Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Torah: Who wrote it? Who cares?

I'd like to say a little bit about the authorship of the Torah. My general understanding is that the Torah (5 books of Moses) was not written by the person who it's named after i.e. Moses. Although it is likely that a person named Moses existed and he did write a book of law (the Torah of God), which was similar to the Hammurabi code in structure. This book of law was lost to us, but parts of it were saved and incorporated into the Pentateuch. After the original law book was lost, the Pentateuch came to be known as the Torah because it contained parts of the original law written by Moses. This, contrary to Jewish tradition, is my basic understanding.

There are many theories as to exactly who wrote the Torah and why. It is commonly believed that it is comprised of multiple documents and oral sources. The reason why it is believed that there were multiple sources instead of it being written by one person or persons is because there seems to be sections of the Torah which are repeated often with contradictory details. This view was first stated by Baruch Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise, published in 1670 CE. Later, scholars tried to identify who the authors were and what there motivations were. The most common view in academia is known as the Documentary Hypothesis, which states that there were 4 different sources which were combined into one book by an editor (maybe Ezra) much later. I won't get into the details because it is complicated, and I am by no means an expert.

The question now is does it really matter? Of course to fundamentalist who believe that the torah is the word of God and that one is required to follow it, the question is more urgent. If you have a tradition that says that God dictated the Torah to Moses, then it goes with out saying that you will be reluctant to believe otherwise. But to us who are not of this opinion, the question is it that important to know who wrote it? To be honest, other than for intellectual curiosity, I'm not sure how important the question is. The Torah was written as a book of moral instruction and inspiration for the Jewish people, it really doesn't matter who wrote which parts or if it. Sure it would be nice to know, after all it is one of the most influential books of all time, but it really wouldn't add or subtract from the religious or moral value of the book itself.

The more important question is whether the book still has any value for modern readers or if it just a relic of the distant past? Can we still gain moral instruction and inspiration from it? That, to me, is a more pressing issue.


Blogger Orthoprax said...


I think there are many lessons to learn and reflect on in the text. And even besides that, it includes so many well-known stories which are great to refer to and to be familiar with. It is a significant part of our culture.

And anyway, after reading The Limits of Orthodox Theology, I noted a rabbinic opinion (though I don't remember who said it exactly) that Moses wrote the Torah in the same way that it is said that Solomon built the Temple. Meaning that he may not have directly made it with his own hands, but that he initiated the creating of it and therefore we can credit him with its creation.

9:19 PM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

In my Torah studies since becoming a sceptic, I have found the
author(s) to be mostly, if not always consistent, and insightful. It also helps a lot not to view it as a book of history, science or medicine (see the first Rashi of Genesis). - JF

11:01 PM  
Anonymous smoo said...

As I described the messenger (prophet)impacted the message so to did the readers values impact what was derived.
I read Wrestling With Angels by Naomi Rosenblatt. Her insights are a reflection of her perspective as a woman and a psychologist. She explained the tree of Da'at (knowledge) represents also sexual knowledge/awareness. Here is the young Eve exploring her sexuality.The
snake represents a sexual awakening within Eve…you're curious it's ok
to touch… (Snake was a symbol of fertility and the phallus). Eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge defines the universal human passage from childhood innocence into a world of
adult experience (p.45) Then Adam & Eve are banished from Eden. Eden reprents the child's home and God is the parent. No matter how long the parent wants his child to remain in that oh so special stage of innocence, invariably they will gain sexual knowledge. Once they do,they never ever will be that same innocent child (and thus can never return to that Eden-like stage).
EVE uses her free will to challenge god’s command to relinquish the world of safety and security for the sake of gaining knowledge and experience. The sheltered Eden is not conducive to intellectual or spiritual growth.
Maturation through the quest for knowledge is brought about via the WOMAN,say Rosenblatt!!!

Even if the texts were not written with all the myriads of interpretations and analysis, they still speak volumes to those who would but listen.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Mis-nagid said...

You can't really understand a text if you don't know the environment in which it was written. What questions was the author answering? What did this idiom mean to him? Etc.

Granted, those are more where and when questions than who, but it's not like authorship questions have no bearing on understanding the text itself.

12:22 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...


I'm not sure what you mean by 'he initiated the creating of it'. Do you mean that he inspired it, but did not actually partake in making it? or that he created part of it?

11:25 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...


yes, I do think they have some relevance in understanding the text, but I'm not sure how important it is. If we look at it as a religous book with a moral message, then the message should basically stay the same

11:28 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...


the problem is that if we use our imaginations we can impose almost any meaning into the text. And it loses any meaning that it originally had. If the text means any thing we want it to, then it means nothing. There should be some objective meaning, don't you think?

11:38 AM  
Anonymous smoo said...

Some moral behavior is clearly delineated in the Torah. Other lessons are in metaphor/parable form. Reading ones insight into the story still bounds it to the story itself. Yes it is possible to come out with contradictory lessons. Yet if each lesson brings one closer to higher spiritual level or perception, it has at least one of its tasks. Yes, I realize I'm walking on thin ice here-I guess if you are a despot seeking to oppress the masses, you can find justification for that too. Yet in my naivete I trust that people are searching the text to learn how to be better people and come closer to G-d.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

"I'm not sure what you mean by 'he initiated the creating of it'. Do you mean that he inspired it, but did not actually partake in making it? or that he created part of it?"

I'm not sure it matters. Whatever Moses' actually physical contribution to the thing we call the Torah, it was surely not the whole. Whether some of the passages we have today are the same as what he wrote is not really relevant. Either way we can credit him, as all the writers of old have credited him, with "writing" the Torah.

8:45 PM  

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