A Divine Integration

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Such a view not only stands against the traditional view of the Torah as a unity. It seems to imply that the traditional belief in the divinely revealed nature of the Torah is wrong. If the Torah is made up of different sources, each with a different historical origin, then how can the Torah have been revealed, as tradition would have it, to Moses on Mount Sinai, following the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt?

Answers to the questions of the Torah’s unity and its sacred, revealed character were given in the 1920s and ’30s by the German Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Buber and Rosenzweig were not traditionalist Jews, but they were committed to the traditional conception of the Torah both as a unity and as sacred. Buber and Rosenzweig were familiar with Biblical criticism’s view of the Torah as a composite work. “My ear, too, distinguishes a variety of voices in the chorus,” wrote Buber (“Abraham the Seer,” On the Bible, 1968, p. 24; first published in 1939). Consider Buber’s metaphor: The different styles and perspectives of the Torah are made to work together, like the musical parts and diverse voices of a chorus. The sources of the Torah, for Buber, did not originate as one, but they have been combined in a single composition.

The Torah, Rosenzweig wrote in an open letter to an Orthodox critic, is a single book; “it is the work of a single mind.” Tradition identifies this mind as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. Buber and Rosenzweig cannot, for historical reasons, agree with the traditional view. However, they, too, regard the mind that unified the Torah as “our teacher”—“his theology is our teaching.”  Bible critics refer to the redactor of the Torah by the initial “R.”  For Buber and Rosenzweig, “R” = Rabbenu, “our teacher.”  And the principle of the Torah as a unity is, for them, a vital key to its understanding.

Buber and Rosenzweig found powerful support for their approach in the way that key terms and phrases (“leading words”) are deployed in critically related passages in the Torah. For example, when the Israelites are to be liberated from their enslavement in Egypt, they are to “borrow” silver, gold, and garments from their neighbors (Exodus 3:22)—they are to “exploit Egypt.”  This moment seems neither inspiring nor even moral. Where is the divine teaching in it? The meaning of this text, show Buber and Rosenzweig, cannot be drawn from one text in isolation.

In the same passage God explains to Moses that the Israelites are not to leave Egypt “empty-handed” (reiqam; verse 21). The word “empty-handed” stands out on account of its prominent use in two other, thematically associated places in the Torah. When the people of Israel’s namesake, Jacob, escaped from the service of his father-in-law Laban the Aramean, he sneaked away, taking with him all the livestock he had earned, in addition to his family. When Laban overtook Jacob on the way and demanded to know why Jacob had fled in stealth, Jacob explained that, had God not been with him, Laban would surely have sent him out “empty-handed” (reiqam; Genesis 31:42).

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Edward L. Greenstein is professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University and author of Reader Responsibility: The Making of Meaning in Biblical Narrative.