Jul 30, 2008

Let's Talk Torah: Who Wrote It?

I don't know how it happened -- I blame the 1.5-hour, corporate-style commute -- but I've become one of those people that mechanically purchases a coffee product every morning, without fail. No matter how hard I try to avoid the purchase, it happens. I haven't gotten to the point where I go to the same coffee shop or have the same barista or where the patrons happen to be the same day in and day out at the same hour every day, but it's still sort of frightening. I'll make my way to campus, avoiding Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, and still manage to get to campus and hit the Starbucks down here, or -- even after making it to my office, going back out -- to the Divinity School.

Yes, the Divinity School here at the U of Chicago is right next door, and yes there is a coffee shop in their basement. They even sell T-Shirts that says something along the lines of G-d drinks our coffee, or somethign similar. The boon to going to the Div School coffee shop is that I get to stop in the lobby and peruse the various texts that faculty in the School have published recently. So the other day, and once again today, I noticed a new book -- "Rewriting the Torah" -- and of course the title piqued my interest. I found a preview of it on Google Books, and it seems like an interesting read. Here's what the Amazon description says:

Jeffrey Stackert explores literary correspondences among the pentateuchal legal corpora and especially the relationships between similar laws in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Lev 17-26). Through an analysis of the pentateuchal laws on asylum, seventh-year release, manumission, and tithes, he argues that the Holiness Legislation depends upon both the Covenant Collection and Deuteronomy. The author also elucidates the compositional logic of the Holiness legislators, showing that these authors employ a method of literary revision in which they reconceptualize source material according to their own ideological biases. In the end, the Holiness Legislation proves to be a "super law" that collects and distills the Priestly and non-Priestly laws that precede it. By accommodating, reformulating, and incorporating various viewpoints from these sources, the Holiness authors create a work that is intended to supersede them all.
Now, when I took Hebrew Bible many moons ago in my undergraduate education, I grew quickly fascinated with the idea of various authors composing Torah. The idea initially seemed logical, then outlandish, then made sense as we studied the literary themes and stylings of the different books and even various parashot within Torah. However, after that class, I sort of put my notes/exams/thoughts into a notebook and filed them away and haven't really thought much about it since then. In fact, I don't even know what traditional Judaism's thoughts on the idea of various authors composing the written Torah are -- is it accepted or denied, that is, among the religious community (I know the academic community is pretty much in agreeance about the concept of various authors, known as the documentary hypothesis

It is my understanding (and this will also work itself into my BIG POST ON THEOLOGY) that within Orthodox Judaism (note: the term Orthodox was really coined only in the early 19th century),  the belief is that Torah was given at Sinai (both oral and written?) to Moses, and that it was then transmitted throughout the generations until it was written down. The oral tradition was meant to never really be written since, well, it's the oral tradition. My blank comes with the "written" portion of the revelation, being Torah: is it believed that G-d actually gave Moses the Torah? Or that Moses composed the Torah during the revelation and that it was passed down? Or is it believed that both traditions were passed along and composed later, so the idea of multiple authors would be acceptible, if not absolutely logical under the circumstances?

So, nu? Tell me what you know. I'll probably pick up this book at some point -- likely after I move and have a shiny new UConn library card. As a writer/poet/amateur blogger, the way a person combines words into complete thoughts is fascinating and watching how different authors are and how their personal styles manage to reveal themselves even in anonymous instances absolutely excites me. So this is going to be an ongoing conversation, and I hope to glean some useful information from you -- my readers!

Be well, friends!


Mottel said...

The Torah, every dash, dot and letter of it, was given by G-d to Moses on Sinai.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

So a PHYSICAL Torah, then?

Not merely a revelation of the words to Moses who relayed them?

Anonymous said...

My understanding: Orthodoxy teaches that the Torah was given by G-d to Moses, word for word (as Mottel said). I think they say G-d dictated it. Conservative Judaism teaches the Torah was inspired by G-d, but Moses wrote it down. Reform Judaism teaches that G-d had something to do with the Torah, but it's mostly Moses' (or Moses and many sages who came after him) doing.

