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  • Jon D. Levenson

Do Bible Scholars Need Theology?

Jon D. Levenson on Sommer’s Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition

Before beginning my critique of Benjamin Sommer’s new book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, I would like to draw attention to two of the factors that, in my judgment, make it such an impressive volume. The most obvious of these is the sheer amount of scholarship that underlies it. 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 Hasidic 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. That combination alone makes this book worthy of note. May there be more like it in the years to come!

So, let me say at the outset that whatever disagreements I express below should not be taken to detract from my gratitude for the achievement Ben Sommer’s book represents.

The book grows out of the distinctively modern awareness of historical contingency, in this case the doubt that modern modes of study have cast upon the traditional claim that the Torah results from unitary divine authorship. The supposedly divine text, it turns out, participated fully in the historical world in which it originated; efforts to depict it as radically discontinuous with the rest of the ancient Near East or as immune to significant change and development lack credibility. For some, the doubt can be resolved simply by ignoring or denying the historical evidence and continuing to uphold a view that scripture comes into existence through direct revelation, with the cultural circumstances having only incidental importance, if that. For others – and this is far and away the majority position in the world of colleges and universities and is increasingly found, curiously, also in many seminaries – the text is not scripture at all: it lacks any authority of its own, but is instead only an artifact of human culture (albeit one with perhaps some nuggets of wisdom amidst the dross). Those who choose to make a religious use of it do so on their own time, so to speak. The academy can only describe the meanings the text held for its original authors and hearers, all of whom are now very much dead, and their world very much in the past.

There are, of course, many intermediate points between these extremes. The one Sommer advocates sees the literary figure of Moses as neither the author of the five books that collectively go by his name nor as a stenographer, merely writing down God’s words. Rather, he sees Moses as the “translator” of a non-verbal revelation, “an intimation,” as Sommer puts it, “of something beyond words.” I say “the literary figure of Moses” because Sommer makes no historical claim of Mosaic authorship but is instead describing how some Pentateuchal sources and other classical Jewish texts present the man. The book argues that if Moses, so understood, was neither an author in his own right nor a stenographer for the divine message but rather a translator, this validates what Sommer calls the “participatory” model of revelation, in which human beings are actively and essentially involved in the formulation of what is nonetheless still the will, if not quite the words, of God. The notion is familiar from rabbinic Judaism – the rabbis present their own legislation as God’s will and, by finding the same idea in the Bible as well, Sommer thinks he has found an authorization to “fold … scripture into tradition,” the Written Torah, that is, into the Oral Torah.

I wonder, though, whether any Pentateuchal source really describes Moses as a translator of a wordless revelation, whatever that problematic last phrase may mean. One critical piece of evidence for Sommer is the ambiguity of the word קול (“voice, sound”) in Exodus 19:19, just before the Decalogue. Since the word can indicate either a human voice or thunder, he asks: “Does this mean that God answered Moses with thunder, or with a voice that spoke specific words?” If the former, then we have here, as in other anomalies in the depiction of Sinai in Exodus, evidence for Moses’ – and, by implication, other humans’ – translating the wordless communication into language, or so Sommer argues. I suspect, however, that in a case like this we need not choose between “thunder” and “voice.” Rather, we must take account of the evidence that the sound of the frighteningly powerful voice of the God of Israel was thought to resemble thunder. It was not like an ordinary speaking voice, but neither was it a semantically empty din. I think, for example of Job 38:1, which the JPS Tanakh renders, “Then the LORD replied to Job out of the tempest and said.” This introduces, please note, real words. The words come out of a storm, but they are words nonetheless. If my doubts about the falsity of the dichotomy of the wordless theophany of the storm-God versus the verbal articulation of norms by the divine suzerain and lawgiver are valid, then Sommer’s idea that Exodus “forces us to hover between two models for understanding revelation” is a false choice.

Benjamin Sommer. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 440. $30.00.

