Was the Torah revealed from Heaven?

The doctrine of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, “The Torah is from Heaven,” is a fundamental teaching of Orthodox Judaism. Rabbis say it means that God dictated the Five Books of Moses to Moses. But even rabbis who strongly defend this doctrine do not know how God communicated the Torah to Moses or how much of it. For example, there are Orthodox rabbis who agree that Moses was the author of the book of Deuteronomy, or most of it, and God approved what he wrote. More significantly, Maimonides states that we have no idea how the Torah was revealed. A modern rabbi and scholar Louis Jacobs argues that he knows how it was revealed.

Maimonides

In his work called Chelek, Maimonides lists thirteen principles of Judaism. The eighth focuses on the revelation of the Torah. In the discussion of revelation of the Torah, Maimonides states that we have no idea how the Torah was revealed. He states:

The Torah “in our hands today is the Torah which was given through Moses and that it is all of divine origin. This means that it all reached him from God in a manner that we metaphorically call ‘speech.’ The exact quality of that communication is only known to Moses” (translation by Fred Rosner, Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, emphasis added).

We have no idea what Maimonides meant by saying that we only “metaphorically” call it speech. Could he mean that Moses actually heard nothing, but was “inspired” to write what he wrote.

It should also be noted that the doctrine does not say “The Torah is from God.” Also, the Torah itself does not claim that it was written or revealed from God. Additionally, the word “Heaven” seems to be a metaphor, as Maimonides says. Furthermore, Rashi (1040-1104) states that the Aramaic Translation of the five Books of Moses were “from Heaven,” when he also explains that Onkelos wrote it. Therefore, he must mean that the translation is so significant that it is as if it was a gift from Heaven. It is possible that just as the phrase means as if for the translation, it means here that the Five Books of Moses are so significant that it is as if God dictated it.

The Controversial Jacob’s Affair

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006), author of eighteen books, was on his way to being selected as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire but was stopped soon after he published his thoughtful book “We Have reason the Believe.” His 1957 book examines traditional Judaism that is not fundamentalist. He accepts the views about God, life after death, and that the Torah came from heaven, but does so in what might be called a less radical, more rational, modern manner. The book soon became the cause of what was called in the 1960s the “Jacobs Affair.”

Jacobs was the rabbi of the New London Synagogue for over thirty years and was a Visiting Professor of Religious Studies in Lancaster University. His appointment to an Orthodox Rabbinic position as the principal of Jews’ College, which could have led to him becoming Britain’s Chief Rabbi, was vetoed by the Chief Rabbi at that time. The ground for the veto was Jacobs’ suggestion that the doctrine of “The Torah is from heaven” needs a more modern interpretation that fitted in with modern knowledge. In 1990, chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that people who have a similar view as Louis Jacobs have severed their links to Judaism. Ostracized, he became the founder of Conservative Judaism in England.

Jacob’s book

Jacobs insists that his view is not new. He has not removed God from his view of revelation, and he has not in any way diminished the requirement of all Jews to observe the halakha, Jewish laws and practices.

However, he accepts the scholarly view that “the Torah is seen as the outcome of the various sources and the editorial processes of coming (sic, probably, originally, combining) them. This would mean that the Torah was not “revealed’’ at a single time, by a single person, and changes were made in it over time by people with different agendas. In other words, he accepts the views of the documentary hypothesis that the Torah is made up of material from J, E, P, and D, if not more. “(D)ivine revelation takes place through inspired human beings who, over a long period of time, cooperated with God in producing the glory that is called the Torah.”

Jacobs does not define “inspired human beings.” How are they inspired? Is the inspiration involved with the writing of the Torah the same as when an author writes a novel? Or is it somehow different? If different, in which way is it different? Also, even more significant, what does he mean by “cooperated with God”? How is God involved? Does the “inspiration” somehow involve God? If so how? Is it just a general cooperation or is God involved somehow in the writing of every word, even the different spelling of words?

Similarly, Jacob writes, “God’s power is not lessened because He preferred to co-operate with His creatures in producing the Book of Books … We hear the authentic voice of God speaking to us through the pages of the Bible … and its message is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings.”

This statement does not help clarify the questions previously asked. Neither does Jacob’s claim that revelation should be understood “to take place through the historical experiences of the Jewish people in the long quest for God.”

A possible explanation of Jacob’s view

Jacob states that “Revelation is the self-disclosure of God in his dealings with the world. Scripture is thus not itself revelation but a humanly mediated record of revelation.” This seems to recognize that the only way that we can know God is through what God has done. This is what we might call revelation, the divine acts are the way God is revealed. This statement also seems to say that scripture is the work of humans who take this kind of divine revelation and using it to compose the Torah.

The problem with this is that it arguably does away with revelation entirely. The Torah, according to this view sems to be a human product based on what the authors saw around them, the laws of nature.

Conclusion

Rabbi Jacobs may have chosen the title “We have Reason to Believe” either because he felt that since his view of revelation included God there was “reason” to accept the Torah, or because he felt that he was offering a rational view of revelation. Either way, his view that God contributed to the writing of the Torah by giving humans intelligence that allowed them to see and understand history and the laws of nature, may not satisfy many Orthodox Jews.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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