Ki Tisa 5781 – Who Wrote the Torah

By: James Rosenberg

One of the arguments separating different contemporary communities of Jews is the contention about who (or Who) wrote the Torah.  Is the Torah the direct transcript of the words of God to Moses at Sinai, so that each and every word recorded in that book is the speech of God literally?  Or is the Torah a human book, remarkable perhaps, but human nonetheless?

In the first instance, if the Torah is the literal words of God, then everything in it must be obeyed precisely as it was in the past.  After all, only a fool would mess with the Creator of the heavens and the earth!  But if the Torah is the creation of other human beings, then it is subject to human judgment, ours no less than anyone else’s.  Consequently, when there is a clash between the Torah and personal will, everyone may legitimately do what they want — even if the Torah prohibits it.

While both of these viewpoints are advanced with great passion and energy, both represent deviations from traditional Jewish understandings of what the Torah really was, and is.  The answer to the question, “Is the source of the Torah human or divine?” is a resounding “Yes!”  The Torah is the meeting place of God and the Jews — our loving response, as well as God’s invitation of love.

In today’s Torah portion, Moses receives the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, which were “inscribed with the finger of God.”  Farther on, the Torah tells us that those tablets were “God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing.”  Understood literally, it would seem that the Torah asserts that these specific words are God’s, and that God has at least one finger!

Rashi explains that one could indeed understand it literally, but he then quotes the Midrash Tanhuma, which says that its meaning is “like the case of one person saying to a colleague, ‘all of the efforts of this  person are in that work,’ so all the delight of the Holy Blessed One is in the Torah.”

In other words, the Torah is using poetic language to tell us not about the literal reality of these particular words, but that the Ten Commandments do embody divine will.  Rambam got into it, and he was more emphatic. The purpose of these words is to tell us that the tablets were “real and not artificial.”  He points out that the use of a “finger” is just as problematic as saying that God “says” or “speaks,” as if God has a mouth and a tongue too!

Rather, all this language about God speaking or writing is to affirm that the Torah reflects God’s “will and volition.”  Countless other traditional commentators reflect this same understanding.  The biblical commentator, Rashbam, says that these words simply teach that “Moses didn’t inscribe them” and Ezra affirms that even according to the Mishnah, the tablets were created before the first Shabbat preceding Creation.

No one understood this phrase to be literal.  So what is all the fuss about?  If every word of the Torah is literally God’s speech, then Judaism does not change and all should be as it always was.  If none of the words in the Torah reflects Divine will, then Judaism can be anything any Jew wants it to be.

Traditional Judaism refutes both extremes, insisting instead that our Torah is an accurate reflection of Divine “will and volition” (quoting Rambam), without making claims about literal transmission of speech.  Just as much as there was (and is) a giving of Torah that is active and involves God, so too there was (and is) a receiving of Torah that is active and involves the children of Israel.

The Torah is at once fully human and fully Divine, charged with an electricity that can launch a people into eternity, while allowing Planet Earth the opportunity to enjoy a World of peace, tranquility, and happiness.

Shabbat Shalom