His book properly draws attention to those streams in the Pentateuchal narrative that present the people Israel as so overwhelmed by the sheer terror of God’s address that, in the end, they learn the contents of the revelation from Moses and not from the divine voice itself. What I do not see, however, is evidence that any of those streams entertained the notion that Moses devised the specific laws himself in response to a divine revelation, whether in the form of a deafening thunderclap or whatever. Where in the Pentateuch do we see the idea that, in Sommer’s words, “all the laws they received from Moses may in fact have been Moses’s own formulation of God’s nonverbal communication?” Within the presuppositions of modern critical discourse, in which the text must be interpreted solely as a human artifact, it makes perfect sense to say that Moses – or, more likely, someone much later speaking in the name of Moses, sincerely or otherwise – is the actual author of those words. But where do we find such an idea within the culture of ancient Israel? Perhaps some scant parallel to this can be found in Jeremiah’s attack on “the lying pen of the scribes” (8:8) or in his insistence that at the time of the Exodus, God never ordained any burnt offerings (7:21–22; contrast Leviticus 1). Or perhaps Moses’s defiant response to Korah and his band of rebels suggests that such an attitude was found among those the text regards as dangerous malcontents: “By this you shall know that it was the LORD who sent me to do these things; that they are not of my own devising” (Numbers 16:28, identified as J, translation from NJPS). But where do we see Moses’ or the narrator’s accepting the idea, and where do we see anyone one else making such a claim about him in a respectful manner? In sum, I do not see the evidence for the claim that the people’s not hearing the words from God supports the idea that Moses must have formulated them himself.

But let us assume that there were ancient Israelites who believed that Moses had a legitimate role in actually formulating laws that really are God’s nonetheless. Would any of them—would any of the Pentateuchal sources that the Documentarians believe in—have thought it valid to extrapolate from Moses to all other prophets and authors or, for that matter, to all Israelites? Can we, that is, use that hypothetical to support the claim that, in Sommer’s words, “the biblical texts themselves are largely or even entirely products of human beings who respond to the revelation at Sinai”?

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. Moses does indeed participate in the process of revelation, but only because of a gift with which God has graced him. He is the unique mediator of the laws; he is not their formulator. The radical, principled difference between the biblical and the historical-critical understandings of the process of composition must not be minimized. The former makes unapologetic use of notions of supernatural endowments that the latter excludes from the conversation a priori. To me, Sommer seems so eager to validate the participation of humans in the process of revelation that he fails to do justice to the special subcategory of humans called prophets and to the unique and unparalleled role among them that much biblical and post-biblical tradition ascribes to Moses.

Here, a contrast between Ben Sommer’s presuppositions and those of the classical rabbis is in order. Commenting on Exodus 14:31, “[Israel] had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses,” a famous midrash proclaims that “everyone who has faith in the Shepherd of Israel [that is, Moses] is as if he has faith in Him Who Spoke and the Universe Came into Being [that is, God] … And anyone who speaks against the Shepherd of Israel is as if he speaks against Him Who Spoke and the Universe Came into Being” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Bešallaḥ 7). To the unnamed author of this midrash—which strikes me as quite typical of rabbinic theology—the acceptance of revelation requires faith not only in the divine revealer but also in the mortal and fallible medium through whom the revelations come to the Jews. Otherwise, we have no idea whether it is God or some uninspired human to whom we are listening. Here, having cited an analogy from Pentecostalism, I can perhaps, in the interest of balance, provide one with modern Roman Catholic thinking that will prove enlightening. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting from the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium) speaks of the way the Holy Spirit protects the magisterium from error in these words:

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

A contrast with this theology, whether in its Jewish or Catholic versions, can be seen in the theology that underlies Ben Sommer’s identification of the commandment to commit genocide against the Amalekites in Deuteronomy 25:17–19 as “stemming,” in his words, “from a gross misunderstanding of the divine will.” Since in the Deuteronomic conceit the speaker of that ghastly command is Moses, one would have to say that the Shepherd of Israel, to revert to the rabbinic title, grossly misunderstood God’s wordless revelation to him. Bonus dormitat Moyses. Now I can readily understand Sommer’s discomfort with the command. But I question whether any notion of divine revelation can withstand a theology in which unpalatable or offensive norms are simply ascribed to human error and the currently palatable or acceptable norms are ascribed, I assume, to the genuine will of God. Suppose God wanted to send a message at odds with understandings of morality in a given cultural situation. Could he ever get it past a screen like that one?

