Judaism affirms that the Torah (five books of Moses) is the product of divine revelation. Revelation is the process by which God discloses His will to a navi (prophet).

Revelation is sometimes called prophecy, although take care to note that the definition of these words depends on the writer and the context.

But what precisely is revelation? And how is the idea of revelation connected to the idea that the Torah we have today is identical to the text of the Torah written down by Moses thousands of years ago?

There are several distinct schools of thought as to what revelation actually is, and how the text of the Torah developed, each of which has some support in traditional sources.

In regards to how Moses wrote the Torah, and then how it was transmitted, most of Orthodox Judaism holds that Moses wrote it word-for-word, from God, and then it was transmitted virtually without error (plus or minus a few letter changes) for millennia.

This position is enshrined in the statements and teaching methodologies of all of the major Orthodox Jewish rabbinical associations and their affiliated yeshivahs.

Yet for various historical reasons some parts of traditional rabbinic literature, and some classical rabbis state that many changes did in fact occur to the text of the Torah. And for various theological reasons many rabbis – both philosophical rationalists as well as kabbalists – disagree with the idea that God speaks in discrete words and sentences, thus challenging us to understand revelation as a non-verbal phenomenon.Chava Studios Shavuot watercolor

(A) Verbal/direct propositional content

In this view, God spoke to Moses just as I am writing to you: In discrete words and sentences, which one can write down and teach to others, exactly, without any change.

Realistically this has been a default understanding of perhaps most religious Jews. Rabbi Norman Lamm (Modern Orthodox) writes:

“I believe the Torah is divine revelation in two ways: in that it is God-given and in that it is godly. By “God-given,” I mean that He willed that man abide by his commandments and that will was communicated in discrete words and letters. Man apprehends in many ways: by intuition, inspiration, experience, deduction and by direct instruction. The divine will, if it is to be made known, is sufficiently important for it to be revealed in as direct, unequivocal, and unambiguous a manner as possible, so that it will be understood by the largest number of the people to whom this will is addressed. Language, though so faulty an instrument, is still the best means of communication to most human beings. Hence, I accept unapologetically the idea of the verbal revelation of the Torah.”

“The Condition of Jewish Belief”, Macmillan 1966

Rabbi David Novak (Union for Traditional Judaism) writes

“not only do people experience a Presence when God makes himself manifest, they also hear the word. The denotion of the word is initially intelligible, and thus the word can become a matter of discourse in the community.”

– “A Response to ‘Towards an Aggadic Judaism'” Conservative Judaism Vol.30 (1) Fall 1975 pp.58-59

This is perhaps the most common view in Orthodox Judaism, and also exists to some extent within “Traditional”/ Sephardic / Conservative forms of Judaism.

(B) Philosophical rationalism

In this view, revelation contains God’s truths about how man should live, discovered through philosophical inquiry. There are many philosophical rationalists within the Jewish tradition, including Saadya Gaon, Gersonides, and Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides.)

Aharon Shear-Yashuv writes

“Contrary to the opinion that revelation does not depend on the intellectual faculty of man, but has to be understood as a divine act of grace, Maimonides holds the intellectual preparation of man as a conditio sine qua non for reaching the truth.

This highest level of human perfection can only be reached after intensive studying: ‘Consequently he who wishes to attain to human perfection, must therefore first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.’

So it depends on man to transform his potential intellectual faculty into real action. Then, and here Maimonides speaks the language of Aristotelian philosophy, the active intellectual faculty of man can reach the lowest level of the mundus intelligibilis, i.e. the ‘active intellect’.

To be fair to the reader, any description of this idea of revelation is hard to convey unless the reader has first learned some classical Greek philosophy, especially neo-Aristotelian thought (this is a subject in which Maimonides was a master.)

Aharon Shear-Yashuv continues

Through this active intellect, divine emanation will reach man after intensive study of all disciplines and thus man can reach the level of a prophet. As a result he will be able to understand the divine attributes, which are expressed in the mundus sensibilis as the laws of nature, without, and this must be emphasized, knowing something positively about the essence of the Divine.

