July 18, 2019

Is It OK to Critically Analyze the Word of G-d?

“Professor Sommer brings the whole range of Jewish learning to bear—biblical, rabbinic, and medieval texts, and modern Jewish theologians, not to mention the occasional ḥasidic rebbe. But the book is not only a learned study: it is also a rarity in the Jewish world—a theologically serious book written by a Jew who is not only a scholar but also a practitioner of Judaism. Unlike so many in Jewish studies—especially Jewish scholars specializing in biblical studies—Sommer does not hide behind historicism but instead addresses the existential relevance of his material without embarrassment. He engages in what Christians tend to call “systematic” or “constructive” theology and does so, moreover, in a way that seeks to be both faithful to the pre-modern tradition and responsible to the methods and findings of modern critical thought.

Yet, to Levenson, there are serious flaws in the book’s arguments, perhaps most crucially in its claim that revelation is not limited to Moses but is available to many “human beings who respond to the revelation at Sinai” and even to all Israelites:

To me, and again locating ourselves only within the cultural universe of biblical Israel in general and the Pentateuch in particular, this move from the figure of Moses to human beings in general represents a dangerous slippage. For it drastically underestimates the unique and unparalleled role of Moses as the chosen intermediary of divine revelation. Here, an analogy with glossolalia, the speaking-in-tongues practiced by some charismatic Christians, might be helpful. The person with the gift of tongues makes sounds that ordinary people cannot decode; in order for the sounds to be comprehended, an interpreter must translate them. But that ability to interpret tongues is itself thought to be a spiritual gift. It is not a natural human endowment, and therefore it is not a strong analogy to the composition of biblical texts as modern historical critics tend to understand it—that is, as a purely human process.”

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