Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points out (God in Search of Man, P. 257-278), that there is a fundamental difference between the concepts of the Torah (the 5 books of Moses) being from Sinai and being Divinely revealed (and sacred). Rabbi Heschel explains that the concept of the Torah being from Sinai is a historical, chronological concept, while the concept of the Torah being Divinely revealed is a religious, theological concept. The question as to whether Moses wrote the Torah , or whether the Torah, as according to historical scholarship, is a composite document (composed of different sources) produced and edited long after the period of Moses is not a religious but historical question – and independent of the religious principle of Divine revelation. I want to clarify that the concept of Divine revelation in regard to the Torah is a central religious principle in the Talmudic tradition but not a dogma (as the Talmudic rabbis did not codify any binding theological dogma).
The implications of this distinction regarding historical scholarship are enormous. Historical scholarship cannot in principle relate to the question of whether the Torah represents the Divinely revealed will of God because such a question is not factual but philosophical and religious in nature – and thus it is outside the bounds of historical scholarship, which is empirical in nature (based upon observable facts). No facts of an empirical nature can be brought to bear upon the question of whether or not the Torah is sacred and Divinely revealed. However, the question of whether the Torah actually came from Moses on Sinai is a factual and historical question – within the bounds of historical scholarship. On the basis of such scholarship, it is widely held that the Torah represents a later historical development after Moses and Sinai – and, from a scholarly perspective it may be that Moses and Sinai are in the realm of legend rather than historical fact as there is no evidence external to the Bible indicating that there was such a figure Moses or such an event Sinai. According to Rabbi Heschel, the Torah according to the Jewish tradition is Divine and sacred as a matter of religious principle – no matter who authored the Torah or when it was produced from a historical point of view, and no matter whether various stories in the Bible are in the realm of legend. A similar position to that of Rabbi Heschel is also expressed by Rabbi Abraham Kook relating to the larger issue of the nature of the Torah as a whole:
Concerning the opinions of modern, academic research, the majority of which contradict the plain meaning of the Torah, my opinion in this matter is that…even though there is no necessary truth reflected in such research, in any case we are not obligated at all to deny such research and to oppose it because it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred. The essence is the internal, the internal explanations of the matters.
Rabbi Kook here is relating to the issue of creation and eternity, and not to the view of academic scholarship that the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) was not written by Moses but produced and edited after the period of Moses. However, his argument clearly applies also to the issue of Mosaic authorship of the Torah – whether he intended it to so apply or not. He argues that academic, scientific research is limited in that it doesn’t yield necessary truth. This is indeed true as academic research, based upon modern, scientific methodology, leads to probability and plausibility, and not to necessary or certain truth. More important, though, Rabbi Kook suggests that the essence of the Torah is not to record documentary, factual history – “it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred”. Rather, for Rabbi Kook, the essence of the Torah is to teach moral and spiritual truth – “the essence is the internal, the internal explanations of the matters”.
Rabbi Kook, who was a Jewish mystic, is expressing a mystical view here that there are different levels to the study of Torah. It is only on a superficial level that the Torah records stories and events (among other things). The essence of the Torah, for Rabbi Kook as a mystic, is what Rabbi Kook calls the internal, by which he means the deeper moral, spiritual and mystical teachings of the Torah. According to the position of Rabbi Kook it is implied that there may be factual inaccuracies in the Torah in that “it is not the essence of the Torah at all to tell us simple facts and events that occurred”. By the way, there are contradictions in the plain meaning of Scripture – and, in the case of such contradictions, only one of the contradictory statements can be factually true, and the other is then false. For example, did vegetation sprout from the earth as according to Genesis 1, 12 on the 3rd day of creation prior to the creation of the human being on the 6th day, or was there no vegetation as according to Genesis 2, 5 prior to the creation of the human being in Genesis 2, 7?
Thus, when we say in the Jewish tradition that the Torah is “a Torah of truth” this does not necessarily mean that each and every word is true from a factual point of view. Rather, the Torah is, for Rabbi Kook, a Torah of truth in a deeper moral and spiritual sense. Rabbi Kook is not threatened by modern, academic research and not threatened by the scientific theory of evolution, and he therefore says explicitly that “we are not obligated at all to deny such research and to oppose it” – and, again, his argument applies regarding Mosaic authorship of the Torah whether he intended so or not.
