Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

Who wrote our Torah? Many Jews hold that our Torah is Divine in origin. Yet nowhere does our Hebrew Bible suggest that it was all written by God. Our Hebrew Bible, the TaNaKh, attributes authorship of some of its sections to God, yet these are few.

In the Prophets Nevi’im, the early prophets — the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings — claim to tell the history of Israel from the time of the conquest of the Promised Land after the Exodus through the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Nothing in the style of these books suggests that they are Divine in origin. Though in places they certainly talk about God (in the third person), they present different perspectives & share the pitfalls of humanly written histories. Some of the later prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets — explicitly claim to reflect Divine revelation. The second verse of the Book of Jeremiah states that “the word of the LORD came to him [Jeremiah] in the days of [King] Josiah …” In case this is not definitive enough, the first real prophecy in the book opens: “The word of the LORD came to me.” Jeremiah 1:4. Isaiah simply begins: “The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of…” Isaiah 1:1. The book makes no explicit assertion of Divine origin.

Most of the books of the Writings Ketuvim completely lack the suggestion that they are from God. Psalms is a book of prayers to God, not from God. In most of the Book of Job, God is spoken of in the third person. Proverbs is mostly human wisdom. The five Megillot (scrolls) also lack suggestion of Divine authorship. Song of Songs is explicitly attributed to Solomon, with no hint of Divine inspiration. Only some sections of Daniel contain prophecies attributed to God— though unlike earlier prophecy, these are mediated by an angel.

In sum, less than half of the text of Prophets and Writings contain any internal suggestion that the text originated from God. Much of later Jewish tradition assumes that these books may have a Divine hand behind them. This idea developed in the post-biblical period.

Even our Torah nowhere suggests that its text is all Divinely authored. Only in Exodus does the formula “The Lord spoke to Moses saying” begin. Absolutely nothing in Genesis suggests that it was originally understood as given from God. The first words of the Bible are, “When God began to create heaven and earth” — not “God said to Moses, ‘When I began to create heaven and earth.’” The final book of Torah, Deuteronomy, presents itself as Moses’s speech, not God’s.

The classical formulation of the Divine origin of our Torah comes from Maimonides: “The 8th fundamental principle is our Torah came from God. We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God … through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation….” This assertion has some roots in earlier rabbinic literature & in the very latest books of the Bible. Yet its status as dogma is debated, and is connected to the issue of whether Judaism is just a religion of deeds or also has central creeds like Christianity.

Scholars have shown our Torah contains too many contradictions to be Divine, instead came into being over a long period of time, reflecting the understanding of various ancient Israelites, living in different places at different times, of what God wanted of them. But a text that reflects people’s understanding of God is quite different from a text dictated by God to Moses and preserved without error for three millennia — the view of Maimonides.

Should this matter? Does scripture need to be perfect in order to retain its scriptural status? For many Jews, Bible does not get its power, or even its authority, from being a Divine document. When reciting the initial blessings before reading from Torah, we laud it as Torat emet— a Torah of truth. That need not mean that it is entirely true, only that it contains profound truths.

Truths can be found in many places; as Jews, our obligation is to search out and follow the truths we find in our Torah as our central orienting text and as the central compass of Jewish life.

Being Jewish means adopting this Bible-centric position — buying into our Torah and using sections of it (along with other wise texts from other traditions) as a guide for our lives and to create continuity with our ancestors — even if we are not following the Bible as God’s revealed truth.

Adapted from Marc Zvi Brettler

B’vrachot, blessings,
Rabbi Dennis