After Revelation and Authority: Reflections from the Author

Benjamin Sommer. Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. pp. 440. $30.00.

My reading of the Torah’s account of what happened at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-20 and 24 forms the generative core of the book under discussion. These chapters from Exodus, and especially the Elohist (or E) document that makes up much of them, encourage their audience to wonder whether the Sinai revelation was couched in language or whether it involved an overwhelming but nonverbal sense of God’s commanding presence. The text’s ambiguity on this issue results in part from its use of the Hebrew word qol, which could mean either “voice” or “thunder.” I argue that the dichotomy between these options leads to two opposing interpretations of the narrative of lawgiving. According to one (qol = “voice”), the specific words and laws of the Torah came down from heaven; in the other (qol = “thunder”), God’s will that Israel obey a law was communicated without words, so that the specifics of the law had to be worked out by Moses. E does not allow us to choose between these two interpretations, encouraging us to wonder about the origin of the law’s specifics.

Jon Levenson demurs from my reading:

…we need not choose between ‘thunder’ and ‘voice.’ Rather, we must take account of the evidence that the sound of the frighteningly powerful voice of the God of Israel was thought to resemble thunder. It was not like an ordinary speaking voice, but neither was it a semantically empty din.

Levenson suggests a both-and reading of the word qol in place of my either-or. But his reading neglects an important aspect of Exodus 19-20: this narrative insistently turns our attention to the problem of the law’s origin. The seven-fold repetition of the word qol is but one of five ambiguities in Exodus 19-20 that force the reader to wonder whether the words of the Ten Commandments came to the Israelites directly from God or exclusively through Moses’ mediation. By repeatedly employing equivocal terminology and indeterminate syntax, these chapters preclude the reader from coming to a definite conclusion. My claim is not merely that a particular term can be read in more than one way, but that through a pattern of narrative techniques Exodus foregrounds a tension between verbal and nonverbal models for heavenly communication, thus rendering this ambiguity a core theme of the Sinai story.

In doubting the presence of this ambiguity in Exodus 19-20, Levenson also ignores the emphatic response to it on the part of the authors of Deuteronomy, whose dependence on the Pentateuch’s E source is well known. For example, Deuteronomy 4:12  glosses qol with the addition of devarim or  “words.” By specifying that the qol at Sinai was a “qol of words” or “a verbal qol,” Deuteronomy makes clear that we should understand the term as meaning “voice” and not just “thunder.” Similarly, Deuteronomy resolves each of the other four ambiguities in Exodus. In fact, Deuteronomy attends to each ambiguity several times over the course of Deuteronomy 4-5. Deuteronomy’s anxiety about these ambiguities is the finest testament to their centrality in the Exodus account. To be sure, Levenson is in very good company in rejecting my reading of E’s dichotomy, for in claiming that the divine qol articulated norms verbally, he repeats the resolution attempted in Deuteronomy 4-5. But the presence already in Deuteronomy of a protest against Exodus’ equivocation shows that both sides of this dichotomy were already in dialogue in the Pentateuch’s melding of ancient traditions.

Another central aspect of the book that Levenson calls into question involves the multivocality of Jewish texts:

…for Sommer, the give-and-take of Talmudic dialectic is the touchstone of Jewish authenticity. But why? Plenty of books that are universally considered Jewish do not proceed in that way, and even much rabbinic literature lacks that feature. I need clarification as to what is gained by recasting the Pentateuch as if it were a page of Gemara.

In fact almost all the texts central to religious curricula throughout Jewish history present discussions and disagreements. This is true of the main item in rabbinical training for well over a millennium, the Babylonian Talmud. Give-and-take is even more prominent when Talmud is studied in traditional Jewish settings, for then it is approached through the intensely dialectic lenses of Tosafot, rishonim, and aḥaronim (medieval and early modern commentators who take up the talmudic dialectic and amplify it). It is also the case for the midrashim (classical rabbinic interpretations of the Bible), as Levenson himself has noted, and for the halakhic literature. This tendency produces the classic page of a great deal of Jewish religious literature, in which a main text is situated amidst multiple commentaries. An intergenerational debate takes places among sages whose commentaries appear in columns surrounding the main text: scholars in one column cite or take issue with scholars in another, and a sage in a third column defends or clarifies the first.

