I write this as we approach the holiday of Simchat Torah and join in the celebration of our sacred inheritance.
If you have ever been to a Jewish service, you know that everything changes the moment the ark opens and the Torah scroll comes out. The aura of anticipation is palpable. People who have not been paying attention sit up straight. People who have been talking hush up. People who are not particularly religious sense an air of holiness.
Ask those same people if the Torah is holy and their responses will vary widely. Ask them how the Torah is holy and their replies will differ considerably. Ask them who wrote the Torah and their answers will diverge sharply.
Regardless of what Jews may believe, in practice the Torah occupies a central place in Judaism and as such in the synagogue. How central? Well, consider the symbolism of the ritual reading of the Torah that is the highlight of the synagogue service. The raised area from which the Torah is read (bimah) is the foot of a mountain. The ark (aron hakodesh) is Mount Sinai itself. The eternal light above (ner tamid) is the fire and lightning of the summit at the time of revelation. The Torah itself is housed in the ark, and is brought down, like Moses brought himself down the mountain with the tablets, to the people.
One ascends to the Torah (aliyah) like the prophet himself, and receives its wisdom. All the people/congregation (kahal kadosh) acknowledge the moment of covenant by touching or kissing the scroll during its procession (hakafah). Before its return the Torah is held high and all sing “And this is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel, from the mouth of God to the hand of Moses” (Deut. 4:44, Num.4:37). The link to the moment of revelation is made explicit: we have witnessed the sacred ritual reenactment of Sinai—the giving and receiving of the Torah to the people of Israel. The most important moment in Jewish history is vicariously relived time and again.
The centrality of the Torah may be beyond dispute, but how Jews view the Torah goes a long way toward explaining where they place themselves on the denominational spectrum of Judaism. “Who wrote the Torah?” is perhaps the most provocative and divisive question in Judaism. The Torah is at the same time the great unifier and the great divider of the Jewish people.
So, who wrote the Torah? I call the answer to that question the “San Andreas fault line” of Jewish belief. Here is a summary of the chapter I devote to that question in my new book, Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics.
On one side of the fault line are the traditional believers of Torah min hashamayim, Torah-from-Heaven, who see the Torah as the direct revelation of God.
For reasons that we may or may not rationally understand, God chose one time and one place to reveal the Torah. The Torah was revealed to the Jewish people from God via Moses. The Torah itself is holy scripture; it is perfect because it reflects God’s perfection. Yet the received Torah is subject to human imperfection—written down and speaking to fallible human beings in human language that we must strive to comprehend. The traditionalist agrees that while the Torah cannot be changed, it can, and must, be interpreted.
On the other side of the fault line are those who believe that the Torah is humanly written. The Torah gives evidence of many authors and redactors, and so should be studied like any other historical text. It contains timeless truths but also archaic propositions and rituals.
Hard atheists may see the Torah as an important but wholly human document. As the epic story of the founding of the Jewish people, the Torah is a literary treasure. But it is only holy in that it connects us with our heritage, not with a higher power. The Torah is far from perfect, as it was composed by fallible human beings working in varied times and places.
Soft atheists in search of a more spiritual understanding of revelation might avail themselves of religious naturalism and say that God does not reveal the Torah, but the Torah reveals God…or at least the highest ideals of the moral law that we can term God. As such, the Torah is something more than great literature—it is a work of religious genius that reveals that genius as few other books can do.
Religious agnostics often hold that the Torah was not written by God but inspired by God. If the traditionalist believes in direct revelation, the liberal Jew may counter with indirect revelation: admitting the truth of revelation while affirming the crucial human role in transmitting that revelation.
Revelation thus becomes an ongoing process of discovery—not confined to the past, but continuing even in our own lives as we add to the collective wisdom that is Torah. The covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people is continually evolving. In this sense, Torah is sacred (though not infallible) scripture, and the agnostic may carry on the project of a grand synthesis of Athens (humanism) and Jerusalem (theism).
Even as Torah divides the Jewish community, Torah unites the Jewish community. So much of the stories we tell, the history we recite, and the Judaism we practice come from the Torah. The Hebrew Bible in particular, and the wisdom of Jewish literature in general, can be understood as the cherished possession of all Jews.
Acclaimed novelist Chaim Potok put it this way:
Torah is a Jew’s sense of self, the beginning of it, and the foundation stone of it. Then you can pick and choose, quarrel with it, discard this, accept that; but at least know where the shoreline is before you begin to row away from it. If you are rowing and there is no shoreline at all, then you’re navigating blind, and to navigate blind is to live in dread.[i]
David Lerman, an esteemed past president of The Jewish Publication Society, expressed a similar sentiment:
Torah is, effectively, our genetic code. [Torah] explains who Jews are, why we behave as we do, and why we are perceived by others in the world as we are. Whether we embrace Torah and live it, reframe it and live informed by its values, we always react to it—and that is a defining element in our experience on this planet.[ii]
[i] Interview with Chaim Potok in Haberman, The God I Believe In, 220.
[ii] Unpublished speech to The Jewish Publication Society, date unknown.