Torah From Heaven

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One idea that has been discussed in the comments section to prior posts is what I call the Prophetic Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that different sections of the Torah were written by different prophets. This is said to explain why there are supposedly different styles, laws and histories in different sections of the Torah. Traditional commentators explain that many of these differences are exaggerated but those that exist are complementary, not contradictory. However, proponents of the Prophetic DH argue that these contradictions merely reflect the writings of different prophets.

What follows is the beginning of a discussion on this topic by presenting what can be said on this subject from the debate surrounding R. Mordechai Breuer’s approach to the Torah. But before that, let me point out that the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (90a, 99a) implicitly declares that belief that the Torah is from heaven is fundamental to Judaism. The question, then, is what “from heaven” means. There were two exchanges over the past twenty years that help illuminate what this belief means.

I. The Jacobs Affair

But before we get to that, I’d like to discuss a brief episode from almost 50 years ago that is relevant. You might recall the “Jacobs Affair“, in which a prominent British rabbi published a book advocating the belief that the Torah (Five Books of Moses) is a composite work by multiple authors that contains different theologies, factual errors and other dogmatically problematic issues. Because of this, he was denied a position that would most likely have led to his becoming the Chief Rabbi of England.

His book was published not long after R. Mordechai Breuer had published his first essay detailing his approach to the Documentary Hypothesis, what has become known as the Theory of Attributes. In defending Rabbi Jacobs, the Jewish Chronicle cited R. Breuer as an example of a Rosh Yeshiva in Israel who had avocated a similar approach. R. Breuer responded with a letter to the editor explaining that he had been misunderstood; he agrees that there are multiple voices in the Torah (reflecting different divine attributes) but he fully accepts divine authorship of the Torah in its maximal formulation. The editor published the letter and then wrote that R. Breuer must have recanted out of fear for the political repercussions, which of course was not true. (On all this, see R. Mordechai Breuer, “‘Torah Min Ha-Shamayim’ U-Vikores Ha-Mikra” in Megadim 33 [2001], reprinted in Yosef Ofer ed., “Shitas Ha-Bechinos” Shel Ha-Rav Mordechai Breuer: Kovetz Ma’amarim U-Teguvos, pp. 307-309.) This was not the last time that his approach would be misunderstood as allowing for multiple authorship of the Torah.

II. The Orthodox Forum

R. Breuer presented an essay at the 1991 Orthodox Forum that was later published in the book from that conference, Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah. In that article, R. Breuer explicitly rejects the view that any part of the Torah was written by a human being. He writes (pp. 167-168; Shitas Ha-Bechinos, pp. 120-121):

From antiquity, our Sages have never considered equating the Five Books of Moses with other prophecy. They regarded the equation, not as proper faith, but as utter heresy. The status of Moses is inherently different from that of all other prophets. The latter saw God in a vision, through a glass darkly; they heard His voice as a riddle that required clarification and interpretation. When they subsequently transmitted God’s message to the people, when they wrote it down, they could not convey literally what they had seen and heard. Instead each adopted his own style and language. Moses was different. The loyal servant in God’s house, to whom God spoke as one converses with a companion; he perceived God through a clear glass, as it were, and heard His message expressed precisely. Therefore Moses wrote the words of the Torah as God spoke them, without injecting his own. Thus the Torah of Moses was literally min ha-shamayim [from heaven]; the Lawgiver summoned His prophet to the heavens themselves. “Like an author dictating a book to his scribe,” God dictated the Torah to His prophet from beginning to end.

This is a theme he has repeated in a number of articles. An essay entitled “Al Bikores Ha-Mikra” (Megadim 30 [1999]; Shitas Ha-Bechinos, pp. 156-168) is devoted solely to this topic. Among his points is the following: If you accept that the Torah was written by a single prophet or multiple prophets, then all of the books of the Bible have the same sanctity. If being written as a prophecy is sufficient to qualify as being “from heaven”, then Joshua, Prophets, Samuel, etc. are all “from heaven”. If so, R. Breuer implicitly asks, why does the Mishnah specify as a fundamental belief that Torah is “from heaven”? Is it really plausible that the Mishnah considered Isaiah to be from heaven in the same way that the Torah is? (p. 162) I suspect that this can be answered simply by suggesting that the Mishnah was only discussing fundamental beliefs and that is why it only mentioned the Torah as being from heaven; other biblical books are also from heaven but denying that is an error but not the contravention of a fundamental belief. However, that answer does not sit well with me and I need to think more about its viability.

In the article after R. Breuer’s in the Orthodox Forum book, R. Shnayer Leiman responds critically to R. Breuer’s approach but also discusses the idea that other prophets contributed passages to the Torah. He offers a number of traditional sources that preclude such a position (Shitas Ha-Bechinos, p. 291; Modern Scholarship, pp. 184-185). Let us look at each one:

  1. Megillah 2b – This presumably refers to the statement that a prophet is not allowed to add to the Torah. One could suggest that this is irrelevant because it is referring to adding to the laws of the Torah and not the text, but the Gemara explicitly applies it to the text of the Torah. However, even if it did not, we would have to ask what those who accept a Prophetic Documentary Hypothesis believe about the law. Presumably, they believe that some law was given to Moshe at Sinai or throughout the Desert travels. However, according to the Prophetic DH, there are different prophetic texts in the Torah that have contradictory laws. Those laws either contradict the original law or add to it. Or, if these proponents of the Prophetic DH do not believe in an original Mosaic law, these prophets created the law. This is in violation of the Talmudic rule that prophets could not add to the law.
  2. Rambam, in his commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1 and his introduction to the Mishneh Torah. The former is his listing of the thirteen fundamental principles, of which number eight is that Moshe wrote the entire Torah. The Prophetic DH clearly contradicts that. The other reference is to Rambam’s statement of the following (link): “The whole of the Law was written down by Moshe Our Teacher
    before his death, in his own hand. He gave a scroll of the Law to each tribe; and he put another scroll by the Ark for a witness, as it is written ‘take this book of the Law, and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee’ (Deuteronomy 31,26).”
  3. R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah vol. 3, nos. 114, 115) – R. Leiman quotes this as representative of contemporary views. In these two responsa, R. Feinstein argues that it is unacceptable to attribute even a single verse of the Torah to non-Mosaic authorship.
  4. R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, Toras Ha-Nevi’im – R. Chajes explores what it means that all laws emerged from Moshe, which poses a problem as in #1 above.

III. The Megadim Debate

In the year 2001, Dr. Yisrael Knohl wrote an article (Megadim, no. 33; (Shitas Ha-Bechinos, pp. 301-305) advocating the acceptability of a Prophetic DH. He pointed out that one opinion in the Talmud allows for the final eight verses of the Torah having been by Yehoshua rather than Moshe, and Ibn Ezra apparently allowed for a few other verses. If so, it is acceptable to say that different prophets wrote various passages in the Torah.

R. Breuer responded (Megadim, no. 33; Shitas Ha-Bechinos, pp. 306-313) that this is all beside the point. It matters less who put the words into writing and more who composed them. The concept of Torah from heaven means that God wrote the words of the Torah. Who actually transmitted them to the Jewish people is only a secondary concern. If God composed the Torah then there is no room for the DH, even a Prophetic DH, that deduces multiple authors from the text. In the end, the text is from one Author.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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