This is because all biblical divine attributes have to be understood in the sense of a negative theology. Moses, as the ‘father’ of all prophets, is distinguished, in this philosophy, from all other levels of prophecy, in so far as he is a prophet-philosopher sui generis.

Maimonides goes on to claim that the people of Israel only heard the ‘sound of words’ on Sinai (with the exception of the two first commandments about the existence and uniqueness of God). Due to his extraordinary intellectual faculties, Moses functioned as the instructor of the divine commandments.” –

– Aharon Shear-Yashuv, “Jewish Philosophers on Reason and Revelation”

The teachings of Maimonides are held in high esteem by all denominations of Judaism, although his teachings are not all accepted to the same degree.

In principle one can hold this view within the Orthodox community, but Orthodox Jews who have this position have often reported that their peers told them that their views are at best unconventional, and some are told that these views are heretical.

(C) Non-verbal yet propositional content

In this view, people have been inspired by God with a message, but not in a verbal-like fashion. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

“As a report about Revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. To convey what the prophets experienced, the Bible could either use terms of descriptions or terms of indication. Any description of the act of revelation in empirical categories would have produced a caricature. That is why all the Bible does is to state that revelation happened; How it happened is something they could only convey in words that are evocative and suggestive.”

– “God in Search of Man”, Heschel, p.194


It was not essential that God’s will be transmitted as sound; it was essential that it be made known to us. That sound or sight is to the transcendent event what a metaphor is to an abstract principle. The prophets bear witness to an event. The event is divine, but the formulation is done by the individual prophet. According to this conception, the idea is revealed; the expression is coined by the prophet.”


Similarly, Conservative Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser writes:

“Man receives a divine communication when the divine spirit rests on him, but man must give form to that communication; He must express it in words, in images and in symbols which will make his message intelligible to other men. Out of this need to give form to the truth that is revealed to him, the prophet places the stamp of his own individuality upon that truth.”

The idea of revelation as non-verbal yet with propositional content is common within Conservative Judaism, and can be found within other denominations.

Interestingly, such a view is the traditional rabbinic idea of how the other Biblical prophets wrote other books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible.)

Ru’ah ha-Kodesh (divine inspiration) is the spirit of prophecy, a divine inspiration, giving man insight into the will of God.

“Traditionally the Pentateuch was given directly by God to Moses, but the other canonical writings were all produced under the inspiration of Ru’ah ha-Kodesh. Thus the determination of what should be included as canonical scripture turns on whether or not a given work was composed with the aid of the Holy Spirit.”
– “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh”, Encyclopaedia Judaica.

(d) Non-propositional content

God’s will is revealed through the interaction of man and God throughout history.

In this view, by viewing how the Jewish people have understood God’s will throughout history, we see how God has influenced the development of Jewish law; it is this process that we should recognize as revelation.

In his classic work “We Have Reason to Believe”, Rabbi Louis Jacobs writes that historical and text-critical studies of the Torah’s origin’s wouldn’t be forbidden by the classical rabbis.  He writes:

“The chief concern of the Rabbis was not with questions of authorship, but of inspiration. Is the Torah the word of God? This was the concern of the ancient teachers. In Talmudic times no one, not even the heretic, doubted that the Torah was written by Moses. Hence in those days the fundamental question was did Moses write it of his own accord or under divine inspiration?

Even if the most radical theories of the biblical critics [the documentary hypothesis] are accepted this means no more than that the base of the problem has been shifted, but the question of the divine origin of the Torah is not radically affected. [p.74]

Revelation is an encounter between the divine and the human, so that there is a human as well as a divine factor in revelation, God revealing His will not alone to men, but _through_ men….

The new knowledge need not in any way affect our reverence for the Bible and our loyalty to its teachings. God’s Power is not lessened because God preferred to co-operate with His creatures in producing the Book of Books.”
– Louis Jacobs, “We Have Reason to Believe”, p.81

In the foreword to the fourth edition of We Have Reason to Believe (1995), Rabbi Jacobs notes:

“for all their vast wisdom and knowledge, the Talmudic rabbis and mediaeval thinkers did not operate with the tools of modern historical research. How could they? They had no access to the historical methodology, which remained undeveloped until the post-mediaeval period.”

