American Orthodoxy

Behind Every Revelation Lurks an Interpretation: Revisiting “The Revelation at Sinai”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Tamar Ross

In January, Lehrhaus published Marc B. Shapiro’s review essay on The Revelation at Sinai: What Does “Torah from Heaven” Mean?, edited by Yoram Hazony, Gil Student, and Alex Sztuden. Shapiro’s brief reference to reservations regarding my view of revelation that appear in Yoram Hazony’s contribution to this anthology prompted me to look up Hazony’s words directly.[1] Having done so, I believe that both the few footnotes in Hazony’s original essay[2] and Shapiro’s passing mention do not adequately reflect my position. I therefore welcome the opportunity to elaborate, in hopes of enriching discussion of this topic and its theological ramifications.

Hazony’s major concern in his essay is to preserve equation of the belief in “Torah from Heaven” with the biblical description of its revelation to Moses at Sinai. This concern, as he understands it, is “not only because of issues of historicity – the assumption that a Jewish view of the world must be anchored in the belief that what is described in the book of Exodus, say, took place in history.”[3] More importantly, it is because any other understanding of “Torah from Heaven” forfeits, in his opinion, the rich contribution that various elements in the Exodus account offer to an overall theology of the scope and limits of the human-divine encounter. For this reason, Hazony seeks to stem a growing tendency of Orthodox circles affected by the contentions of academia to accept suggestions that the Torah attributed to Moses was in actual fact a collective work assembled over time, via the contributions of many generations of anonymous scribes.

Hazony rejects theories of protracted multiple authorship as highly implausible in their own right, arguing that no literary or philosophical work could have maintained coherence when subjected to such an editorial process.[4] Over and above this, however, Hazony’s main objection to the findings of biblical source theory relates to new theories of “unfolding revelation” which some of the more traditionally inclined biblical scholars have been induced to develop in their wake. According to Hazony, such theories necessarily lose sight of the many important philosophical and theological lessons that close reading of events at Mount Sinai yields when taken at face value.

Starting out with the assumption that “the biblical text is a form of instructional narrative, and that it employs a variety of literary devices (such as type contrasts, recurring language, and metaphor) to broach and discuss positions on philosophical and theological subjects,”[5] Hazony devotes the major part of his essay to a close and sensitive reading of principal elements in the Exodus account of the giving of the Torah in order to glean from them important theological lessons. Central to these is the unique status of Moses as prophet. Other key elements refer to the relationship between Moses’ vision and differing levels of knowledge achieved by the elders and the people, the necessity of Moses to ascend to the top of Mount Sinai and God to descend from heaven in order to deliver the message, the fact that the tablets of stone were created twice (one set produced entirely by God that did not survive, and another set carved by Moses which did), and more. Hazony concedes that there is room for debate regarding the precise meanings that he personally gleans from various details of the biblical account.[6] Nevertheless, he seeks to preserve the sacrosanct status of such details as essential elements of one unified and consistent story, precisely because of their critical importance in conveying the power and limits of human understanding and other important messages of theological concern.

The bone I have to pick with both Hazony and Shapiro is their estimation of where my own take on the matter fits into this debate. Shapiro (quite possibly due to space restrictions when reviewing an entire anthology rather than one contribution) does not get into details at all, and attributes to me quite simply “a notion of progressive revelation in which the Torah was revealed over time.” Hazony, by contrast, does allude to some distinction between my gradualist understanding and other versions of the same, acknowledging an “evident concern” on my part for the integrity of Orthodox Jewish belief, and care “not to challenge the centrality of Moses and Sinai directly.”[7] Nevertheless, he too does not get into the nitty gritty of these differences or explain why he nevertheless still finds my version[8] wanting.

In order to get down to these specifics and flesh out the possible merits of a third option that mediates between Hazony’s static understanding of “Torah from Heaven” and the approach of “unfolding revelation” which he opposes, let me first state that the view of revelation that I support involves two distinct moves that are not necessarily connected, and vary significantly in terms of their comportment with conventional notions of religious belief.

The first move, which I have dubbed “cumulativism,” rests – in brief – on three assumptions:

(a) an infinite eternal message cannot be relayed to finite minds in one shot. Therefore, God’s ultimate message to man cannot be exhausted by a one-time revelation.

