Who Wrote the Torah? Committed Theology in an Age of Skepticism
It is the question that so many wonder but few investigate, about which we are long on opinion but short on fact: “Who wrote the Torah?” One might think this would be the most basic question in Jewish learning and thought since of the three primary theological paradigms of religion—creation, revelation, and redemption—revelation most profoundly captivates our human lived experience. How in an age of skepticism can we fully embrace the Jewish tradition?
First we must understand that those who claim our ancient texts are historically flawed cannot succeed at removing the grandeur and beauty of our tradition. Along with the obsolescence of the documentary hypothesis, scholars have found that the arguments that the Torah has multiple authors and a later canonization due to varying masoretic texts uncompelling. Further, we need not embrace biblical criticism, or that J, E, P, and D were the four main authors, as some biblical scholars have claimed. G-d speaks in different voices that may appear to be inconsistent or originate from different individuals. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that the two different accounts of the creation story in Genesis do not mean there were two different authors, but that there is a duality to human experience that these two stories capture: majesty and humility. Contradictions in the text appear very frequently but this does not necessitate the belief in multiple authors.
The rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Torah was not revealed in a perfect Divine language but in an imperfect human language so that it could properly be understood (dibrah Torah k’lashon b’nei adam). This inevitably renders perfect interpretation or consistency impossible. This is not a hermeneutical problem unique to Torah. Rather we understand in modernity that our mystical insights and psychological depth can never adequately be captured in language. Human experience is more profound than human language.
Even if the Pentateuch was written down over time, a position the tradition itself embraces, this does not detract from its Divine origin. Traditional commentators have offered many explanations for how the Torah was written. Rabbi Yochanan argued that the Torah was given scroll by scroll, while Resh Lakish argued that the Torah was originally given in its entirety (Gittin 60a-b). According to Rashi’s interpretation, even for Resh Lakish the entire Torah was not given all at once on Mount Sinai. Rather, Moses wrote down each passage as it was told to him, and then they were compiled together (megillah megillah nitnah). In the 13th century, the Ramban explained: “When Moses came down from the mountain, he wrote from the beginning of the Torah until the end of the story of the Tabernacle, and the conclusion of the Torah he wrote at the end of the fortieth year… this is according to the one who says the Torah was given scroll by scroll. But according to the one who says it was given complete, the entire thing was written in the 40th year” (Ramban, introduction to his Torah commentary).
While traditionally it is understood that G-d is the author, some traditional scholars believe that there still may have been more than one scribe. Ibn Ezra, at the end of his commentary on the Torah, argued that not every word was written by Moses himself since Joshua wrote the last twelve verses of the Torah. “In my opinion, Joshua wrote from this verse on, for after Moses ascended [Mount Nebo], he no longer wrote. Joshua wrote it by way of prophecy, as we see from ‘the Lord showed him…,’ ‘The Lord said to him…,’and ‘He buried him.’” Yosef Albo, the 15th-century rabbi, explained: “Why was not the entire Torah given in written form?… The law of G-d cannot be perfect so as to be adequate for all times, because the ever new details of human relations, their customs and their acts, are too numerous to be embraced in a book. Therefore Moses was given only certain general principles… by means of which the wise men in every generation may work out the details” (Sefer HaIkkarim 3:23).
Earlier, Rambam understood Rav Albo’s point that “the law of G-d cannot be perfect so as to be adequate for all times.” Clearly, there are Biblical stories and laws which are morally troubling. Why is slave ownership permitted? Why are multiple chapters dealing with the building of the tabernacle? Are we really to stone rebellious children? But Judaism is not primarily a Biblical religion maintaining every particular law crafted for a particular context but an oral tradition that evolves while maintaining the core values. The Rabbis actually compare the Bible to lips of a seductive woman (Tanchuma Teruma 8). Our loyalty is to the rabbinic interpretive tradition and we shouldn’t be tempted to believe that the esoteric Bible is the Jewish authority. The Bible is the revealed wisdom that began our tradition, and countless others, but it also gave license and authority for continued interpretation.
Rav Kook suggests that Jewish law not only evolves but expands. He explains that “We should not immediately feel obliged to refute any idea that comes to contradict something in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it. In so doing we reach a more exalted level, and… the ideas are clarified. And thereafter, when we are not pressured by anything, we can confidently also fight on the Torah’s behalf” (Iggerot haReayah I, 163-164). Rabbi Kook further defended the idea of progress, suggesting, “An evolution marked by constant progress provides solid grounds for optimism” (I, 369).
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that we are to live in this world and outside of it. Embracing both reason and revelation enables us to most fully actualize our values of ethical monotheism. While the Torah comes from heaven, “it is not in the heavens” (Deuteronomy 30:12, Bava Metzia 59b), meaning its continued interpretation, application, and relevance is under human control. The Torah’s applications continue to evolve, while the core truths and values are preserved.
Revelation did not bind us to a destiny of stagnancy but gave us freedom. Immanuel Kant challenged this point arguing that if revelation were a reality it would be calamitous for man’s created freedom. One loses free will and the capacity for reason when encountering Divine truth. Emmanuel Levinas explains why this needed to be so: “The teaching, which the Torah is, cannot come to the human being as a result of a choice. That which must be received in order to make freedom of choice possible cannot have been chosen, unless after the fact” (Nine Talmudic Readings, 37). When we received revelation, our freedom was suspended in order that we could be free.
