Shavu’ot marks the giving of the Torah. Over the last one hundred fifty years archaeology, Egyptology, and Assyriology have yielded information that challenges the traditional view that Moses received the Torah at Sinai. The Talmud had already discussed whether that means that Moses received the entire Torah at Sinai or that some parts were added by Moses over time. But the bigger questions revolve around the discovery that many of the narratives and laws of the Torah are found in other, earlier ancient Near Eastern traditions. As one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Neil Gilman (Sacred Fragments, p. 16) puts it: “Many of the traditions in the Bible…are paralleled in the literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures that flourished prior to and contemporaneously with biblical Israel. These traditions may well have been revised in the process of Israelite appropriation, but the traces of their origin are beyond dispute…It is simply far-fetched to assume that God would use the common core of ancient Near Eastern materials in His verbal revelation to Israel – often quoting these texts verbatim.” Those who want to maintain simultaneously genuine faith and intellectual honesty need to find some resolution.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, for one, argues for a propositional account of the revelation at Sinai. Rather than insist that the words of the Torah are a verbatim transcript of God’s communication to Moses, Harris posits that God gave Moses the general ideas and left it to Moses to frame them. Harris finds evidence for this view in a variety of rabbinic sources. For instance, Midrash Lekah Tov (Exodus 10:2) has Moses being instructed by God to relate the miracles in Egypt but that the choice of words is up to Moses.
Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans, one of the classical medieval commentators, explains Jacob’s motivation in Genesis 32:21 as an editorial gloss. Similarly, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains that the entire book of Deuteronomy as well as Moses’ prayer following the sin of the Golden Calf are Moses’ own words which God later endorsed and instructed him to write in the Torah. Likewise, Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar (1696-1743) comments that the opening verse of Deuteronomy is Moses’ own.
With regard to the obvious similarities between biblical laws and those of other ancient Near Eastern city-states, Harris concludes that “it seems reasonable to surmise that God revealed to Moses the content of the relevant laws and that Moses framed them in the language of the influential Near Eastern legal codes of the time while, where appropriate, highlighting the differences between the morally superior provisions of the Divine law and those of the other codes.”
Joining Harris in affirming that intellectual integrity should not be a casualty of maintaining traditional beliefs is Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University who argues (Ani Ma’amin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith ) that the use of modern critical tools actually confirms the accounts of the Torah rather than disputes them.
In sum, the celebration of the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot need not be encumbered by worry or doubt about the veracity of the event or the product of that event. Hag Sameah!