Friday, July 23, 2004
Tomorrow morning, I'm supposed to give the d'var Torah - a teaching based on the weekly Torah text - at my synagogue. This week's portion is D'varim, the first portion of the book of D'varim, or Deuteronomy. This is the d'var I plan to give.
Three weeks ago, I gave an impromptu drash on the subject of Bilam’s prophecy. I articulated the notion – from tradition, not my own idea – that there are multiple levels of prophecy, and that while your garden-variety prophet receives communication from the Divine via dreams or visions, and then must interpret this communication, Moses was of a different order: he saw God panim al panim, face to face, and when he spoke in God’s name God literally put the words in his mouth so that he spoke with God’s voice. And the only prophet, I said, ever raised to Moses’ prophetic level, receiving the word of God directly into his mouth, was Bilam, and this raising up was how God prevented Bilam from cursing Israel on behalf of Balak.
Well, today you might conclude that I am going to contradict myself. This week’s parshah, the first parshah of Dvarim, begins Moses’ great parting speech to the Israelites as they stand on the verge of the conquest of Canaan. And how is this oration described? In chapter 1, verse 5, the text is quite explicit: be-‘ever ha-yarden be-‘eretz mo’av ho’il Moshe be’er ‘et ha-torah ha-zo’t le’mor. (On the far side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this Torah, saying thusly.)
Clearly, it would seem, whatever the status of the text of the other four books of Moses, this book is a book of his own composition. Moses is not speaking here words placed in his mouth by God over which he has no control; these words are his own. Moreover, they are an explanation of God’s Torah. Which would seem to imply that, in some sense, they are not part of that Torah.
To an extent, that’s precisely the way Don Isaac Abarbanel understands the matter. But only to an extent. His conclusion is intriguing: the final book of the Chumash is, indeed, Moses’ composition, and it is distinct from the rest of the Chumash because of this. But after Moses spoke his speech, God commanded him to write it down, word for word, as he spoke it. Because it was written down according to the command of God, the book of Deuteronomy has the same status – the same sanctity – as the prior four books. It was written by Moses, but it was also – and entirely – written by God.
This is strange, isn’t it? How can the same text be entirely written by Moses and entirely written by God? Abarbanel has turned God into a kind of precursor to Borges’ Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote. Borges’ story eulogizes Pierre Menard, a rather thorough failure as a novelist who, it is revealed, undertook a surprising project: to write Don Quixote. In his words: “He did not want to compose another Quixote --which is easy-- but the Quixote itself.” Identical in every word, Menard’s Quixote is, Borges affirms, radically different from – and in many ways superior to – Cervantes’ Quixote. The change in authorship changes the meaning of practically every line.
As I say, Abarbanel seems to be doing something similar to Moses’ oration, on God’s behalf, to what Borges did to Don Quixote on behalf of his own creation, Pierre Menard. But why? What is the reason? And what are the implications?
The reason, it seems to me, is that Abarbanel was, as these things go, a rationalist. He read the text and, quite plainly, the text indicates that these are the words of Moses, that this is Moses’ explanation of the Torah, and to deny this apparent fact was an affront to his reason. But he did not have the option to say that Dvarim was of human origin, because the divine authorship of the entirety of the Chumash was already canonical by Abarbanel’s time. Maimonides made it clear in one of his responsa: the entire Torah was given through Moses, as if in dictation, and to deny that even one word is of divine origin, and to ascribe that word to Moses’ own composition, is to deny the entirety of the Torah. So if his reason could not deny that Moses authored Dvarim, and his tradition could not deny that God authored Dvarim, what was Abarbanel to do? He reconciled them in a novel manner: the book was spoken by Moses, but then God commanded him to write the same words, thus making God the author.
Just as with Pierre Menard and the Quixote, the shift in asserted authorial identity has profound implications. For one thing, there are numerous apparent discrepancies between Moses’ account of events in Dvarim and the account in earlier books. Moses says he is not permitted to enter the Land of Israel, for example, because of the sin of the spies, whereas in Bamidbar God says he will not enter because of the sin of smiting the rock. If Moses were the author of Dvarim, these differences might simply teach us something about Moses and his view of things, but we would have to conclude that God is telling us His true reason for rejecting Moses. If God is the author of both books, then both reasons are true, and midrash has to reconcile them. Another example: the fourth commandment as recorded in Shemot is to remember (zachor) the Sabbath day, whereas in Dvarim the commandment is to guard (shamor) the Sabbath day. Is “guard” Moses’ gloss on the original commandment to "remember"? No: since Dvarim is equally of divine origin, it is equally part of the original commandment as spoken by God.
