Orthodox Jews commonly believe that “Torah from heaven” is the central tenet of the Jewish religion. But what precisely does that belief entail? A courageous new book by Rabbi Norman Solomon, Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, tries to answer that question. The book has an impressive range, from scholarship about biblical times to 21st-century theology and almost all periods in between.
Rabbi Solomon worked as an Orthodox congregational rabbi in England for 22 years before joining academia. He is now retired, but is still affiliated with Oxford University. He describes himself as part of the “skeptical” Orthodox, a group that he claims is larger than most people realize.
Usually “Torah from heaven” in Orthodox circles is understood to mean that God dictated the entire text of the first five books of the Bible (with the possible exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy) to Moses, who then wrote it down. Furthermore, the text of the Torah scroll that we have in our synagogues today is precisely what Moses wrote. Rabbi Solomon quotes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of neo-Orthodox Judaism in the 19th century: “When we raise aloft this Torah… we jubilantly proclaim Vezot Hatorah [‘This is the Torah which Moses set before the Israelites,’ Deuteronomy 4:43]… that it is still the same Torah which Moses brought to Israel ‘through the mouth of God through the hand of Moses,’ the same Torah, pure and unadulterated.”
But Rabbi Solomon notes that the Hebrew word “torah” in the Bible just means “teaching” or “instruction.” Even Rashi (1040-1105), the greatest Jewish Bible commentator and surely unskeptically Orthodox, explained that the verse in Deuteronomy simply means that Moses’ speech containing his teachings (torah) is about to begin – i.e. “This,” what follows in the following chapters, “is the torah [teaching] which Moses set [i.e. spoke] before the Israelites.” Only many centuries after Moses did people begin to use the word Torah to refer to the first five books of the Bible and did anyone write down the claim that Moses was the author of the so-called Five Books of Moses. (The word “torah” in the verse in Deuteronomy 31:9, “Moses wrote this torah,” is not a reference to the Five Books of Moses but to the recording of a specific “teaching,” or at most a set of teachings, as was recognized even by a number of traditionalist Bible commentators such as Rabbi Ovadya Seforno [c. 1475-1550].)