Given the high role that Sommer ascribes to the human participants in the formulation of divine revelation, it makes eminent sense for him to stress the all too human differences in perspectives found within the Pentateuch. In fact, as he sees it, the inclusion of “blatant and unresolved narrative and legal contradictions” and “its embrace of the value of agreeing to disagree” make the Pentateuch “the first Jewish book.” In one instance (the discrepancy between the laws of the paschal offering in Exodus and Deuteronomy), Sommer writes that the “redactors impose that latitude upon us, since we are forced to ignore [one form of the prescribed practice].”  As he puts it, no matter what we do, “we will end up disobeying one version of the law or the other.”

Personally, I find myself in disagreement with this for several reasons.

First, I think the various collections of law in the Bible functioned not as statutory but as common law. As Joshua Berman puts it, they were “prototypical compendia of legal and ethical norms rather than statutory codes. Their inclusion in the Pentateuch served to publicize digests of the divine requirements for ‘justice and righteousness.’ One could not point to the law. Rather, the totality of these texts … were the resources from which future norms could be worked out. This unwritten law was woven into the fabric of society and enunciated in the course of judicial deliberation.” In other words, until modern times, no Jews were ever reading the Pentateuch in order to pick out which laws on offer at the Pentateuchal smorgasbord they were going to observe and which they were going to ignore.

Second, I am not convinced that the Pentateuch presents us with different law codes at all. The identification of those various passages as diverse in substance, form, and origin is an insight of modern criticism, and, of course, a very valid one within the modern critical framework. But all that the Pentateuch itself claims to give us is what was received by one man, the prophet Moses, in the period from just before he led Israel out of Egypt until just before he died on Mount Nebo. As critical scholars, we may conclude that Deuteronomy, for example, reshapes and reforms the Covenant Collection in Exodus, but Deuteronomy does not present itself that way at all. Instead, it presents itself as merely restating and explicating the revelation at Sinai/Horeb (e.g., Deuteronomy 1:3–5). The notion that these various collections are different and cannot be harmonized, so that individuals must act like modern consumers and simply choose which laws to obey and which to disobey, is not native to the Pentateuch or, so far as I know, to the pre-modern Jewish tradition. As historical critics committed to reconstructing the growth of the religion of Israel over time, we have good reason to reject harmonization. But we should not think that the Pentateuch itself authorizes such a rejection or that a defensible reading of the text must assume the stance and the priorities of a historical critic. In particular, we should notice that nothing is more characteristic of the Oral Torah than efforts to harmonize discrepant scriptural texts. On historico-critical presuppositions, such harmonization fails, of course. On classical rabbinic presuppositions, correlatively, efforts to present the Written Torah as a disjointed compilation of contradictory texts fail at least as much. For, on the rabbinic assumptions, such a move misses the key point that the Torah is a unity; no part of it can simply be chosen to the exclusion of the others. That act of choice strikes me as presupposing a model of the autonomous or sovereign self which is familiar from modernity – the self of the consumer making his or her choice – but which is attested poorly, if at all, before the Enlightenment.

Third, in arguing that the Pentateuch is “the first Jewish book,” Sommer sees it as engaging in מחלוקת, debate, in the manner of classical Talmudic argumentation (שקלא וטריא). He draws our attention, for example, to Deuteronomy 5:4, which states that the Israelites heard the Decalogue directly and which precedes a verse that states the opposite, that they heard it only through Moses’ mediation. But there is a key difference. In the Talmudic case, the debaters are identified: Rabbi X says A, but Rabbi Y says B, etc. Of course, even there we should be careful about saying that the rabbis agree to disagree. The Talmudic discussion often continues until a resolution is reached. In Deuteronomy, the adjacent but ostensibly discordant verses are both placed in the same mouth, that of Moses. The idea that they represent different sources is a creature of modern critical thought and totally at odds with the manifest text it seeks to interpret. A quick glance at the medieval Jewish commentators shows that they, too, are aware of the discrepancy, but they also refuse to leave it as such: to them, the Torah is not self-contradictory. Instead, in good rabbinic fashion, they seek to harmonize the ostensible contradictions. As is typical of them, they do not agree on the harmonizations, but, being committed to the integrity of the Torah, they do agree on the need to show that the text is not incoherent or disjointed.

