This week’s Ask A Rabbi deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, the belief that the Torah is a collection of independent narratives written by different authors, as opposed to having divine authorship. This post features two sides of the debate.
Zach C. asks: Why do people believe in the Documentary Hypothesis so strongly? Is it really true? Why do people say there is such strong evidence for it?
Did the Red Sea really part? Or did the Children of Israel walk across a sandbar at low tide? The Documentary Hypothesis often invites a reconsideration of the historicity of biblical events. For those who don’t know, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Torah was written by many different people at different times. It may make one wonder such questions as: Are biblical personalities real? Did the Exodus ever actually occur?
For me, such criticism of the Torah has proven to be unfounded. I want to share with you how I have come to believe in the Torah’s divine authorship. But not only that, I want to share with you the ways in which my conviction differs from the majority of others who believe the same.
My rabbinic training schooled me in source critical theory. In other words, looking at the Torah with a lens borrowed from our current understandings of society. While I found what it offered to be credible responses to contradictions, asymmetries, and linguistic problems, it was too rich in “answers.” Shortcuts to resolutions felt like a disservice, short-circuiting questions that could yield meaningful content. However, given the chance, I welcomed historical source-based lessons, which served to advance rather than undermine the sanctity of the text.
My belief in the Torah’s divinity has been empirically earned more recently. It was neither handed down nor inherited. The simplest way to explain it is to consider a continuum from shallowness to depth. The former skims meager content, while the latter yields continuously fresh content. The more time I spend learning Torah, the more convinced I become that it is a text of infinite depth. The longer one dwells in a passage or phrase, the greater the volume of content one can accumulate. As a result of this cognitive, intellectually alive approach to content-appreciation within Torah, I have come to believe that even some theoretical “committee of 100 Shakespeares” would be incapable of producing it (let alone some wise redactors – who, incidentally, might not have left us with so many contradictions if they were redacting effectively).
Finally, because I came to my belief as described above, for me the Torah’s divinity, its importance, has nothing to do with “authority” or “infallibility.” Whether or not the Torah is “literal” is besides the point. Rather, God’s authorship of Torah conveys infinite content. Impacted by my teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught, “In the realm of theology, shallowness is treason,” two additional lessons are revealed: 1) God cares, and 2) We matter.
It is fairly clear to me that God did not write the Torah, nor did Moshe sit on the top of Mount Sinai taking dictation from the Almighty. While I believe that God does “speak,” God’s words do not sound like human speech. Beyond time and space, God’s communication is something else entirely.
Thus, God’s revelation at Sinai is shaped by humans, told and retold over the course of generations, centuries, and millennia. Those stories, statutes, and songs were passed down mi-dor l’dor – from generation to generation – until our spiritual ancestors took quills to parchment and began the process of writing them down. Eventually, they became our most ancient sacred text: our Torah.
While that understanding of the process may not seem holy, I find it meaningful and intellectually honest. The Torah is our people’s sanctified attempt at comprehending the Divine’s will, which then offers us a path to living a moral and meaningful life.
Although some Jews and Christians believe that Moses transcribed the Torah from God’s mouth at Mount Sinai, the Torah itself makes no such claims.
In fact, according to the book of II Kings (22:8), King Josiah “discovers” or edits or writes the Book of Deuteronomy. We do not find the claim that the Torah is word-for-word “word of God.” Does this biblical-criticism approach destroy the authority and meaning of the Torah? Can it actually add meaning to our text? Perhaps.
For example, the story of the Golden Calf is reported not only in Exodus right after the Ten Commandments where we usually find it, but also in I Kings (12:26-30), which most scholars believe is the original version. This is troubling because it means that the Golden Calf incident may not have occurred at Sinai at all, as the Torah teaches.
But if we ponder it more deeply, we are offered another insight. Why did this story that occurred later in Jewish history become associated with the key, salient moment of Sinai? What message does our tradition want to teach us?
Introducing the story at Sinai presents us with an important lesson: even at the moment when we experience God’s presence, we can mess up. And if the Israelites, while experiencing God’s revelation at the moment of Sinai, could suddenly build the Golden Calf and eventually be forgiven, then how much more so can we, who make mistakes at such a distance from Sinai, be forgiven as well?
I believe that the Torah, as we have it, is the product of an ongoing divine-human encounter. Its holiness derives not merely from its divine inspiration or its centuries-long process of redaction, but from our people who have read this text every Shabbat for thousands of years, interpreted it and made it their own. Each time we read it, we distill new meaning and appreciate new insights generation after generation.
So, pick up the Torah and appreciate the layers of the Documentary Hypothesis, as well as the deeper levels of meaning that our people have uncovered in our sacred texts. As our great teacher, Hillel, taught: “Zil gmor – go and study!”
Whether the Torah was given directly from God, or humans played a role in shaping its stories, learn more about each week’s portion (“parashat hashavua”) and how it can apply to our lives today with the Animated Torahlog: presented by G-dcast and hosted by InterfaithFamily. With animated videos and discussions of the plot twists and themes, it’s a great resource for Torah study at any level. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that we’re required to teach our children three things, Torah, a trade, and how to swim, and what better place to start than a blog?