Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain (Megillah 31b.) that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”
This does not, ח׳׳ו , mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis (Tosafos, op. cit.) immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8.) he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”
Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.
-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff
Reading this commentary on last week’s Torah portion reminded me of my ongoing discussion with my Pastor about the purpose of Torah. Pastor Randy has told me his particular understanding of the function of Deuteronomy, one I’ve never heard before (and I’ll refrain from sharing that with you at this time), but it also made me think of our discussions about the “inspired” nature of the Bible.
Rabbi Touger separates Deuteronomy from the rest of the Torah by saying the first four books were recorded by Moses just as they were given to him by God, but Deuteronomy involves a “relationship” between God’s inspiration and Moshe’s personality.
For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: (Deuteronomy 11:13.) “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.” (See Zohar III, p. 232a; Shmos Rabbah 3:15.)
On the other hand, it is also clear that the book involves Moshe’s own thinking process. To give an example: there is a difference of opinion among our Sages as to whether the proximity (semichus) of two subjects in the Written Torah is significant or not. (Berachos 21b; Yevamos 4a.) One opinion maintains that it is, while the other explains that although when mortals structure their thoughts, order is important, but “Since the Torah was granted by the Almighty, the order of precedence is not significant.” (Raaban [Rabbi Eleazar ben Nasan], sec. 34.)
I’m reading this as saying Deuteronomy is inspired by God so much so that sometimes Moses speaks almost with God’s voice. On the other hand, Deuteronomy involves the words and thoughts of Moses and information provided by God is organized in Moses’s mind and presented in his oratory.
We have to believe that anything coming directly from God is perfect, at least at the moment of its delivery to mankind. What we do with it on the other hand, is another story. So how does that affect the Bible? When God inspired Moses (or any of the other human Bible writers), at that instant in time, perfect information flowed from the Divine to the mundane; from God to man. Through some process we don’t understand, the relationship was developed between that information and how it was interpreted and delivered by the human beings involved.
In Deuteronomy, Moses was speaking to the entire assembly of Israel and, I suppose, either he later wrote down everything he said, or someone was taking notes while he spoke. Tradition says that Moses wrote the entire Torah by his own hand including Deuteronomy. Scholars differ in their opinions, but I’m not going to get into that right now.
Is the Bible perfect?
Well, yes and no.
We have to believe it contains the entire inspired Word of God, otherwise, the Bible is just another book, no different from any of the other supposedly holy books in other religious or philosophical traditions. On the other hand, the Bible does contain internal inconsistencies that we can’t resolve or “smooth out,” although both Jewish and Christian translators and theologians have tried over the long centuries.
I didn’t used to believe this until I was challenged to make the different gospel versions of the crucifixion map to each other. What day of the week exactly was Jesus executed? Don’t automatically say it was Friday, because that’s not a for sure thing. You have to understand that Passover was a special shabbat and that the Saturday shabbat was also observed. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation, but if you put the different gospel versions side by side, they do not match up. You can’t tell which day it was when Jesus died. It’s not the same day in all gospel versions.
Did God goof? God can’t goof. So did the various gospel writers goof?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, if you want to read the Bible like a newspaper or a legal document (though some portions are a legal document). No, if you realize that certain portions of the Bible are written like Chasidic tales, stories based on fact, but crafted for a specific audience, drawing from other, older Biblical and extra-Biblical texts, in order to communicate a particular message to the target audience.
If you read the Bible like Joe Friday would have wanted it (“The facts ma’am, just the facts”), it doesn’t work.
The explanation of the above concepts depends on the appreciation of the relationship between the Torah and our world. Our Sages state: “The Torah preceded the world.” Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity. (See Tanya, ch. 4.)
This concept has always fascinated me. Even my Pastor believes that in God’s Heavenly Court, there exists a “perfect” Bible…God’s Word as it was given to humanity unaffected by the human mind, imagination, interpretation, or anything else. By inspiring people to write various portions of His Word, God, in effect, is “clothing” the Bible in humanity so that human beings can consume it.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
–Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (NRSV)
This is the part of Torah I point to whenever Christians say that the Law was only given to Jews so that they’d realize the Law of God was too hard to keep and that they needed Jesus instead. It’s also a good scripture to bring out when I meet with Christians. The Torah, and in fact, the Bible as a whole, is a multi-dimensional, multi-layered, intertwining, interactive document that is more than a document, that was given to human beings to enact, ponder, study, discuss, argue over, and experience in awe.
The Bible was written by human beings in supernatural partnership with God and it digs as much into the living human psyche as it does into the Divine realm.
I disagree (respectfully) with Rabbi Touger when he says that human beings as intermediaries and Bible writers are either derech ma’avir or “funnels” channeling God’s words and intent without altering them at all, or derech hislabshus in which the human intermediary puts what is given from God into his own words. I think that every word written by every Biblical writer was in some sense affected, transformed, or colored by the human writers, the derech hislabshus. Otherwise, God could have just written the whole thing with his “finger” as He did with the first tablets Moses took up to Sinai, the ones Moses smashed during the incident of the Golden Calf (and notice that God had Moses do the writing on the replacement tablets).
If there is a perfect Word of God, it resides with God. It is spiritual perfection, absolute wisdom, pure joy, intelligence, and love. But how could people understand any of it if it weren’t written in a human language and filtered through a human personality, vocabulary, cultural context, individual style, and so forth?
Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.
My personal opinion is that the esteemed Rabbi Touger might be overstating his point just a bit. I’d prefer to say that the Bible acts as a sort of bridge between Heaven and Earth, between the existence of God and the existence of people. The split instant perfection entered our world, it became imperfect, hard to interpret, difficult to understand, internally inconsistent, all because human beings were allowed to affect what God provided. But this was allowed by design, otherwise man would have no part in God or His Word.
It is said that there are two revelations of God, the first being all of creation, hence no man has an excuse for not seeking God (Romans 1:20), and the Bible, God’s written revelation. Both are complementary. The universe and everything in it provides one set of information about God and the Bible a different but complementary data set.
But if our bridge is imperfect because we are imperfect, there is yet another revelation that has and will put everything in order.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
–John 1:14 (NRSV)
Jesus taught the Torah to his people Israel correctly and he interpreted many things, most of the time using parables. It is said in certain corners of Judaism that when Messiah comes (returns), he will teach Torah perfectly and we will all know. More than that, it will be written on our hearts so that we will all know.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
–Jeremiah 31:34 (NRSV)
But that’s then, not now. Now we struggle, bicker, and argue about the purpose of Torah, the meaning of the Bible, how it should be interpreted, what we’re supposed to do with it, and how it’s supposed to guide our lives. As Paul said:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
–1 Corinthians 13:12 (NRSV)
Of course, it is both Christianity and Judaism that struggles to peer through Paul’s metaphorical “glass darkly” and to understand who we are and who God is:
Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another?
Moses spoke Deuteronomy to the entire assembly of Israel on the banks of the Jordan river as they were about to cross over and enter the Land. We too are on a similar journey, hearing the Word of God as filtered through human beings and waiting to “cross over,” so to speak, not with Joshua but with Messiah, into his Kingdom. This is the gospel message or the good news. Messiah will come as King and restore what was broken and lost, he will gather in his exiled children and restore Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple. He will also gather in those among the nations who are called by his name.
But we must never forget today that God is not aloof and apart. The Word was given to man from Heaven and it is not far off. True, it’s not well comprehended, but it was meant to be understood, at least to the best of human ability, and to be lived out.
And though we only seem him dimly now, as through a darkened or dirty window, someday we’ll see him face to face.
And we will rejoice.