Torah Portion of the Week: The Mysterious Gift of Torah

Ariel Seri-Levi
'Shavuot' (Pentecost), by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880.
'Shavuot' (Pentecost), by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1880.Credit: The Jewish Museum (NYC) / Wikimedia Commons
Ariel Seri-Levi

Talmudic tradition calls Shavuot the festival of the granting of the Torah. Not surprisingly, the Torah itself does not describe the holiday this way, chiefly because doing so would connote a perception of the Torah from the outside – as a fait accompli, a completed entity. The Torah does not perceive itself that way and thus does not label Shavuot as the festival that celebrates its own appearance.

This is a typical example of the relationship between biblical and rabbinical literature, classical Judaism’s two ancient layers: The Torah fixes the festivals’ dates; the rabbinical scholars determined their content. The Torah organizes the calendar around the seasons and history; the scholars reorganized it around the Torah.

The Torah does not specifically mention what the scholars refer to as "matan Torah" – the "granting of the Torah.” The term requires explication: Who granted it? God? Moses? To whom was it granted? To Moses, the Israelites, every generation of Jews, humanity? Was it granted in writing or orally? Is this a single event or a process? When did it happen – during the Exodus, prior to the entry to Canaan? And where – Mount Sinai, the Tent of Meeting at the foot of Mount Sinai, God’s mountain at Horeb, the Plains of Moab?

The second element in the phrase – Torah – is also puzzling. Is it a body of instructions on a specific topic – like sin-offerings or childbirth (Leviticus 6:18; 12:7)? A path in life, as in “forsake not the teaching (torat) of thy mother” (Proverbs 1:8)? The entire text from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Pentateuch)? The Torah scroll as mentioned in Deuteronomy (31:26), and other verses? The scroll cited in Kings that was discovered in Jerusalem during the waning years of the Kingdom of Judah? The Ten Commandments? If so, which version (Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5)? Perhaps both? Is the Torah the “Book of the Covenant” described in Exodus 24, whose instructions Israel promised to follow? If so, what is the nature of the many commandments appearing later in the Pentateuch?

Just as on Passover we tell the story of the Exodus, Shavuot is an opportunity for talking about the granting of the Torah, for trying to describe how the text was consolidated and revealed – its history. We can start off by saying that, out of all the above options, the one that does not appear in the Torah is the possibility that God granted the entire Torah – from Genesis to Deuteronomy – to Moses. The Torah includes many quotes from God and Moses. However, nowhere in the Torah is there the claim that, at a certain stage, became widespread and accepted: namely, that God or Moses wrote the entire Torah, including the narrator’s words and all the characters’ statements.

The Torah opens with, “In the beginning God created.” These are the words of an omniscient narrator who refers to the Almighty in third person but does not claim to be God. Similarly, when the Torah ends, Moses is referred to in the third person. The narrator reports his death, stating, “there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses” (Deut. 34:10), and does not claim that these are Moses’ words. The classical rabbis understood the problem of attributing to Moses the description of his own death. But, the rest of the narrative in the Torah also speaks about Moses without claiming to be speaking in his words. Thus, according to a literal reading of the Torah, Moses is not the narrator.

If the “granting of the Torah” does not mean that either God or Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, what does it mean? The Torah offers various options, some mentioned above. It neither refers to itself as a complete work nor as a uniform text; it contains discrete works and speaks in different voices that contradict one another. Only when we look at the text from the outside, as the classical rabbis did, can we see it as an all-encompassing, unifying text, as expressed in the term, “granting of the Torah.”

Although we can find in the Torah reflexive statements about the Torah itself, they never refer to all its components. In Exodus, Moses declares before Israel “all the words of the Lord, and all the ordinances” (Exod. 24:3) and even writes them down. Nonetheless, Leviticus contains many commandments that this verse does not mention. The Book of Numbers concludes with “These are the commandments and the ordinances, which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses unto the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” (Num. 36:13), but the next book, Deuteronomy, contains dozens of additional commandments. When, in Deuteronomy, we read that Moses wrote down the “words of this law in a book, until they were finished” (Deut. 31:24), the context tells us that this is a reference to a part of Deuteronomy, but not the entire Pentateuch.

The Torah does not definitively explain what the “granting of the Torah” means. It includes various human testimonies related to divine revelation and different human formulations of God’s words. These different versions are combined in a single work, under conditions that we can only guess at but which apparently reflect the attitude that “All these various statements are God’s words.” The Talmudic tradition, and later the kabbalistic and philosophic traditions, will add many other explanations to the meaning of the “granting of the Torah.” However, as in other issues, the discussion begins in the Torah itself, which is not a monolithic text but a work of many hues, with many different aspects. It is impossible to make a distinction in the Torah between a source and its explication or between a text and the tradition stemming from it.

The Torah is a story or collection of stories – about the granting of the Torah. That it, it’s a compendium of the reactions of different people to the presence of God in their lives and the lives of the Children of Israel. Thus, the process by which the book came together can itself be seen as an explanation of the “granting of the Torah.”

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, in “God in Search of Man”: “The Bible is more than the word of God: it is the word of God and man; a record of both revelation and response; the drama of covenant between God and man.”

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