Eleh d’varim — “These are the words.” So starts this week’s Torah reading and the Book of Deuteronomy, which it introduces. But whose words are they, God’s or Moses’s? Many of our finest commentators suspect the latter, wondering, as a consequence, whether Deuteronomy is even God-given at all. To be sure, says Abravanel (1437-1508), “There is no book in all of holy writ that Moses wrote all by himself,” but still, he opines, it does seem that “‘these words’ are the words of our master Moses,” albeit intended as explanations of commandments given by God elsewhere.
Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) goes further by pointing to passages Moses could not have written, like the verses at the end of Deuteronomy that presuppose Moses’s death and had to have been composed by someone else. We look back on Ibn Ezra as pioneering early “biblical criticism” — a scientific approach that sees Torah not as a singular revelation given word for word to Moses on Mount Sinai, but a brilliantly edited set of documents that evolved over the course of centuries, culminating in a final version after the return from Babylonian exile.
So whose words are the words of Torah? If the scientific study is correct, they are the words of human writers over time.
Jews properly differ on the matter. Abravanel states, “This holy book [Deuteronomy] in its entirety and all its parts came directly from God who commanded it be written down word for word just like the rest of Torah.” The Malbim (1809-1879) is even clearer: “It was all written by God. On his own accord, Moses wrote nothing, not even the tiniest dot.”
Most Jews today side with Ibn Ezra — and with science — but maintain that the text remains sacred, no matter how it came into being. Attributing it all to God, they say, is troubling theologically, not just stylistically. If God wrote every word, then every word must be correct; yet God appears sometimes as vengeful and the author of laws that boggle the modern mind — like “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) and stoning the rebellious child (Deut. 21:18-21).
And not just the modern mind: the Talmud itself denied the literal validity of such things, “correcting them” with the notion of an oral law that successive generations of Torah scholars are said to intuit and then use to interpret the text’s “real” meaning. Modern scholarship can be seen as an extension of this rabbinic principle: revelation should be reimagined as ongoing throughout time.
What unites both sides of the debate is the assumption that divine truth comes from the study of Torah, no matter how it came about. Jews gather for Torah study the way other faiths meet to meditate or pray.
It really doesn’t matter whether God gave us Deuteronomy through Moses on Sinai, whether Moses made it up himself, or whether God spoke through the evolution of time to our many ancestors, who, in turn, put the Torah together. What matters is that however it happened, we somehow got it, made it our own, and cherish it as the story of who we are and the model for how God wants us still to be.