By Rabbi Peter Rigler
“Moses wrote down this Torah and gave it to the Priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the covenant of Adonai, and to all the elders of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:9)
Who wrote the Torah? The question about the origin of our Torah is not simply academic, like who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The implications of this answer are profound and impact how and why we observe Torah in the way that we do.
In Vayelech, this week’s Torah portion, we are taught that Moses took on this task. Knowing that he cannot enter the Promised Land with the people, he gives them all of the wisdom and instruction they have experienced and should have learned. His greatest hope is that as they enter the next stage of the journey and arrive in the land of Israel they will carry the written reminder to which they can return as they build their future.
It is God who is concerned that with Moses out of the picture the people will no longer feel bound to follow the rules and treasure the stories of their past. God’s idea is different: “Now therefore,” says God, “write this song for yourself, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths….” (Deuteronomy 31:19).
So, doesn’t that sum it up? The Torah says Moses wrote it. Who would know more detail? I am not sure that it is the right argument or conclusion that our tradition wants us to arrive at. When has our tradition ever wanted us to read or see something at face value? Our Torah stands at the very epicenter of our journey to understanding our existence and purpose as human beings.
As my teacher and mentor Rabbi Lawrence Kushner often said, “The Torah isn’t true because it happened, it is true because it happens.” Must it be the literal work of one man 3,000 years ago to be a valuable part of our community and lives? After all it is our record of our dialogue with the divine and our quest to understand that relationship.
In my teaching, to students of all ages, I ask that question, “Why does the Torah have to be entirely true?” How many American holidays are true as we have taught them? What is the power of a story, a legacy or a heritage?
For the Reform Jewish community, we recognize the Torah as the central but not the literal “word of God.” We don’t believe it was written by God and handed down completely on Sinai to Moses. We know that the Torah contains a multitude of voices, views and contrasting narratives. For example, there are two chapters in Genesis that tell two very different stories of the world’s creation.
Or consider the different names for God apparently represent different expressions of Jewish spirituality in ancient Israel … and they don’t always agree with each other!
Rabbi Gunther Plaut in his Torah commentary, widely used in our Reform movement wrote, “God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen.” (Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary.) The Reform community is not alone in understanding the value of Torah as a force in our lives that may not be completely historically accurate.
Take, for example, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the 20th-century Orthodox rabbi who was not concerned if the Torah was written as the Torah itself describes. He wrote in his work, The Lonely Man of Faith, Judaism has always taught that God is to be found through the actions and ideas of human beings, “moreover, I have never even been troubled by the theories of biblical criticism which contradict the very foundation upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest.”
I would also suggest that we shouldn’t get lost in methods and concepts of biblical criticism. I imagine the gift those like Rashi had before modern scholarship. They had their own questions but didn’t get lost debating what was true or not true. For him, it all had incredible teachings worth exploring and knowing. He made sense of the text by trying to dig deeper for meaning.
I understand this notion of Torah as enduring legacy and not fact can be challenging for many. I see it as an incredible gift. As the Sefat Emet teaches, “Everyone has their own version of the Torah, and it might take a lifetime to discover it all.”
Revelation, our tradition teaches, was not simply a singular call from God to human beings but was meant to be an ongoing dialogue. How are you part of this dialogue?
Rabbi Peter Rigler is the rabbi of Temple Sholom in Broomall. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.