One of the biggest points separating the streams of Judaism is their view of Torah. On the one hand, you either must believe that every word of the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, or nothing you have to say about Judaism can be considered authentic. On the other hand, you either accept the validity of biblical criticism, or nothing you say about Judaism speaks to modern sensibilities.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Whatever else separates the streams, this argument should never have been one of them. There has never been a unified answer to the question of how the Torah came to be written.
It is true that anonymous talmudic sages insisted that anyone who denies that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moses is a heretic. Even suggesting that a single deduction made from the text came from Moses, rather than God, is heretical, according to these sages. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 99a.)
Nevertheless, the sages as a general class had their own doubts about the authorship of certain passages and said as much. Some, for example, maintained that Joshua wrote the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, in which Moses’ death is detailed and he is referred to in terms unsuited for someone of his modesty. (See BT Baba Batra 15a; a virtually identical discussion is found in BT M’nachot 30a).
This skepticism is also evident in the rules the sages set out for reading certain portions of the Torah in congregational settings (including the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which they said may be read outside the presence of a minyan). In two places in the Torah, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, there are long sections of curses. The sages declared that there should be no break during the reading of this gruesome and graphic litany in Leviticus, but there can be breaks in the reading of the text in Deuteronomy. Why the difference in rulings? Said the sages, God spoke the curses in Leviticus; Moses spoke them on his own in Deuteronomy (see BT Megillah 31b).
Given such rulings on their part, it is hard to take seriously a claim that the sages universally believed that anyone who says that God did not dictate every word is committing heresy.
Instructional, too, is how commentators through the ages approached the subject of authorship. The commentator who comes quickest to mind is Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, aka Rashi. Commenting on the end of Deuteronomy, regarding the death of Moses, Rashi seems to agree that Moses wrote the entire Torah at God’s dictation, but he allows for the possible exception of those final eight verses.
Yet Rashi seems to take a different stance in Numbers 10:29. There, Moses is trying to persuade an in-law to help guide Israel to the Promised Land. Rashi explained that Moses could make this request because the perfidy of the scouts had not yet occurred, and so he believed that Israel was heading straight for Canaan. Rashi added that Moses also believed that he was going with Israel into the land.
If Rashi held the view that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, he could not have written this commentary.
It would seem, then, that Rashi shared the apparent desire of the sages that the laity believe that every word in the Torah as we have it was dictated to Moses by God, while also sharing their belief that this was not truly the case.
A few later authorities were bolder than their predecessors, albeit privately. In several places in his commentary on the Torah, for example, the 12th-century exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra made such statements as “I have a secret and the learned person will keep silent.” (See his commentaries to Genesis 12:6, 13:7 and 22:14, and Deuteronomy 1:1.) Joseph Ben Eliezer Tov Elem, in his 14th-century commentary on Ibn Ezra, states the “secret” explicitly: “that Moses did not write this….”
In other words, according to Ibn Ezra, it is not heretical to conclude at times that “Moses did not write this.” It is wrong, however, for the knowledgeable person to say so publicly.
There is more. In BT Soferim 35a , we are told that a few words in the Torah are actually targum, meaning they have been translated from Hebrew into Aramaic. Translations are almost always subjective.
Here is another fact: To this day, there exist acceptable variations to the Torah’s text – at least one on which there is a responsum.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, a one-time Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, was asked to rule on whether Jews who were not also Yemenites may make a blessing over a Yemenite Torah scroll because its text differs in several places with the supposedly established text. He ruled that it was permitted to do so, on the grounds that the Yemenite text is based on their tradition, which is no less valid than anyone else’s.
That variant texts exist is nothing new. For example, the 13th-century talmudist Meir Abulafia noted that “if someone would intend to write a Torah scroll correctly …, he would find himself groping like a blind man in the darkness of disagreements, and he would not successfully achieve his purpose to find what he seeks.” (See his introduction to Masoret Seyag LaTorah; the translation here is from B. Barry Levy’s “Fixing God’s Torah: The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law.”)
Given all of the above, it would be foolish to argue that every word in the Torah was written by Moses, whether at God’s dictation or on his own. That is what is argued, however, and that is what is used as an argument to separate Jew from Jew.
All of the streams need to get beyond this debate and deal with the real problems that we face today. More than half the Jews in the United States, for example, prefer to see themselves as ethnically Jewish and otherwise have no connection with the rest of us. The intermarriage rate here is at its highest level ever. The cost of Jewish living has become prohibitive and the cost of a Jewish education is even more so for some. The connection of a whole generation of Jews to the State of Israel is weakening.
Do we really need to argue about who is a real Jew based on how one views the Torah’s authorship? Cannot we agree that there has never been a universally accepted view on the subject and move on to the issues that really matter?