To be sure, some classical Jewish works lack this multivocality. Even those works, however, tend to become assimilated to Judaism’s penchant for debate in the printed editions that become standard in traditional Jewish settings. In the Mishneh Torah, for example, Maimonides  presented us with a univocalic, straightforward restatement of Jewish law. But Maimonides’ code became canonical only alongside a whole literature of commentaries and super-commentaries that often disagree with Maimonides’ rulings and that spell out legal opinions from the Talmuds that Maimonides deliberately left out. Enter most any beit midrash or yeshiva and take down a volume of the Mishneh Torah, and you will find Maimonides’ words surrounded by annotations that reproduce the debates that Maimonides wanted to supersede. The Mishneh Torah that entered the Jewish canon was less Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah than the Mishneh Torah of the multivocalic tradition. The Zohar, often regarded as the central text of Jewish mysticism, similarly fails to come to Levenson’s aid here. Scholars disagree on the nature of the Zohar’s composition: Gershom Scholem attributed the bulk of the work to a single author, Moshe DeLeon, while recent scholars discover several compositional strands. But even if we regard the Zohar as for the most part a compositional unity, it remains significant that its author presents his work as a record of conversations among a group of early rabbis. All this is not to claim that every classical Jewish texts is multivocalic; some of the works that I cite in my own book are not: the Shenei Luḥot Haberit, for example, or the Oheiv Yisrael. But these exceptions hardly undermine the pervasive nature of the trend. Consequently, it is worthwhile to note how modern biblical criticism aids us in discerning the presence of this prototypically Jewish quality in the Pentateuch. It is the Documentary Hypothesis – the bane of many traditionalist Jews – that allows us to see the Pentateuch as a precursor to the Gemara and thus to appreciate its Jewishness.

Levenson objects to my use of the talmudic saying that affirms mutually exclusive sides of a given debate as religiously legitimate, “Both these and those are living words of God.” He notes that this phrase appears only a handful of times in the Talmud, adding, “I don’t see how it can be understood as a bearing beam in the edifice of rabbinic authority.” Here Levenson raises a crucial issue in the construction of any theology based on older sources: can an isolated phrase from tradition serve as touchstone for such a project? A perusal of any theological literature shows that such a phrase can. Religious traditions often promote isolated phrases to greater prominence. This happens especially easily when, as in the case at hand, the phrase articulates a value that is widespread in the literature in question. While the phrase I quote occurs only a handful of times in the Talmud, the view it summarizes – to wit, that opposing opinions can both be regarded as canonical – is commonplace in rabbinic Judaism, as literally every one of the Babylonian Talmud’s 12,800 or so pages attests. For this reason, the phrase I cite came to play a major role already in medieval Jewish thought in spite of its rarity in the Talmuds, as well-known studies by Avi Sagi and Moshe Halbertal make clear.

This same phenomenon occurs with other phrases in Jewish tradition. “The Torah has seventy faces” is a well-known summary of the bedrock assumption underlying biblical interpretation among the rabbis. But the phrase never appears in the Talmuds and shows up but once in a midrashic anthology from the talmudic era (in Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15). Medieval authorities, in particular kabbalistic masters, increasingly take up this phrase, however, using it to epitomize Judaism’s view of the Bible. Nachmanides’ commentary to the Torah cites the phrase once; shortly thereafter, the Zohar-literature uses the phrase four times; a few centuries later Shenei Luḥot Haberit quotes it eleven times. To take another example: medieval kabbalists took an exceedingly rare phrase from rabbinic liturgy, tiqqun olam, and gave it both new meaning and greater prominence. (Modern liberal Jews have elevated the phrase even further, even as they, like the kabbalists before them, have expanded its meaning.) The kabbalists commit no sin in giving these phrases more play than earlier sources did; this sort of extension and (in the case of tiqqun olam) reinterpretation of an older element is at the heart of the process that is tradition. In following the medieval sources that focus attention on “both these and those,” I act as a constructive theologian typically acts – indeed, rather more conservatively, since the phrase on which I focus had already achieved great prominence in medieval rabbinic culture.

Both Jon Levenson and John Cavadini express concerns about my assertion that scripture in modern Judaism is really another form of tradition. They wonder whether this view is tenable on a practical level, and also whether I unconsciously reject religious authority in favor of a secular one.

