Hunters and Homilists

Why is it so important to believe that the Torah is of divine origin and not written by Moses?

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

A well-known chapter toward the end of the Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin offers a long list of categories of people who have no part in the world-to-come. One of these categories is of those individuals who claim that the Torah is not of divine origin ‏(Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1‏). This Mishnah reflects one of the later ideological phases involving the dispute over the sources of the Torah − a stage in which reward and punishment are granted in a realm that is beyond the boundaries of the world as seen by human beings. However, in this laconic Mishnah, there is no mention of the motivation behind the meting out of such punishment. Why is it so important to believe that the Torah is of divine origin and not written by Moses?

This week’s portion contains one of the earlier stages in the same debate − earlier from the methodological, if not chronological, standpoint; this stage may shed light on the acute significance of the above query. Here, the Torah presents a list of animals that have only some of the qualities of purity required for consumption of their meat: “Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that only chew the cud, or of them that only have the hoof cloven: the camel, and the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but part not the hoof, they are unclean unto you; and the swine, because he parteth the hoof but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you; of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch” ‏(Deuteronomy 14:7-8‏).

The following homily concerns this passage: “Rabbi Akiva said: Was Moses a hunter or an archer? Here is the answer to those who say the Torah is not of divine origin” ‏(Sifre: Deuteronomy: 102‏). How, Rabbi Akiva is asking, can Moses know the anatomical details of all the animals? Was he a hunter or an archer who lives outdoors for much of the time, and is familiar with the organs of animals? The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, negative: Moses could not have the professional knowledge of a hunter or archer regarding the anatomies of animals; instead, he learned these details from God himself. The above passage from the Torah is proof that Moses did not invent the Torah, but rather received it from God.

From this stems a unique perception of the images of Moses and God, and the nature of their relationship. Moses lacked the professional know-how of the hunter and archer regarding the world he lived in; indeed, he was cloistered within the four walls of his study and wrote the text given him by God. Thus, Moses is seen, as per this particular viewpoint, as the archetypical yeshiva student. His knowledge regarding the outside world is totally mediated to him through the text. By contrast, God, who composed that text, is in fact the hunter or archer: He is the one who’s familiar with the animals populating his world because he created them, and, with the know-how he accrued, he composed the Torah.

As the author of the Torah, God transmits it to Moses, the “clerk” who commits it to paper and then conveys it to the people. Of those who receive it, there is only one, say the sages, who can be called the ultimate reader of the Torah − i.e., the one capable of reading the text in the most edifying and complete manner. This is the same individual who came up with the above theological proof as to the Torah’s divine source: Rabbi Akiva himself.

A legend in the Gemara relates that, when Moses ascends to heaven to get the Torah, he finds God just completing the task of writing it. When Moses asks why he has put off giving the Torah to his people, God replies, “There is one person who will live many generations from today and his name is Akiva, son of Joseph. He will produce homilies on each and every calligraphic ornament on the words in the Torah scroll, and will create an abundance of religious laws.”

Moses wants to see this individual, according to the Talmud, and God sends him to Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash ‏(religious study hall‏): “Moses sat in the eighth and last row. He could not understand what was being said and felt very weary until, regarding a certain issue, Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him, ‘But, Rabbi, how do you know that this is so?’ He replied to them, ‘This is the law as was handed down to Moses at Sinai.’ On hearing these words, Moses’ peace of mind was restored. He went back to God and asked him, ‘Master of the Universe, if you have someone like that, why are you giving the Torah to Israel through me?’ And God replied, ‘Silence, this is what I wish’” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, page 29b‏).

Rabbi Akiva’s interpretive reading of the text is so creative that Moses cannot follow his line of thinking. The following is written in Yalkut Shimoni ‏(Isaiah 42, allusion 452‏): “’and his eye seeth every precious thing’ [Job 28:10]; this is a reference to Rabbi Akiva. Things that were not revealed to Moses at Sinai were revealed to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues.”

In reading the text that Moses transmits, Rabbi Akiva exposes dimensions that Moses himself is unable to see. The latter’s well-being is restored only when Rabbi Akiva replies to his students, “This is the law as was handed down to Moses at Sinai.” Then Moses is reassured that, in the future as well, his dignified position as the transmitter of the Torah to Israel will not be sullied.

So it is God who is the hunter or archer, with experience and expert knowledge of the world, who, on the basis of that knowledge, authors the Torah. Moses is neither of those things; he is closed up in his study and has no way of knowing anything beyond what is written in the Torah. For his part, Rabbi Akiva receives the gift transmitted to him by Moses, the written Torah. However, while Rabbi Akiva also sits in his academy of sacred Jewish study and lives in essence within the four walls of halakha − his personality is the complete opposite of that of Moses.

Rabbi Akiva is the professional “hunter” − whose eyes are wide open, who is sensitive to his surroundings and open to the world. But the world in which he does his “hunting” is the Torah. Through his sensitivity and creativity, and his skill as a “hunter of words,” Rabbi Akiva is thus able to see in the words of the Torah what Moses is unable to see. Still, Rabbi Akiva needs the Torah to be “anchored” in heaven in order to be so very creative in his homilies. The concept of “Torah min hashamayim” − that is, of the Torah being of divine origin − thus demarcates this scholar’s textual world, enabling him to hunt there.

According to the Mishnah, in Tractate Sanhedrin, those who say the Torah is not of divine origin do not have a part in the world-to-come. Perhaps, this is the significance of limiting their “part,” or role, solely to the visible, tangible world. Those who say the Torah is not of divine origin will not be able to answer their students when they ask them, “But, Rabbi, how do you know that this is so?” Since these individuals do not sanctify their text, they are left with nothing but the words: They lack the means for interpreting the text. The act of theologizing the text opens up the possibility of giving it an interpretive reading.

In his struggle to create midrashic validity for the source of the Torah’s text, Rabbi Akiva uses his favorite tool: the homily. In the one cited above, he presents evidence proving the Torah’s divine origin. Within its text, Akiva finds the evidence that the Torah was not created by Moses − evidence that perhaps even Moses would be unable to grasp.

The rabbi’s homily is an intricate piece of work reflecting a strong self-awareness. Through his ability to be a creative, interpretive reader, Rabbi Akiva, as it were, fixes the Torah in heaven. In doing so, he also provides an answer not only to those who do not have a part in the world-to-come, but, even more importantly, he shapes, after the fact, the roles of God and Moses, the hunter and the yeshiva student. These roles are the basis of his own authority and ensure his definitive role as homilist.

"Moses" by Michelangelo (1513-1515).Credit: AP