(b) God does not communicate via vocal chords, but rather through the mouthpiece of history. New sociopolitical and cultural contexts and the novel rabbinic interpretations provoked in their wake trigger the evolution of human understanding, thus of necessity expanding the meaning of His message. If any particular idea or social structure takes root in, and informs the life of Jews committed to the Torah, this can be taken as a sign of its Divine provenance.[9]

(c) Although successive hearings of the Torah may appear to contradict the original message of Moses at Sinai, that message is never replaced. It always remains as the rock-bottom cultural-linguistic filter through which new “hearings” are understood. Thus, it is the potential meaning, rather than wording, of the Torah attributed to the original revelation at Sinai that is constantly being unfolded, via the changing cultural contexts to which it is exposed. Even when changing circumstances appear to turn the import of the original message delivered to Moses on its head, the wording of the revelation at Sinai always remains for the cumulativist the primary cultural-linguistic filter through which any new deviations are heard and understood.

Thus, for example, are God’s words to Eve “And he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16) to be taken as a normative prescription for all time, a recipe for marital bliss, or – much as God’s words to Adam (“By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread” – Genesis 3:18) an escapable curse and evil to be overcome? Much depends on the context in which these words are read. The same applies to differing views regarding the Torah’s prescribed attitude toward sinners or members of rival faiths, the permissibility of slavery, and countless other stances that have evolved over time. The more prevalent a new interpretation becomes as greater numbers of committed Jews relate their practice to its particular reading, the more “obvious” its implications. But while cumulativists affected by traditional notions of divine intervention in human affairs will tend to perceive shifts accruing to previous understandings as heaven-sent responses to their developing spiritual sensibilities, the text attributed to Moses will always remain for them the initial and indispensable reference point and sounding board for any new reading.

Precisely because of the weight I attach to this third assumption, the decision to define my view of revelation as “cumulative,” rather than “successive,” “progressive,” or “continuous” was made quite deliberately. Indeed, it was a direct reflection of my concern to distance this approach from other prevailing views of unfolding revelation that – in their open-endedness – might diminish the foundational status and primacy of the revelation at Sinai, which traditional Orthodoxy and Hazony himself are intent on preserving. Thus, Hazony’s estimation that views of revelation typified by source theorists such as Benjamin Sommer are indebted to my theology[10] actually puts the cart before the horse.

Moreover, given my insistence on the unique status of the Mosaic revelation at Sinai, the cause for Hazony’s ultimate dismissal of this aspect of my position, declaring that “in the end there is no way to reconcile Ross’s unfolding revelation with the biblical rabbinic theology of Torah from heaven, in which Moses and Sinai are regarded as fundamental”[11] is far from obvious. After all, even Jewish traditionalists following Maimonides and his interest to protect the supremacy and inviolability of Mosaic law from the upheaval of further claims to prophetic inspiration, have never denied the possibility of discovering new meanings in the text. Their difference with the cumulativists is simply their preference to attribute recognition of the text’s manifold interpretive possibilities solely to the work of the scholars of every generation, who can and do uncover more of its original meaning without the benefit of divine intervention. Thus, contrary to Hazony’s opinion, my preference for describing new ideas as “revealed” rather than “uncovered,” no less than earlier manifestations of this trend in the Talmud and in the tradition of the Tosafists and their followers, does not rest on differences of opinion regarding the centrality of Moses and Sinai,[12] but rather on alternative religious sensibilities regarding the manner in which God interacts with the world, which – in Hassidic writing and the thought of R. Kook – are extended even further to notions regarding the spiritual significance of history and the development of the human spirit.[13]

Given these considerations, I suspect that the chief trigger for Hazony’s dismissal of my understanding was a fringe benefit that I attach to cumulativism (amongst a few others): i.e., that this approach “even allows for the liberty of conceiving of the Torah of Moses in terms of a revelation that occurred over a period of time, via a process that is totally consonant with the findings of biblical criticism and archaeological discoveries (to the extent that these are scientifically verifiable and convincing).”[14] If so, I believe that the weight Hazony attaches to this linkage on my part is inordinate and misplaced, for the truth is that while both Hazony and Sommer view contemporary biblical scholarship as a force to be reckoned with, and either accepted or rejected when formulating a theology of revelation, I view the conclusions of academia as largely irrelevant in this context. While I personally might be more prepared in principle than Hazony to entertain the notion that the composition of the Torah as we know it was not a one-time affair, I am by no means a biblical scholar and my rendition of cumulativism does not hinge on any suppositions regarding the number of anonymous scribes involved. It does, however, rest on a need to acknowledge equally troubling evidence of time and culture-bound imprints on the Mosaic text, such as obviously dated standards of morality, pervasive male bias, or inaccurate accounts of science and history, which to my mind support the simple common-sensical understanding that any revelation, even that attributed to Moses, is inevitably colored by its surrounding cultural context.