But the implication goes deeper than this. To take this concept to a level that Abarbanel probably would not approve of, what he has done is transform the question of God’s authorship of Dvarim from a strict historical question to a hermeneutical one. Abarbanel’s historical source is the text, and he reads it as a historical source – if it says Moses wrote the book then Moses wrote the book. But with respect to the book’s authority, Abarbanel asserts a hermeneutic derived from tradition: notwithstanding what was historical fact (Moses’ authorship) it is also true that God is the author of Dvarim. We know this not because we have other historical sources that substantiate God’s authorship but because the pragmatic content of the statement, “God is the author of Dvarim” is that we approach that text in the same manner as other texts that have this status of divine authorship: its verses touch all other verses, it can contain no errors (hence apparent errors have hidden meanings), etc.
In spite of the fact that Abarbanel lived hundreds of years ago, I would describe his approach to this problem as postmodern. And the postmodern approach is one that should be dear to the hearts of Conservative Jews. We are, after all, rationalists, at least as these things go, and yet we are (or claim to be) traditionalists as well. In our seminaries, we teach Wellhausenist source criticism – that Dvarim was written not by Moses, much less dictated by God, but was written by a school of religious reformers living hundreds of years later, at the end of the first Judean monarchy, a school that source critics identify as the group responsible for collecting and editing a variety of precursor texts and producing the Torah that we have today, more or less. We teach this because we have become convinced that there is historical truth to it, and we do not want to hide what we believe to be true. But how can we teach this and also teach that the Torah is the word of God, an authority that should govern our lives and on which we should rely for guidance on matters trivial and matters of life and death? Is there a way to reconcile what we know of historical truth with what we affirm as religious truth?
We will not find that way with the most obvious alternatives to the postmodern approach, which are, as I see them, fundamentalist on the one hand and liberal on the other. The fundamentalist approach asserts the inerrancy of the text in the most blunt manner. In a religion like Judaism, with a rich tradition of exegesis that itself has canonical status, fundamentalists must reckon with that tradition, and one way to do so is by turning it into another inerrant text. Thus, you can find Jews here in Brooklyn who assert that every word of Maimonides is absolute truth, including his notions of astronomy, and who therefore truly believe that the sun goes around the earth. Less dramatically but to me no less infuriatingly, if you open a copy of the Stone Chumash, which you can find in some of your pews, you can find instances where Hebrew words are translated according to a rabbinic interpretation of the word, rather than being translated literally and being footnoted with the rabbinic interpretation. Thus are complications in the text and in the world expunged and a simplistic inerrancy preserved. The liberal approach, meanwhile, in the name of reason effectively denies the authority of the text and of tradition. Text and tradition become not an authority but a resource; you use them for the purposes that “work for you” and reject them when your reason tells you that they are invalid. Forgive me for being as blunt about this approach as I was about the fundamentalist one, but I think that however you dress it up – as progressive revelation, what have you – what it amounts to is the reduction of religion to a kind of hobby, a cultural quirk.
Abarbanel’s approach to the question of the authorship of Dvarim points to what is potentially a more productive way of looking at the text and its authority. Authority is understood as a hermeneutical question – if a text is of divine origin, then it has certain qualities that shape how we read it, and how we use it. Other texts will not have these qualities and we will not approach them or use them that way. Historical inquiry follows a different hermeneutic, and we can read the same texts with that hermeneutic – but only for the purpose of historical inquiry.
As I say, this approach strikes me as more productive and correct than the alternatives. But I do have a nagging doubt: can we as a people persevere guided only by a hermeneutic? Isn’t there a psychological difference, after all, between the will to believe that God authored the Torah, and the unwilled conviction that God authored the Torah? Isn’t a postmodern hermeneutic thin spiritual gruel to nourish a people? I could make many rejoinders to my own questions. But in the end, this question will be answered by history. If we, Conservative Jews, are faithful, then our perseverance itself will vindicate our own ideology about why we are faithful. If we are not, then we will not be there to do the vindicating.