Finally, I wonder why the presence of “blatant and unresolved narrative and legal contradictions” in the Pentateuch and “its [putative] embrace of the value of agreeing to disagree” make it “the first Jewish book” at all. It would seem that, for Sommer, the give-and-take of Talmudic dialectic is the touchstone of Jewish authenticity. But why? Plenty of books that are universally considered Jewish do not proceed in that way, and even much rabbinic literature lacks that feature. I fail to see what is gained by recasting the Pentateuch as if it were a page of Gemara. As I see it, not only is that recasting unnatural; it is also unnecessary.

But let us assume for a moment that the “compiler” (to use that unfortunate term) really did intend the discordant passages of the Torah to be perceived as standing in contradiction, with the only resolution coming from later individuals deciding which passages they would believe or practice. If that was the intention, then we have to say the “compiler” failed utterly, at least in antiquity. For nothing is more characteristic of the literature of Second Temple Judaism than the cross-pollination, as it were, of scriptural passages. Whatever their diverse origins, by this period the texts are melding together, influencing each other, and echoing across what we modern critics consider veritable chasms of chronology, genre, social location, and theology. Rabbinic midrash, which brings verses from throughout the canon to bear on each other in order to convey the rabbinic theology, manifests in a different mode an analogous assumption of the unity of the biblical message. Personally, I very much doubt that the structure of Judaism could survive when an assumption so ancient and so fundamental to it has been lost.

Now I would like to address briefly Sommer’s bold proposal to “fold scripture into tradition” by reclassifying Written Torah as Oral Torah. If I understand him correctly, his goal in so doing is once more to upgrade the human component in the process of revelation, in part so as to defuse the challenge of historical criticism to contemporary religious commitment. But just how far does the proposal extend? Sommer provides an excellent description of some key characteristics of the Written Torah in traditional Jewish law and practice – for example, that “the Pentateuch is chanted during synagogue services in its entirety and following a set of very exact rules”; that it “serves as a ritual object in a way that rabbinic texts do not”; that only the Written Torah “is canon, or closed and delimited”; that in the dominant rabbinic view, its “ideas and precise wording . . . come directly from God”; and, lastly, Written Torah “enjoys a greater degree of prestige.” My question is: if Sommer’s proposal were accepted, would all this disappear? If Written Torah is really Oral Torah, how can these distinguishing characteristics of Written Torah be sustained? And, if we do sustain them, have we not functionally conceded the difference between the two modes of Torah after all, leaving us back at the point from which we started?

This is not at all to dispute Sommer’s expert delineation of the full extent of the rabbinic affirmation of Oral Torah. In very helpful fashion, his book goes a long way towards correcting simplistic descriptions of Judaism as a book-religion and the rabbis as simply scripture scholars. But there is another side to the matter. It seems to me that in the aggregate, rabbinic Judaism also exhibits a certain insecurity with the very idea that there is an Oral Torah. For example, quite often the Gemara will respond to a statement that is quoted without reference to any biblical verse by asking on which biblical verse the statement rests. Why should that matter? If the Oral Torah has authority of its own, why the need to show that its teachings rest on the Written Torah properly exegeted? And in the case of the collections termed מדרשי הלכה or Tannaitic midrash, one can find Mishnaic and other rabbinic teachings presented purely as exegeses of biblical passages. One would never guess from these texts that an idea of Oral Torah existed.