“The task of the Jewish theologian is not to try to defend the mediaeval picture of how Judaism came about. Such a picture has gone, never to return. The modern Jewish theologian, true to tradition, has to try to understand how, now that Judaism is seen to have had a history…the traditional view of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim can be reinterpreted.”

“The solution, as Zechariah Frankel saw in the last century, is to see the whole process in dynamic, rather than static, terms; that, in the words of Robert Gordis, God gave the Torah not only to the Jewish people, but through the Jewish people…..Such a position in no way involves any rejection of belief in the Torah and in the mitzvot as divine commands. The Torah is still God-given if the ‘giving’ is seen to take place through the historical experiences of the Jewish people in its long quest for God.
– Jacobs, “We Have Reason to Believe”

Another proponent of this view is Rabbi Elliot Dorff (Conservative). He writes that each time a Jew studies the Torah or its rabbinic commentaries, God is revealed anew.

Rabbi Dorff writes

In fact, the Talmud declares rabbinic interpretation superior to biblical prophecy:
“Rabbi Abdimi of Haifa said: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, the prophetic gift was taken away from the prophets and given to the Sages. Is a Sage not also a prophet?”

The question is rhetorical, the answer clearly is “yes”. The Talmud goes on to say: “What Rabbi Abdimi meant to say was this: although it has been taken from the prophets, prophecy has not been taken from the Sages. Amemar said: A Sage is even superior to a prophet, as it says “And a prophet has the heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:21) Who is usually compared with whom? Is not the smaller compared with the greater?” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 12A)
– “Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable”, Elliot Dorff, 1992

This viewpoint is common within Conservative Judaism, and the right-wing of Reform Judaism.

Indeed, one can find this view of what revelation is in classical rabbinic literature.

“The people of Israel as a whole were in some way guided by the power of Ru’ah ha-Kodesh. Thus when the problem arose among the rabbis as to whether the paschal offering should be brought on the Sabbath, it was to how the ordinary people would act concerning the Sabbath restrictions that the rabbis turned for a decision. Hillel declared: “Leave it to them, for the Holy Spirit is on them. If they are not in themselves prophets, they are the sons of prophets” – Tosefta, Pesachim. 4:2
– “Ru’ah Ha-Kodesh”, Encyclopaedia Judaica

Some within Reform Judaism accept this view, with the added proviso that such a view of revelation implies that Jewish law is no longer binding.

Rabbi Dorff summarizes this Reform view:

“God reveals His will to human beings through the use of human reason and moral striving. Each individual can be the recipient of revelation (in that sense) if he or she will only pay attention to the evidences of God in the natural and moral orders of the universe, and deduce from that what God requires of him or her.

Moreover, as humanity has more experience, human knowledge of what is and what ought to be grows, and so the scope and accuracy of revelation progresses as time goes on. This explains why Reform Jews believe that Jewish law of previous eras is not binding, and why it is the individual who decides what to observe in Reform Judaism.”
– Elliot Dorff “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants” United Synagogue, 1996

(e) Another way of thinking about revelation as non-propositional content.

Revelation as God’s disclosure of Self.

This school of thought is held by existentialists; they oppose theories that consider revelation as the transmission of any form of content. Instead, it is held that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them. The Torah, and later religious writings, are a human response that records how we responded to God.

This viewpoint is accepted by many people in Reform Judaism, the right wing of Reconstructionist Judaism, and the left wing of Conservative Judaism.

“Martin Buber advocated a conception of revelation involving a dialogic relationship between man and God. Revelation is the encounter of the Presence of God, not the communication of ideas or instructions. Revelation constitutes a wordless address, which in turn stimulates a human response. This response, according to Buber, never gives rise to a general law, but only to a unique, subjective deed or commitment.”
– “Revelation, Modern Jewish Philosophy”, Encyclopaedia Judaica

We also read

“Although Franz Rosenzweig subscribed to the premise that revelation represents the manifestation of a relationship in the form of a dialogue, he emphasized that it depends upon the will of God, Who chooses to reveal Himself at specific times to different individuals. Through revelation a covenantal relationship is established between man and God. As a responsible partner in this dialogue, man is expected to respond to God’s demand, embodied in the revelational event, by concrete action. Thus, the commandments arise through man’s response to God’s revelation.”
– “Revelation, Modern Jewish Philosophy”, Encyclopaedia Judaica

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [Reform] writes:

“Torah is a compilation of both divine command and human response: it is a record of God talking to Jews and Jews talking to God. When I examine the writings of Torah, how then do I know what is divine revelation and what is human interpretation?