The notion of Divine revelation as a religious principle or idea (and not dogma) is not dependent upon on Moses having authored the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and not dependent upon Sinai being an actual historical event. Furthermore, there is a phrase in the Jewish tradition used to describe the Divine nature of the Torah – “the words of the living God”. Reflected in the phrase is a conception that the words of Scripture are Divine and sacred; and, it is the words of Scripture that are considered sacred – no matter who authored them and no matter whether Sinai was an actual historical event. Moses (whether a historical or legendary figure) and Sinai (whether a historical or legendary event) are in any case an integral part of the Jewish tradition from a spiritual point of view – the stories of Moses and Sinai are an integral part of our history and heritage as Jews even if the stories are legend from the point of view of academic scholarship (just as the legend of Adam and Eve is an integral part of our heritage).
In the Jewish tradition, the sacred words of Scripture are attributed to Moses and Sinai most importantly in an inspirational and spiritual sense even if from the point of view of academic scholarship Moses and Sinai may have the status of legend rather than factual history. The questions of whether Moses was an actual historical figure, and whether Sinai was an actual historical event are historical and not religious questions – and, not even important questions from a religious point of view. The literal meaning of the term Torah is instruction or guidance, and the truly important issue from a religious point of view is what the words of Scripture are teaching us as Jews not only from a legal point of view but especially morally and spiritually. I also want to add that not only does the notion of Divine revelation as a religious principle (and not dogma) not necessarily presuppose Mosaic authorship of the Torah or Sinai as an actual historical event; but, the notion of the Torah as sacred does not even necessarily presuppose the existence of God. Again, it is the words of Scripture that are sacred (as the foundation of the Jewish tradition) and constitute the legal, moral and spiritual guidance of the Torah even without necessarily presupposing the existence of God.
Rava, one of the great Talmudic rabbis, in a remarkable Talmudic source, presents a secular and anti-theological conception of Judaism, in which the Torah is conceived as authoritative and sacred not as the Divinely revealed word of God but as an expression of Jewish history. The source (Shabbat 88a) is based upon the verse, “And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19, 17), referring to the people Israel standing at Mount Sinai prior to the revelation of the Torah (the 5 books of Moses):
Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an inverted cask, and said to them – if you accept the Torah, it is well, and if not, there shall be your burial. Rabbi Acha ben Jacob said, this furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. Rava said, yet even so, they accepted it in the days of Achashverus, as it is written, “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them” (Esther 9, 27) – they confirmed what they had received long before.
Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa interprets the verse “and they stood at the foot of the mountain” midrashically (not according to its plain meaning) as meaning that God threatened the people Israel with death, by bringing the mountain of Sinai crashing down upon them, if they did not accept the Torah. The phrase “this furnishes a strong protest” is an Aramaic phrase that is a technical, Halachic (legal) term. The term means that an agreement or contract entered into under duress has no binding force. The receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, according to the Bible, was part of a mutual covenant or agreement between God and the Jewish people. Thus, Rabbi Acha ben Jacob objects that if, according to the midrash, God threatened the Jewish people with death unless they accept the Torah, then the Torah was accepted under duress and has no binding authority over the Jewish people. Rava answers that, in any case, at a later period historically, the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon themselves voluntarily. He quotes from the Book of Esther (9, 27), “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”, which he interprets to mean that the Jewish people confirmed and accepted as binding upon them what they had previously received at Sinai – as the same Hebrew word means “accepted” as well as “received”, which is the basis of Rava’s answer.
In my view, Rava’s answer is revolutionary and reflects a secular and anti-theological conception in which the source of authority of the Torah as a constitution of the people Israel is not the result of the Torah being Divinely revealed from God Above to the Jewish people below as part of a mutual covenant entered into by God and the people Israel – as depicted in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. Rather, in Rava’s view, the source of authority of the Torah is historical, and not theological, in that the Jewish people accepted the Torah upon themselves voluntarily as part of a unilateral decision by the Jewish people to accept the Torah upon themselves as binding, as reflected in the verse that Rava cites as a proof text that does not mention God – “the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”.
