[Sermon] Was the Torah really given to Moses at Sinai?

Rabbi Yuval Keren
Yom Kippur 2018/5779

On Yom Kippur most of us spend a great deal of time at synagogue, and we have the opportunity to reflect on our Jewish identity, and our practice of Judaism. This morning we have read one of the most moving narratives in the Torah. The people of Israel, Nitzavim, (standing) before Moses as he reminds them of the covenant they made with God at Sinai. The eternal covenant between God and Israel is formulated in the Holy Torah that Moses brought with him when he returned from Sinai.

But was the Torah really given to Moses at Sinai? When we consider the answers to this question we find that the Jewish world is roughly split into two camps.

The first camp, the traditional one, claims that the Torah was created by God, possibly even before the world was created. According to a Midrash, God tried to create many worlds before our world. However, every time a world was established it fell into disarray. The forces of nature were not in balance and no life could be sustained on it. God then realised that He must produce a plan for creating and sustaining life in the world. God then created the Torah and used it as a blueprint for the rest of creation.

According to this story the Torah predated our world. It was handed over to Moses at Mount Sinai and it is for us to follow today. The Torah is therefore to be considered ‘דברי אלהים חיים’ the words of the Living God. Every word of the Torah has its significance, so has every letter, and every decorative crown above a letter. It is therefore not possible to disagree with or even ignore any part of the text. The Torah is the ultimate and unconditional truth so we therefore ought to follow it word by word. We need nothing else but to study Torah in order to understand the world around us. This is reflected well in the words of a Tannaitic Rabbi (with a very distinctive name) – Ben Bag Bag.

הֲפָךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפָךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ.
“Turn it, and turn it again you will find everything in it
וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בַהּ,
”And look in it, and become grey and old while exploring it
וּמִנַּהּ לָא תְזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה
And do not move from it, for there is no better standard than it”

There is no need for science and maths text books any more. Healers can utter a few prayers and cure the sick. Soldiers can circle a city seven times and breach her walls, and donkeys can open their mouths and engage in fluent conversation with their owners.

The second camp, the more critical one, dismisses the idea that the Torah was handed over at Sinai and even the idea that it was written by God. Using critical analysis we can examine the holy words of the Torah, compare them to other ancient writings from a similar period and a similar region, examine archaeological findings and study the history of other nations in the same period. We then discover that there are indications that there has been more than one author of the Torah. There may have been four authors – and maybe even more. Each of which was no doubt divinely inspired but they each belonged to a certain society, lived in a certain period, had a family, a political and a national agenda. He had ambitions, wishes and desires. He was human – very much so.

Does this view that the Torah was written by people make the text less divine? It certainly seems to shatter the idea that every word of it must be considered as absolute and unconditional truth. However, it does not and need not dismiss the text as an irrelevant work of fiction.

Even though they are written by people (like you and me), the words are divinely inspired. We are created in the image of God and therefore God can speak through our thoughts, writings and actions. Moreover, we can continue to enjoy the absolute truth, embedded in a sacred text – if we can get to the core of this truth. To get there we must be able to skilfully peel-off any unwanted external layers, be they historical, political or fictional. Moreover, we must be able to let the text inspire us so that we can produce our own understanding of it and make it relevant to our world, our time and our society.

We must be critical of the text, in the same way that previous generations were critical of it. They elaborated on it, added their own thoughts and interpretations to it and they certainly did not always agree with it, although their critique of it was quite subtle. Let me try and give you a small example. In the book of Exodus we find the following commandment2:

לֹא־תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי־רַבִּים לְרָעֹת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶה עַל־רִב לִנְטֹת אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּת׃
You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong—you shall not give false testimony in a dispute so as to distort it in favour of the (powerful) majority

The plain meaning of this verse is that we should not follow the majority view – if it is leading us astray. What did the Rabbis make of this commandment? They deduced that in every dispute between sages, the opinion of the majority must be accepted! This law is reflected beautifully in the following Talmudic story.

