What is the status of the Chumash text? Where did it come from, who wrote it down, how well has it been preserved over the millennia? We will discuss these questions, no holds barred, in this and several upcoming posts in "On Tanach".
It is quite well-known that Maimonides has formulated the Divine origin of the Torah as one of his 13 principles of faith. The Jews always believed that the Torah with all its laws and regulations was given to Moshe on Sinai. This has been the accepted belief of our people and all of humanity throughout the ages. Not until the rise of Biblical criticism has this fact been questioned. Spinoza was the first to question Mosaic authorship of the Torah, follwed by the French philosophes. It goes without saying that a principle of faith should not be cavalierly challenged or doubted solely because others do so. Disagreement is encouraged when we discuss almost every other topic in Judaism; it must be eschewed at all costs when we deal of a matter as weighty as a principle of our faith. Being wrong about this kind of matter is not like mis-interpreting a verse or misunderstanding a halacha – the price of error in a principle of faith is positioning oneself outside of the community of believers. As can be clearly seen from the quotation you will read shortly, Rambam did not think well of those who championed a position other than the traditional one. Our starting point therefore should be his formulation of principle and all that it encompasses and to accept it as the received wisdom of Jewish religion. That accomplished, the question of whether other opinions exist or are possible will be properly addresses, posed as: Is it possible in our day and age to hold an opinion different than that of the Rambam and still remain within the fold of Orthodoxy? In other words, the question is: “ can we declare one who actively affirms the existence and reliance of a view other than the one codified by Rambam to still be an Orthodox Jew”. It is not whether such an opinion can legitimately be held. As we will see there exists a possibility that there has existed at one time a minority opinion that ascribed the authorship or insertion of one or few verses to a subsequent prophet. It is important to realize that such an opinion, had it ever existed, would be very far from the view of the Bible critics. No one, absolutely no authority has ever claimed non-Mosaic authorship for most of the Pentateuch or existence of a multitude of sources that were later edited into one book as the Bible critics assert.
What is the Rambam’s formulation? The Rambam writes:’ The Eighth Principle – The Divine Origin of the Torah. We believe that the entire Torah which is found in our hands today is the one that was given through Moshe Rabbeinu and that it is entirely the word of G-d. That it came to Moshe entirely from the Almighty in a manner which we refer to, for a lack of better description as speech….Moshe was like a scribe to whom it was dictated while he transcribed all the events that transpired-the narratives and the commandments. Therefore he is referred to as Mechokek-the Scribe.
Nor is there any difference between the words”And the sons of Chan were Kush…”, “and the name of his wife was Mehetavel bas Matred”, or ..and Timan was a concubine of …” and between “I am the Lord your G-d” or the Shema, “Hear or Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”. For it is all the word of G-d and it is G-d’s perfect Law-pure, holy and true.
The individual who maintains that these of similar verses or narratives were written by Moshe himself, is regarded by our Sages and our Prophets as the most grevious of apostates, for he believes that the Torah contains essential and non-essential sections and he treats the historical narratives and stories as if they serve no useful purpose and they were written by Moshe”.
To fully understand and encompass this formulation of the Rambam, we need to consult his other writing. It is important to realize that this assertion was for the Rambam not a dogmatic statement of ideology but only a part of a well considered and comprehensive theory of prophecy, nature of Divine authority of the Law, the process of transmission of the Law and unique position of the Chumash as compared to other prophetic revelation that he lays out in Moreh Nevukhim 1:35-38 and 46-48 and the Mishne Torah, Laws of the Basics of the Torah chapters 8 and 9.
This is the meaning of the phrase “He who says:The Torah is not from Heaven( has no portion in the World-to-Come) ". In addition it is solidly based on the statement in Talmud Sanhedrin 99b which the Rambam paraphrases as follows:”This applies even to one who says that the entire Torah is the word of Almighty with the exception of the one verse which was said not by the Almighty but by Moshe himself. This is – “for he has despised the word of G-d”. May His name be exalted, contrary to the words of the apostates.