I may be totally wrong.

B. Spinoza said...


general main stream orthodoxy holds the following:

1) the ten commandments were given to Moshe written miraculously by God
2)the laws of the Torah were dictated to Moshe at Sinai
3) the text (with explanation) of the 5 books of Moses were dictated to Moses throughout the 40 year period after Sinai until the Jews reached Israel.
4) some say Joshua wrote the last few verses of the Torah after Moses died

That's the basics

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

So I guess in that case, the documentary hypothesis is sort of sacreligious?

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Baruch Spinoza! Oh my! :)

See, that makes more sense to me ... the idea that the laws were dictated to Moses at Sinai, and that the text/explanations were thus dictated after the revelation, and that they were composed by Moses then. That is, rather than, he got it in writing or something from G-d right then and there.

If I followed you right :)

Daniel Saunders said...

the documentary hypothesis is sort of sacreligious?

More than that, it's considered completely unacceptable by Orthodoxy. The British Chief Rabbi goes so far as to call belief in Torah from Heaven (Torah min haShamayim) as the fundamental Orthodox belief. It is an important part of the Orthodox view of halakha and its binding nature, and the reason why even Modern Orthodox rabbis are less flexible with halakha than Conservative rabbis.

For what it's worth, I find that modern biblical criticism raises some interesting questions, but I'm not completely convinced by their methodology or their answers (speaking as a student of early modern history who is sceptical of the methodology of much ancient history, archaeology and especially palaeography!). I've written about it a little on my livejournal; I can send you the links if you're interested.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Daniel, I'd love to read what you've written, of course. Please feel free to send me the links -- kvetching.editor@gmail.com.

I guess this might be a sticking point for me. Not to out myself before my BIG THEOLOGY POST, but I firmly believe that Torah was revealed to Moses at Sinai. I won't go into the rest, but that might be a shock to some. My beef is whether G-d handed Moses a written version of the Torah, or if he relayed it, and later it was written, and throughout time it has been rewritten (before printing press, you know) and throughout that time various authors adjusted a vowel pointing or a comma here or there, resulting in what we know since the time of the printing press.

B. Spinoza said...

>So I guess in that case, the documentary hypothesis is sort of sacreligious?

you betcha. However there are notable exceptions. James Kugel, former professor at Harvard bible studies considers himself orthodox and subscribes to the documentary hypothesis. You should read his latest book How to Read the Bible or visit his website for details.

>If I followed you right :)

yes, that's about right. Only the 10 commandments were given to Moses in writing at Sinai by the "hand of God"

>authors adjusted a vowel pointing or a comma here or there, resulting in what we know since the time of the printing press.

I believe that falls into acceptable opinion in most orthodox circles. At least in Modern Orthodox circles. You may find some fanatics that deny that there were any changes since Moshe's times.

Daniel Saunders said...

It is my understanding ... that within Orthodox Judaism ... the belief is that Torah was given at Sinai (both oral and written?)

I forgot to mention that within Orthodoxy there is much greater flexibility regarding beliefs about transmission of the oral Torah than the written Torah.

At one end of the spectrum there are people who believe that every insight anyone can ever come up with into the Torah was first taught by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

However, some people (myself included) believe that while certain laws were transmitted orally at Mount Sinai, God also transmitted the interpretative tools by which new insights into the Torah could be derived when necessary, and this is what is meant when the Talmud states that the whole oral law was transmitted: not literally every law, but the methodology by which every law could eventually be deduced.

Mottel said...

To clarify - B. Spinoza (a fitting name for the topic of biblical criticism [sic]) is correct in his statement . . . I wasn't entirely clear in my own comment.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

I feel better about all of this now :) Of course, this wasn't completely about me, but knowing where I stand in relation to the traditional point of view on the revelation at Sinai is good.

Todah for all the responses! I've got a hefty set of texts provided from Daniel there, which I intend on reading and perhaps writing a bit more on this once I've organized myself.

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