February 22, 2020

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 2: Between biblical criticism and religious belief

Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

This exchange focuses on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press). You can read part 1 here.


Dear Dr. Berman,

A big part of your research — as you mentioned in your first response — is searching for examples of inconsistent narratives and laws similar to those of the Torah in other ancient Near East texts. I would like to ask you how this could affect the attitude of practicing Jews toward the Torah.

Now, on the one hand, it seems that challenging the multiple texts and “the editor did so out of duress” explanation could result in a more unified, less chaotic Torah. This reading could present the Torah as a book with more internal coherence than most scholars assume, perhaps making it easier for some to treat it as divinely-inspired scripture.

On the other hand, examining the logic of the Torah in juxtaposition with sources like the Kadesh Inscription of Ramesses II or Babylonian law could be seen as stressing just how much the Torah is a work of a distinct time and place, one that shares a Mesopotamian way of thinking and writing that is very different from ours. This could make it harder for some believers to accept the uniqueness and singularity of the Jewish book of books.

My question: what kind of effect, if any, do you expect your book could have on its more religiously-inclined readers’ understanding of the Torah as a divine text?




Dear Shmuel,

Indeed, many people ask: Is not the Torah eternally valid and above time? Don’t we slight the Torah when we propose that it expresses itself in a manner that is culture-dependent or more relevant for one generation than another? These questions are crucial not only when we consider Orthodoxy’s engagement with biblical criticism. They are critical whenever we wish to study the Torah on its surface, peshat level.

My approach to the issue derives from that of Maimonides. He maintained that reading the Torah in its ancient context is a sacred enterprise and does not denigrate the sanctity or “eternal” nature of our sacred Scriptures. Instead, he believed that many matters in the Torah can be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world. In fact, such study for Maimonides has theological significance: it allows us to discern God’s caring and fostering nature.  Maimonides knew, as we all do, that healthy development of all kinds is always a process. When the Torah issued commandments that were cloaked in the language of the ancient world, and resembled the practices common in the ancient world, he saw this as evidence of the Almighty’s guiding path of slow, spiritual growth afforded Israel.

Maimonides bemoans the fact that he is so removed in place and time from the ancient world and cannot fully appreciate the reforms inherent in many of the mitzvot. He writes that he sought out every book in the world about ancient practices so as to understand as much as he could about ancient Near Eastern culture. Doing so enables him to discern the prudence and wisdom of the Divine hand and the Divine plan. Maimonides maintains that many of the Torah’s commandments are a broad mélange of continuities and discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern practice. A deep recognition of the interplay between the two enables us to apprehend how the Almighty nurtures Israel’s spiritual development in incremental steps. As I have argued elsewhere, seeing the Torah in this comparative light allows us to see it as a treatise of political thought that was light years ahead of its time, and at an astounding divide from anything that existed anywhere in the ancient world.

Even as I propose engaging ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, I realize that for many there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you open up James Pritchard’s classic work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts it just doesn’t feel like a holy endeavor; it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re in any way engaging in the sacred command of Torah study– talmud Torah. In fact, there’s almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness—kedushah—is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam—and I would add, other Torah luminaries such as R. Levi b. Gershom (Ralbag), and Abarbanel—freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah.

Yet, if there are aspects of the Torah that are indeed best understood in ancient context, in what sense is the Torah “eternal”?

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined. Do we mean that its meaning is fixed, singular and eternal? Such a position contravenes fundamental tenets of rabbinic Judaism. If this is the sense in which the Torah is eternal, then there is no room for any interpretation at all. All ages would need to understand the Torah in exactly the same manner. The “eternal” nature of the Written Torah, its multifaceted richness, is found only through the medium of the interpretative process of the Torah She-be’al Peh. The Sages teach that there are seventy “faces” to the Torah. The simplest meaning, the peshat, is sometimes time-dependent, addressed to the generation that received the Torah. But our tradition has never limited itself to understanding the Torah according to its peshat level alone. Rather, it has put a premium on rabbinic engagement with the text, enabling other meanings to radiate throughout the millennia, and allowing new perspectives and interpretations to thrive. This is not some apologetic innovation of the rabbinic period. Rather it is part of the warp and woof of the five books of the Torah themselves: for many great sages—R. Zadok of Lublin, the Zohar, the and R. Isaiah Ha-levi Horowitz (the Shel”a)—the commandments of the book of Deuteronomy are the interpretations and reapplication by Moses of God’s earlier laws, now calibrated for the new challenges of life in the land of Israel.