While Hazony does not address such difficulties directly, some of these shortcomings could arguably be resolved by the significance that he attaches to the fact that according to the biblical narrative even Moses does not reach heaven but only the summit of the mountain, and to the disparity between the first tablets fashioned by God at that point and the second tablets inscribed by Moses at its base.[15] Ultimately, however, even when understood metaphorically and not literally, Hazony’s rendition of the biblical narrative does not address deeper theological difficulties arising from the very notion of divine-human communication through language, which is ultimately a uniquely human mode of expression. Once we have abandoned Aristotelian notions of physics and metaphysics, any view of divine speech is a form of anthropomorphism that even Maimonidean concepts of the prophet rising up to the orbit of influence of Pure Form via the Active Intellect are no longer capable of resolving.

This leads me to the second, far less traditional, element in my view of revelation,[16] which I daresay is the true source of Hazony’s rejection of cumulativism, despite the fact that the two aspects are, in principle, entirely separable. Let me explain:

In the past, most religious believers understood traditional formulations of religious belief as simple statements of fact. This meant that if literal meanings are problematic, we must either reject them, qualify them, or bring logical argument and empiric evidence in order to resolve any difficulties they raise. Over the past century, however, a significant number of religious philosophers have turned away from the by-now overworked attempts of modernism to defend religion’s portrayal of reality on an empiric level. Instead, such efforts can be typified by a new focus upon the significance of religious language, and what religious truth claims mean to the believer in the context of a religious way of life.[17]

Applying this trend to the topic in hand, when an Orthodox Jew says, “I believe in Torah from Heaven,” her primary concern in most cases is not to discuss facts or establish history but to create a picture of reality on an entirely different plane, one that will regulate her entire life and may bring her to take risks or make sacrifices that she would never dream of for the sake of other opinions that she knows to be far better grounded from a scientific point of view. This is because belief in the divine origins of Torah serves as the primary basis for a way of life and worldview to which she is inextricably bound in a multitude of ways by personal conviction, passion, and practical considerations.

Does this new understanding of the function of religious statements mean that she regards the divine origin of Torah as less valid than scientific beliefs? No. But because the two statements are of a different nature, the evidence for each is different. What we normally think of as evidence in a scientific context is quite irrelevant for substantiating a religious belief.

Thus, for example, even if we were able to locate the original Mount Sinai, find fragments of the first tablets broken by Moses, and read a parchment diary by an Israelite who witnessed and documented the event of revelation first-hand, none of this would change what the believer means by saying that the Torah is divine. The purpose of this assertion is to affirm the ultimate meaning and value of a way of life and worldview. Because of its different aim, the scientific basis for this assertion might be exceedingly flimsy evidence or non-existent. The considerations brought to bear in determining the validity of such religious statements is taken from within the religious framework itself. Validity must be formulated in terms of the context from which a statement derives its meaning.

By the same token, even the argument between cumulativists (such as myself) who prefer to view new interpretations as a never-ending striving to reconstruct the infinite divine message of a pre-verbal primordial Torah by constantly stretching the meaning of the primary but time-bound revelation at Sinai, and those who (like Hazony) choose to regard such innovations as reconstructions of a one-time and perfect Sinaitic revelation complete in and of itself, is not an argument that can be determined objectively. A more accurate response to these differing preferences in rhetoric and mythic vocabulary would be to regard them as expressions of differing spiritual sensibilities and of differing opinions regarding which theological approach can best express and maintain faith and loyalty to a Jewish way of life that grants us some intimation of Ultimate Being, the object of all religious belief.

