. This, Sommer argues, is the biblical kernel of the participatory theory, “encourag[ing] the audience to wonder about this issue, to think through various possibilities.” The upshot is remarkable: D’s stenographic approach became embedded within a canonical Torah that ultimately endorses the participatory approach precisely by offering divergent accounts of revelation. The Torah’s willingness to include D’s stenographic voice only sharpens its endorsement of the opposite: “a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation,” to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s memorable phrase.
Sommer presents Heschel and Franz Rosenzweig as the two modern theologians who did the most to develop E’s proto-participatory account. Both differentiate Judaism’s legal particulars from the divine command that sanctions them. Rosenzweig says that “the Lord spoke” signifies the end of revelation and the beginning of interpretation. Heschel calls the Bible a midrash on the experience of revelation. They both affirm what E implies: a revelation that was all qol—immediate and wordless. In this way, Sommer presents as deeply traditional two thinkers who are normally considered liberal because they prefer the participatory theory to the stenographic. This, he writes, is “the central point of this book.”
Moreover, he argues—in parallel to Heschel—that this modern recovery of E’s insight has rabbinic and medieval Jewish precedents. Ironically enough, one of them turns out to be Maimonides, whose apparent endorsement of the stenographic theory has become the canonical expression of Orthodox dogma. Making deft use of contemporary Maimonidean scholarship, Sommer shows that The Guide of the Perplexed presents Moses as an intermediary who conveyed God’s transcendent voice to the rest of the people: “Know that with regard to the voice,” writes the great philosopher, “too their [Israel’s] rank was not equal to the rank of Moses our Master.” Indeed, given Maimonides’ insistence on God’s utter transcendence, it makes sense that he would have doubted whether God spoke human words at all. This appears to be one of those famous cases in which Maimonides’ true philosophical views were more subtle and radical than his popular dogmatic formulas.
Maimonides is hardly the only established Jewish sage to endorse (however implicitly) a participatory theory of revelation. Many rabbinic midrashim, for instance, portray Moses interpreting, rather than merely conveying, the divine command for Israel. A poignant Hasidic tradition teaches that Israel heard only the silent aleph of the first word of the Ten Commandments. These post-biblical Jewish thinkers are significant for Sommer because they are not innovators but “recoverers” of E’s participatory theology.
In most academic settings, one would be hard pressed to find some of these texts and thinkers mentioned in the same book, let alone on the same page. Yet as Sommer makes clear, it is precisely this kind of specialization that he resists. “[T]he boundaries that divide these fields are inappropriate—not only intellectually inappropriate but also religiously inappropriate,” he writes. “Both the P writers in the Pentateuch and Abraham Joshua Heschel produced works of Torah, and it is entirely right that a student of Torah will discuss them in a single sentence.” The book thus argues for and models a theological pluralism that brings together diverse Jewish voices around a shared sense of obligation to the imperative of Sinai. Sommer is doing much more than providing biblical prooftexts for both Heschel’s and Rosenzweig’s accounts of revelation. Rather, he is presenting the Bible as continuous with the creative human interpretation that constitutes the history of Jewish thought. He calls this a reclassification of Written Torah as Oral Torah, denying that Written Torah is a distinct category of Jewish authority.
Sommer acknowledges that this might strike even less traditional readers as radical. However, he is once again quick to mobilize evidence that his approach is not really new: Many medieval and rabbinic voices blur the boundary. In fact, this blurring goes back to the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern roots: “writing in ancient Israel does not run parallel to oral tradition; rather, writing was part of a larger oral tradition in which it played subservient and limited roles.” Oral Torah quite literally precedes Written Torah because Torah was oral and interpreted long before it became valorized as “the five books of Moses,” or Pentateuch.
Such valorization, Sommer contends, is more Protestant than Jewish and more modern than traditional. It finds its clearest and most influential expression in the work of Brevard S. Childs, a 20th-century Protestant biblical scholar. He pioneered the method of canonical criticism, which focuses on the final redacted form of the Bible rather than its putative sources. However, this was also the approach of one of Sommer’s own theological heroes, Franz Rosenzweig, who explained in an oft-cited letter:
We too translate the Torah as one book. For us too it is the work of a single mind. We do not know who this mind was; we cannot believe that it was Moses. We name that mind among ourselves by the abbreviation with which the Higher Criticism of the Bible indicates its presumed final redactor of the text: R. We, however, take this R to stand not for redactor but for rabbenu [“our Rabbi”]. For whoever he was, and whatever text lay before him, he is our teacher, and his theology is our teaching.