I will not discuss the nature of prophecy, which component of the soul receives Divine inspiration, medieval and rabbinic epistemiology and the voluminous literature on the role of angels as intermediaries in prophecy. From the examination of the relevant Maimonidean passages it becomes apparent that there are several distinct but interrelated issues that claimed his attention and that informed his approach to the question of the Divine origin of the Torah. Paramount among these is the question of how the Torah is different from other prophetic books. Claiming that it is not different results in several undesirable consequences. First of all, it opens the Torah to the challenge of other religions. If Moses was just a great prophet, another great prophet can negate his teaching. In addition, it does not differentiate divinely granted law and other types of prophetic vision. If the Law is nothing more than a prophet’s interpretation of what he had seen in a prophetic vision, conceivably he may have misinterpreted it. One would be most inclined to make such acclaim when the prophecy contradicts some scientific or well accepted tenet. As is already the case, there arise people who claim that they understand the prophet’s intention better than he did himself. Even more commonly, one can re-interpret prophetic works in ways more consistent witth the tenor of the times. One can claim, for example, by interpreting Isaiah in a certain manner that he provided the dispensation to do away with Temple centered worship, if that is what the society induces one to believe. Finally, it is possible to simply disregard Torah laws if contradicted by contemporary scientific dogma or by invoking subsequent developments in philosophy and ethics, presumably unavailable to the ancients. It is even possible to claim that revolutionary developments in human thought, the theories of Einstein, the poetry of Shelley or the philosophy of Kant are in some way also inspired and of similar validity.
The Rambam considered carefully the Biblical statements about uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy and its superiority over that of other prophets and concluded that the entire Torah, Torat Moshe, was dictated to him. In other words, the spelling, word arrangement and the mode of expression come directly from G-d. Moshe serving as nothing more than a conduit and none of these claims can be made in regard to it.
The Rambam also realized that a document of such exalted parentage could not have been tampered with, forgotten or falsified. He therefore postulated the principle that the Torah that we have in our hands is exactly the same one handed over to Moses at Sinai.
Rambam’s principles have been embraced by the Jewish people to the extent of being incorporated into the siddur at the of the conclusion of the morning prayer. These principle appear to be widely accepted, for in the extensive literature that we possess on the subject of the principles of Faith, there is to be found no explicit disagreement with this principle. No voice has ever been raised against the principle that the Chumash was dictated directly by G-d to Moses, until recent times.
When Wellhausen proposed his Documentary hypothesis, he set of a revolution in the field of Biblical studies. Wellhausen claimed that internal evidence supports the supposition that there were four ancient documents from which the Hebrew Pentateuch was stapled and cobbled together by an anonymous redactor. This was supposed to have explained the frequent repetitions, redundancies and other peculiarities of the arrangement and structure of the Biblical text. He spawned a whole new field of studies in which scholars searched the text for unusual patterns and then used their ingenuity to assign them to the different strata in time of composition. It has become clear in the course of subsequent centuries that Wellhausen’s theories ultimately led to total fragmentation of the Bblical text, unwarranted flippancy in interpretation and deconstruction of the text into meaninglessness. Under relentless attack, the Bible gradually lost its exalted standing as G-d’s word for humanity and became merely a work of ancient literature. Recent advances in archeology, semitic linguistics, near Eastern studies and literary theory have provided much evidence for a unified composition of Pentateuch. What’s more, post-modern philosophy and literary analysis found itself traveling along the same road previously traveled by rabbinic and Midrashic science of interpretation. We will refer to this point in subsequent sections; however, it is important to realize that coping with Wellnausen’s assertions impelled traditional scholars to apply themselves to new methods of studying Tanach. In many ways and from different directions, these scholars have returned the contention of the essential unity of the Pentateuch to academic respectability. While Wellhausen’s observations are no longer widely accepted or considered compelling even in the academia, they have led some Jewish, even some nominally Orthodox scholars, to investigate whether there may be found some opinions in the voluminous Jewish traditional literature to support some version of a critical theory. What one seeks, one finds, especially if one is willing to take exegetical liberties. Several ambiguous passages that can be read to support a view different than the Rambam’s have been found in the process of this search and have been widely discussed in certain circles. It has come to such an unfortunate state of affairs that in some segments it is taken as a fact that there is a pluralistic range of views on the question of Mosaic authorship and that one is free to believe what one wishes regarding this principle of faith.
I must point out at this point that none of these proposed sources were stated in the context of considered discussion of principles of faith or history of the transmission of the Torah. All of the works that do so are in complete agreement with the Rambam. Rather, these are parenthetical or exegetical remarks comments made in the course of discussing other issues. They cannot be relied on to have been as well thought through or as carefully formulated as Rambam’s statement; in addition, it is difficult to see how they can get by the explicit teaching of the Talmud in Sanhedrin that we previously cited.