Shiur #15: Torah min Ha-shamayim

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Torah min Ha-shamayim: The Eighth Principle


We began discussing the Rambam's understanding of the nature of Divine revelation (Torah min ha-shamayim) in the last shiur.  The Rambam insists that the revelation at Sinai was a unique event, in which Moshe was given the whole of the written Torah as well as the 613 mitzvot with their explanation.  Here is how the Rambam makes these points in the eighth principle:


The eighth foundation is that the Torah is from heaven; to wit, it [must] be believed that the whole of this Torah which is in our hand today is the Torah that was brought down to Moses, our teacher; that all of it is from God [by] the transmission which is called metaphorically 'speech'; that no one knows the quality of that transmission except he to whom it was transmitted, peace be upon him; and that it was dictated to him while he was of the rank of a scribe; and that he wrote down all of its dates, narratives and its laws – and for this he is called the legislator.  There is no difference between "the sons of Ham were Cush, Mitzrayim, Fut, and Canaan" [Bereishit 10:6] and "the name of his wife was Mehatabel, the daughter of Matred" [Bereishit 36:39] on the one hand, and "I am the Lord your God" [Shemot 20:2] and "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One"[Devarim 6:4] on the other hand.  Everything is from the mouth of the Mighty One; everything is the Torah of God: whole, pure, holy, [and] true…

…every letter of the Torah contains wisdom and wonders for him whom God has given to understand it.  Its ultimate wisdom cannot be perceived as it is said:  "Its measure is greater than the earth and broader than the sea." [Iyyov 11:9]  A man can only follow in the steps of David, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the most pleasant singer of hymns of Israel, who prayed, singing, "Unmask my eyes that I may see wonders from Your Torah [Tehillim 119:18]


Similarly its interpretation as it has been handed down is also “from the mouth of the Almighty.”  Those which we observe today, such as the form of Sukka, the Lulav, the Shofar, the Tzitzit, the Tefillin, and other such forms are the actual forms which God told to Moses and which he told to us.  He is the transmitter of the Message, faithful in its transmission.  The verse on the basis of which the eighth foundation is attested is his [i.e. Moses'] saying, "By this shall you know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things."  (Bemidbar 16:28)[1]


There are three points made in this passage, which I have accordingly divided into paragraphs: first, and most emphasized, is the claim that the entirety of the written Torah – the Five Books of Moses – was dictated by God to Moshe.  All of it is equally the word of God and thus there are no grounds for relating to any part of it as less holy than any other.  To make this point the Rambam asserts that there is no difference between peripheral genealogical details and the central declarations of faith found in the Torah.


The second passage is more obscure.  It claims that the text of the Torah has the capacity to bear nearly infinite meaning, that every letter is a potential bearer of an important message to a person with the skills to find it. 


Finally, almost as an afterthought, the Rambam turns to Torah she-be'al Peh, the Oral Torah, and asserts that the interpretation of the Written Torah was also received by Moshe and passed on to future generations.  This ensures that there has been no significant change in the practice of the Torah's mitzvot over time.  It is possible that the Rambam's brevity here is a result of the great lengths that he took to elaborate this point in his Introduction to the Commentary of the Mishna.  He thus saw no need to elaborate again in the body of the work (recall that the 13 principles appear as part of the commentary on the 10th chapter of Massekhet Sanhedrin).


In the following I will address the first two of these claims, saving the discussion of Torah she-be'al Peh to the next shiur.


