Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Sommer, Benjamin D., Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Pp. 440. Hardback. US$50.00. ISBN 978-0-300-15873-1.

In Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, Benjamin D. Sommer masterfully navigates a host of academic disciplines (modern biblical criticism, Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism, and modern Jewish philosophy, to name a few) to advance a participatory (minimalist) theology of revelation that entails God's wordless revelation of Torah at Sinai. Sommer, while defending this idea on the one hand, teases out its implications as a respectable position for a critical biblical scholar who also happens to be a religious Jew. In broad strokes, one might describe Sommer's work as an attempt to unite scholar with laity, biblicist with philosopher, religious with secular, liberal with conservative, past with present, Written with Oral, and Jew with Christian.

In Chapter One Sommer argues that “an intellectually honest person addressed by the Hebrew Bible today must read the Bible at once as artifact and as scripture” (p. 13). Modern critics, on the one hand, wish to avoid anachronisms they so frequently find in traditional readings, while religious readers fear theological reductionism and doubt of historical reliability. To modern critics Sommer argues that the Bible itself gives those who claim ancestry from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reason to read it “anachronistically.” To religious readers Sommer argues that they choose to ignore the very first Jews whose views modern criticism has uncovered. Healing this divide, Sommer first argues that the Bible should be read as a corpus of texts reflecting ancient Near Eastern modes of thought and expression. Second, an atomistic (that is, source-critical) reading so often shunned by religious readers in fact accords with ancient, medieval, and contemporary Jewish thought.

In Chapter Two Sommer explains how the Pentateuch can remain authoritative for religious readers in spite of its genocidal and sexist language. He argues for what he interchangeably calls a minimalist or participatory approach to the revelation at Sinai—that is to say, that God's revelation was either mostly or entirely non-verbal and comes to human beings through human mediation/translation. Sommer contends that the Jewish tradition witnesses to and elaborates upon a minimalist reading of Sinai. The Pentateuch's sources endorse both minimalist (E ambiguously; J, P, and D's redactor certainly) and maximalist (D) impressions of Sinai, creating contradictions and problems that invite further interpretation.

In Chapter Three Sommer argues that “a Jew who acknowledges the validity of biblical critical theories concerning the origin of the Pentateuch can—in fact, must—accept what rabbinic tradition calls…the yoke of divine sovereignty and the binding authority of the commandments” (p. 100). Through concepts of Moses-as-translator, correlational theology, and heavenly/earthly Torah, Sommer emphasizes the collaborative nature of Pentateuchal law: God provides non-verbal content of revelation, while humanity responds to that revelation through producing (distinctively human) scripture. Rosenzweig provides fitting language for this phenomenon: Gebot (German: “commandment”) and Gesetz (German: “law”). Gebot is the wordless divine command that lacks specific laws (Gesetze), then provided by humans. But some may object that such a framework diminishes the need to observe Torah because humans—not God, and not even Moses—produced Gesetze. In response Sommer invokes Jewish history, interpretations of Rosenzweig and Heschel, and implications of pseudepigraphy to enforce the need for Jews to obey Torah while allowing for flexibility regarding what exactly qualifies as Torah.

In Chapter Four Sommer suggests that his participatory theology has implications for understanding Judaism’s canon: “there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Genesis 1:1” (p. 147, emphasis original). Sommer claims that Jewish history attests to a collapse of Written and Oral Torah, and by the Bible’s own reckoning, Sommer enforces a religious authority tied not to a text, but rather to a tradition in which the text takes part. Though the two have been distinguished in a number of ways, Sommer concludes that “Written Torah enjoys a greater degree of prestige. Yet in terms of the ongoing formulation of Jewish thought, there is little difference between [Written and Oral Torah]” (p. 175–76). Sommer defines Oral Torah as a process—not a body of texts— necessarily social, and not as antiquated, but rather as teaching with present consequences. Such an understanding of Oral Torah allows the believer to engage an oft-flawed Bible not with disappointment, but with warm anticipation.

In Chapter Five Sommer pursues the consequences of an Oral Torah that is social, and thus present, attempting to parse the extent to which Jewish revelation is punctual—historically fixed to Sinai—or durative. In short, the answer is both: “…God communicated for a moment at Sinai in a manner never repeated, but through study and commitment, a Jew can reenter that moment” (p. 203). The Pentateuchal sources motivate this idea, but Heschel and Rosenzweig refine it. Horowitz adds a crucial element to punctual-durative revelation: all Israel—past, present, and future—stood at Sinai, and thus a teaching or interpretation from a twenty-first century Jew must be grounded and understood in relation to that revelation, and thus given a firm voice.

In Chapter Six Sommer synthesizes and reemphasizes many of the ideas he advanced throughout the book. One new idea emerges: the Jewish tradition employs both centripetal (holistic, characterized by medieval Judaism) and centrifugal (atomistic, characterized by Rabbinic literature) readings of the Bible. Thus, a Jew has no reason to prefer canonical readings of scripture (like Brevard Childs and Rosenzweig suggest), but can instead appreciate the Bible's composite voices and even admit the Bible's serious (moral, for example) flaws.

In his conclusion Sommer offers some important clarifications regarding how Torah, from a minimalist perspective, is determined. Sommer recognizes that there may be some ambiguity in determining what counts as Torah if the Jewish tradition entertains a host of perspectives. Sommer argues that in such a case, “it is observant Jewish communities…that ultimately determine what Jewish law is” (p. 247). But Judaism is not entirely subject to the whims of each generation: tradition should only be changed with “fear and trembling” (p. 248) and only defined by Jews—versus non-Jews—who are experienced in Jewish learning.

I have two reflections, one an observation and the other a concern. First, the observation: Sommer's conclusions seem to reflect broader trends in postmodern (or premodern?) thought. For example: “For Jewish theology, specific propositions…are less important than the process of discussing these propositions” (p. 218). Additionally, Sommer, following a Talmudic dictum, bestows “approval upon each side of a debate, however mutually exclusive the two sides are” (p. 221). Such remarks will be jarring for some readers but refreshing for others. Second, the concern: Sommer emphasizes that contemporary Jews must obey Torah, but only because all of Jewish history has affirmed obedience (p. 125). I wonder if Sommer does not hang Torah obedience on historical Darwinianism—that is, affirming what survived because it survived. Perhaps he could strengthen his position by isolating the salient properties of the Jewish tradition that allow its history to command authority.

However, moments of concern are minuscule within Sommer's admirable and masterful work. His mastery of the topic is evident, his ideas provocative: one cannot read Revelation and Authority without challenging his or her own assumptions about the subject matter. This book appeals to scholars across disciplines—religious and secular alike—alongside Jewish and Christian lay audiences wishing to critically engage revelatory theory. Sommer's work deserves deep attention, and I suspect this book will structure and motivate scholarly and ecumenical inquiry about revelation for some time to come.

Mark Francis Mariani, University of Notre Dame