I want to point out two things regarding the verse (Esther 9, 27) that serves as Rava’s proof text (“the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”). First, it is not by accident that Rava, in formulating a secular and anti-theological conception of the source of authority of the Torah, has chosen a verse from the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther stands out in the Bible, as the great secular and anti-theological book of the Bible – the term God does not appear even one time in the Book of Esther. Second, Rava’s philosophic conception is revealed in his choice of the verse from the Book of Esther (9, 27) as a proof text. If Rava did not intend to challenge the Biblical conception of the covenant of Sinai, in formulating a secular, anti-theological conception, then he could have cited proof texts from either the Book of Joshua (Joshua 24, 19-26) or the Book of Nechemiah (Nechemiah 8, 1-18), where in both these cases it is recorded that a covenant renewal ceremony (renewing the covenant of Sinai) took place at a later historical date. In both cases the Torah is presented as being given by God, and the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people is primarily an expression of obedience to God’s will and authority. Therefore, if Rava wanted to preserve the Biblical conception of the covenant of Sinai, in which the Torah was given from God Above to the Jewish people below as part of a mutual covenant, and, at the same time, answering Rabbi Acha ben Jacob’s objection (that the covenant of Sinai is not binding as the Torah was accepted under duress at Sinai, according to the midrash), then he could have chosen either of these sources from Joshua or Nechemiah, in which the covenant of Sinai was renewed voluntarily by the Jewish people.
Moreover, Rava cites a verse from the Book of Esther (“the Jews confirmed and accepted upon them”) as his proof text that in its plain meaning, in the context of the story, is referring to the Jewish people confirming and accepting upon themselves the holiday of Purim, and has nothing to do with the acceptance of the Torah! Remarkably, Rava is willing to ignore the sources from Joshua and Nechemiah that in their plain meaning speak of the voluntary acceptance of the Torah and the renewal of the covenant of Sinai, as part of mutual covenant between God and the Jewish people; and to uproot the verse from the Book of Esther, out of its context (relating to the holiday of Purim), and to use it as a proof text for his own secular, anti-theological conception that the source of authority of the Torah is the historical and unilateral acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people as binding upon themselves.
Rava does not necessarily reject the concept of the Torah as the Divinely revealed word of God in his citing the verse, “they confirmed what they had received long before”, which means what they received long before at Sinai. Significantly absent from this phrase, though, is any reference to the Torah being received as the Divinely revealed word of God. Rava simply ignores the philosophic question as to whether the Torah represents the Divinely revealed word of God and, if so, in what sense. Rava entirely omits the concept of God from his formulation. Such an anti-theological formulation serves to unite rather than divide the Jewish people by seeking points of agreement rather than disagreement. Every Jew, from secular through ultra-orthodox, can agree with Rava’s anti-theological formulation that historically the Jewish people received the Torah and accepted it upon them as binding. Such a matter is simply a matter of historical fact that cannot be disputed. By contrast, whether the Torah truly represents the Divinely revealed word of God or not is a matter of philosophic debate leading to division within the Jewish people between those who believe and those who do not.
In Rava’s anti-theological conception, the source of authority of the Torah is not in its being the Divinely revealed word of God, though this is a central idea of the Bible and Jewish tradition (which he does not necessarily reject), but in its being accepted historically by the Jewish people as binding upon them. The implications here are enormous as Rava provides a rationale for observance of tradition not due to theological reasons but as an expression of Jewish culture and history. Such a rationale does not presuppose the existence of God, or belief in the existence of God, and can thus appeal to secular Jews including even atheists who may not believe in the existence of God. It is also clear that Rava would not have been threatened by academic scholarship that Moses did not write the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and that the Torah did not come from Sinai, as in Rava’s conception the authority and sanctity of the Torah are due to historical reasons; and, the Torah was accepted historically by the Jewish people as authoritative and sacred – no matter who wrote the Torah and no matter when the Torah was written.
Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .