You Say You Want a Revelation

A few years ago, I was chatting with a middle-aged woman during kiddush at my Orthodox shul. “So, what are you a professor of?” she asked. “Biblical studies,” I answered. Her face suddenly stiffened. “Ah,” she said. “So, like . . . biblical criticism?” I smiled gently and nodded. She proceeded to tell me that one of her children, a senior at a local Modern Orthodox high school, was taking a special class on the challenges of Orthodox life in college. “They warned the students not to take courses from people like you.”

The conflict between traditional Judaism and academic Bible scholarship—“biblical criticism,” as Jews usually call it—is a hallmark of the complicated Jewish experience of modernity. The standard traditional belief is that the Torah is the result of an authentic, unified, and wholly divine revelation, an idea encapsulated in the phrases “Torah from Sinai” or “Torah from heaven.” This is what gives Jewish law its binding force. By contrast, academic Bible scholarship claims that the five books of Moses and the entire Hebrew Bible are composed of human writings by different people across many centuries. Bible scholars ask, for instance, why these and later authors combined various texts to produce the current one, how they were influenced by other ancient cultures, and whether the stories they tell are supported by archaeology. To say the least, such questions are in tension with the belief in Torah from Sinai.

This tension is the subject of the recently published collection The Revelation at Sinai: What Does “Torah from Heaven” Mean? The book is edited by three Modern (or, perhaps, slightly-right-of-Modern) Orthodox thinkers: Yoram Hazony, a conservative public intellectual; Gil Student, a rabbi who runs the popular website Torah Musings; and Alex Sztuden, a lawyer and educator. Their book promises a “fresh look at Torah from heaven, examining its meaning, significance and viability”—and they are not shy about the stakes: academic Bible scholarship is a “modern assault on traditional notions of biblical revelation.” It calls into question “how we can retain the authority and majesty of the Torah, let alone believe that we can establish a relationship with God through observance of the law prescribed by it.”

Josiah hearing the book of the law, Old Testament, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. (history_docu_photo/Alamy Stock Photo.)

The Revelation at Sinai contends with some important efforts by Jewish thinkers over the past century to understand revelation in a way that accommodates biblical criticism. In his contribution to the volume, Student offers an instructive, critical analysis of how Louis Jacobs, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Menachem Kasher attempted this feat. He concludes that they all failed. “Jacobs consciously breaks with Jewish tradition while Kasher chooses tradition over biblical criticism. Heschel unconvincingly attempts to revise tradition.” Although Student acknowledges that their solutions are creative, he shows that they all leave a nagging gap between God’s commanding voice and the specific content of halakha. The same may be said of more recent theories. Whatever their merits, they do not alleviate the sense that biblical criticism pulls the rug out from under the tradition.

The Revelation at Sinai offers an alternative approach: Modern Orthodox biblical interpretation should affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy and divine authorship, and it should demonstrate through close reading how the Bible articulates ideas that are theologically consistent and philosophically serious. Hazony’s essay doubles as a programmatic introduction to this approach. He finds the fundamental theological significance of Torah from Sinai in the revelation narrative in Exodus. This involves treating the Bible as what he calls “instructional narrative.” According to Hazony, such a narrative “employs a variety of literary devices . . . to broach and discuss positions on philosophical and theological subjects,” even as it depicts real historical events. He asks, for instance, how the giving of the Torah on a mountain communicates deeper truths about God’s relationship to humanity.

Yet for people who cast themselves as defenders of tradition, what is striking is just how nontraditional this approach is. It has no true Jewish precedent. We can’t call it midrash, for it respects the boundaries of literary context and eschews fanciful midrashic intertextuality, in which, say, a verse in Psalms helps solve a narrative problem in Genesis. And although their approach sounds a little like the medieval interest in peshat—roughly, the meaning of the text according to literary and linguistic common sense—it’s not really that either, for it extrapolates theological meaning far beyond what the text naturally suggests. If one had to pick, it’s probably closest to medieval and early modern philosophical exegesis. But that’s only a partial precedent since the readings in The Revelation at Sinai are more literary and less allegorical.

