Debate over God’s authorship of the Torah also a debate over meaning in the world
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California–Did God write the Torah? The question came up in my son’s Jewish high school last week provoking some surprisingly heated discussions. I say “surprisingly” because I wouldn’t have expected eleventh graders to care so passionately about a theological issue. Also, this is a community Jewish school, a pluralistic, multi-denominational institution, which studiously and skillfully avoids religious controversy – out of necessity. Yet there it was: theological claims, emotional responses, and not a few hurt feelings, enough that the principal felt obliged to email the parents. A few days later some of the same students in the class put the question to me: Did God write the Torah? I answered what I always answer. Yes, we can agree that God wrote the Torah. But we may not agree on what the words “God,” “wrote,” and “Torah” mean.
Why does it matter? Why do modern, sophisticated, super-intelligent (forgive me, I’m thinking of my son), college-bound students – not to mention their equally sophisticated parents – quarrel over this mostly non-rational issue? For one thing, most of us have an innate need to think of our most fundamental moral principles as grounded in something more solid than human reason. And religious rituals provide shape and meaning to most of our lives, so – again – we’d like to think of them as coming from God, and not from some primitive human committee. All of us, in one way or another, crave authority in a rapidly changing world. So we are inclined to believe that God wrote the Torah for the same reason we are inclined to believe in God: this faith provides our human actions with infinite purpose. Questioning either proposition – that there is a God, or that God is responsible for our most important code of behavior – robs us of meaning.
Yet, modern times have brought numerous challenges to the idea that God wrote the Torah. Biblical academics now identify at least four human authors, writing in various times and places and for various reasons, for the Pentateuch – the book traditional Jews revere as the “Chumash,” or more simply “The Torah of Moses.” University archeologists regularly unearth evidence that directly contradicts biblical claims. Also, some Jews study certain morally troubling passages in the Torah – like the commandments to stone Homosexuals, or slaughter Amalekites, or execute stubborn and rebellious children – and conclude that these passages cannot possibly have been written by God.
I’m not sure we’re fully aware of the crises these challenges have generated. In an old Star Trek episode, Kirk and company encounter a planetary culture that follows all the customs and mores of 1930’s gangland Chicago. Why? Because a previous space ship had left behind a book that scrupulously described the old Chicago crime mobs. The natives – a uniquely impressionable lot – studied the book from the sky, and adopted it as their holy text. They called it “’Da Book.” Inevitably, the planetary mobsters capture the Enterprise crew. The only way Kirk can escape is by debunking “’Da Book.”
It’s not “’Da Book,” Kirk argues, it’s just a book, authored by fallible humans. He succeeds in escaping, but he leaves behind a deflated culture, suddenly bereft of meaning.
The Star Trek episode is played for laughs, but I still see elements of this disillusioned reality in our culture – and not just Jewish culture. Challenges to our book have created division, confusion, and sometimes serious conflict. The battle between Darwinists and Creationists (or the followers of Intelligent Design), which continues despite supposedly definitive court cases, is largely a fight between those who believe that God wrote the Bible, and those who don’t. The Creationist’s fundamental complaint about Darwinism is that it conflicts with the creation account in the book of Genesis. This never ending battle reveals an incoherence near the center of our culture. Despite court rulings, many high school biology teachers, including several in San Diego county, don’t know what they can or cannot teach about evolution. But more fundamentally, this controversy calls into question what we as a culture really think about science. Darwin’s theories form the basis of modern biology, and continue to spark important innovations in medical technology, from which everyone benefits, including Creationists. But how can we enjoy the science even as we deny its fundamental claims? Or, how can we support the science – with all its theological implications – and still retain our full faith in the Torah? And, how can we address these touchy questions, without insults, lawsuits, culture wars?
I wish I knew. But clearly we need a broader understanding of what it means when we claim, as I do, that God wrote the Torah. And I can only offer my own system, culled from traditional Jewish texts, and several of my teachers. There’s a wonderful Talmudic story, where Moses finds God decorating the letters of the Torah with crowns. Moses asks why, and God answers that future generations will discover deep, hidden meanings in the crowns. So, when I say God wrote the Torah, I understand that there are numerous hidden messages embedded in, and between the lines of the text. God’s authorship – by definition – makes the Torah an infinite source of meaning, infinitely interpretable. My idea of a divine Torah makes me the opposite of a fundamentalist. The plain meaning of the text – whether it’s a law, or a story, or an ethical principle – is never the last word. It can’t be, if God wrote it.
So, like Rav Kook, the ultra-Orthodox first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, I have no problem with Darwinism because the Torah’s early stories are flexible enough to accommodate any scientific truth. Similarly, the conflicts and contradictions that modern academics find don’t disturb me, since I’m used to finding creative interpretations of our book. For me, the spiritual experience of seeking endless knowledge trumps my need for easy, black and white authority.
I understand that this system doesn’t work for everyone. I remember once trying to explain to an Orthodox rabbi that I believed in gay marriage precisely because I believed God wrote the Torah. It’s in the crowns, I said, even if it’s not in the text. He didn’t get it, he told me, and I wasn’t surprised.
But we all will need to start “getting” each other’s perspective on the authority of our sacred texts – the texts that still bind our culture together, believers and non-believers. I hope they keep talking about this subject at my son’s school.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla