PSCO Presentation: 18 Febuary, 2010

“Torah-Scroll and God: Metonymy and Ambivalence”

David Stern (University of Pennsylvania)


The standard view on the attitude of Rabbinic Judaism towards prophecy and revelation is that the rabbis rejected supernatural sources of authority, at least in cases of halakhic decision-making, in favor of collective consensus (“following the majority’) of human reason (sevara). While this view is more or less correct, there are several wrinkles in it that I hope to explore in my talk. In some recent scholarship, a more aggressive case has been made that Rabbinic Judaism did not complete exclude the possibility of visionary experience of God and that the possibility of re-experiencing revelation through study of Torah was a large motivation behind that activity. I hope to assess these views as well, primarily by evaluating them against the sources they use as evidence.

The real question I hope to explore in my talk is less the substantive attitude of the rabbis towards revelation and prophecy than why it is that they were not more interested in prophecy and revelation. While I cannot offer a definitive answer to this question, I will attempt to approach it by tracking the evolving attitudes of the rabbis towards Torah as a material artifact, namely, as a Torah scroll, and to show how their attitudes towards the Torah-scroll represent it as both a metonymic substitution for God and as a means of screening themselves from actually seeing him.


David Stern is the Ruth Meltzer Professor of Classical Hebrew in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, and former Director of the Jewish Studies Program. His field of specialization is classical Jewish literature and religion. He has written widely on midrash (the Biblical commentaries of the Rabbis), and is the author of several books including Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature (Harvard University Press); Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (Yale University Press), and Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literary Studies (Northwestern University Press). His essays and reviews on modern Jewish literature and culture have appeared in The New Republic, Commentary, The New York Times Book Review and Tikkun. He is also an editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. He is currently working on a book entitled Through the Pages of the Past: Four Jewish Classics and the Jewish Experience, which traces the history of the physical forms of the Talmud, the Rabbinic Bible, the Prayerbook, and the Passover Haggadah, and the ways in which those forms have shaped the meaning and significance of these classic Jewish books.

Meeting and Dining

This meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 18 February, 7:00–9:00 pm in the second floor Lounge of Logan Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. All are welcome!

Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Cohen Hall Second-Floor Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Select Bibliography

E.E. Urbach, “Halakhah and Prophecy” (Hebrew), in idem, The World of the Sages: Collected Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 21-49.

Idem, “When Did Prophecy Cease?” (Hebrew), in The World of the Sages, 9-20

Idem, “Prophet and Sage in the Jewish Heritate,” in E.E. Urbach, Collected Writings in Jewish Studies, ed. Robert Broday and Moshe D. Herr (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1999), 393-403.

Daniel Boyarin, “The Eye in the Torah: Ocular Desire in Midrashic Hermeneutic,” in Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 532-50

Elliot Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 33-51.

Martin Goodman, “Sacred Scripture and ‘Defiling the Hands’,” in idem, Judaism in the Roman World: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 69-90.

Karel Van Der Toorn, “The Iconic Book: Analogies Between the Babylonian Cult of Images and the Veneration of the Torah,” in The Image and the Book, ed. Karel Van Der Toorn (Leuven, Peeters, 1997), 229-48.

Langer, Ruth, “From Study of Scripture to a Reenactment of Sinai: The Emergence of the Synagogue Torah Service,” Worship 72 (1998): 43-67.

Idem, “Early Stages in the Development of the Torah-Ceremony in the Synagogue in the Middle Ages,” in Kenishta, ed. J. Tabory (Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2003), 99-118.

Idem, “Sinai, Zion, and God in the Synagogue: Celebrating Torah in Ashkenaz,” in R. Langer and S. Fine, Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue (Winona Lake, In., Eisenbrauns, 2005), 121-159.0