The novelty of the approach in The Revelation at Sinai makes sense when we recognize that it’s a modern reaction to a modern phenomenon. Hazony and his colleagues want to make the Bible impervious to biblical criticism—but in a way that is intellectually respectable, incorporating “useful tools developed in academia.” Direct appeals to traditional authority are off the table, so the authors turn to an argument about the Bible’s genre: it’s a classic of quasi-philosophical literature that relates enduring ideas. Such literature, they claim, must be unified and consistent. When historians carve up the Bible to reconstruct its formation, they’re making a category error. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that more contributors to the volume have degrees in philosophy than in ancient history or biblical studies.

If the goal is to defend Torah from Sinai, then this strategy suffers from a pretty obvious flaw: at best, it shows that the Bible has a single human author, not a single divine author. A subtler problem—but perhaps even more serious—is that this approach shows just how much we lose when we read the Bible without the contributions of historical analysis. For instance, although Hazony rightly notes the theological significance of the fact that Sinai is a mountain, his insistence on the Bible’s utter uniqueness means that he refuses to interpret this mountain as a manifestation of the broader ancient Near Eastern concept of mountaintop revelations. The result is that a terrifying display of cosmic fire becomes a milquetoast “metaphor for the attainment of knowledge of God.”

We see this limitation again in Shira Weiss’s analysis of a different revelation in Exodus, when Moses asks, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” and God responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you” (Exod. 33:18–19). Weiss argues that this narrative employs ambiguous language to “convey . . . the complexity of humanity’s apprehension of God.” However, she neglects the obvious comparison of God’s physical appearance with descriptions of gods in other ancient cultures. Accordingly, she reaches the implausible conclusion that a story that seems to be about God’s literal body—“Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen,” as God says (Exod. 33:23)—is actually a philosophical meditation on divine transcendence.

The Revelation at Sinai claims to safeguard the Bible’s “majesty.” However, it seems to me that by turning it into a work of philosophical abstraction and cutting it off from its ancient cultural context, this approach ends up diminishing the Bible’s majesty instead. It saps the text of the vibrancy, dynamism, and, frankly, the sheer messiness that make it so compelling. The result is not philosophy so much as homiletics. Perhaps this is why so many of the essays read more like divrei Torah than anything else.

They say that the best defense is a good offense, and that’s certainly the general tone of The Revelation at Sinai. “None of biblical criticism is proven in the mathematical sense,” Student charges. “It is a science of inference and speculation.” Just as Maimonides rejected the alluring but unprovable idea that the universe is eternal, religious Jews today must reject biblical criticism. Its claim to truth is no more solid than the tradition’s. The latter takes precedence.

Student is correct that Bible scholars sometimes overplay their hands, presenting speculative claims as settled fact. However, he and his coauthors take this to mean that the sheer idea of human authorship is just another speculation. This does not follow. Take the following example. While I am persuaded that Deuteronomy originated with King Josiah’s reform in seventh-century Judah, some scholars argue that it emerged later. But we allagree that the evidence suggests that Deuteronomy was written by human beings long after the supposed time of Moses. It’s the best explanation for how the book differs from the rest of the Torah, overlaps with literature from other cultures, and relates to Jeremiah. Saying that scholars’ disagreement about the authorship of the Torah means that Moses might as well have written it is like saying that doctors’ disagreement about what causes a certain disease means that nothing does.

Moses with the New Tablets. Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, published in 1877. (Getty Images.)

This fallacy explains one of the most curious features of The Revelation at Sinai: when the authors tackle biblical criticism head on, they often end up showcasing its strength. For instance, Hazony rejects the notion that numerous scribes augmented and combined biblical texts because he does “not believe that any coherent book can be written in this way.” Yet this is precisely what biblical studies demonstrates. There’s no denying that the Bible is rife with apparent contradictions, repetitions, and gaps. Bible scholars make sense of these by tracing how they emerged as byproducts of the authors’ efforts to reshape earlier material according to their literary and theological ideals. Uncovering these ideals does yield a kind of coherence—just not the kind that Hazony would prefer.