I never suggest that contemporary Jews should eliminate differences between the Bible and postbiblical texts in Jewish ritual practice. My argument operates at the level of interpretive theory: I simply note that once we modern Jews realize that scripture mixes human and divine elements, we are by definition viewing scripture as a type of tradition, for the difference between Written Torah (scripture) and Oral Torah (tradition) in classical Jewish thought is that the latter has a substantial human element. My point here, surprisingly, bolsters rather than undermines religious authority for modern Jews. Acknowledging the human side of tradition and hence its occasional fallibility does not cause traditional Judaism to founder. Religious Jews have long known there is a human side and hence the possibility of error in the Talmud, but this knowledge never constituted a reason for rabbinic Jews to abandon it.

Similarly, anachronistic references to camels in Genesis and disturbing attitudes towards Canaanites in Deuteronomy are the sorts of errors that we can expect from an ancient tradition that is, in part, human in origin. The presence of these problems in a body of literature that belongs to the broad category of tradition need not be a problem, whereas their presence in a literature that by definition should be perfect – that is to say, in scripture – would pose a much greater challenge. If the only category of authoritative religious literature one has is a perfect scripture, then the death of scripture as a category is fatal to religion. But for Jews (as for Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims), the realization the Tanakh (or the Old and New Testaments or the Qur’an) is not scripture need not be fatal, for Jews have a robust and venerable notion of authoritative sacred teachings that mix human and divine elements: Oral Torah (just as other groups have tradition or sunna and ḥadith). Claiming that the Written Torah is a form of Oral Torah, then, rescues Written Torah, allowing it to remain a foundation for Jewish religion rather than relegating it to the status of an interesting cultural artifact from antiquity.

Most Protestants, however, cannot fall back onto this sort of argument, because they reject the religious authority of tradition. Consequently, scripture’s fallibility causes a crisis for Protestantism. It is for this reason that fundamentalism – the claim that scripture is inerrant, always reliable, and therefore completely inflexible – is specifically a Protestant phenomenon. It is not a Jewish or Catholic one, though of course other forms of religious extremism can and do flourish in both these communities. (Wahhabism seems to break this pattern in the case of Islam: it is a genuine fundamentalism, which ought to be impossible in a religion that has a robust notion of tradition. But Wahhabism is a radically untraditional and indeed Protestantizing phenomenon within Islam.) In my book I am trying to make sure that modern Jews do not treat their religion as if it were Protestantism, and that they do not give up on Judaism when they recognize that scripture sometimes errs. At the same time that I calmly confess that scripture is a subset of tradition for modern Jews, I nonetheless acknowledge that this early subset of tradition is in practical ways different from the later subsets found in rabbinic literature. Jewish religious culture has always accorded the Bible more respect liturgically and less authority halakhically than rabbinic literature. My proposal need not alter these differences.          

Both Cavadini and Levenson read me as presenting a more secular thesis than I hope to have presented; they see me as motivated by presuppositions whose religiously dangerous fruits I did not recognize. Levenson suggests that in the theology I propose “…individuals must act like modern consumers and simply choose which laws to obey and which to disobey….That act of choice strikes me as presupposing a model of the autonomous or sovereign self, which is familiar from modernity… but which is attested poorly, if at all,” in premodern Judaism. This badly misrepresents my position. In no form of traditional Judaism, including the Judaism of the participatory theology I champion, does the individual Jew decide which laws to obey. I emphasize, rather, that Jewish tradition itself, in the form of legal rulings and communal consensus, makes those choices; here Jewish tradition resembles the Catholic Church’s Magisterium. It is precisely a Jew’s act of becoming subservient to the ritual and ethical practices prescribed by tradition that renders the law truly law and not lifestyle.

I could not agree with Levenson more in regard the importance of heteronomy in all forms of traditional Judaism. Because a good deal of my book’s third chapter and most of its conclusion critique individual autonomy and defend heteronomy, I am startled to read Levenson’s characterization of my book as championing the former. The philosopher Samuel Fleischacker has presented a similar criticism of my book. It gives me pause to realize that two deeply accomplished scholars attribute to me an unhealthy fealty to autonomy in a book I intend as a defense of heteronomy. All this makes me worry that I failed to express myself clearly. But it is important to recognize that I stake out a middle ground between Orthodox and atheist-reductionist views of submission to Jewish law. I wonder if my insistence on inhabiting a middle ground has led me to be misunderstood by readers long accustomed to recognize only the two extremes. If one presumes the impossibility of a mediating position, it is difficult to notice one. Combining the belief that submission to Jewish law is part of Judaism’s essence with the recognition that the laws’ specifics are written by human beings and therefore open to change by the community is just such a middle ground. That the same person infrequently holds these two views does not imply they are in any way contradictory, or even in tension with one another.

