Revelation and Authority

Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Benjamin D. Sommer
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Revelation and AuthoritySinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition presents a creative reading and extensive examination of the nexuses between the Written and  Oral Torah and the Jewish tradition. In the process, author Benjamin D. Sommer addresses an array of topics, thinkers, and texts, and challenges readers to wrestle anew with the duality of divine and human sources of the Bible. Sommer’s project integrates biblical scholarship with a comprehensive view of rabbinic, medieval, modern, and contemporary thought, thus providing an interdisciplinary approach to biblical studies and Jewish thought. 

Sommer frames his overall reading of the Torah and the revelation at Sinai under the category of “Participatory Theories of Revelation.” By this he means that the Pentateuch, and the Jewish tradition more broadly, is a result as well as an ongoing process of the dialogue between God and Israel. This view asserts that the Written Torah is a human product of encounters with God, which he contrasts with the “stenographic theory of revelation,” that the Written Torah is God’s words. He derives the idea of the Written Torah as a human product on the basis of biblical criticism and traditional rabbinic exegesis that reveals ambiguities, gaps, and contradictions in the text. His argument for collapsing the traditional categories of Written Torah and Oral Torah is further supported through his statements that suggest the ethically flawed nature of scripture, texts that to him do not and cannot represent a just and merciful God, such as Deuteronomy 25: 17-19’s call to kill all Amalekite men, women, and children. 

Sommer initiates his discussion by delineating two types of readers and approaches to the Bible: the biblical critics whose methods consider the Bible as an artifact in contrast with religious Jews and Christians who view the Bible as scripture. Posing the question, “What happened at Sinai?” he offers close readings of Exodus chapters 19-24, raising further issues such as “Did the Sinai event consist of words or was it only thunder?” “Was it a private or public revelation?” In his analysis of specific verses in Exodus 19-24 in light of the Documentary Hypothesis, he breaks down differences between the Deuteronomist (D), Priestly (P), and Jahwist (J) sources in terms of direct versus mediated reception of the Decalogue. According to him, the D source is “maximalist,” for its account supports the view that the whole nation heard the whole Decalogue. On the other hand, P and J are “minimalists” in their approach to the Sinai event, since according to their version, all that was given was mediated through Moses. In his exegetical analysis of Exodus 24 where there was no auditory experience, only visual, Sommer asserts that Sinai and revelations in general are nonverbal, but then he asks—if it was nonverbal, how can it produce laws? He resolves this problematic by arriving at the idea that revelation engenders a sense of “commandedness,” rather than specific laws.

Sommer’s biblical exegesis makes a compelling case for understanding Sinai and other biblical revelations in terms conceived of by two of the most important modern Jewish thinkers, Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose work and thought inspires and underpins Sommer’s entire project. He argues for the minimalist pattern in the history of Jewish thought by referring to influential thinkers who are minimalists. Chief among these minimalists is Moses Maimonides, the most important medieval Jewish philosopher, whose full-fledged rejection of the stenographic theory is well known and for whom “God created nature and Moses wrote the Torah as a reflection of nature.”

 His argument for the minimalist approach to the Torah is bolstered by a discussion of Heschel’s approach as “correlational theology,” conveying the idea of revelation as stemming not only from God but also from human beings. He clarifies Heschel’s perspective on the Written Torah, which is based on rabbinic and medieval notions of heavenly and earthly Torahs, as an incarnation of “Torah She-Ba-shamaim,” a heavenly prototype. He further supports the minimalist perspective of revelation and Torah by referring to Rosenzweig’s statement on revelation as the “commanding presence” of God, or what Rosenzweig terms Gebot, rather than revelation as the giving of specific laws (Gesetz) or human laws that are found in the Torah and rabbinic Halakhah. 

Sommer’s attempt to collapse the distinction between Oral and Written Torah is seen in a chapter titled “Scripture as Tradition and Tradition as Scripture.” Here he makes perhaps his boldest claim, that “there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Gen 1.1” (147). He points out that while this statement may appear to be a radically new view, in fact this is not the case. Rabbinic texts such as Mishna Avot do not, according to him, distinguish between Oral and Written Torah, as its opening passage suggests: “Moses received Torah at Sinai and passed it on ultimately, to the rabbis” (154). 

In his discussion of the Sinai narrative, Sommer brings to light multiple ways of interpreting the word “today” in Deuteronomy 29. Following Rosenzweig and Heschel in ascertaining the Sinai event not as a single event in the past but rather is an ongoing process, he asserts that “lawgiving must always occur in the present” (201). While I agree that revelation according to Rosenzweig is not limited to a single event in the past, it would have made a stronger argument had the author made references to Rosenzweig’s midrashic reading of Shir Ha-Shirim (Song of Songs), upon which he constructs his theology of revelation in the Star of Redemption. This biblical text of erotic love, no less than the “today” of Deuteronomy, serves as an inspiration for Rosenzweig’s notion of the ongoing dialogical divine-human encounter or revelation. 

Sommer’s overall perspective is that all Jewish writings, from the Bible to modern philosophy, are a response to the event at Sinai. What unites maximalists and minimalists is the worship of one God and covenantal law. But whereas to maximalists, human authority to change laws is extremely limited, to minimalists, human authority to change and or observe the law is accepted but requires careful and balanced treatment. Being committed to Jewish observance, he contemplates the ways that innovation and continuity are considered within the framework of the Sinai covenant, especially in cases of legal change; “The covenant at Sinai is correlational but it is not a contract between equals” (148). He admits that we cannot realistically answer the question of how much or how little change is still Torah as the answer can only be seen in the way that future generations will follow and enact it. 

This is a masterful work, integrating strands and patterns in biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern Jewish thought into a constructive scholarly project. It is a highly readable work of biblical scholarship shaped by the dialogical turn in modern Jewish thought, especially that of Rosenzweig and Heschel. As such, it is a welcome contribution to these areas of study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yudit Kornberg Greenberg is the Cornell Endowed Professor of Religion at Rollins College.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor of the Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He lives in Teaneck, NJ.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.