Hazony digs himself further into this hole when he objects that “there is no reason to think that any book . . . ever was written in this way.” In fact, many ancient texts—including the Gilgamesh epic, Egyptian wisdom collections, the Gospels, and even, to some extent, Plato’s Republic—contain irregularities that suggest complicated processes of composition and transmission. This doesn’t make them incoherent. Even if multiple authors shaped a text over time, the emergent product may still speak to the core human questions that Hazony (rightly) values. The same is true of the Bible.

Surprisingly, related problems appear even in the contributions by working Bible scholars. For instance, Jeremiah Unterman rejects the scholarly commonplace that Mesopotamian legal codes, especially the Code of Hammurabi, influenced biblical laws like those in Exodus 21–23, which scholars call the “Covenant Code.” Here, we find laws on freeing slaves, proper treatment of orphans and widows, and prohibiting bribes. Unterman claims that such material “represents a major ethical advancement” over its non-Israelite counterparts. Yet even as he cherry-picks Mesopotamian laws to draw this contrast, what emerges is just how similar the Torah is in both content and form. Like all law, it comes off looking like a human product of its cultural environment.

The Revelation at Sinai is right that biblical criticism poses problems for traditional Judaism, but it is wrong in trying to disprove biblical criticism on its own terms. Engagement with the actual arguments cannot help the traditionalist cause, for it gives people a chance to see for themselves just how intuitive these arguments really are. Hazony claims that biblical criticism has made inroads in Modern Orthodoxy only because of a “temptation to accept the authority of academia on this, as on other matters.” It seems to me that this doesn’t give biblical criticism or Modern Orthodoxy enough credit. Perhaps biblical criticism has made inroads in this community because it’s often genuinely convincing to Jews who are biblically literate and conversant with serious scholarship. One can understand the impulse to “know how you will answer the heretic,” as Pirkei Avot urges, but heretics should be engaged cautiously. We have answers too.

A year after The Revelation at Sinai was published, a new book appeared that embodies what Hazony and his colleagues warn about: The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah by Edward Feld, a Conservative rabbi. The contrast between “revelation” and “revolution” in the titles tells the whole story. If Hazony and company want to defend the Torah as the product of divine speech, Feld argues that we ought to regard it instead as the product of all-too-human political struggles in ancient Israel and Judah. Yet this needn’t curtail the Torah’s theological significance. On the contrary, it’s the key to unlocking it. He aims to “distill the results of current biblical scholarship” to show that “the critical study of the Bible could lead to new spiritual understanding.”

Feld’s focus is the differences between the Torah’s three great legal collections. Beyond the aforementioned Covenant Code (Exod. 21–23), these include what scholars call the “Holiness Code” (Lev. 17–26) and the “Deuteronomic Code” (Deut. 12–26). Feld argues that each represents a revolution that changed the course of Israelite history and religion. We cannot understand the laws and their enduring meaning without understanding the “cataclysmic biblical moments” out of which they emerged. Rather than using philosophy to paper over the Bible’s messiness, Feld uses history to put messiness front and center.

As an example, let’s look at Feld’s treatment of the Covenant Code—the same section of Exodus that occupies much of Unterman’s attention in The Revelation at Sinai. Feld and Unterman agree in their positive assessment of the content of this section. Both celebrate its “ethical bent,” as Feld puts it. Both tout its affirmation of human dignity regardless of class. And both claim that these things distinguish it from other ancient Near Eastern law codes.

Where Feld parts ways with Unterman is the origins of this content. Unterman affirms the biblical view that the laws came from God. By contrast, Feld traces them to a revolution during the ninth century BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel, where its standard bearers were prophets like Elijah and Elisha, who condemned royal corruption and stressed Israel’s exclusive, covenantal relationship with an ethical God. This revolution rode the rising tide of the new king, Jehu, into political power. The result was the Covenant Code, which Feld calls “the party platform of the new regime.” It synthesized earlier laws into a political framework for Israel’s covenant.

