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I'm an outsider to Judaism trying to understand the nature of revelation, in particular the revelation that is Torah. So far I've learned that God spoke to Moses (puh) - in the literal sense - and dictated the Torah. However, that still doesn't clear a few things. My questions are embedded in the following text (please bear with the lengthy explanation).

Interpretation is the most important element of communication. In essence, every form of communication (involving humans) is transfer of "interpretation" - idea, understanding, implied meaning - from source to target. In the case of revelation at Mount Sinai it is the Divine Idea that God wanted his chosen Prophet and people to have. A perfect communication is where the intended understanding is perfectly achieved.

The integrity of the channel or transmission of Divine Idea is not a question since God spoke Himself eliminating all possible interference, however, what I couldn't find an explicit explanation of was: Did Moses (puh) interpret the Word of God using his human faculties? How was the interpretation of the Word of God safeguarded from human fallibility? Is it that revelation of the highest level necessarily comprises - to put it bluntly - God planting the implied/correct meaning in the recipient's mind as well? Is it that a Prophetic interpretation, even though humanly, is in line with divine intention, i.e. it is the infallibility of the Prophet rather than the message?

In the light of the above, there is also confusion regarding the nature of "divine inspiration," as that seems just another word for genesis of an idea in human mind through divine will - an interpretation sans word?

  • I don't understand your last paragraph. Also, it ends with a question mark but doesn't seem to be a question. And if it is meant as a question then perhaps it should be a separate one (I mean, posted separately)? – msh210 Oct 11 '15 at 1:02
  • I wasn't sure whether the last para should be a separate question, as I felt I'd have to copy a good chunk of this question there anyway. – Shoaib Oct 12 '15 at 11:52
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In order to keep my answer short enough for this forum, and to avoid confusion, I am not going to go into major detail or quote sources. Besides, the question is so vast and open, that it would require a long list. I will just say that I am passing on what I have learned in my rabbinical training (Orthodox).

The OP asks: "Did Moses (puh) interpret the Word of God using his human faculties?"

Yes, sometimes he did. However, for the most part, he didn't. Some interpretations needed less or more reliance on his own human faculties. This depended on what G-d wanted from him. It seems to also depend on the gravity and leeway of that part of the Divine message in question.

For instance, the verse (see ten commandments) "I am the Lord your G-d etc." was not subject to much (or any) human interpretation. Most laws were pretty much black and white. However, some laws required human intellect to arrive at in detail. (this is part of what is called "Oral Torah" and it has intellectual rules like "Kal v'Chomer", or deriving a ruling in a stricter law because that ruling already exists in a lighter law etc.) In those cases, G-d wanted the human mind to be part of finding the true law in a situation.

The OP asks: "How was the interpretation of the Word of God safeguarded from human fallibility?"

The short answer is that it wasn't fully safeguarded from human error, and that's OK anyway.

A brief reading of Vayikra (Leviticus) 4, will show us that G-d decided to include among the temple offerings, a sacrifice in case the majority of the nation of Israel mis-interpreted the law and accidentally commited sin because of it. Such a sacrifice also applies if the High Priest of Israel mistakenly commits a sin based on his own misjudgment as well.

G-d never guaranteed anyone that He would always spoon-feed perfection in Divine guidance. He actually wants our input so we can earn a reward for being part of the Divine process.

However, it is also obvious that G-d would help us recognize mistakes in any Divine transmission, eventually, if we as humans really botched it up and forgot or mistakenly misinterpreted the law. The proof to this is Levit. 4 itself. How did G-d expect a nation that erred to offer a bull sacrifice for that error, if we would never realize our mistake in the first place?!

However, G-d does require that we set up natural safeguards, so He doesn't need to perform miracles to remind/fix our mistakes all the time.

1) Jewish scribes have detailed laws about writing scrolls of the Torah. The new copies must be checked, rechecked, and examined by multiple people against already existing scrolls to be considered valid.

2) Devarim (Deutoronomy) 17 contains the rules for disputes to be brought to the supreme court. This is so that arguments will be settled by vast majority opinion. Also, misinterpretation will not multiply and fragment within Israel. G-d will exercise His gift of heavy Divine guidance, if a matter is so important as to be brought to this ultimate forum.

3) Similarly, see the system established in Sh'mos (Exodus) 18. A massive system of men elected for their skill and honesty etc., was to form a pyramid of interpretation and guidance, and resulted in consulting Moses (and His Divinely inspired level) as a last failsafe.

The OP further asks: "...God planting the implied/correct meaning in the recipient's mind as well?"

Answer: Of course this is sometimes the case. It depends if G-d feels that such a thorough message is needed.

The OP further asks: "Is it that a Prophetic interpretation, even though humanly, is in line with divine intention, i.e. it is the infallibility of the Prophet rather than the message?"

Answer: Yes. Sometimes this is the case too. It depends on how much G-d wants the involvement of the person's/prophet's own efforts.

The OP ends by mentioning: "...there is also confusion regarding the nature of "divine inspiration,..."

Answer: As was just explained above, there are many levels of Divine inspiration. Some people pray and have a "feeling" about what would be truly right in G-d's eyes to do next. Some famous prophets were shown a clear vision with words and meanings. It all depends on G-d's judgment as to what is needed.

In conclusion:

G-d gave a Law/Torah (Divine Message), in a clear manner to Moses and Israel. In the process, He wanted the human mind to be involved with some of the levels of interpreting and transmitting torah. This does not make the conclusions any less valid.

Israel was to naturally safeguard the transmission of this truth for all generations using strict safeguards.

In case these safeguards failed on occasion, G-d would make sure the people got the correction. Therefore, we can always rely that the Torah's message and interpretation is valid and correct in our hands today.

  • This looks like a good answer, but I'll leave the question open for a few more days. Any pointers to further in-depth material on the topic? – Shoaib Oct 12 '15 at 12:07
  • TY for the compliment. My suggestion is that you pick a verse or law or history etc., that you feel may be problematic to you, and investigate from there. Specific case studies lead to establishing parameters. – David Kenner Oct 12 '15 at 16:54
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I don't think anyone can give you a definitive answer to this question. The question in itself assumes God exists, revelation happened, etc.

What is the exact nature of this revelation? Was any interpretation involved on Moses part? This heavily depends on who you ask.

One approach is to say God communicated the words of the Torah directly to Moses word for word and that Moses fully understand what God revealed to him due to his perfection. You'll find people thinking along these lines in Orthodox circles.

Another approach is to say there is a human element in Divine revelation. Revelation itself wasn't necessarily given to Moses word for word. Instead Moses received some sort of non verbal communication from God and it was up to him to interpret that message and write it down in the words of the Bible. According to this approach, one might also say that Moses made mistakes in receiving this Divine communication and may have misinterpreted in some places. Approaches like this you'll hear from Conservative scholars such as Benjamin Sommer.

If you'd like a list of different ways of understanding revelation, have a look at this article: http://thetorah.com/current-approaches/

  • What could be the nature of "mistake in receiving?" Communication is the transfer of "words," "words & meaning," or only "meaning." I can only think of the first case to have a potential to be misunderstood. What is the conservative position on the latter two modes of communication? – Shoaib Oct 12 '15 at 12:18
  • I'm not expert on this position. Perhaps my words were slightly inaccurate. Moses received what he did in non verbal form. No mistakes there. Mistakes start to occur when man misinterprets that communication – Eliezer Steinbock Oct 12 '15 at 12:33

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