Moses: In the Bible & Beyond

The greatest of Jewish leaders and prophets.

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The question of the historical Moses has exercised the minds of biblical scholars, very few of whom, however, go so far as to deny completely that Moses is a historical figure. What requires to be discussed is not so much the question of the historical Moses but rather the role this towering figure occupies in the life and thought of the Jewish religion.

Later Jewish Tradition

A marked ambivalence is to be observed in the Jewish tradition with regard to the personality of Moses. On the one hand, Moses is hailed as the intermediary between God and man, as the instrument of God's revelation of the Torah and the teacher of the Torah to Israel, as the father of all the prophets, with whom God spoke "face to face" (Exodus 33:11). On the other hand, strenuous efforts were made to reject any notion that Moses is divine or semi-divine.

Even in the Pentateuch, Moses is described as a human being with human failings. He is reluctant to be God's messenger (Exodus 3:11); he loses his temper (Numbers 20:9-11); he marries and has children (Exodus 18:2-4); and eventually, like all human beings, he dies and is buried (Deuteronomy 34). For all his role as the intermediary, it is not Moses but God who gives the Torah to Israel. There is a rabbinic saying that if God had not given the Torah to Moses, He could have given it, with the same effect, to Ezra. Judaism is in no way "Mosaism." It is the religion of the Jewish people.

In the Middle Ages, there were a number of Jewish thinkers who, evidently in response to the claims made for Jesus by Christians and for Muhammad by Muslims, so elevated the role of Moses that the Jewish religion was made to center on him.

Moses Maimonides on Moses

But the opposite tendency is also clearly to be observed. Precisely because Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam, center on an individual, these thinkers declared that Judaism, on the contrary, singles out no individual, not even a Moses, as belonging to the heart of the faith. The stresses in the matter vary in proportion to the particular challenge in the period in which the role of Moses is considered. Throughout, the tension exists between an affirmation that Moses is supremely significant and the need to play down the role of Moses. Maimonides is extraordinary in laying down, as a principle of the faith, that the Jew is obliged to believe that Moses is the greatest man who ever lived and, even, that his status is of the angels. But, as with his other principles, Maimonides is reacting, in a particularly strong emphasis, to the challenges to Judaism in his day and a careful reading of Maimonides' formulation shows that he hedges round his statement with a number of reservations.

bible quizIn his formulation of the seventh principle in the commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin10:1) Maimonides writes:

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.