While this new view of religious language overturns the necessary linkage that Hazony posits between historicity (i.e., “the assumption that a Jewish view of the world must be anchored in the belief that what is described in the book of Exodus, say, actually took place in history”[18]) and the philosophical or theological lessons that the Exodus account might offer, I personally have little difficulty in accepting the messages that Hazony gleans from the biblical account of revelation and assessing them on their own merits. As a matter of fact, I found Hazony’s list of the principal elements of the Exodus account of the giving of the Torah, and many of his suggestive proposals as to what these elements are meant to contribute to an overall theology of Torah from Heaven, quite masterly and inspiring. But despite the fact that some of the messages that he finds in the text are debatable, and possibly a function of his own pre-dispositions,[19] Hazony, apparently following the Maimonidean tradition, seems to believe that the ultimate objective he shares with his readers is to uncover the one and only original intent of the Torah from Heaven that was given to Moses from the start. I, by contrast, approach the biblical account of Moses and Sinai differently, acknowledging that even when maintaining formal fealty to this narrative, and relating to it as the rock-bottom base of my religious worldview, its precise import for the community of believers is inevitably open to revision, in light of the fluctuating contexts in which it is read.

More importantly, while I have no idea regarding the extent to which ancient traditions equated myth with history, Hazony appears to be invested in the notion that the biblical account, however symbolic, amounts to some faithful expression of “the facts of the matter.” This confidence on his part does not sit well with the refusal of recent streams of modern philosophy (with which I sympathize) to equate empirically observable statements that are liable to verification or falsification with metaphysical truth claims, which – more or less by definition- are not given to empirical testing. Such refusal does not necessitate rejection of metaphysics altogether. But it does lead to skepticism regarding the ability of any human being to fully grasp this realm of being and transmit it in words.[20]

Given these qualifications, my cumulativism is a relatively naturalist view of Torah from Heaven that stands midway between premodern notions of human-divine relations that Hazony seeks to preserve, and rival views of unfolding revelation as articulated by traditionally inclined academicians such as Sommer. Unlike the academicians, my view seeks to preserve commitment to the biblical account of Torah from Heaven and its concomitant assumption of the primacy of the Mosaic epiphany as it stands. Unlike Hazony, however, this commitment does not rest on inherent and undeniably God-given properties embedded in the biblical text that simply bang us over the head, compelling us to accept them as such. Such commitment rests, rather, on my willingness as an individual believer, and on the willingness of the Jewish people at large, to formally accept this text as such, and to view it as the fundamental narrative from which all other beliefs and practices of Judaism are derived.[21] And that willingness itself is an interpretive act, based on prior cultural experience and conditioning.

Paradoxically, one might even claim that it is precisely the endless ability of Torah-committed Jews to discover (or eke out) fresh and relevant meaning from the ancient hallowed words, rather than the finality of their message, that reinforces such willingness and its accompanying religious convictions for each generation anew. Thus, just as Darwinism compelled religious believers to revisit the biblical account of the origin of man, and view it in mythic terms bearing moral rather than factual implications,[22] so too might some traditionally inclined academicians be forgiven for their inclination to view the findings of source theory itself as a heaven-sent opportunity to discover new and immensely enriching insights suitable for our times. Indeed, some of the most interesting and sensitive readings of the Bible being produced lately are ones that themselves are infused with the findings of biblical scholarship.[23]

Taken on their own, I might not have taken the trouble to spell out my objections to Hazony and Shapiro’s renditions of my position. But aside from setting the record straight, an added motivation is my conviction that the widespread assumption of Modern Orthodoxy that embracing Torah u-Madda mandates equation of religious belief – such as Torah from Heaven – with the “facts of the matter” (along with the eclectic grab-bag of ad hoc apologetics that this assumption has engendered), has outlived its usefulness. In a postmodern age, which blurs sharp divisions between human predispositions and concepts of God, and acknowledges the role of subjectivity and multiple interests (descriptive, aesthetic, pragmatic, imaginative, and spiritual) in all formulations of truth, this approach needs to be replaced by an understanding that science and religion are not two players vying in the same ball-park in their respective attempts to capture ultimate Truth. Amongst other virtues, such understanding will afford us with a fresh appreciation of the role of human agency in the formulation of metaphysical truth claims and their place in the religious way of life.

[1] See Yoram Hazony, “Torah from Heaven: Moses and Sinai in Exodus,” in The Revelation at Sinai: What Does “Torah from Heaven” Mean? eds. Yoram Hazony, Gil Student, and Alex Sztuden (Ktav, 2021), pp. 3-76. I thank Hazony for his gracious and prompt response to my request for the original.