Although neither Childs nor Rosenzweig rejected source criticism, they both insisted that religious interpreters must ultimately privilege the Pentateuch’s final form. In contrast, Sommer insists that one can and should treat J, E, P, and D as teachers of Torah without regard for their canonical arrangement. He speaks of R in the plural: “rabbotenu”—“our rabbis.”
Sommer argues that this is more consonant with traditional Jewish exegesis than one might suspect. “Midrash,” he explains, “typically takes verses out of their immediate contexts and connects them with verses elsewhere to form what is in effect another text altogether.” The same, he says, is true of source criticism. Both reflect Jewish prioritization of Oral Torah over the canonical boundaries of Written Torah.
This argument is intriguing but ultimately unconvincing. Midrash’s fanciful disregard for context treats each biblical verse as if it were beyond time, potentially connected with every other. Source criticism, however, is strictly beholden to historical context. It cannot connect verses from J and P, or from before and after the Exile, without qualification. Furthermore, source criticism’s “another text altogether” is always, and only, a reconstruction of the original source, not an imaginative new creation. The similarities between midrash and source criticism seem less important than their radically different exegetical goals and constraints.
In Sommer’s justifiable eagerness to prove that R is not the only biblical voice, he obscures R’s rightful status as one biblical voice. After all, the redacted Pentateuch is certainly no less a work of Torah than each of its sources. Just as D’s stenographic account is embedded within a Pentateuch that ultimately endorses the participatory view, shouldn’t one accord the canonical Pentateuch itself, as Written Torah, a place within a tradition that ultimately conceives of all Torah as oral?
Moreover, the Torah of R is more than just one biblical voice alongside its sources. It is, in fact, the authoritative voice that has set the terms of Jewish engagement with those sources for two millennia. Although Sommer is correct that many aspects of Brevard Childs’ work are irreconcilable with Jewish interpretation, the great Protestant scholar nevertheless could have been speaking of the rabbinic tradition when he wrote, “It is the full, combined text which has rendered a judgment on the shape of the tradition and which continues to exercise an authority on the community of faith.” The collapsing of Written Torah into Oral Torah raises serious questions about the coherence of the concept of Oral Torah itself, which assumes a distinct, bounded Written Torah as the ultimate object of interpretation. Sommer’s argument is actually much more radical and innovative than he admits—even if it is intimated in earlier sources.
Sommer opens his book with a familiar but important question: How could a divinely authored Torah enjoin so many morally horrifying commandments, such as eradicating the Canaanites? Reconceiving the Written Torah as humanly authored Oral Torah allows him to provide an answer that is in harmony with modern morality and scholarship. Human beings of particular times and places interpreted the wordless experience of revelation, and sometimes, unfortunately, their interpretations reflected the worst of those times and places. “[T]he authority behind the law in general remains fully divine,” he explains, “but the specifics of any given law are human.”
This brings us to the book’s most pressing question. Sommer insists that “no Jewish theology can dispense” with halakhic obligation and addresses his book primarily to the observant community (broadly, rather than denominationally, construed). For Sommer, this is the community that ultimately matters: “committed Jews, in the long run, define what Judaism is. For more than two millennia, they have defined Judaism in terms of law.” Jewish communities not defined by law have tended either to fail (like Sabbateanism) or to become something else (like Christianity). But if the Torah is just another flawed, finite response to the ineffable, how is it the basis of binding halakhic obligation?
Sommer argues that the question itself is misconceived. No traditional Jew would deny that rabbinic Judaism rests upon human interpretation as the way the divine command is rendered livable and legible as law. That is what rabbinic legal decision-making, pesak halakha, is all about. Why, then, Sommer asks, should it be so scandalous to see this at work in the Torah itself? In the book’s most pivotal passage, he explains that his approach
merely pushes the heavenly origin back by a single step. Instead of an earthly talmudic law based on a heavenly Pentateuch, the participatory theory yields an earthly talmudic law based on an earthly Pentateuch that is in turn based on a heavenly, albeit nonverbal command. In both theories, Jewish law as we practice it ultimately but imperfectly reflects a divine revelation.
We might say that according to Sommer, the putative problem raised by source criticism already contains the seeds of its own solution. The humanity of the Torah empowers us to continue the interpretive process that the Torah not only sanctions but, in fact, embodies. This, indeed, is what the participatory theory of revelation is all about.
It goes without saying that the problem discussed above—how the Written Torah can simultaneously be Oral Torah and the object of Oral Torah’s interpretation—looms particularly large for halakhic reasoning, which clearly presupposes the unity of the Torah. Yet even if we grant Sommer’s claim that humanly authored texts can reflect divine commands, we still face another question: Which texts? Sommer denies that all Jewish interpretations are legitimate, as do many of the classical sources that endorse the participatory theory. But how is this boundary set? What counts as Torah?