As a mitzvah-inspired liberal Jew, the only option that I have is to decide for myself what binds me. I will seek guidance from rabbis and teachers, but ultimately I must examine each mitzvah and ask the question: do I feel commanded in this instance as Moses was commanded?

Here I rely on the words of Martin Buber: “I must distinguish in my innermost being between what is commanded me and what is not commanded me.” For the great majority of American Jews, there is no leader or institution with the authority to impose commandments; the autonomous individual decides for himself or herself.”

– “What Do American Jews Believe?” Commentary, August, 1996

Rabbi Arthur Green (Reconstructionist) writes:

“I do not know a Fellow or a Force ‘out there,’ beyond the world in some quasi-spatial sense, Who creates, reveals, redeems. But I do believe there is a deep consciousness that underlies existence, that each human mind is a part of the universal Mind, and that the Whole is sometimes accessible (‘revealed’) to its parts.

The One of which I speak is transcendent, in that it is infinitely elusive and mysterious, while yet being deeply immanent, present throughout the world to those whose eyes are open. In ways I do not claim to understand, Universal Mind is also Universal Heart; we reach inward toward it by emotional openness as well as by contemplative detachment.

Awareness of this underlying and all-pervasive oneness of being leads me to feelings of awe and wonder, to a desire to be present to it always. In an act of faith that does not seem far-fetched, I assert that the One also seeks to be known and recognized by the many; ‘my’ longing is a reflection of ‘its’ longing, as ‘my’ mind is a fragment of ‘its’ Mind. It thus causes the impulse within us to need religious expression and to create forms through which we will attain deeper knowledge and awareness of the One. In that sense you may say that the essential forms of our religion are ‘revealed’: they are our human creative response to the divine presence that makes itself known within us.

– “What Do American Jews Believe?” Commentary, August 1996

(f) Religious naturalism/humanism.

Religious Jews generally hold this to be the most radical re-interpretation of what revelation is. It often is considered functionally indistinguishable from atheism, and this heretical.

It was developed by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and is still popular within the Reconstructionist and Reform movements. For Kaplan, the idea that God could reveal His will to man was “superstition,” so he literally rewrite the definitions of words. For instance, his redefinition of the ‘revelation’ was that

“Revelation consists in disengaging from the traditional context those elements in it which answer permanent postulates of human nature, and in integrating them into our own ideology….the rest may be relegated to archaeology.”

– Mordecai Kaplan “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion”, 1962, p.6

The movement’s official “Platform on Reconstructionism” states that the Torah is not in any way inspired by God! Rather

“Reconstructionism understands Judaism to be the natural product of the Jewish people’s experience in history, rather than the result of supernatural revelation or divine intervention….Torah was developed from, and shaped by, the unique experiences, insights and discoveries of the Jewish people”.

– FRC Newsletter, Sept. 1986, pages D, E.

In decades past, Reconstructionist theology garnered acceptance in a faction of the Conservative movement. Since it broke off as an independent movement in the 1950s, this influence has waned. Papers from a recent (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly conference on theology were recently printed in a special issue of the journal “Conservative Judaism” (Winter 1999); the editors note that Kaplan’s naturalism has dropped from the Conservative movement’s radar screen.

Michael A. Meyer, writing from within the Reform community, writes

“I hold to a rational faith mediated through our tradition and confirmed by personal experience and commitment. Thus my belief in God approximates closely that of the German-Jewish Kantian thinker Hermann Cohen who understood God to be an Ideal to which human lives respond and to which the Jews have responded in unique fashion.