[2] Hazony, p. 66, n. 140; pp. 68-69, n. 144, 145.

[3] Hazony, p. 4.

[4] Hazony, p. 66, but as Shapiro perceptively notes, this objection “is somewhat begging the question, as many academic scholars will challenge the assumption that the Torah is indeed a coherent work, as from their perspective there are inconsistencies throughout that can only be explained by a long editorial process.”

[5] Hazony, p. 5.

[6] Hazony, p. 7.

[7] Hazony, p. 68, n. 145.

[8] Which, as Hazony sums it up (p. 66, n. 140) is a view “which argues that ‘God’s revelation [is] communicated in a gradual manner,’ continuing to unfold in history until finally it reaches its ‘ideal meaning.’”

[9] Obviously, the very decision as to whom are to be counted amongst the committed, and therefore legitimate, interpreters of Torah may also be a matter of debate, often determined likewise by the retroactive decree of history.

[10] Hazony, p. 68, n. 145.

[11] Hazony, p. 69, n. 145.

[12] Hazony, p. 68, n. 144.

[13] For amplification on the relative merits of what I term “interpretive” versus “historic” cumulativism , see Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (London/Hanover: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2021), pp. 221-224.

[14] Ross, ibid, p. 223 – incompletely quoted by Hazony, p. 68, n. 145.

[15] See, for example, Hazony, pp. 47 -48, where he states: “We tend to think of the Torah as being ‘from God,’ and so it is. But the Torah is at the same time ‘for man.’ The shaping of the law in accordance with man’s nature is evident in every verse of the Torah… And since it is concerning men that the Torah speaks, we must recognize that the law is concerned with things that are always – even when the people are willing and able to heed God’s teaching – far from ideality or perfection.”

[16] Although I find significant steps in this direction in the thought of R. Kook – see Tamar Ross, “The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Claims: Rabbi A.I. Kook and Postmodernism,” in Hazon Nahum: Jubilee Volume in Honor of Norman Lamm (New York: Yeshiva University Press 1997), pp. 479-527; republished in Religious Truth: Towards a Jewish Theology of Religions, ed. Alon Goshen-Gottstein (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2020).

[17] Much of this trend has been influenced by the thought of the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. For further details regarding his contribution to the understanding of religious language, see Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah, pp. 193-197; idem, “Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Some Reflections on the Importance of Asking the Right Question”; idem, “Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism,” (, particularly the Excursus, pp. 59-62.

[18] Hazony, p. 4.

[19] Compare, for example, Hazony’s understanding of the inverse relationship between the pursuit of pleasure and the ability to gain knowledge of God, as indicated by comparison between Moses’ abstention from food and drink for 40 days and the eating and drinking of the people of Israel when celebrating at the feet of the golden calf (pp. 38-41) and R. Kook’s view of abstention from the physical as a weakness of prophecy, as exemplified by the disparity between Moses’ knowledge of God, who still required abstention from the strongest physical pull of sexual relations in order to see God clearly, and that of Adam, who was able to see the earthly particularities from one end of the world to the other without obstructing his vision of the whole – see R. Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh I (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 291.

[20] For Jewish sources for this way thinking, see: Tamar Ross, “Knowledge and Reality in Modern Kabbala”, in Paradigms and Perspectives on Value and Reality, eds. Richard Vulich and Chandana Chakrabarti (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014), pp. 121-129. Recent advances in neuroscience, astrophysics, cosmology, and space-time research, in a somewhat different manner, reinforce the sense that we as humans have barely begun to scratch the surface of potential modes of existence and consciousness beyond the range of our immediate experience.

[21] See R. Kook, Eder ha-Yakar (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 39 on the importance of national acceptance not only of the oral law, but even of the written.

[22] See R. Kook, Iggerot Ha-Reayah I (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 163-164.

[23] Some samples may be viewed on See also James Kugel, The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations (New York, 2018); idem, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (Boston, 2017), even though Kugel himself regards biblical scholarship, despite its truth, as irrelevant to the practice of reading the bible as Torah. My thanks to Elliot Sacks for directing me to this reference.

Tamar Ross is Professor Emerita of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University and continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Ross has published widely on many topics relating to Jewish thought – medieval and modern, with a particular interest in the nexus between religion and modernity, the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook, the Musar movement, theology, feminism, and the philosophy of Halakha.