“Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition” by Benjamin D. Sommer

Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition by Benjamin D. Sommer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, xviii + 419 pp., $50, cloth.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me a review copy.

With the presence of biblical criticism seemingly undermining Jewish religiosity, Benjamin D. Sommer argues for a shift in modern Jewish though in order for Judaism to flourish. A professor of Bible at Jewish Theological Seminary, formerly he was director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies, a fellow of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School, the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, and much more. All in all, his background permits him to speak with authority about how Jews might begin to understand revelation and authority at Sinai in light of modern biblical criticism.

Central to his argument is the participatory theory of revelation, namely that revelation in Judaism occurs “as the result of a dialogue between God and Israel”, reflecting “Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will [of God]” (2). And Sommer contends that, with regard to biblical criticism and the authority of the Bible (note that “Bible” is only in reference to the Hebrew Bible), “the tension between them need not be a fatal contradiction” (10). Chapter One distinguishes between the Bible as an artifact for biblical critics and as Scripture for religious Jews and Christians, and argues that it must be both artifact and Scripture. Sommer recognizes that because biblical criticism illuminates the Bible as “a motley accumulation of historically dependent, culturally relative textual scraps” (18), it has created disconnect between the Bible and Judaism. Yet, the illumination of the Bible as “culturally relative textual scraps” effectively recovers voices of ancient Israelites, Jewish voices of the past. Thus, his strategy explores how to read the Bible as artifact and Scripture, allowing the bible to contribute to discussion of authority, and revelation, and later Jewish thought.

Chapter Two examines maximalist and minimalist approaches to analysis of what happened at Sinai, with a primary focus on the ideas Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the participatory theory of revelation. Both Jewish thinkers have suggested that the Bible and Jewish tradition are responses to God’s act of revelation. Sommer’s primary analysis is rooted in basic recognition of the nature of praises to Baal, albeit brief discussion, and of the various textual sources present in Exodus 19-24, especially focused on the ambiguity as to whether or not Israel heard the law giving at Sinai. The four positions present in the documentary sources demonstrate self-contradictory opinions. His discussion of Midrashic interpretations and the medieval biblical commentators draws out the minimalist and maximalist interpretations of the Sinai revelation in regard to the textual sources, noting preference for E “in which the people did not hear God’s voice speaking actual words” (79). Following, Sommer discusses Maimonides’ minimalist position by demonstrating that, in Maimonides’ theology, Moses authored the law rather, not God. His brief, yet detailed, discussion of Hasidic rebbe Menahem Mendel of Rymanov emphasizes that “revelation was not verbal” (94), raising questions of the Torah law’s origins and the nature of “God’s commanding but nonverbal self-disclosure” (95). Having traced the participatory theory of revelation through the minimalist traditions of Maimonides, Rymanov, and E, and the maximalist positions of D, he continues into Chapter Three.

Chapter Three explores minimalist interpretations of the participatory theory of revelation, examining the nature of non-verbal revelation. Sommer’s demonstrates through medieval Jewish thought that, for many, revelation is an act of translation, noting medieval Jewish thinkers who articulated that “prophets (non-Mosaic) received a message from God, but the formulation of that message in human language was left to the individual through whom God sent the message” (102). Because prophecy as translation is already explore extensively in medieval Jewish though, he explores how modern thinker expanded and applied prophecy as translation to Moses, especially through the works of Heschel and Rosenzweig. He especially emphasizes Heschel’s approach to prophecy as translation as correlational theology, tracing it through kabbalistic, Hasidic, modern, and ancient thought. Having established prophecy as translation in Jewish thought, he supports it by drawing out the discussion of heavenly and earthly Torahs, which Sommer shows to be prevalent in Jewish thought through Midrash Tehillim, Bereshit Rabbah, etc. He relates the distinctions between heavenly and earthly, Heschel’s Gebot and Gesetz, to ancient Near Eastern prophecy and its mixture of human and divine elements. Thus, “the bold notion of revelation that we find in the work of… Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel recapitulates one of the most ancient Jewish understandings of revelation and the law” (120). Upon establishing this distinction between heavenly and earthly Torah in Jewish through, he proceeds to argue for no distinction between the bible and Jewish thought.

Chapter Four presents Sommer’s primary claim: “there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Genesis 1:1” (147). Prior to defense, he indicates implications for Jewish canon, namely its large matrix of rabbinic literature that has long conceptualized the dynamics of Oral Torah and revelation in many ways. Drawing on rabbinic literature and inner-biblical, midrashic exegesis, he elucidates the complex dynamics of tradition and Scripture. Put succinctly, “tradition created scriptures; the new scriptures required interpretations; the new interpretations were passed on, becoming traditions in their own right; some of these traditions became scripture” (166). In this light, Sommer argues, Written Torah should be part of Oral Torah. By considering Written Torah as part of Oral Torah, imperfections may be taken seriously even as it is embraced as authoritative.

His push for a shift in theological understanding carries implications as to whether or not the Sinai revelation ever ceased, which is the focus of Chapter Five. Sommer draws this out through the Pentateuch sources; especially D. D’s use of “today” encompasses the idea that religious meaning is reserved for an eternal now. Modern Jewish thought of Heschel and Rosenzweig echo the voice of D “enough to make one believe that the voice from Sinai never fully came to a stop” (205). Foreseeing the issue many may have with opening Jewish tradition so broadly, Sommer indicates that not all innovations are necessarily legitimate.

