Different Perspectives on the Authorship of the Torah

Literary, historical, and theological perspectives on whether the Torah is divine, human, or something in between

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The discussion of where the Torah comes from is not simply a question of theology or history or literary criticism. Within the Jewish community, it is a conversation that spans at least all three of these disciplines. This article describes some of the contours of that discussion within these three disciplines.

"This is the Torah which Moses placed before the people of Israel. These are the testimonies, the laws and the judgments which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they went out from Egypt" (Deuteronomy 4:43-44). When the Torah speaks of Torah, it is fairly clear that the word means "instruction" and does not refer to the specific book of the Torah as we have it. Nevertheless, under the influence of statements like this one from Deuteronomy, Jews throughout the generations have treated the book of the Torah, as a whole, as the revelation of God to Moses on Mount Sinai, delivered to the people of Israel. Yet, even in ancient times, Jews expressed opinions that parts of the Torah may have been revealed at different times.

authorship of the torahThe question of the origin of the Torah is not merely one of academic interest, like whether Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare's plays. Connected to the question of the authorship of the Torah is the question of the cultural and legal authority of the text. Since the Torah is the beginning of all later Jewish discussions of ethics and normative practice, claims about its origins can have profound implications for adherents to those ethics and behaviors. Responses to questions concerning the divine authorship of the Torah as we have it today are not uniform; many Jewish thinkers have claimed that the Torah is authoritative whether human participation in its authorship is demonstrable or not. Our concern, however, is not the response to the critique of divine authorship but the the nature of the arguments for and against divine authorship. Arguments for and against the divine authorship of the Torah can be divided into three categories: understanding of the literary nature of the text, conception of the relationship of the text to Israelite history, and one's theological perspective on the Torah.

Assessments of the Literary Character of the Torah

Scholars have noted the repetitions, apparent contradictions, and differences in vocabulary in different sections of the Torah. For the rabbis who wrote the midrash (traditional, homiletical interpretations of Scripture), those phenomena were seen as part of additional information, encoded into the text of the Torah to serve as the basis for oral interpretation. For example, if a law was repeated, the first case might be seen as a warning and the second for punishment. Contradictory texts referred to different situations. Differences in usage were not seen as alternate forms for the same concept, but as different concepts.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.