2.         The Immaculateness of the Written Torah


I have already discussed that the notion that the Torah was dictated to Moshe must be understood as a metaphorical assertion.  The Rambam says so explicitly in this passage: "that all of it is from God [by] the transmission which is called metaphorically 'speech'."  With that qualification in place, he freely expands the metaphor to describe Moshe's experience in receiving the Torah in terms of a scribe recording dictation.  It is clear that it was nothing like that – any secretary can take dictation while only Moshe (especially according to the Rambam's vision of Moshe as a historically unique individual) could have received the Torah.  The substance of the metaphor is in the result, which the Rambam emphasizes:  the content of the Written Torah must be viewed as directly from God.  'Content' in this context should not be understood in a general sense of the ideas expressed by the language of the Torah but in the very specific sense of the precise words of the text.  The Rambam emphasizes that all the words, with regard to the significance of what they express, are to be regarded as equally holy.  Though the Rambam does not mention it here, this idea finds expression in the halakha: a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) that is missing even one letter, in any word, is considered pasul, is disqualified.


However, this long passage (I skipped about half of it in the quote above) has a flavor of the Rambam 'protesting too much.'  There is no doubt that the Rambam was well aware that the Masoretic text that we use today has textual variants.  To this day there are competing textual traditions (albeit generally about small differences) as is indicated by the fact that the Rambam takes the trouble, in the Mishneh Torah,[2] to assert his opinion of the normative law in some of these manners.  No doubt the Rambam was also aware of the discussion in the Talmud about whether Moshe wrote the last eight verses of the Torah[3] and the Talmudic assertion that "we are not expert in chaserot veyetarot" (i.e., orthographical differences)[4], and similar issues raised in Chazal.  In fact, when the Rambam mentions that the text of the Torah is the product of revelation in Hilkhot Teshuva, he is far more circumspect.  There he simply asserts that the denier of Torah is one who claims that the Torah is not from God: if someone claims that even one verse or one word was inserted by Moshe on his own, then he is a denier of Torah.  The heresy lies in the notion that some of the Torah is man-made; scribal variance is not the stuff of heresy.[5]  The phrasing in the 13 principles is indeed extreme – I will turn to one explanation why later on.[6]


The Rambam insists that the Torah is not merely an "inspired" text but is the divine Word.  The technical issues involved in maintaining the precise content of the text that I mentioned in the previous paragraph are just that – technical problems with maintaining a text over time.  The essential point is that the divine revelation included more than mere guidelines or vague generalizations.  The divine revelation included a text and it is the holiness and authority of that text that the Rambam is concerned with.  Why is this so important? 


3.         The Challenge of Biblical Criticism


Before addressing that question, it is important to relate to the degree to which this claim – that the revelation was textual – has become controversial in modern times.  In the first half of the 19th century, there developed an influential style of biblical scholarship called source criticism.  This is a methodology of textual study that began with Classical (i.e. Greek and Latin) texts to which no one attributed holiness, and was then applied to the Bible.  The basic working assumptions of this methodology involved viewing the Bible as a human text.  Difficulties and inconsistencies that one encounters in reading the text are explained by the claim that the text of the Torah was constructed out of multiple sources that have been put together by a later editor.  The goal of biblical criticism is to identify those sources, with the help of both philological and thematic tools, and subsequently to understand how, where, and why the editor seamed them together.[7] 


There is no doubt that the claims of the source critics about the human origin and multiplicity of sources of the Torah conflict with the eight principle, even if we read it expansively to allow for the variance that is a recognized feature of textual transmission.  What is at stake is the critical challenge to the traditional notion that Moshe received the whole Torah from God. 


4.         Textual Revelation


I claimed above that the essential kernel of the claim of Torah min ha-shamayim is that the Torah is the word of God and not merely a divinely inspired human text.  Of course, this distinction depends upon what one understands to be the difference between "word of God" and "divinely inspired."  Very often discussions of Torah min ha-shamayim focus on the mechanism of transmission: as opposed to the notion of the Torah being composed by humans, even if they were prophets, the claim that the Torah is from heaven is that it was composed by God and merely dictated to Moshe.  I think that this emphasis on the mechanism, on the manner in which the Torah was given, is a distraction.  We have already learned that at least according to the Rambam, we cannot give a literal account of how the Torah was given.  The notion that the Torah was "dictated to him [Moshe] while he was of the rank of a scribe" is a metaphor according to the Rambam, since "no one knows the quality of that transmission except he to whom it was transmitted, peace be upon him."  The attempt to fully explicate the nature of revelation is presumptuous – how can we expect to really understand the nature of the greatest prophet's relationship with God?  We are better served in thinking about Torah min ha-shamayim not in terms of the mechanism of transmission but in terms of the result.


