Traditional Jewish beliefs have been subject to constant academic challenges in the modern era, and yet we continue to believe. While most people retain their faith by ignoring or summarily dismissing these challenges, some scholars have responded directly by using those same academic methods in defense of traditional beliefs. Commenting on this phenomenon in an article for the Canadian Jewish News, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin wrote that “works by Orthodox authors that tackle difficult theological issues, ask tough questions, and reconcile differences between Orthodoxy and modern scholarship
. . . are often a kiddush Hashem because they demonstrate how Orthodoxy and scholarship are compatible.”1 When scholars adopt the tools and findings of modern scholarship while remaining steadfastly faithful to traditional Jewish beliefs, they show the resilience of Torah even in hostile waters. The Revelation at Sinai is one of the newest contributions to this important project. The volume features a cross-disciplinary collection of Orthodox scholars, each offering unique insights into the idea of “Torah from Heaven” in an age in which academics generally believe that the Torah does not represent Hashem’s words in any literal sense. Faced with this opposition, how can such a concept survive and continue to inspire Jews today?
The Revelation at Sinai tackles this challenge head-on from several vantage points. The first section of the book focuses on philosophical, theological and literary accounts of the Torah’s presentation(s) of revelation. In the words of Yoram Hazony, “the presence of Mount Sinai teaches that there exists a best point of vantage from which man can achieve a commanding view of G-d’s true nature,” while Moshe Rabbeinu represents the fact that “at least one individual did approach and attain this point of vantage, bringing a teaching down to Israel and to the nations that has never been surpassed.” Likewise, Dr. Shira Weiss writes that Moshe’s only being able to witness Hashem from behind “allows humans to obtain a glimpse of divine acts to emulate, without achieving a comprehensive image of G-d” so that Hashem can “guide His subjects in their fulfillment of imitatio dei while preserving the unknowability of the transcendent.” We see from this that Biblical accounts of revelation teach a deep philosophical and theological account of Divine communication with humanity.
But historical accuracy is also important to consider, and section two of The Revelation at Sinai does so directly. Professor Shawn Zelig Aster asks, “where did the Israelites get the idea that G-d was king who owned the land, that they ought to establish an egalitarian social fabric, and that they ought to remain separate from the Egyptians and the Canaanites” when no other Ancient Near Eastern groups espoused such ideas? While one cannot prove that such novelties originated in a revelation to the Jewish people, Aster argues that this assumption provides the simplest answer to how such ideas became so central to their society. Likewise, Dr. Jeremiah Unterman capably furthers the long-established argument that the Torah presents an ethical ethos centered around “a good, just, caring G-d who created the world and humankind, and chose to reveal His will to the people of Israel and their prophets,” ideas unheard of in the surrounding environment. Such deviations from the norms of the age, he argues, are best explained by revelation.
Briefly returning to the volume’s opening chapter, a concern is raised that is felt throughout the book: a small, yet increasingly influential, group of scholars and theologians suggests that the Written Torah is the result of human development over time, rather than a literal, or at least objectively witnessed, Divine revelation. Such views—generally referred to under the heading of “ongoing revelation” —require no Moshe, no Mount Sinai, no revelation, no unique Jewish experience, and not even Hashem. Yet its proponents claim this to be an authentically Jewish view.
While most of The Revelation at Sinai subtly responds to such positions, the fourth section addresses them directly. Rabbi Gil Student emphasizes the fact that full acceptance of Biblical criticism, including the idea of “ongoing revelation” as applied to the text of the Torah, undermines the entire Jewish project “even if its proponents attend synagogue three times a day” (302). Rabbi Student (disclosure: He serves as Jewish Action’s book editor) responds to this challenge by surveying three thinkers who were known for wrestling with critical scholarship in their own unique ways: Louis Jacobs, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Menachem Kasher. Rabbi Student summarizes Jacobs as breaking from traditional approaches entirely in favor of academic conclusions, Heschel as attempting to expand and revise tradition to allow for acceptance of some (but not all) critical assumptions, and Kasher as traditionally arguing that Hashem dictated the final text of the Torah regardless of who may have originally composed the specific stories that were eventually Divinely dictated. All three are united in rejecting the notion of ongoing revelation discussed above.
Rabbi Student, however, still rejects each of those arguments because they fail at moving the poles of ancient tradition and contemporary scholarship closer together in a productive way. Rabbi Student’s preference is, rather, for a Maimonidean framework in which arguments are evaluated based on plausibility, provability and revelation. Arguments that are objectively proven demand Biblical reinterpretation in response. On the other hand, arguments that are merely plausible should be taken seriously but need not cause crises of faith. When an argument is unproven, even if plausible, it is perfectly rational to side with revelation over speculation.2 This approach allows one to separate the metaphorical fruit from the peel of academic Biblical criticism. Studying the Torah in its historical context while paying attention to the literary devices and textual patterns employed throughout can be valuable and enlightening even while still rejecting Biblical criticism’s claims about the text’s origins. Indeed, Rabbi Student writes that “biblical criticism as a whole can help Jewish theologians formulate their own claims in response” (305).
Alex Sztuden demonstrates that last point in The Revelation at Sinai’s final chapter, which is largely a response to the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary’s Dr. Benjamin Sommer. Sommer denies that the text of the Torah is from Heaven, but still advocates observance of halachah. Sztuden’s response is a simple one: The Torah’s Divinity lies not in its wisdom as an interpretation of humanity’s encounter with the Ineffable, but as the record of how the Jewish people actually encountered Hashem. Halachah, stemming from Hashem’s words as recorded in the Torah, “is the constitutive means by which the Jewish people link themselves to G-d” (338). Separating law from the Biblical text destroys its essence by severing “an indelible and essential link.”
We can now circle back to Hazony’s opening idea. The Torah’s narratives provide us not only with food for thought, but also with instructions of how to live. Through them, we learn not only that Hashem exists and has a plan for us, but also how we can aid in bringing that plan to fruition. In Hazony’s framework, ongoing revelations that remove the real people and events from historical necessity eliminate the shared standard that once united all streams of Judaism—the revelation to Moshe at Sinai. All of the many disagreements throughout history revolved around trying to ascertain what was most loyal to the teaching Moshe received at Sinai. “Ongoing revelation” rejects that standard, and thereby misunderstands all of Jewish teachings throughout history. This lack of a historical baseline, Hazony argues, ultimately spells the end of Judaism: “Without such a standard, the arguments and perspectives that are derived from Torah in our own generation would not remain within the framework of a single enterprise. The Torah would shatter, splintering into separate sects, and our tradition would, G-d forbid, come to an end” (74).
The above discussions represent only a partial selection of the fascinating voices that The Revelation at Sinai brings to the table. Each contribution is worthy of deep consideration not only to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but so that we can truly comprehend what it means to be recipients of Hashem’s revelation. If we are to truly identify with what it means to live with the Torah on earth, we must first understand what it means for the Torah to have come to us from Heaven. The Revelation at Sinai is a must-read for anyone who has confronted these questions and wishes to address them without sacrificing traditional belief.
2. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, made a similar point in a letter written to Louis Jacobs in which he argued that when there is “a choice between alternative interpretive schema, so long as each is internally consistent… a Jew may choose a traditional reading of the text [over a non-traditional one] without laying himself open to a justified charge of ‘lack of objectivity.’” (Cited in Meir Persoff, Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate [Brighton, 2010], 12).
Rabbi Steven Gotlib is a kollel fellow at Beit Midrash Zichron Dov and assistant rabbi at the Village Shul & Aish HaTorah Learning Centre in Toronto, Ontario.