Another barrier to embracing Jewish tradition has been that one should live by reason rather than faith. However, according to the dominant Jewish perspective, one need not take a leap into the irrational when embracing the truth of the Torah. Countless Jewish authorities, such as Rambam, Ralbag, Saadya Gaon, Ibn Tibbon, and the Abravanel, have suggested that reason and revelation are compatible. But why do we need revelation if we have reason? I would suggest six general categories as to the value of revelation while operating by reason that should be further elucidated:
- Reinforcing—Revelation gives the pre-existing reason authority and force.
- Reframing—Revelation gives one the opportunity to do something rational as a way of serving G-d.
- Concretizing—Revelation provides universal reason with particularistic content such as particular stories, narratives, laws.
- Unifying—Revelation binds a people together into a community.
- Deciphering—Revelation rejects relativism within the options of reason (choices are made that logic did not necessitate).
- Evolving—Revelation is needed to begin a process of rational trans-valuation (the re-reading of texts to consistently provide new meaning and application).
Perhaps the question of “Who wrote the Torah” is not really an important Jewish question. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once suggested that if we were to find historical proof that the 10 commandments were indeed revealed from G-d, few to none would live any differently, for we do not make our daily life decisions based upon historical evidence. Further, we are aware that historical positions of this nature can never be proved. The existence of G-d and the origin of the Bible are the best untestable hypotheses.
While intriguing, this is not such a problem; history is ephemeral, while meaning is eternal. What matters most in the Jewish tradition, much more than historical truth, is the power of values. In assessing the value of historical context in the interpretation of text and law, some Jews are overly dismissive, but others embrace it to the exclusion of all meaning of Jewish core values. Reading ancient texts solely with a historical or scientific lens blocks one from embracing deep moral and spiritual truths. Evaluating the veracity of the literal creation story is much less relevant than the ethical dimension to this phenomenal narrative.
The Midrash Sifra, as explained by Rabbi David Hartman, explains beautifully that it is a principle of faith in the Jewish tradition that G-d liberated the Jews in an exodus from Egypt (yetziat mitzrayim). However, the rabbis go on to explain that the obligation is not primarily a requirement of belief but of action. The one who truly believes in the miraculous exodus is honest in weights and measures. The one who acts ethically in business has embraced the deepest meaning of this theological value. The truth is not a historical fact merely to be noted, but is rather a value that must transform our character.
I personally believe that G-d did indeed reveal the Torah to our people. This is an existential, not epistemological, claim. The Torah is the most powerful and persuasive work I have ever read and I feel spiritually elevated from an encounter with Torah unlike anything else. I feel the values of this tradition to be the most ethically poignant and compelling and I’m not alone. All of western religion, adherents making up about half of the world’s population, has been built upon the belief of this powerful revelatory experience.
Yet the question is not whether one believes in the Torah, but whether one lives it. Further, because one cannot find historical proof that the Torah is from G-d, this is not a reason to opt out of living by Jewish law and values. Historical ambiguity is no excuse for disengagement. A philosophical agnostic who questions whether human reason can understand anything beyond worldly experience and claims that revelation is merely a myth that cannot be taken seriously risks becoming spiritually numb if tradition is merely dismissed. It is not a leap of faith needed, embracing that which we understand may not be true; rather one must suspend, or look beyond disbelief in order to find self-actualization. Embracing revelation may actually represent what is constitutive of our humanity (what makes us uniquely human), since the ability to grasp something phenomenal beyond our own limited experience is what gives man intelligence.
One might ask pragmatic questions: Does living in this community that embraces Jewish revelation enhance my moral responsibility? Does living by Jewish law and values make me a better person? Do I feel closer to the Divine when I learn Torah, pray, and fulfill traditional Jewish requirements? Theology that works, in a sense, is true whether or not it proves to be historically accurate. If one finds that through years of learning and performing mitzvot, their moral, spiritual, and intellectual commitments and capabilities grow, this cannot be dismissed as tangential to the goal of religion. True religion must be more concerned with the “good” than the unknowable “true.” Judaism is a performative theology. We understand it by doing it. This is why the Israelites say, “Naaseh V’Nishma when receiving the Torah, first we will do and then we will understand” (Exodus 24:7). Ritual is spiritual exercise that can facilitate the expansion of one’s moral imagination. Torah is like love. You can’t understand it unless you’ve fully felt it and lived it.
The Pentateuch, written sometime during the second millennium B.C.E., is a remarkable story of moral and legal teachings, poetry and song, love and tragedy, and dreams of a better world. Today its message is blurred in this age of skepticism, where no commitment is held too tightly, and everything is contingent on what the latest historical evidence seems to indicate. However, if we imagine that G-d loves us, that a heaven awaits us, that a time of universal peace and justice will come, we can embrace the wisdom of our heritage much more deeply. If we can allow our encounter with G-d and tradition to be existential rather than historical, we can connect in deep and meaningful ways without having all of our concerns resolved.
When some of the tales told about the Chofetz Chaim were challenged, one leader responded that “I don’t know if the story is true or not. But they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.” In other words, we cannot prove the historical accounts told in the Bible, but there is nothing that compares in the modern world. As Mark Twain said, “If the Ten Commandments were not written by Moses, then they were written by another fellow of the same name.”
The wisdom and language of the Bible is unparalleled in its power to inspire idealism and social change. No one claims that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was naïve or unintelligent to root his social activism in the language of the Bible. This revealed tradition has the power to inspire us again and again to transform the world, making a sanctuary where G-d can dwell. Rather than over-philosophizing as to “Who wrote the Torah,” we can spend our time building our character through the deep wisdom it offers enabling us to heal the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Director of Jewish Life & Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.