“These are the words” (eleh d’varim). So starts this week’s Torah reading and the entire book Deuteronomy, which it introduces. But whose words are they, God’s or Moses’s? Many of our finest commentators suspect the latter, wondering, as a consequence, whether Deuteronomy is even God-given altogether. To be sure, says Abravanel (1437-1508), “There is no book in all of holy writ that Moses wrote all by himself,” but still, he opines, it does seem that “’These words’ are the words of our master Moses” albeit intended as explanations of commandments given by God elsewhere.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) goes further, however, by (famously!) pointing to passages Moses could not have written, like the verses at the end of Deuteronomy that presuppose Moses’s death, and had to have been composed by someone else (probably Joshua, Ibn Ezra concludes). We look back on Ibn Ezra as pioneering early “biblical criticism” – a scientific approach that sees Torah not as a singular revelation given word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but a brilliantly edited set of documents that evolved over the course of centuries, culminating in a final version after the return from Babylonian exile.
So whose words are they — the words of Torah, I mean: all the words, not just those of Deuteronomy? If the scientific study is correct, they are the words of human writers over time.
Jews properly differ on the matter. Abravanel devotes a lengthy discussion to the issue and concludes, “This holy book [Deuteronomy] in its entirety and all its parts came directly from God who commanded it be written down word for word just like the rest of Torah.” The Malbim (1809-1879) is even clearer: “It was all written by God. On his own accord, Moses wrote nothing, not even the tiniest dot.”
Most Jews today side with Ibn Ezra – and with science – but maintain that the text remains sacred, no matter how it came into being. Attributing it all to God, they say, is troubling theologically, not just stylistically. If God indeed wrote every word, then every word must be correct; yet God appears sometimes as vengeful, cruel, and the author of some laws that boggle the modern mind (like “an eye for an eye” [Exodus 21:24] and stoning the rebellious child [Deut. 21:18-21]).
And not just the modern mind: the Talmud itself denied the literal validity of such things, “correcting them” with the notion of an oral law that successive generations of Torah scholars are said to intuit and then use to interpret the “real” meaning of the written text.
Modern scholarship can be seen as an extension of this rabbinic principle: revelation should be reimagined as ongoing throughout time.
What unites both sides of the debate is the assumption that divine truth comes from the study of Torah, no matter how it came about. Jews gather for Torah study, the way other faiths meet to meditate or pray. We start meetings with a d’var torah (“a word of Torah”), the way others cite the tales of Jesus, a statement from the Quran, or the American Constitution. What would a Jewish newspaper be without a column on “the portion of the week”?
Christianity left Judaism not when it proclaimed its faith in Jesus as a messiah – Jews have had many “messianists” over time without their becoming separate religions. Christianity left when it stopped reading Torah as the primary source of wisdom and began instead to read the Gospel portraits of Jesus as its tale worth telling and interpreting for all time.
It really doesn’t matter whether God gave us Deuteronomy through Moses on Mt. Sinai, whether Moses made it up himself, or whether God spoke somehow through the evolution of time to our many ancestors, who, in turn, put the Torah together. What matters is that however it happened, we somehow got it, made it our own, cherished and still cherish it, as the story of who we are and the model for how God wants us still to be.