As I see it, the interplay of the two modes by which Torah comes to the Jews – through the scriptural canon and through authorized teachers – defines a constituting dynamic of rabbinic Judaism and is a matter of concern throughout subsequent tradition. Were the Written Torah to be folded into the Oral, this dynamic would disappear. And this brings us to what I see as a paradox in Sommer’s proposal: on the hand, it champions the Oral Torah at the expense of Written, but, on the other hand, in the very process it has to redefine radically what is meant by Oral Torah.

Another such redefinition has to do with authority: Who defines the normative tradition? To me, the book seems over-eager to redefine rabbinic authority according to the canons of modern democratic thought. For example, it cites the Talmudic counsel, “Go see what the people are doing.” But, so far as I can see, in the entire corpus of rabbinic literature that saying occurs only four times, three of them in the mouth of the same sage (or perhaps his father), and twice on the same page of Gemara. I do not see how it can be understood as a bearing beam in the edifice of rabbinic authority.

In line with the same sort of democratization, Sommer quotes Solomon Schechter, the great name from the early days of Sommer’s own distinguished institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who famously wrote that in Judaism authority lies not in the Bible but in “the collective conscience of Catholic Israel,” meaning the general practice of the Jewish people over time. Wisely recognizing the magnitude of the loss of traditional practice and basic Jewish literacy that has taken place, Sommer limits Schechter’s Catholic Israel “to those Jews who observe the law,” so that now, in his words, “authority, which God freely offers to all Israel, belongs to a self-selecting subgroup.”

Is this formulation not circular? The content of the law is determined by those who observe the law. But without knowing what the law is, how are we supposed to identify that subgroup? To be sure, if we are to speak sociologically rather than theologically, in rabbinic Judaism, too, authority “belongs to a self-selecting subgroup.” In any generation of Talmudic sages, one would be hard pressed, in fact, to name two-dozen such figures. But their membership in the subgroup depends on such factors as their successful discipleship to a figure in the previous generation, the degree of their learning, and the piety of their lives. Those same ideals are still alive and well today in Orthodox Judaism. When authority is democratized so as to include those who do not meet such criteria, however, a major change has occurred. The new situation is not simply a modern restatement of the thinking in the Oral Torah. It strikes out, rather, in a new direction.

As I see it, the same applies to Sommer’s claim that what is and is not legitimately Torah can be determined only in hindsight. What survives in the tradition is Torah; what is lost is not. Hence, to cite his example, Philo’s attempted fusion of Platonism and Judaism is not Torah, but Maimonides’ attempted fusion of Aristotelianism and Judaism is. About the empirical facts of the matter, any historian would have to agree with him. But I personally cannot shake a nagging worry about the implicit Social Darwinism in this criterion. What survives deserved to; it is the real tradition. What failed to survive has no authority. As one who has perhaps too long pursued the vocation of the scripture scholar, I cannot help being reminded of those passages in the Bible in which the people have gone sadly astray generation after generation, only to be rudely called back to the truth by calamity and prophetic preachment. Might a small minority not be in the right against the vast majority, even the vast majority of those who consider themselves observers of the law? It seems to me that what is missing here is a Jewish counterpart to that guarantee of infallibility of which the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks. Without some affirmation of providential guidance, all we have is that quasi-Social Darwinian notion that whatever has survived is right. So far as I can see, this does not identify revelation or the will of God: it identifies a winner. But an affirmation of providential guidance is exactly the kind of thinking that contradicts the naturalistic anthropocentrism that underlies both historical criticism of the Bible and, increasingly, modern democratic practice.

And that brings me, finally, to what I think is the largest and most fundamental difference between how Sommer and I see things. In his thinking, the classical biblical and rabbinic tradition can be brought into harmony with modern historical critical thinking. In my thinking, the relationship is one of tension and mutual judgment. The two modes of interpretation derive from different and often mutually exclusive premises. They correspond to different communities of interpretation; they also serve different goals. We agree that modern biblical scholars who also seek to be practicing Jews must deal respectfully with both, but I think the position they occupy – we occupy – is one of great tension, a tension typical of modernity itself. Professor Benjamin Sommer’s new book makes an impressively learned and thoughtful case for his position. I regret that I remain unpersuaded.


Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).


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