For this very same reason, I do not think that we should feel threatened by the claims of source criticism.  Our commitment to the holiness of the text, our belief that Torah in its entirety is the word of God, is primarily a qualitative claim about the Torah.  It is not an empirical historical claim, subject to revision upon the appearance of new evidence (whatever that may look like).  Rather, it is an existential point of departure that demands of us to view the Torah as an integrated whole, as the word of the living God. The halakha that a Sefer Torah that is missing even one letter is disqualified is not merely a technical detail but the reflection of an attitude towards the Torah.  From this unapologetically religious perspective, the question of historical authorship does not even arise.  To argue with the source critics, on the basis of evidence of one sort or another, that the Torah really has only one author is simply to concede the most fundamental ground to the historicist perspective.  It is to agree that how the Torah is composed can be established independently of one's relationship to the Torah.  But if the Torah is the revealed word of God, then even claiming that God is its Author is merely a metaphor.  How precisely God broke into history to reveal Himself necessarily remains a mystery unless one is a prophet on the level of Moshe. 


This does not mean that the thematic and linguistic discontinuities raised by source criticism are irrelevant. It makes sense that God would speak to us in different and even inconsistent voices – the world is an exceptionally complex place and one would expect the Torah to reflect that.[8]  The insights of source criticism, in pointing out these tensions and inconsistencies, can help us in our ongoing attempt to understand the word of God.  Perhaps the profound defensiveness and unease that source criticism inspires in some believers can be relaxed.  It poses no threat to the divinity of Torah unless we claim to know in advance what a revealed text should look like. 


5.         Back to the Rambam


For the Rambam, the immaculateness of the Written Torah serves a systematic purpose as well.  Last week we mentioned how the Rambam subscribes to a positivistic vision of the authority of Halakha (more on this next week) that demands that the authority of every detail of Halakha be founded on an authoritative source.  A great deal of the Halakha is derived and/or justified by the style of close reading of the Torah called midrash halakha.  The text of the Torah functions as a sort of foundational document of the Halakha.  Given the fact that midrash halakha often 'hangs' halakhic conclusions on very fine textual nuances, this purpose can only be served if the integrity and authority of the text is preserved. 


As I will discuss next week, the Rambam's understanding of the nature of Halakha is (to say the least) controversial and Torah min ha-shamayim is far more than the assertion that the Torah is a foundational legal text.  It is clear that the Rambam himself understood this.  As I quoted above, the Rambam believes that:


…every letter of the Torah contains wisdom and wonders for him whom God has given to understand it.  Its ultimate wisdom cannot be perceived as it is said: "Its measure is greater than the earth and broader than the sea." [Iyyov 11:9]  A man can only follow in the steps of David, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the most pleasant singer of hymns of Israel, who prayed, singing, "Unmask my eyes that I may see wonders from Your Torah [Tehillim 119:18]


Torah min ha-shamayim is the claim that the miracle of revelation, of God communicating His will to human beings, is embodied in the Torah.  In giving us a text, God's communication ceases to be merely a historical event.  It is direct communication to all of us, for all generations.  This is the deep meaning of the midrash that claims that all future Jewish souls were present at Sinai.  We were not present at the event but weshare in the result – the Written Torah.  How much we understand is a function of our own abilities and efforts but the basic communication is made available to all generations. 