Feld plays out this type of argument for each of the Torah’s other legal collections. His account of the second revolution aligns with the theory I mentioned briefly above: a reform during Josiah’s reign in Judah produced the Deuteronomic Code. The book of Kings hints at this when it says that Josiah enacted the reform in response to the discovery of a long-lost scroll that sounds remarkably like Deuteronomy. The third revolution occurred among priests living in the Babylonian exile. It produced the Holiness Code.

For the authors of The Revelation at Sinai, the starting place for interpretation is accepting the Torah’s story. By contrast, Feld “read[s] between the lines.” This approach rests on an unstated assumption about what counts as history. Feld rejects the historical narrative of the Torah and its depiction of revelation. Yet he takes at face value the books that depict the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, especially Kings. He accepts their narrative details but reframes their significance: the books of the Prophets hint at the political circumstances that produced the Torah’s laws.

At first blush, Feld’s approach seems reasonable. Moses talking to God sounds like myth, while Josiah finding a scroll sounds more like history. However, just because a story is realistic doesn’t mean it’s reliable. There’s nothing fantastical about the notion that George Washington felled his father’s cherry tree—yet the tale is definitely a fabrication. It’s a mistake to accept biblical depictions of politics as history simply because they are more amenable to modern sensibilities than are biblical depictions of revelation.

Although Feld claims to draw on “current biblical scholarship,” he’s stuck in outdated paradigms that treat biblical texts as if they are accurate depictions of ancient Israel in the First Temple period. Today, most scholars instead recognize that all these texts reflect the agendas of the later scribes in the Second Temple period who curated and updated them throughout a long, continuous process of transmission. Whenever we read about the First Temple period in the Bible, we’re looking at it through Second Temple period eyes. This doesn’t make reconstruction of ancient Israelite history impossible—but it does make it speculative, as Student rightly noted.

To see how this causes problems for Feld’s revolutions, consider the Covenant Code. Feld connects these laws with Jehu because they bear traces of northern ideology and language. Even if this is true, their current form suggests that they were reworked by southern scribes long after the ninth century. These later scribes might well have been the ones responsible for ideas that Feld traces to Jehu’s day.

Feld presents his version of “reading between the lines” as an alternative to uncritically accepting the Torah’s view of revelation, as the authors of The Revelation at Sinai do. However, in treating certain books as direct windows into history, he is closer to those traditionalists than he (or they) would imagine. His approach maintains their uncritical lens but simply shifts it to a different part of the Bible—from the Torah to the Prophets. But academic Bible scholarship yields pictures that are constantly shifting amid new evidence and perspectives, and this doesn’t provide a very solid foundation for the religiously satisfying story that Feld wants to tell. He claims to illuminate myth through history. What he’s actually done, though, is simply replaced one kind of myth with another.

The authors of The Revelation at Sinai acknowledge that their interpretation is driven by their religious precommitments. As a student of Bible scholarship, Feld claims, his goal is simply to follow the evidence. What, he asks, were the redactors trying to teach us by giving us a Torah that preserves three distinct revolutions?

His answer lies in the story of the national restor-ation after the Babylonian exile. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the leaders of this restoration urge obedience to a Torah that seems suspiciously unfamiliar to their audience. Feld argues that this is because the redacted Torah was a product of the exile. Scribes in Babylon tried to preserve Judah’s literary heritage in its multiplicity. Because they didn’t bear the burden of practical governance, they could incorporate different perspectives without harmonizing them. The result was “an archive of traditional teachings, not a new code.” Feld calls this the “last revolution.”

This doesn’t explain why the Torah should be religiously binding, but in fairness to Feld, he never exactly claims that it does. Mitzvot and obligation are not his main themes. Instead, he’s interested in what Jews should learn in a more abstract, spiritual sense from the way that the Babylonian redactors put the Torah together.