It follows that the Torah is not for me divine revelation in any literal sense. Rather the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Writings, and the rabbinic literature represent our people’s ongoing historical endeavor to verbalize their experience of a God Who represents the objective reality of justice, mercy, and love. Since Torah, in the broadest sense, is the evolving expression of our response to God, Jewish history, for all of its secular aspects, becomes in essence a sacred history.

Revelation, as the early modern reformers of Judaism held, is indeed progressive – not in the sense that humanity, as a whole, has done an ever better job of living up to its religious awareness, but in that, as we gain more profound moral understandings and undertake broader commitments, we come closer to God. The God Who is our Ideal is clearly not a personal God except through the metaphors we necessarily employ in prayer.”

– “What Do American Jews Believe?” Commentary, August 1996

Critique of Reconstructionism/religious naturalism

There has been a critique of Reconstructionism across denominational lines. David Ray Griffin and Louis Jacobs have objected to Kaplan’s redefinitions as being intellectually dishonest, and as being a form of “conversion by definition”. They hold that his writings take humanist (atheist) beliefs and attach theistic terms to them.

– Louis Jacobs “God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism” Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990.
– Griffin, in “Jewish Theology and Process Thought”, Ed, Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin, State University of New York Press, 1996

Similar critiques have been put forth by Neil Gillman [“Sacred Fragments”, p.200]; Milton Steinberg [“Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi” by Simon Noveck, Ktav, 1978, p.259-260]; and Michael Samuels [“The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God” 1996.]

What characterizes the uniqueness of the Orthodox position?

Orthodoxy differs from all of the other denominations by its adherence to the traditional claim that the Torah today is precisely the same as that written by the hand of Moses himself (plus or a minus a few gray areas, see below). Orthodox Jews affirm that God revealed his will to Moses in a precise fashion, that Moses transcribed this revelation word-for-word, and that the Torah was exactly copied from one generation to the next. Based on the Talmud (Gittin 60a) some believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Orthodox Jews aver that modern critical scholarship on the Torah is wrong or heretical.

The following two websites provide more details.

There are a number of exceptions to this belief that have always been a part of rabbinic Judaism. These points, at least in theory, are held within Orthodox Judaism, but are usually discussed only within Modern Orthodoxy.

(i) Over the millennia many scribal errors have crept into the Torah’s text. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen – part of the story in these places has been edited out. (A)

(ii) Some phrases in the Torah are anachronisms that could not have been written by Moses; Based on Abraham Ibn Ezra’s and Joseph Bonfils’ observation of this, some authorities allow for the possibility that these sections of the Torah were written by Joshua or perhaps some later prophet.(B)

(iii) The Talmud [Shabbat 115b] states that a peculiar section in Numbers 10:35-36, surrounded by inverted nuns, in fact is a separate book. On this verse Midrash Mishle states that “These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!” Another, possibly earlier midrash [Ta’ame Haserot Viyterot] states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad. (C)

(iv) Deuteronomy is quite different in many ways from the previous four books. Commenting on this, the Talmud says that the other four books of the Torah were dictated by God, but Deuteronomy was written by Moses in his own words (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31b). Some rabbis have noted that some other parts of the Torah may also have been composed this way as well. (D)
For more information on these issues from an Orthodox perspective, see “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations” edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.) and “Handbook of Jewish Thought – Volume I” by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)

What characterizes the uniqueness of the Conservative position?

(This section is based on Elliot Dorff’s “Conservative Judaism: From Our Ancestors to Our Descendants”)

Conservative Jews believe that God in some way revealed His will to Moses and to later prophets. Records and traditions relating to such events were transmitted in various forms for centuries, until the Torah was redacted into its final form, sometime around the time of Ezra (450 B.C.E.). Thus, Conservative Jews are comfortable with the findings of archeological and linguistic research and critical textual study; these reveal that the Torah was redacted together from several sources coming from different times and places. In fact, Conservative Jews make use of literary and historical analysis to understand how these texts developed, and to help them understand how they may applied in our own day. Thus, they see no conflict between modern biblical scholarship and adherence to Jewish law.

What characterizes the uniqueness of the Reform position?

