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June 12, 2019 10:52 am

Why the Torah Can — and Should Be — Considered a ‘Human’ Document

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein


A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the passage of several centuries, the debate over the authorship of the Torah is apparently far from over, if one is to judge by a recent article penned by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. In it, Cardozo proposes that those who dissent from the idea of divine authorship are not merely mistaken, but lack “open souls” capable of grasping the reality of the transcendent nature of the sacred document. Representing, as it does, a widely held position among believers, this claim demands at least some degree of analysis.

It is only fair to disclose that I am not myself a believer in divine authorship. I am also not, however, an atheist. I count myself an agnostic, as Jorge Luis Borges, in Christian terms, described it: “Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen.” And indeed, I admit that even the revelation at Mount Sinai is strange enough to have happened.

But to admit to such a possibility does not preclude, indeed it almost demands, an honest engagement with those who believe it did not happen. This is something Cardozo appears unwilling to do.

He writes, for example, “Since the days of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico Politicus (17th century), we have witnessed numerous Bible scholars dissecting the Torah in every way possible, concluding that the traditional Jewish claim of its divinity is unfounded and far-fetched.”

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This is true as far as it goes, but Cardozo nowhere actually engages with these scholars’ arguments. Instead, he simply notes that other scholars “have written profound papers showing that the arguments of Spinoza and others were mistaken and often lacked intellectual objectivity.” He adds that these arguments are also “often very subjective.” Note the use of the term “showing,” which in effect assumes the correctness of the argument for divine authorship. While affecting objectivity, then, Cardozo quite clearly comes down on the side of the divine.

There is no space here to delve into the vast corpus of Biblical Higher Criticism, but it is worth pointing out the broad points Cardozo ignores: the largely unknown manuscript tradition, repeated and differing versions of the same stories, variations in the name of God, changes in vocabulary and style, internal contradictions of innumerable kinds, etc. And these are only a few of the major arguments employed by the scholars he accuses of lacking “intellectual objectivity,” an accusation of which, I should note, he wholly exonerates himself.

Moreover, Cardozo in no way admits to the problem of which Torah and its authorship he is addressing. As a rabbi, he is no doubt beholden to the Masoretic text, but the books of the Bible contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Samaritan Pentateuch are different in ways both small and sometimes large from the Masoretic, and even the earliest translation, the Septuagint, shows signs of deriving from a variant manuscript tradition.

Remarkably, having failed to engage with these issues, Cardozo nonetheless says of the claim of divine authorship, “To believe because it is absurd is not an option.” But his argument essentially assumes precisely this: a blind faith in the divinity of the Torah. It does not argue for, but presumes divine authorship and simply moves on to what appears to be the more pressing question: Since divine authorship is presumed, why do so many continue to disbelieve it?

His answer is deeply problematic. “I would suggest that the reason we are nowadays confronted with so much skepticism concerning the Torah’s divinity is not only because of intellectual sophistication and academic Biblical studies (which are often very subjective),” he writes, “but also because of lack of spiritual receptivity, which is developed through labor of the soul.”

“A flame grows or diminishes depending on the combustibility of the material it comes in contact with,” he asserts. “So it is with the Jews, and with all people. Their receptivity to the divinity of Torah is proportionate to the condition of their soul.”

In other words, this inferiority of the soul is not merely a failing, it is fundamentally disqualifying. “Only when we have transformed ourselves and our souls into spiritual fire can we ask questions concerning the Torah’s divinity and come up with honest answers,” he says. “As long as our souls are not open to the possibility that we could recognize its divinity, we cannot reject or accept this claim.”

Any agnostic would like to be charitable toward Cardozo on this point, but it is impossible: His argument is absurd. And his insistence on it essentially demands that others believe it because it is absurd. To posit that only “open souls” can render judgment on the truth of revelation effectively assumes that truth in the first place and renders scholarship and thought itself irrelevant. Any scholar who is, for example, an atheist, would be immediately rejected, however strong their argument, for lacking an “open soul.”

This notion of the inferiority of souls is, one must point out, not merely insulting, it also rejects an experience of the Torah that is in no way less valid than Cardozo’s. In asserting it, he contemptuously dismisses a form of engagement with the document that is equally rewarding, because the acknowledgment of the human origins of the Torah in no way degrades the thing itself.

As an agnostic, I do not necessarily believe the entire legendaria of the Torah, with its great floods, staffs turned into snakes, and visions of the chariot, but I nonetheless contend that the Bible is true because it is the most honest book ever written, in particular about human beings. Far from being inferior, to see the Torah as a human document in fact opens oneself to its absolute and unflinching honesty.

The Torah turns away from nothing human, whether our transcendent capacity for creativity and justice, or the worst atrocities and evils imaginable. More than any other book ever written, it encompasses the entirety of the human condition without equivocation or amelioration. In this, it stands alone among the works of mankind, an achievement as valid and, in some ways, more profound than belief in its divinity.

Our souls are not inferior for simply admitting to the humanity of the world’s greatest literary work and the crowning achievement of Jewish civilization. Such a belief entails no absurdity, and as such, has its own integrity and veracity. It is my hope that believers like Cardozo will at least consider that this may be possible. As Borges put it, “Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.” This too, believers can surely admit, requires an openness of soul, one that contains within it its own larger, fantastic, uncanny, and perhaps infinite possibilities.

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