Similarly, Cavadini suggests that what I am up to “is actually a rejection of religious authority in favor of a secular magisterium.” Commenting on my goal of noticing elements of continuity that go beyond the artificial boundaries that canonizers of Jewish sacred texts created, Cavadini notes that “to call these boundaries ‘artificial’ seems to privilege a secular judgment of modern historical-critical exegesis…over the religious judgment that canonized these texts.” Levenson goes in the same direction when he questions my assertion that the practices of committed Jewish communities ultimately determine what is and is not Torah: “Without some affirmation of providential guidance, all we have is that quasi-Social Darwinian notion that whatever has survived is right.”

But a purely secular magisterium or a Social Darwinism is precisely what my theology rejects. The theology I develop is enthusiastic in its affirmation that providence – God’s gracious concern – guides the development of Jewish tradition over time, even as human beings participate in its development as well. I show in the book’s fifth chapter that this affirmation is not limited to modern thinkers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel or Louis Jacobs, whose views of evolution within Jewish tradition might be thought merely to reflect their biases as modern liberals. It was articulated already in a stream of rabbinic and medieval thought described by Bar Ilan University’s Yochanan Silman (in his book Qol Gadol Velo Yasaf) and, as Heschel himself pointed out, in the sort of late medieval mysticism represented by Shenei Luḥot Haberit and in Ḥasidic works such as the Oheiv Yisrael (written by Heschel’s great-great-great-grandfather and namesake).

Cavadini and Levenson read me as making the claims I would have made if I were, like so many of our colleagues who teach religious studies in the contemporary academy, a reductionist. (By reductionism, I refer to the view that religious texts, ideas, and practices are never really about God and never stem from the influence of a transcendent realm. Instead, reductionists assume, religion is always and exclusively about psychological needs, economic interests, social status, political power, and/or communal cohesion.) I repudiate a reductionist approach to the study of religion throughout my book, starting on page 2, where I stipulate that the participatory theology not only “puts a premium on human agency” but also “gives witness to the grandeur of a God who accomplishes a providential task through the free will of human subjects under God’s authority.” (If my phrasing here sounds like a perfect marriage of Catholic theological language and traditional Jewish thought, it is because I borrow it from a summary of my approach penned by Gary Anderson, a Catholic scholar who has an insider’s understanding of Judaism. Catholic theology embraces a similar idea of providential intervention that guides the unfolding of the Church’s tradition. It is because of that parallel that I compare Judaism’s participatory theology to the work of Catholic theologians such Avery Cardinal Dulles and Yves Cardinal Congar, as well as to writings by the Anglican or Anglo-Catholic theologians Keith Ward and David Brown.) Here again, I wonder whether Levenson and Cavadini experienced my book as saying what they expect a biblical critic to say more than what I actually say.   

I intend my characterization of scripture as a type of tradition to bolster the authority of Jewish law, or at least to inoculate it from a dangerous modern challenge. In this respect, my book is religiously conservative rather than liberal. But Levenson and Cavadini are correct to assert that for me there is a real possibility that an individual’s judgment may trump a claim made by scripture or tradition, and here moral autonomy does make an positive appearance in my work. This is the case, Cavadini rightly notes, when I maintain that the biblical passages requiring us to kill all members of the tribe of Amalek cannot correctly reflect the will of a God who is just and compassionate. Cavadini wonders:

Does this mean that we know what does and what does not reflect God’s will independent of the text…?…If followed to its logical conclusion, where would one stop? Wouldn’t this be ‘religion within the bounds of pure reason alone?’

