Revelation, Textual Criticism, and Divine Writ

By Halivni, David Weiss | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Revelation, Textual Criticism, and Divine Writ


Halivni, David Weiss, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Forty days after the giving of the Torah, when the children of Israel danced around the golden calf proclaiming, "This is your God, Israel who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 32:8), revelation was suspended.

Seven hundred years later, when the children of Israel returned from Babylonian captivity, repenting and singling out the sin of having proclaimed the golden calf to be "your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Nehemiah 9:18), revelation was restored.

How can it be that the text that resides at the very core of judaism, the Pentateuch itself, is susceptible to textual criticism that reveals it to be both internally uneven and apparently inconsistent with observed Jewish law? This is both an academic question of religious and literary history and a pressing theological challenge. On the one hand, we must survey the textual record of Jewish history and appraise the ways in which Judaism has dealt with the difficulties posed by its sacred canon. On the other hand, we shall have to respond to the modern religious Jew who confronts the maculation of the written holy word.

The incongruities of the Pentateuch, and its disparities with observed laws, are not the new discoveries of modern textual science. In fact, traditional sources dating back to the time of canonization itself seem already to have struggled with the insufficiency of the Pentateuch's literal surface, searching the text for hidden meanings and mining the tradition for corrective oral law. No learned Jew has ever been oblivious of the canonical scriptures' inability to stand alone. Though the tides of theological dogma concerning the independence of the written word have turned and turned again, as shall be shown, the need for adjunct explication and expansion has always been addressed. The great difference in our time is that modern sensibilities can no longer accept old solutions on faith. No matter how the textual problems were resolved in the classical rabbinic texts, the modern Jew remains troubled by the very need for such solutions. As the rigors of analytical science have occluded the comforts of mythology in the human psyche, the modern religious Jew has become ever more unable to believe that maculation in the scriptural Torah does not exist as such.

We must therefore begin with the premise that the literal surface of the canonical Pentateuch is marred by contradictions, lacunae, and various other maculations whose provenance appears more human than divine. We propose that some of the problems that trouble the modern critical scholar were already known to the very people responsible for canonization itself. We shall trace the history of the canonical word from a point of departure at which its purveyors themselves knew it to be imperfect. Pointing out the means by which these agents of canonization worked to make their legacy viable nonetheless, I shall suggest an answer to the question of how they could, in good conscience, have passed on a text whose problems they recognized very well. Moving on through the history of subsequent Judaism, we will study the interplay between the maculate written word and corrective oral traditions or exegesis as this relationship proceeded through several stages, consonant always with the intellectual spirit of the age and leading finally to the theological challenge of the present day - Jewish faith confronted by the science of textual criticism.

The historical survey begins by recognizing that the written Torah is maculate; the theological argument must begin with the selfsame premise. I assume that the textual problems in question were at issue at the time of canonization as well. The prophetic sponsors of the sacred word, at the very time of its canonization, were aware of maculations in the text. From the perspective of tradition, this starting point is not so revolutionary as it may seem. In fact, the survey will reveal substantial acknowledgment in traditional Jewish sources of a restorative project at the time of the return from Babylonian captivity.

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