The textuality of revelation creates a wholly different dynamic of human wisdom.  Compare the Jewish engagement with the Torah over the generations with, for example, the originally Greek engagement with philosophy, which I take to mean a whole intellectual tradition that begins with the pre-Socratics and extends to modern scientific thinking.  The philosopher or scientist's stance is primarily universalist or at least humanist – the truths that he discovers belong to all and apply to all.  The philosopher and scientist seek to understand, master and shape the world through the active engagement of their intellects.  They describe, measure, and quantify existence.


In contrast, the Jewish engagement with the Torah, in its various textual manifestations, is particularistic: the goal is not to determine the nature of the world but to seek what God wants from us, how we are to behave, and what we should value.  "Us" is not the human race but the Jewish people – there is a basic modesty inherent in the act of learning Torah.  In turning the seeking of wisdom into the interpretation of God's word, wisdom becomes a process of listening and not only of speaking, of accepting as well as asserting.  Torah min ha-shamayim, the acceptance of the Torah as the word of God, is fundamental for this mode of knowledge to exist. 


I do not want to give anyone the impression that we can do without philosophical and scientific thinking.  These too are gifts from God.  Nor do I want to give the impression that there is no universal message to be learned from the Torah or that the Torah is irrelevant to non-Jews.  In the previous paragraphs I am merely describing two archetypical modes of wisdom-seeking.  The scientific philosopher aspires, in a sense, to be an outsider looking in at the world.  His or her movement is from the general to the particular, with the goal of mastery.  In contrast, the interpreter of Torah is firmly on the inside, rooted in the specific rather than the general.  Only God is outside the world and its Master and the goal of wisdom is the acceptance of God's mastery.  Over the generations, these two archetypes of seeking wisdom have mingled and enriched one another and we cannot do without either one.  Torah min ha-shamayim is one of the foundations of wisdom because it embodies one of the fundamental movements of the spirit in which we as participate as human beings. 



[1]  Translation from Kellner, Menachem (1986), Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, pp. 14-15. 

[2]  Hilkhot Tefillin, Mezuza and Sefer Torah, especially chapter 8.

[3]  Bava Batra 14b-15a.

[4]  Kiddushin 30a.

[5]  For a more elaborate discussion of this issue, see Marc B. Shapiro (2004) The Limits of Orthodox Theology, chapter 7.

[6]  Marc Shapiro (2004) suggests that the explanation for the Rambam's extremism in stating the principle of Torah min ha-shamayim in the principles of faith has to do with Muslim accusations that the Jews corrupted the original revelation.  He claims that in this context, in a popular work like the Commentary on the Mishna (in which the principles appear) the Rambam felt a need to strengthen the faith of the simple believers.  His more nuanced positions were elaborated in his more elitist works, particularly the Guide of the Perplexed.  I have no objection to this explanation though I think that it is not all that can be said.  The Rambam's emphasis on the immaculateness of the text also plays a role in his systematic philosophy of law, as I will explain. 

[7]   What is called text criticism (or lower criticism) focused on philology – the study of words, phrases and linguistic phenomena, with an eye to explaining difficult passages by showing how the text has been changed or corrupted.  As I mentioned above, the basic activity of text criticism existed in Judaism long before the modern methodology was formulated.  The Masoretic effort to establish an authoritative text and the Rabbinic recognition of the gaps between textual traditions are not so far from text criticism.  The (not insignificant) difference lies in the scope of the willingness to "correct" and the reverence with which the text is held.

[8]  Rav Mordechai Breuer developed a method of interpretation that he called "the method of aspects" (shitat ha-bechinot) which takes seriously the claims of source criticism and responds to the differences in style and content they expose.  Rav Breuer avoids trying to harmonize opposing texts of the Torah and chooses rather to accentuate their differences, with the result of creating a dialectical meaning in which the Torah expresses competing values and does not necessarily try to resolve them.  For examples see his books, Pirkei Mo’adot and Pirkei Bereishit (Hebrew).  Whether the appropriate response to a particular interpretive problem is to follow Rav Breuer's method or to take some other path will depend on context.