Who Wrote the Torah? For Alexandra Seiler | Congregation Beth Am

Who Wrote the Torah? For Alexandra Seiler

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
January 31, 2004
Each week we invite our students to choose a Jewish question for the rabbi to answer, in four minutes or less, at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah service. Allie, as some of you know, has a very inquiring mind, and this is the Jewish question she chose:

Who wrote the Torah, and why is it sacred?

The Torah, first of all, is the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. “Torah” is a Hebrew word that means “instruction” or “teaching.” Who actually created it? Nowhere in the Torah itself does it say who the author is.

For traditional Jews, the answer to Allie’s question is quite simple: God composed the Torah, and transmitted it at Mt. Sinai to Moses, who copied it down word for word. Since every word of the Torah comes from God, Orthodox Jews would say, none of the Torah’s laws may be changed or set aside.

But liberal Jews – Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist – would answer this question differently. We believe that the Torah is the work of human beings. The most common theory today among Jewish and Christian scholars was developed in the 19th century and is called the Documentary Hypothesis. It argues that the Torah is composed of several ancient source documents that were written by various unknown authors. Later these documents were combined and edited into the form in which we have it today. It’s generally thought that the Torah was completed by the 5th century BCE, following the Jews’ return to the land of Israel after having been exiled in Babylonia.

There are several reasons why most contemporary scholars don’t believe the Torah was written by Moses. First, there are problems in the text that have been noticed for more than 2000 years. For example: contradictory versions of the same events; information about events that took place after Moses lived, including a description of his death and burial; and lists of geographic place names that came into use long after Moses' time. Phrases that clearly indicate that the text was written inside the land of Israel, rather than in the wildernes of Sinai. Moses is referred to in the third person throughout the Torah, which is odd if he wrote it, and it also says that Moses was “the humblest man on earth” – not the way we’d expect the humblest man on earth to describe himself. The last words of the Torah, which say that “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” certainly sound like they were written a long time after Moses’ death.

Other problems with the theory that God gave the Torah to Moses are moral. To put it simply, there are passages in the Torah which just don’t sound like the word of God. Slavery is condoned in the Torah. Women are subject to men. Rebellious children may be killed by their parents. Unmarried girls who are assaulted may be forced to marry their assailants. Homosexual acts between men are called abominations and are a crime subject to the death penalty. Leprosy is treated by religious rituals involving the sprinkling of blood. Human beings worship by sacrificing animals on an altar. The portrayal of God is also troubling in some passages, where God is presented as having very human emotions, including uncontrollable outbursts of bad temper.

All of these passages, in my view, tell us nothing at all about God. Instead, they reflect human bigotry, fear and ignorance. They remind us that we are reading an ancient and primitive document whose authors viewed the world very differently than we do.

Why, then, do we see the Torah as sacred? If it’s written by people and contains such disturbing ideas, why is it our holiest and most cherished possession?

First, because it preserves the deepest stratum of our history. Reading Torah is like going backwards in time; it opens up a window into the distant world of our ancestors. It’s as if we’re digging into an archeological treasure, moving layer by layer towards our beginnings. The Torah is our story, and it helps us understand who we are as a people.

Second, because Torah is the source of many Jewish traditions and practices. Almost all of our holidays and festivals have their origins in Torah, as do many of our customs involving birth, marriage, death, eating, clothing, family life and prayer.

Third, because the Torah contains powerful human stories – great universal narratives like the creation story, the tale of Adam and Eve, Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel; and all the tales that make up the saga of ancient Israel. Our people have studied these stories for more than 2000 years because they continue to fascinate us. They overflow with emotion, humor and drama – love and jealousy, courage and fear, loneliness, hope and despair. We find our own stories within these great stories, and we see ourselves in the noble and flawed heroes whose lives and deaths are recounted in this scroll.

But the most important reason that we cherish the Torah is because through it, I believe, we do encounter the divine. Torah was composed by human beings who were struggling to understand what God requires of us. In these ancient stories and teachings they recorded their insights and inspirations. And so God’s voice is heard in the text, shining through the words of the fallible people who created it.

Embedded in primitive, sometimes monotonous and sometimes upsetting material are jewels of incredible beauty – ethical imperatives that still speak to us today as the deepest truths we know.

Justice, justice shall you pursue. You shall not stand by while your neighbor bleeds. Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against the needy. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Do not hate your fellow man in your heart; love your neighbor as yourself. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Rise up before the aged; do not put a stumbling block before the blind. Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In the image of God are we created, male and female each with a spark of the divine within. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Choose life, that you and your children may live.       

So we say in the blessing recited each time we publicly read from the Torah, that through the gift of Torah “chayei olam nata b’tocheinu – God has implanted eternal life within us.” The Torah is our tree of life, nourishing our souls with profound moral teachings; preserving our identity by reminding us who we are meant to be.
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