Commentary – Why We Need It and the Price We Pay for Having It

If Moses interceded for any of the commandments, did he act as a secretary taking dictation or did he introduce a human dimension into the divinely revealed content? The traditional answer is that he served as a secretary, copying every word exactly as God spoke it. This suggests that revelation was an auditory phenomenon and thus implies an anthropomorphic interpretation of “God spoke.”

By Kenneth Seeskin
Department of Philosophy and Department of Religious Studies
Northwestern University
November 2020

            Before getting to commentary, let me start with the prior concept of revelation. Although one might think a literal reading of the Israelite experience at Sinai would show that revelation was a simple affair in which God articulated a body of well-formed commandments to the assembled audience, the text of Exodus 19:25 – 20:19 is full of ambiguity. The standard reading of the first part of the passage is:

Moses came down to the people and spoke to them. [Then] God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God . . .                                                                                    

This implies that God addressed the entire Israelite nation directly. But as the biblical scholar Benjamin Sommer has sown, the passage could also be read as:

Moses came down to the people and said to them: “God spoke all these words

Saying ‘I am the LORD your God …"

This implies that God’s revelation was mediated by Moses.

          The ambiguity is heightened at Exodus 20:15-16, which says that the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking but were afraid to hear the voice of God lest they die. If that is true, then once again, it seems as if the people did not hear God’s voice directly and had to rely on Moses’ intervention. The repetition of the giving of the commandments at Deuteronomy 5:2-5 creates the same problem because it says both that God spoke to the Israelites “face to face” and that Moses stood between God and the people because they were afraid.

          Rabbinic commentators tried to resolve the problem by saying that the people heard the first two commandments directly but needed Moses for the remaining eight. There is a textual basis for this interpretation because God speaks in the first person when revealing the first two commandments but in the third person when revealing the remaining eight. Moses Maimonides enlarged on this by saying that while the first two commandments deal with metaphysical truths – acceptance of the existence of God and rejection of idolatry – the remaining ones deal with correct and incorrect behavior.

          That leaves us with another question: If Moses interceded for any of the commandments, did he act as a secretary taking dictation or did he introduce a human dimension into the divinely revealed content? The traditional answer is that he served as a secretary, copying every word exactly as God spoke it. This suggests that revelation was an auditory phenomenon and thus implies an anthropomorphic interpretation of “God spoke.”

          Though Maimonides is often taken as defending the traditional view in his early work, there is no question that by the time he wrote his great masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed, he came to believe that revelation was a purely intellectual phenomenon. Therefore, “God spoke” should be interpreted as “Moses understood what God wanted.” But this reraises the same question: What, if anything, did Moses contribute?

          Moving from revelation in general to specific commandments, the picture is still not as straightforward as one might like. “Do not commit murder” raises the question of whether murder admits of degrees, how we distinguish murder from self-defense, and whether murder requires premeditation. “Do not commit adultery” raises similar questions about marriage. “Observe the Sabbath Day” raises the question of what constitutes work.

          With these questions in mind, let me put forth the following principle:

          (#1) No law can be completely explicit about its meaning or application.

As anyone sensitive to language knows, meaning varies with context. If Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us anything at all about language, it is that the meaning of a word typically depends on the social practices of the society in which it is used.

          For example, murder would mean something different to a warrior class than to a settled, urban culture. The Patriarchs understood marriage differently from how we understand it. Even if we had precise legal definitions of the terms in question – which we obviously do not – there is always the issue of whether to interpret them broadly or narrowly. Is an abused wife who kills her husband guilty of murder? Can a person who is in the grip of an irresistible impulse be guilty of murder? Does abortion constitute murder?

         Consider a secular example. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits Congress from abridging freedom of speech, but it does not tell us whether “speech” should be construed narrowly to include only verbal communication or broadly construed to include such things as dance, sculpture, music, or photography. Even if we could resurrect the people who drafted the amendment, there is no guarantee that they would have any clearer understanding of what is implied than we do. In 1971 (Cohen v. California), the Supreme Court decided that “speech” should be interpreted broadly as “expression,” thereby protecting dance, sculpture, music, and photography from Congressional interference. The decision was 5-4 and could easily have gone the other way.

