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Who Wrote the Torah? #694

09/24/2021 05:33:00 PM

Sep24

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah V'Zot HaBrachah
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the LORD singled out, face to face.” Deuteronomy 34:10

Who Wrote the Torah?

One of the most confusing, fascinating, divisive lines in the Torah will be chanted this Wednesday morning as we complete the reading of the Five Books of Moses, and we return “to the beginning.”

Spoiler alert: I’m about to share with you how the Torah ends.

Moses dies.

In a beautiful, inspired scene, Moses ascends to the summit of Mount Nebo and takes his last breath. According to a play on words on the phrase Al Pi Adonai — Moses’ life ends either “according to God’s command” or “with a kiss.”

Either way, as we read the final verses of the Torah, we bid farewell to Moshe Rabbenu, Judaism’s greatest teacher, who devoted more than 40 years to God’s service — leading an often-stubborn, ungracious, “stiff necked” people.

Our tradition tells us that God buried Moses in an unmarked place likely to keep his grave from becoming a shrine. For Judaism teaches us that no human being should ever be deified.

But then comes a line which — among others — has divided Jews for centuries.

On one hand, tradition says that God wrote the Torah, dictating it to Moses. If that is so, then every word, every letter warrants study and dissection.

The other approach — known as Biblical Criticism — looks at the Torah as a composite of various scrolls possibly redacted more than 2,000 years ago, and influenced by sociological, economic, historical and theological factors.

In part, the debate centers around the following sentence from next Wednesday’s Torah reading.

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the LORD singled out, face to face.” Deuteronomy 34:10

Those who view the Torah as a sacred piece of literature, ask: “Who is writing this?” because there appears to be a third voice — an outside commentator — looking back at history.

Those with a more traditional perspective explain the text’s apparent retrospective passage as emanating from the hand of God, who can predict the future — or, through Joshua, who upon Moses’ death, picked up the pen and wrote the Torah’s final lines.

Either way, the issue of authorship has intrigued biblical scholars for centuries.

On April 1, 1925, when Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook arrived to bless the Hebrew University in Jerusalem upon its official opening, he agreed to speak on one condition: that the university did not include Biblical Criticism in its Torah study curriculum.

In his comments that day, Rav Kook punctuated his position, quoting from the Book of Isaiah:Torah shall come from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3)

But as it turned out, the university did include less traditional approaches in its course offerings, and the discussion, which had begun many centuries earlier, continued, as it does to this day.

So, why is this important to our daily lives today? Why should anyone care?

Really, if you boil it down, it poses this question: Should we be dissecting every sentence, line or letter in the Torah as the word of God — or should we be looking at the values and overarching principles upon which it stands?

Isn’t it interesting how very few Jews can quote a multitude of intact verses from the Bible? That is a skill better mastered by our Christian friends.

Rather, we are a people who take the spirit of biblical verses and apply them to daily life. For example, in ancient times, the Jewish people were focused on the current holiday of Sukkot as a sacred festival to ask God to ensure rain.

Nowadays, within many branches of Judaism, Sukkot is practiced as a festival of gratitude when we give thanks for the blessing of simplicity, and turn our sights to the plight of the homeless and others who have no shelter.

Judaism changes generation to generation to reflect and remain relevant to the times.

In the end, for me, it does not matter whether the Torah was written by God, or by pious writers inspired by God. For as the Kabbalists, our mystics, teach: Each one of us has a piece of God — a soul — within.

What is most important is that we look at the Torah as a dynamic, changing text, which inspires us to treasure our history and tradition, while challenging us to adapt its teachings to current issues — materialism, environmental stress, homelessness, poverty and a world often lacking in kindness, compassion and shalom ba'it (peace in our homes, peace in our world.)

How we get there, I believe, requires respect for teachings from many denominations — each representing a part of the body of Judaism.

That is why I am a pluralistic Jew. For there is much to learn and treasure through both traditional sources, and through understanding of the context in which the Torah was introduced and applied.

How beautiful Torah is. How wonderful Judaism can be by embracing many approaches. 

Too often, as we complete the reading of the Torah during next week's holiday of Simchat Torah, we are so fixed on getting back to Genesis, that we rush by one of the most beautiful portions of the Torah — the death of Moses.

You can click on this link to read it for yourself. How beautiful our heritage. How wonderful it is that we can disagree.

What do you think as you read Deuteronomy 34:10?

It s a fascinating discussion which has interested rabbis and other scholars for centuries. But in the end, based on 3,000 years of tradition, reflection and even disagreement, let us ask ourselves: “Does it really matter?”

Perhaps there never was another prophet like Moses, but each of us inherits his tradition.

In many ways, while we may not be prophets — each of us can be, like Moses, a moral teacher to those who look up to us.

Each one of us is a descendent of Moses, Miriam and Aaron — among other inspiring biblical characters. It may not matter so much how we got here or who put pen to paper. What is most important is that we apply the Torah’s teaching.

On this week, as we return to the “beginning,” let us be reminded that based on the inspired teachings of the Torah, we are each blessed with the capacity to respect many perspectives.

Within this often-confusing world of Jewish denominations, let us remember — above all, upon the shoulders of Moses — that we, as Jews, are in this together. 

As it was in the end, so shall it be “in the beginning.”

The future, under God’s wings, is ours.

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Chag Sameach (Happy Sukkot). Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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