We already know that for Sommer, a sense of legal obligation is essential. Jewish texts that lack this are not Torah. Furthermore, he rejects the widespread notion that radical change is the cornerstone of Jewish interpretation. He insists that the Jewish interpretive tradition is actually fundamentally conservative: “Any revision of a specific law within a legal tradition is an act of continuity rather than of rupture, for such revisions make it possible for the legal tradition to endure.” True Jewish legal change is minimal, cautious, and always in fearful service to God’s commanding voice. Deuteronomy’s notice not to add or subtract from the commandments must be taken seriously, even if it is impossible to take it literally.
Ultimately, however, Sommer’s answer to this question is strikingly simple: “Come back in five hundred years and look around. What are religious Jews doing? What are they studying? What shapes who they are? That is Torah.” What made Maimonides part of the Torah tradition but not Philo of Alexandria? Historical Jewish consensus. Sommer’s participatory theory of revelation turns out to be doubly participatory: Jews not only engage in the interpretations that aim to become Torah, but, over many centuries, decide which interpretations succeed in doing so.
This seems sociologically sound enough, but is it theologically compelling? To be sure, Sommer bolsters his argument with rabbinic support, particularly the adage that the best way to learn the law is to “go out and see what the people are doing.” But this optimism about the Jewish people’s good judgment is repeatedly upended by the Bible itself. Israel’s prophets stood in the breach and decried the people’s religious consensus, which all too frequently reflected idolatry rather than Torah. If the arbiter of Torah is Israel’s consensus, then what about when Israel gets it wrong?
This is particularly pressing today, when Jewish learning is more widespread and democratized than ever. This has been a tremendous blessing, but it has also led to a wild proliferation of competing interpretations of Torah. If Sommer’s book is characterized by a substantive theological pluralism, then contemporary Jewish discourse, by contrast, is dominated by a vapid, relativistic pluralism from which little, if anything, is excluded. Can one have faith that what Jews are learning in five hundred years will be a genuine response to Sinai? Sommer does, acknowledging that the participatory theory of revelation necessitates some uncertainty as to which interpretations are truly Torah. Some readers, however, will not be able to stomach this uncertainty. They might, in fact, begin to understand why the stenographic theory—with its promise of theological certitude—has beckoned to so many.
Readers who finish Sommer’s long but engaging book might conclude that what makes it unique is its suggestion that Jews actively participate in the creation and determination of Torah. They might, in turn, be alarmed by the implication that halakha is subject to the whims of human consensus. However, Sommer is correct that human creativity and communal affirmation have been, with various degrees of explicitness, at the heart of the rabbinic project for a long time. Ironically, what is actually newer on the scene of Jewish history is the fundamentalism that presents itself as the direct, immutable manifestation of precise divine command. Sommer’s notable claim, therefore, is not that Judaism depends upon humanity’s participatory interpretation. This is clear. Rather, it is his suggestion that this participatory interpretation is what constitutes the Written Torah itself.
The thrust of Sommer’s book is that higher criticism of the Torah reveals the Jewish pedigree of the participatory theory of revelation. However, things seem to move just as much, if not more, in the opposite direction: The participatory theory of revelation offers a way for religious Jews who already accept higher criticism to make theological sense of it. I happen to be one of those Jews, and I emphatically share Sommer’s belief that critical scholarship can be an enriching form of Torah learning. (Caveat emptor: I took courses with Sommer while a student at JTS several years ago.) However, Sommer doesn’t quite acknowledge what a small minority we are. For many—even those outside the bounds of Orthodoxy—the prospect of the Bible’s human, fragmentary authorship poses real religious problems.
All of which brings us back to a fact Sommer seems eager to avoid: that historical criticism, like fundamentalism (ironically enough), is something new on the Jewish scene. However, if he is correct—and I think he is—that only the observant Jewish community can confer Jewish legitimacy, then perhaps historical criticism’s newness will not be a problem in the long run. Medieval Jewish peshat interpretation, which prioritized verses’ contextual meaning, may provide a precedent. Religious Jews became masters of peshat, but they did not invent it. They learned it, at least in part, through dialogue with non-Jews. “Come back in five hundred years and look around,” says Sommer. We are now about a thousand years from the first peshat commentators, and what do we see when we look around? The authoritative Jewish Bible, the Mikra’ot Gedolot, consists largely of peshat commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra. Practiced by generations of observant Jews, peshat became Torah.
By insisting on a source-critical Jewish theology, Sommer stakes a claim in the participatory determination of Torah—not entirely unlike that of the medieval trailblazers of peshat. To the small group of observant Jews who value higher criticism in their own religious lives, he has issued an urgent challenge: Do not be complacent or discouraged or cynical about the religious importance of historical-critical
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