         Not only can no law be completely explicit about its meaning or application, but in my view,  it’s a good thing that it cannot because the ambiguity of written texts allows later generations to exercise their own judgment on how the texts should be understood. In short, law, even divinely revealed law, requires deliberation and interpretation before it can be put into practice. In a word, it requires commentary.

          The need for commentary becomes clear not only by looking at an abstract principle but by returning to the biblical text. Deuteronomy 30:11 contains the famous claim that the Torah is not in heaven. The ancient Rabbis took this to mean that having revealed his will at Sinai, God gave us all the legislation we are ever going to get. There is, as it were, no unrevealed legislation left over. The upshot is that having received God’s revelation, we cannot beseech God for more information.

          If this is true, then humans, not God, are the arbiters of what the revelation means if there are questions about its interpretation. The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel went further: “The source of authority is not the word as given in the text but Israel’s understanding of the text.” In this way, we get what Summer calls a participatory theory of revelation, which means that humans enter a partnership with God in determining what should and should not be done.

          We should be under no illusion that “commentary” is itself a loose and ambiguous term. In the hands of the Rabbis, it could mean anything from expansion to near repudiation. As an example of the former, I offer the rules of Sabbath observance, where the Rabbis constructed a lengthy treatise based on only a few lines of biblical text and compared the treatise to a mountain hanging by a thread (Chagigah 10a). As examples of the latter, I offer capital punishment, the stoning of a rebellious son, and the complete elimination of the Amalekite people. Although the Rabbis did not formally repudiate the first two, they attached so many conditions that the commandments were all but impossible to fulfill. In a similar way, Maimonides argued that wiping out the Amalekites could no longer be done because we have no way to establish who their descendants are.

          Whether we expand the law or do our best to repudiate it, these are bold moves. The interesting thing is that they can be and, in fact, were allowed under the rubric of commentary. So commentary is a powerful tool with a broad scope. How broad is up to the commentators. Having said all this, I move to the next principle:

         (#2) No body of commentary can be completely explicit about its meaning or interpretation either.

The same arguments apply. Meaning is context dependent. Context depends on social practices. Social practices change over time, and new questions of application keep coming up. The result is that we get commentary on the original, commentary on the commentary, and commentary on the commentary on the commentary. In short, the need for commentary is never ending

          If, as I have argued, we need commentary to determine what the meaning of an original commandment is, then I do not see a principled way of separating content that is divine in origin from content that is human. If God delegated interpretation and application to humans, then it is all divine in the sense that it proceeds under the aegis of divine authority. If humans are the ones who figure out what the commandments commit us to, then in another sense, it is all human.

        The problem is that if layer after layer of commentary increases the degree of human involvement in revelation, we have to ask yet another question: What happens to the voice of God? Granted that we can read about God speaking to people in the sacred literature, but as we have seen, the sacred literature is ambiguous and in need of commentary. There is no reason why we have to interpret “God spoke” literally. So let us rephrase the question: How or when are we the recipients of a divine revelation? Or, to rephrase it yet again: Are we ever the direct recipients of a divine revelation?

        As far as the Bible is concerned, God never addresses the people directly after Exodus 19:25 – 20:19. From that point onward, everything is mediated by a prophet. But prophecy does not go on forever. The traditional Jewish position is that the age of prophecy came to an end with Malachi (500 – 450 BCE). Along these lines, 1 Maccabees (9:27) relates that at the time of the Second Temple, “There was great distress in Israel, such as had not been seen since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.” A famous rabbinic source maintains that since the destruction of the Second Temple, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given over to children and fools (Baba Batra 12b).

        Why did prophecy end? Rather than saying that God became angry with the people,  it would be better to say that over time the commentator came to replace the prophet, which means that the voice of God now comes to us – if it comes to us at all  – through the filter of human reflection and exposition. There is a good side to this. The God who mandated capital punishment, the stoning of a rebellious son, and the elimination of the Amalekite people is no longer a concern. The commentators have pushed this God so far to the margins that for all intents and purposes, he no longer matters.

         With some notable exceptions, the commentators did the same thing for the God who asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice or who told the Israelites to “show no mercy” when fighting wars of conquest. Simply put, the God who comes to us through the filter of human reflection and exposition has been sanitized.

          Let us be clear, though, that we pay a price for sanitization. In the words of Martin Buber, “Centralization and codification, undertaken in the interests of religion, are a danger to the core of religion …” It should come as no surprise that Buber criticized modern religion for its lack of vitality and spontaneity. As he saw it, the purpose of religion is to get beyond the commandments to the One who commands.