Chapter Six examines the implications with regard to his argument for Written Torah as Oral Torah. First, the broad scape of Jewish tradition is dialogical in nature, ranging from the Pentateuch to rabbinic literature. Following, Sommer considers this dialogical reading of scripture as tradition to be centrifugal in nature, noting that “openness to multiple viewpoints that are left as they are without harmonization is characteristic of rabbinic culture, but it dates back to at least the time of the Pentateuch’s compilation” (224). And while dialogical tradition contains those who have sought centripetal readings, multiplicity of these traditions indicates necessity for centrifugal reading in Jewish tradition. Continuing with emphasis on Rosenzweig, Sommer responds to Rosenzweig’s statement that R is the most authoritative tradition in the Pentateuch by emphasizing importance of P, D, E, and J as individual and unique Jewish traditions. Additionally, he disagrees with Rosenzweig’s attempt to primarily accentuate biblical unity in Jewish theology, but rather accentuates the disunity. Sommer then notes that a peshat, or modern critical reading, is equally important to midrashic interpretations “because they enable us to hear religious teachings that might otherwise have been neglected” (235). The implications points towards the nature of Scripture as flawed and the non-existence of “Jewish biblical theology”, but simply “Jewish theology”.

In conclusion, revision of this aspect of Jewish law is not rupture, but continuity enabling Jewish tradition to endure. Such innovations and continuations need not be a hindrance and tension in Jewish theology. Rather they should be welcomed as the interpretation of Gebot (infallible, heavenly voice) into Gesetze (fallible, human translation). Thus, according to Sommer’s appropriation of the participatory theory of revelation, Jews create Torah through centrifugal tradition and dialogue as law is revealed at Sinai within communal settings.

Above all, Sommer clearly and beautifully explores the dimensions of Jewish tradition that permit for a shift of Written Torah to Oral Torah. His unique emphasis on the centrifugal orientation of Jewish theology permits it to maintain relevancy to religious Jews. And his call for a shift in theology, towards Oral Torah only and Jewish thought only, is necessary in a Western world which tends to de-emphasize religiosity via biblical criticism. Sommer expertly considers the validity of biblical criticism, re-evaluates Jewish thought and tradition, and revives past Jewish thought to show the continuity, value, and relevance of his argument.

There are, however, two minimal critiques of his argument. First, Sommer’s analysis of Pentateuch sources in Chapter Two fails to recognize and discuss the socio-political, historical drive of each source. Such discussion is important because, while his argument does recognize the value of Jewish tradition, it fails to respond to a major source of critique against the Bible’s place in tradition. Perhaps his answer would be that the Bible is fallible, as he clearly believes. Even so, the issue of socio-political situation for Pentateuch sources should have been addressed.

Secondly, Sommer draws on D’s use of “today” to demonstrate that the Sinai revelation occurred in the eternal now, which he then relates to Rosenzweig and Heschel. Yet, with a peshat reading, D does not press for an eternal now because the idea of something occurring “to this day” occurs not only in relation to speech through the Bible. It also occurs with presence of monuments (Josh 4:9, 5:9, 8:29), names of locations (Jug 18:12), tribes (Jud 21:6), and many more contexts. Thus, in order to more fully dialogue and come to terms with modern scholarship, Sommer should have explored the dimensions of “today” through the Bible.


Regardless of these two critiques, minor points which would have at least sharpened his argument, Sommer presents a full and rich discussion about Jewish tradition and thought. His work establishes an approach to religiosity for Jews that takes seriously claims of biblical criticism. Furthermore, his revival and emphasis on Jewish thought regarding the relationship between Oral Torah and Written is unique in the sense that it offers direction and positive continuation of Jewish theology. Especially for those researching Jewish thought and theology, Sommer’s work is indispensable as a resource for the history, development, and trends in Jewish thought. His work is even more so exceptionally important for religious Jews attempting to maintain religiosity without abandoning biblical criticism. Beyond Jews, the framework Sommer proposes may even hold value for protestant Christians. Overall, Revelation & Authority by Benjamin Sommer is an incredibly unique call for theological revival, encouraging Jews to be part of participatory revelation at Sinai for today and ages to come.

4 thoughts on ““Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition” by Benjamin D. Sommer

  1. I was reading II Baruch last night, and I noticed some things that may be relevant to this discussion. First, II Baruch 57 refers to an unwritten law that was in force during the time of the patriarchs. Second, II Baruch 59 says that, during and after the time of Moses, “the lamp of the eternal law which exists forever and ever illuminated all those who sat in darkness” (A.F.J. Klijn’s translation). Third, later in that chapter, God shows Moses the “inquiries into the Law,” among other things. That reminds me of the rabbinic teaching that God showed Moses every question that rabbinic pupils would ask, and II Baruch dates (according to Klijn) to the early second century C.E. What does this have to do with Sommer’s argument? I don’t know exactly, but it may be relevant, since Sommer talks about the heavenly Torah and the earthly Torah, and the idea of God revealing to Moses what students would ask is possibly consistent with oral Torah, the continuation of Mosaic revelation, and religious development somehow having Sinaitic authority.

    • It is definitely something to consider. The only knee-jerk opposition that I have to II Baruch 57 is that they are not oriented towards the actual revelation at Sinai, which seems to be the focus of Sommer. Revelation from Sinai occurs until this day. Additionally, one must determine how II Baruch assumes that Abraham and others interacted with that unwritten law. Initially my mind jumps to the “common law” of Sibylline Oracle 3:758, but that is not about an eternal or unwritten law.

      II Baruch 59 may work, but it seems that the author of II Baruch intends that Moses actually heard everything, namely “the ways of the Law and the end of time”. To explore the question as to how the author of II Baruch understands the revelation and Sinai would be an intriguing avenue to explore.

      I may have to read through II Baruch and explore those dimensions!

      Thanks! I apologize for the scattered thoughts, but truly appreciate the consideration and time to respond.

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