Rabbi Eliezer was the most a distinguished, knowledgeable and respectable sage in his generation. Once, Rabbi Eliezer had a dispute with the rest of the Rabbis about the meaning of a particular Jewish law.

Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the rabbis refused to accept them. He said to them: ‘If the law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ The carob-tree was immediately uprooted from its place and was flung away a long distance. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they replied – thus rejecting his argument. Again he said to them: ‘If the law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ The stream started flowing upwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they replied. Again he urged: ‘If the law agrees with me, let the walls prove it.’ The walls leaned and nearly fell but the Rabbis rejected Eliezer’s argument. Again Rabbi Eliezer said to them: ‘If the law agrees with me, let Heaven prove it!’ Suddenly, all the Rabbis gathered could hear a Heavenly Voice: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, because in all matters, the law always agrees with him!’

But one of the sages rose up and quoted to God from this morning’s Torah portion: (לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא)‘It is not in heaven.’ In the Torah, which has been given to Moses at Mt Sinai it is written: (אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּת) meaning: the rule must be determined by the majority. Thus the Rabbis rejected Rabbi Eliezer’s argument, backed by no other than God.

God, listening to this argument, and accepting their verdict, He said:

    ‘My children have defeated Me,
    My children have defeated Me.’

This beautiful Midrash brings me to think about the idea of Yom Kippur, and the meaning of it for us today. As progressive Jews, we cannot merely accept ideas and notions simply as they are expressed in the Torah or in the liturgy. We cannot accept the idea that judgement only occurs between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It seems to me that judgement happens all year round. Judgement is intrinsic to the world we live in. So why do we observe Yom Kippur? It is because we need a day once a year to take some time-out and reflect on our actions. If judgement occurs all year round, our awareness of it is limited to the time we allocate for it.

This is also relevant to any religious decisions we might make as Jews. They must be based on our Jewish history and tradition, yet, they must also be based on our newly acquired knowledge, science and reason.

We live in a world where women are empowered, and where there is greater degree of freedom and equality. We therefore cannot regard women as having second class status, not even in religion. We can no longer accept the traditional Jewish caste system, of Cohen, Levi and Israel. We can no longer accept a situation where a woman cannot remarry unless her husband releases her, and we reject the terrible category of a Mamzer.

We live in a world of pluralism where there is more than one way of expressing one’s Judaism, rather than the one practice fits all system of the Middle Ages.

  • There are secular Jews, and there are religious Jews;
  • There are traditional Jews and there are cultural Jews
  • There are those who hold family values at a high place, and those who prefer individuality;
  • There are Jews who prefer study and Jews who are more connected to prayer;
  • There are Jews by birth, and Jews by choice;
  • There are those who speak Yiddish, those who speak Hebrew, and those who can do it all in English;
  • And the list is still long…

In such a world we cannot accept the claim of those who argue that the one and only definition of ‘Who is a Jew’ was designed by God over 5,779 years ago, given to Moses at Sinai some 3,500 years ago and that therefore it is unmoveable and unchangeable.

We must also reject the claim that the only form of practicing Judaism was the one given to Moses at Sinai. We must sometimes remind ourselves and the rest of the world – lo bashamayim hi. Once the Torah was given to us, it is no longer in Heaven! Rather, our reading and interpretation of it is here and now, by us, and today.

This interpretation must be performed leshem shamayim – for the sake of Heaven. It must be founded on tradition, and with utmost respect of that tradition. Yet, it must also be based on the understanding of the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people of our time.

We are tasked with the preservation of our rich Jewish tradition. Yet, it is only by marrying this tradition with the changing needs of our time that we can continue this unbroken chain. Our tradition is ‘not in heaven’ that we might say, we cannot touch it or change it. It must remain in our mouths, and in our hearts, so that we can apply it to our time.

Only by accepting that the Torah is not in heaven will we be able to receive divine inspiration through its words. Understanding the human design behind this sacred text will help us understand our own human imperfections and our own need for tradition – and indeed for change.

Chatimah tovah

1 Mis. Avot 5:22
2 Exodus 23:2

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