A Divine Integration

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The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, has been known by Jewish tradition as a single, unified text—as a book—since at least the fifth century B.C.E., from the beginning of what, from a historical point of view, can be called "Judaism proper." Judaism proper may be said to begin when Jews seek the will of God not by way of prophecy but rather by means of interpreting Scripture. One of the most fundamental principles of interpretation that was applied at that point, and then later in the rabbinic tradition, is that the Torah is a unity. That understanding has been difficult to maintain in light of scholarship that identifies the Torah’s constituent literary sources. Building upon the work of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Greenstein offer his view of how the editor of the Torah created a unified, integrated document that allows the reader to engage God.

god in bibleSince the fifth century BCE, Jews have treated the Torah as a unity; the rabbinic tradition employed this principle most obviously by interpreting laws in such a way that they would never contradict each other; or by smoothing over apparent inconsistencies in the Torah’s narratives. In modern times, readers have become particularly sensitive to differences in content and style between one passage in the Torah and another. In the course of the 19th century, scholars developed an elaborate theory holding that the differences in style and content among the various books and passages of the Torah could best be explained historically.

 

According to this documentary theory, the Torah was compiled and edited—“redacted”—from at least four major sources or documents, each of which originated in a different time and/or place. The earliest source, J, was thought to be produced in the relatively early monarchy in the southern kingdom of Judah; the E source was thought to have been written not long thereafter in the northern kingdom of Israel; the D document, comprising primarily the Book of Deuteronomy, was written toward the end of the Judean monarchy, in the late seventh century B.C.E.; and the P or Priestly source was thought to be a product of the Judean exile (sixth century) or as late as Ezra.

Biblical scholars felt that to understand the Torah properly means to understand it historically. The Torah would have to be read developmentally, layer by literary layer, source by source. The passages of the Torah would be best interpreted by relating them to other passages belonging to the same source and by contrasting them with passages belonging to different sources. In this view, the Torah is not an organic textual unity but rather an assemblage of documents that would have to be disassembled in order to be understood.

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Edward L. Greenstein is professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University and author of Reader Responsibility: The Making of Meaning in Biblical Narrative.