Revelation in Jewish Thought
Contradictions and other inconsistencies in the biblical text are often highlighted in Traditional Jewish sources. Some authors even challenged the Mosaic authorship of certain parts of the Pentateuch (e.g. bBB 15a, Abraham ibn Ezra). The definition of revelation, whether Moses received the Ten Commandments or the entire Torah; the Written as well as the Oral Torah, was also common in rabbinic discourse. Nevertheless, none of these sources questioned the divine origin of the Scriptures.
The first serious voices in both Christian and Jewish thought to challenge the traditional interpretation of Revelation according to which God dictated the Torah, appeared in the early modern and Enlightenment period (e.g. Baruch Spinoza, Henning Bernhard Witter, Moses Mendelssohn). This shift opened the door to the literary and historical criticism of the Bible (e.g. Julius Wellhausen, Abraham Geiger).
The new scientific approach found advocates among Anglo-Jewry. Claude G. Montefiore, a founder of Liberal Judaism was an enthusiastic devotee of biblical criticism and held that it would not shake the core of Judaism – the belief in God and in the moral laws. His contemporary and colleague, the Orthodox Herbert Loewe was also a practitioner of biblical criticism, and together they published the Rabbinic Anthology in 1938. In his introduction, Loewe speaks about the different interpretations of Revelation, explains why the doctrine of literal or verbal inspiration has been disproved, and introduces the concept of ‘intrinsic inspiration’.
Louis Jacobs came to a similar conclusion in his best known book, We Have Reason to Believe: Some Aspects of Jewish Theology Examined in the Light of Modern Thought(1957). In Chapter VII, Jacobs compares the different views on the doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ and says that the concept of the divine origin of the Torah and critical investigation of its text can be harmonised if one rejects the doctrine of ‘verbal’ inspiration.
Jacobs’ main concern is the consequences of giving up the traditional understanding of Revelation. Scientific research has proven that the Torah we have now is not a divine dictation.
If so, does one have to keep its commandments? If verbal revelation is abandoned what gives authority to the biblical text? “Whether the authority of Jewish Law is weakened as a result of scientific investigation?” His answer is ‘no’. Scientific research only shows that God revealed Himself not to men but through men, that is, cooperated with His creatures, and this discovery does not need to weaken the authority of the revealed text. Jacobs’ aim was precisely to find a way to preserve this authority and he thought he had found it. Consequently, to him an observant Jew ought to keep the commandments.
There were fiery opponents of the critical theory within Anglo-Jewry. The Chief Rabbis of the United Hebrew Congregations usually belonged to this camp, and rejected the application of historical criticism to the study of the Torah (e.g. Joseph Herman Hertz, Israel Brodie). Still, the doctrine of revelation continues to fascinate Jewish thinkers today, and has been the subject of several important books published on the topic in recent decades (e.g. David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored. Divine Writ and Critical Responses, 1997; Norman Solomon, Torah from Heaven. The Reconstruction of Faith, 2012).
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