Reform Jews hold that modern views of revelation imply that the body of Jewish law is no longer binding on Jews today. Those in the traditionalist wing, such as Rabbis Eugene Borowitz and Gunther Plaut, hold that each Jew is obligated to interpret the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish works for themselves, and this interpretation will create separate commandments for each person. Those in liberal and classical wing of Reform believe that in this day and era most Jewish religious rituals are no longer necessary, and some hold that following Jewish laws can be counter-productive. They propose that Judaism has entered a phase of ethical monotheism, and that the mitzvot are only remnants of an earlier stage of religious evolution.

What characterizes the uniqueness of the Reconstructionist position?

“Reconstructionism understands Judaism to be the natural product of the Jewish people’s experience in history, rather than the result of supernatural revelation or divine intervention….Torah was developed from, and shaped by, the unique experiences, insights and discoveries of the Jewish people”. (10) Thus, revelation comes only from man, not God. As a corollary, Reconstructionists dismiss the idea of mitzvot [commandments], and replace it with the concept of “folkways”, customs that can be democratically altered by the will of the people.


(A) Alfred J. Kolatch “This is the Torah” Jonathan David, p.211-248

Text families of the Hebrew Bible

Textual oddities in the Torah

The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text and the
Science of Textual Criticism

(B) “Torah Min HaShamayim” [The Theology of Ancient Judaism], HC [Hebrew] Abraham Joshua Heschel (London: Soncino, 1965), pages 381-412;

“Torah Shelema” [Hebrew] Vol. 19, Menahem Kasher (Jerusalem: Machon Torah Shelemah), pages 328-379;

Discussion by Rabbi Simchah Roth on the Rabin Mishna Study Group:
(C) For more details on this topic, see volume 19 of Menahem Kasher’s “Torah Shelema” (p.328-379), and “Peirushei HaTorah LeRabbi Yehudah HeHasid” (Jerusalem 1975). Because of this and similar midrashim, this work was censored by Rabbi Moses Feinstein, and he reccomended that the originals be burnt as heretical. (Igrot Moshe, Vol. 4, NY, 1981).

“Torah MinHaShamayim (Theology of Ancient Judaism)” Volume 2
[Hebrew] Abraham Joshua Heschel, p.420-424, Soncino, NY, 1962

“The Inverted Nuns at Numbers 10:35-36 and the Books of Eldad
and Medad” Sid Z. Leiman, JBL Vol.93 1974, p.348-355

“Critical Note: More on the Inverted Nuns of Num 10:35”
Baruch A. Levine, JBL Vol.(95), p.122-124
(D) Jacob ben Asher, Ba’al Haturim to Lev. 1:1; Hayyim ibn Atar, Or Hahayyim to Num 3:2; Menahem Kasher, “Torah Shelemah” to Num 33:2.

Open Orthodoxy? By Yoram Hazony
Modern Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, and the question of accepting biblical criticism.

Levi Morrow No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 1: Introduction

A few months ago, Professor Yoram Hazony wrote an article critiquing the approach to Biblical Criticism taken by Open Orthodoxy, or at least by the Open Orthodox community he had spent spent a shabbat with. It’s an excellent article, one that admits to being a product of the author’s subjective experience, while still being bold enough to pose challenging questions. The main thrust of these questions, and of the article as a whole, was regarding the statement made by the Rabbi of the community, that what set Open Orthodoxy apart was its willingness to confront challenging issues, such as Biblical Criticism, and to struggle with them honestly (presumably in contrast to the rest of the Jewish Community). Prof. Hazony’s article paints a picture quite at odds with this statement, a picture where anything less than absolute acceptance of Biblical Criticism is completely unacceptable, where even questioning Biblical Criticism merits an immediate and condescending dismissal. The article concludes by comparing Open Orthodoxy to the Protestant Movement, which a century ago decided to accept Biblical Criticism, and has paid the price for it.

While Prof. Hazony does have some harsh words for the Open Orthodox community, he does also say that he is “willing to regard [it] as a positive force.” He cannot abide the automatic acceptance of whatever opinions are popular amongst secular scholars, but he is fine with openly and honestly tackling challenges to Orthodoxy. While many people used his article as a springboard from which to offhandedly reject Biblical Criticism and Open Orthodoxy, Prof. Hazony was not proposing such an action. Instead, he was proposing nuance, both in relation to Open Orthodoxy, and in terms of how Orthodoxy may approach Biblical Criticism.

