The Book of Deuteronomy is built around three speeches delivered by Moses. The first of these, which occurs within this week's Torah portion, D'varim, includes a review of the events that took place during Moses' lifetime. It begins: "These are the words (had'varim) that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan." (Deuteronomy 1:1)
The twelfth-century Spanish scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra, whose authority as an interpreter of the Bible is second only to that of Rashi, pointed out that whoever wrote the phrase "on the other side of the Jordan" (b'eiver haYarden) must have stood on the Israelite side of the river. Since Moses never crossed the Jordan, Ibn Ezra reasoned that he could not have written this line.
Ibn Ezra was very cautious in how he expressed this insight. He simply identified this as one of several passages that have a "secret." (Another is the description of Og's bed in Deuteronomy 3:11, which is also in this week's portion.) But Ibn Ezra's observation inspired the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was much more blunt in citing these passages as evidence that Moses could not have written the Torah (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, chapter 8). Spinoza's work played a key role in the development of modern biblical scholarship.
Today such thoughts are much less threatening than they were in the time of Ibn Ezra, or even that of Spinoza. Ibn Ezra was plainly afraid to state the obvious point of his observation. As he put it, "It [the passage] has a secret, and the wise will be silent." (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Genesis 12:6 in Mikraot G'dolot) Even that oblique reference was too much for some. Isaac Mayer Wise reports that Ibn Ezra's commentary was omitted from the curriculum of the Hungarian yeshivot that were the bastion of nineteenth-century Orthodoxy. However, the Torah never claims to be written by Moses, nor does Judaism depend on that principle. As Jakob Petuchowski has pointed out, what really matters is that the Torah comes from God.
Jewish tradition is rich in possibilities. As these events demonstrate, what we sometimes consider to be the traditional Jewish attitude is only one of many different Jewish approaches to the Bible. Indeed, the rabbis assert that there are seventy different ways to interpret the Torah!
We must not allow others to tell us what our own tradition says but explore it firsthand for ourselves. Such knowledge is what ensures our authenticity, which depends on our ability to link our Reform perspectives with the tradition that has helped to shape us. The impact of Ibn Ezra's observation, as mediated by Spinoza, on the history of biblical studies demonstrates the role that Jewish scholarship has played outside of our own community. Becoming familiar with our Jewish tradition can enrich our thinking while teaching us that its insights can be more congenial than we usually allow.
Questions for Discussion
- How much authority should Jewish tradition be given in Reform Judaism?
- What role should the Bible and its teachings play in Reform Judaism?