In responding to Cavadini’s question, I call upon Paul Mendes-Flohr’s accurate assertion in his essay for this forum that Jewish discourse about revelation “by its very nature resists systematization and closure.” I would like to take up this prototypically Jewish habit of rejecting systematization to opine that it is rarely a good policy to take religious ideas all the way to their logical conclusions. Cavadini’s point about human judgment ultimately eclipsing all scripture possesses a certain logical validity. But in lived religion, logical validity carries us only so far. Reason, as Methodist theology rightly teaches us with its idea of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, has a role in our path towards religious truths, but reason has to be tempered by scripture, tradition, and experience. Experience – both in the narrower sense intended by Wesleyans of a perception or intimation of the divine, but also in a broader sense of seeing how things work out in the world – tells me that a just and merciful God does not require me to kill Amalekite babies. And tradition in the form of rabbinic exegesis already sets me on a path towards that conclusion, for talmudic and medieval rabbis wrestle mightily to defang most of the offending verses.

Contrary to Cavadini’s impression, I do not reject rabbinic interpretations that limit the power of the biblical teachings on Amalek and the Canaanites; on the contrary, I am guided by them. But I see the rabbis’ rejection of the plain sense of the problematic biblical verses as less than sufficient. This is especially the case for an age in which Jews again enjoy sovereignty in the Land of Israel, have guns, and harbor understandable but dangerous anxieties about neighbors who have often been violent. In such a situation, a Jew can be too easily tempted to gross immorality by the plain sense of certain biblical verses. The rabbis sought to occlude that sense in regard to these verses, but they could not occlude it entirely. In our current setting, we need to follow the rabbis further than they themselves were able to go as we confess that those verses distort the will of God. The question of purely rational or logical consistency is, by itself, a stumbling-block here; experience and tradition need to take the lead. There are other cases in which scripture, or reason, may take the lead. Ultimately, the community of committed religious Jews adjudicates the proper relations among  these types of authority. In the participatory theology it is an article of faith that the community’s adjudication, which results from a classically Jewish multivocalic debate that spans centuries, is guided by the providence of a God who decided that sages would take the place of prophets, and that common religious folk are, if not themselves prophets, still the disciples of prophets.

Mendes-Flohr perceptively explains how I use biblical criticism as a tool rather than regarding it is an end-in-itself. “When grounded in the covenantal commitment to honor the Laws of Moses, Biblical Criticism attains a theological significance,” he writes, eloquently expressing my aim. He goes on to cite a number of crucial passages from Franz Rosenzweig’s work that remind us that for this philosopher, subservience to the law was not the essence of Judaism. Rather, that essence is found in loving God and experiencing the Sinai theophany, which is ever-attainable and ever-renewed through study, ritual, liturgy, and community.

Here I sense that Mendes-Flohr is gently pushing back on my very traditionalist reading of Rosenzweig. I explain in the book’s third chapter that most scholars, including Mendes-Flohr himself, read Rosenzweig as articulating a much less conservative attitude toward halakhic obligation than I do. Following a minority of scholars including Isaac Heinemann, Nahum Glatzer, Steven Kepnes, and Norbert Samuelson, I argue that Rosenzweig subscribed to an obligation-based approach to law rather than a choice-based one. I need not review my specific arguments, since they are spelled out in the book itself. Instead, I will limit myself to commenting on Mendes-Flohr’s important point that for Rosenzweig, “‘Autoritätsglaube gleicht Unglaube’: Faith based on authority is tantamount to unbelief.” I would ask: does this mean that subservience to an authority is objectionable? For Rosenzweig, for Heschel, and for their forebears in the participatory tradition going back to the Pentateuch’s E source, our subservience to a divine law whose specifics we ourselves help to spell out is an essential part of the covenant formed at Sinai.

That dialogical covenant and the fealty it demands are motivated by love, are infused with love, and are expressions of love. And love requires not only a sense of one’s own self but also a willingness, in certain respects, to make oneself subservient to the other. The Song of Songs, which Rosenzweig saw as central to his philosophical project, has Israel say to God,

Draw me after You; let us run.

The Sovereign One brought me to His rooms —

Let us rejoice and exult in You!

Let us proclaim Your love as better than wine!

Rightly do they love You.

Subservience to this Sovereign is pure delight. And yet the same poet reminds repeatedly us that this happy heteronomy is possible only to those who have decided to embrace it:

I adjure you, young women from Jerusalem:

Never awaken, never wake up

Love until it is ready.


Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at The Jewish Theological Seminary. His most recent book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, was just released in paperback from Yale University Press. It received the 2016 Goldstein-Goren Award for the best book in Jewish Thought.

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