TheTorah.Com is a new intellectual resource for religious Jews who want to accept traditional Jewish principles of faith, but who are also open to the finding of modern historical scholarship about the origins of the Torah and Tanakh. It’s considered ‘Open Orthodox’, the theologically liberal wing of Modern Orthodox Judaism; many other Orthodox rabbis describe it as ‘Conservative Judaism’, theologically, as although it’s members are officially Orthodox, their acceptance of critical scholarship crosses the traditional boundary between Orthodoxy and Conservative/Masorti Judaism (which I happen to have no problem with!)

Yitzchak Sprung, May 14, 2013
Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3)

Just in time for Shavuot, I’ll post some notes from the question and answer session with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel on modern biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief. …Rabbi Leibtag emphasized what he had pretty much told us already: The Torah is not a history book. The goal of the Prophets is not to teach us history. Rather, we study Torah for the message in it… The next question was in regards to the authorship of the Biblical books. Modern scholarship seems to have challenged our traditional beliefs about who wrote the books, so should we still believe in the divine authorship of the Bible? … [Kugel’s] response was again something he had already said to us: Who cares who the prophets are? If it is divinely given, that’s good enough for us. We don’t know the rules of prophecy, and contradiction may not be a problem in it, so that shouldn’t necessarily cause us to look for more authors anyway. There’s really no way to prove authorship one way or another.

…Rabbi Leibtag conjectured that Rambam may have written the belief in complete Mosaic authorship for the masses. However, his own opinion may have been that it was not heresy to believe the Torah was not entirely authored by Moses (and we’ll remind readers of the opinion in the Talmud that Moses did not write the last 8 verses in the Torah)…. It is not so much that Moses wrote every word of the Torah, that is important to Rambam to emphasize. Rather, Rambam wants to emphasize that every word came from God, and that it is all true. To focus on the authorship misses the point.

… The next question had to do with the Sages, and their knowledge of the back-histories of the Bible. If the Sages didn’t know that some parts of the Bible were similar to Pagan writings and religion, why should we trust them? Additionally, would they have cared if they did know? Rabbi Leibtag [said] perhaps the Torah has a history most of us are unaware of or not, but in the bottom line, it is divinely authored (or edited!) and we look for the messages in the Bible. This is what’s important, and we don’t really care about this kind of question. Kugel [said] in his opinion, the Sages were in fact aware of the (now) surprising history of much of Judaism. I suppose we might find it similar to Rambam’s long description of idolatrous histories of the mitzvot in MN starting 3:30-ish. But they did not focus on it. Rather, like Rabbi Leibtag said, they focused on the divine message in the Bible, as opposed to the history of the text. The divine messages and lessons are what they focused on and tried to pass on to us.

…Dr. Kugel also raised the possibility that Rambam was writing for his time when he posited a pure Mosaic authorship for the Torah. At the time, it was a common Muslim attack on Judaism that Ezra had falisified the Torah, and that our Jewish tradition was in fact false. In response to this, Rambam wrote that not one word had been changed since Sinai, when Moses received the entire Torah. This would have aussuaged doubts in the Torah.

…Dr. Kugel told us that in his opinion, to read the Torah by focusing on the words without our tradition (as many Orthodox Jews, including Rabbi Leibtag at times, do today) is an exercise that must end with biblical criticism. In his opinion, there is no realistic line that can be drawn.

Copyright 2000, updated 2019, Robert D. Kaiser

This document is “copy-lefted”. That means I maintain a copyright on the work as a whole, yet I encourage free distribution and reproduction of single copies of this paper. While I retain copyright on this document as a whole, and the original material therein, the copyright on all individual quotes within belongs to whoever originally wrote them, which I have attempted to denote as accurately as possible. Corrections are welcome.


  1. Excellent summary. However, there is no valid evidence Judaism or any other religion is anything other than human made. Prophets or prophecy were a fairly common feature in ancient cultures. There is no valid evidence that any of it has objective truth. It has origins in brain function with no basis whatsoever for supernatural.


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