          From Buber’s perspective, then, revelation is not propositional in nature. As he put it, “Man receives and what he receives is not a ‘content’ but a presence, a presence as power.” Rather than God’s passing on propositions in the form of doctrines or commandments, revelation for Buber is the experience of being in the presence of God. The propositions are our reaction to or reflection on that experience – which brings us back to commentary.

         We can appreciate Buber’s point by recognizing that according to Principle #1, once we have propositions, the need for commentary arises immediately and sets off the endless chain of commentary, putting increased distance between God and us. The only way to alleviate commentary would be to follow Buber in eliminating propositional content from the start. The problem is that once we eliminate propositional content, we also eliminate any prospect of hearing God directly.

          What then? I have argued that commentary is unavoidable, and I intend to stick to that. The exact nature of what happened at Sinai is and will always be open to question.  If by some miracle we could reassemble at the mountain and hear God speak to us, there is no reason to think we would understand God’s words the same way our ancestors did because our understanding would be informed by the centuries of commentary that have accumulated since then.

          The real problem is that even for something as basic as the Ten Commandments, reading the Bible is not simple. I am not saying that one needs an advanced degree in biblical studies to understand the Bible. Rather, I’m saying that you cannot just pick up the Bible and read it the way you read the morning paper.

          To see this, let us return to the Bible itself. At Deuteronomy 4:5-6, Moses says that God’s revelation constitutes a body of wisdom. It is significant that this claim is addressed to the assembled multitude rather than just the priests or the elders because it suggests that the wisdom being disseminated is available to all. Later at Deuteronomy 29: 9-11, Moses says that everyone, from the tribal leaders to the elders, to the men, women, and children, even the foreigners who cut your wood and draw your water, are present to accept God’s covenant.

          This does not mean that the wisdom being imparted can be grasped in one or two sittings. Like any kind of wisdom, it requires study, patience, multiple readings, an open mind, and a good deal of native curiosity. But there is nothing arcane or esoteric – at least as far as proper behavior is concerned. There is no better way to make this point than to cite the story of the stranger who asked Hillel to teach him the Torah on one foot. Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go learn the commentary.”






Article Comments

Submitted by Martin Hughes on Thu, 11/05/2020 - 13:56


The purpose of a commentary is to establish the meaning of a text in itself, not to claim the text for an idea that the commentator favours. That destroys the idea of commentary as an objective study. If texts have no meaning simply in themselves there is no meaning anywhere. If you are conscious of having sanitised a text you are not even pretending that the meaning of the text lies in the sanitised version but in the pre-sanitised version which you have chosen to reject so that the sanitising process can rake place.

Submitted by Kenneth Greifer on Sun, 11/08/2020 - 11:05


I like commentaries that tell you factual information like where places were, historical information, and that explain details about Hebrew words that you wouldn't know unless you were an expert. I also like when they point out other Hebrew Bible quotes that are related in some way. I could not understand the Hebrew Bible without commentaries. I never analyzed them before, but I think you can't understand the Bible without reading a good commentary.

I don't like religious commentaries usually because they explain everything to fit their religious beliefs, even if quotes are taken out of context and the explanations are very far-fetched.

I am sure that non-religious scholarly commentaries are full of mistakes because no one really understands the Hebrew Bible fully because so many translations are just guesses. They guess what difficult quotes say and what they mean too. I like it when they point out quotes that that they don't really understand and they explain why.

Submitted by Dr Michael CALVO on Mon, 11/09/2020 - 09:10


Recently I had to read translations in English to the Gospel and the Bible. Surprise! Surprises! I went to the French translations...I also went to see the translations of the ten commandments in English and French and the translations in the Jewish and Christians Bibles. In French we say: Traduction = Trahison. My conclusion is that we will never know for sure what is the meaning of everything we read when we read a translation. I wish that one day we will discover the ark of the covenant and read the 5 books of Moses and the two tables that are therein. This will force all the christian religions to follow the orders of the ten commandments and to see if the 5 books of Moses are in conformity to the Koran, since the Muslims say that Ezra falsified the Koran (the 5 books of Moses).
Dr Micheal CALVO - Attorney at Law - Jerusalem Israel

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