However, Feld’s argument runs into problems even on its own terms. Although he is surely correct that scribes compiled the Torah during or after the exile, he has little basis for crediting them with intentional pluralism. If multivocality was their goal, why didn’t they call attention to it? Unlike the Mishnah, the Torah never says, “This is the opinion of the Holiness Code—but that is the opinion of the Deuteronomic Code.” It’s hard to believe that people who wanted to highlight different perspectives would combine them within a single overarching story. Tellingly, other postexilic books in the Bible tend to downplay inconsistencies, not emphasize them. This doesn’t exactly match the Torah either—but it does seem closer to it than the explicit pluralism that we find in the Mishnah.

What accounts for Feld’s misreading? He tips his hand when he credits the redactors with producing a stimulating invitation for Jews “to engage each other, argue with each other, wrestle with each other over the ‘rightness’ of our way, and finally, at our best, learn from one another.” It is a remarkable coincidence that these ancient scribes should have produced something so perfectly consonant with twentieth-century liberalism! Despite his purported embrace of history, Feld’s interpretation is dictated by his own pre- conceptions of what the Torah should be.

This problem becomes especially clear when we recognize that although Feld eagerly endorses legal diversity, he’s decidedly touchy about theological diversity. “The faith espoused by the Torah has monotheistic purity,” he claims, while “mythological understandings are totally absent.” In fact, the Torah contains numerous mythological elements, including occasional nods to the existence of other deities. If Feld is going to claim the mandate of history to argue that the Torah preserves multiple legal frameworks, then why not acknowledge that it preserves multiple theological frameworks as well?

At first glance, The Revelation at Sinai and The Book of Revolutions appear to be polar opposites. The former is conservative, the latter is liberal. The former rejects historical Bible scholarship, the latter embraces it. If you dig a little deeper, however, you find that their differences in substance conceal a similarity in form. Both are works of apologetics that oversimplify the academic discipline with which they wrestle. Feld is right that the Torah emerged through revolution; Hazony, Student, and Sztuden are right that revolution cannot substitute for revelation. Neither offers an approach to the Bible that is both intellectually and religiously satisfying.

Perhaps what these two books show is that the challenge for traditional Jews trying to reconcile their beliefs with modern scholarship is to be honest about the tension and learn to live with it.Those who do so often find that biblical criticism has its own kind of genuine religious power. Nagging textual problems that canned day school solutions never satisfyingly addressed are unexpectedly illuminated. Strained claims of consistency give way to captivating complexity. I won’t pretend that these experiences can do the work that Torah from Sinai does in grounding Jewish observance. However, when I ask both students and scholars what it’s like to encounter the Bible this way, there’s a word that they routinely use. They call it a revelation.


  1. John S. Schechter

    Dear Editor,
    I’d like to take issue with Ethan Schwartz’s recent essay “You Say You Want a Revelation” reviewing Edward Feld’s The Book of Revolutions.

    Feld did not wing it or merely “read between the lines” as Schwartz states. Feld cleanly lays out evidence that for those who wrote the Torah: “The decision to be inclusive, to incorporate vying ideologies and legal sources in a single work, had lasting effect. The editing of the Five Books ensured that there was a broad direction pointing to a common Jewish life, that there was not a single, right pathway to that life, even though many would try to formulate a single-minded summary of Torah (p. 246).” Specifically, Feld describes the self-conscious efforts of the “Josianic revolution” to reclaim the lost memories of the ancestral faith and then to recast the memories to be accessible to a new generation (p. 130). He presents contrasting medieval and modern philosophical interpretations of Deuteronomy explaining how its original tension of exclusiveness and admiration for common humanity were refashioned by the prophets (and later composers of our prayers (pp. 175, 177). And, Feld passionately describes how the Holiness Code enunciates a vision of achievable justice and service to God (p. 209). and that influences the more recent debates on Torah’s realism versus idealism (p. 252).

    Feld argues that one must read for the ambiguities, overlapping stories, recomposed legal codes and direct cultural borrowings to grasp that the Torah was an attempt to meld the many Israelite peoples and schools of thought into a unified endeavor.

    I urge Mr. Schwartz to more closely track the sequence of Feld’s argument and evidence so that Schwartz more accurately describes the nuances that Feld has so well presented.

    John S. Schechter
    South Hadley, MA

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Ethan Schwartz

At the heart of Benjamin D. 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.”