Torah is from Heaven, Don’t Confuse Mechanics with Philosophy
On a literal level, academia and traditional belief in Torah MiSinai cannot be reconciled. If “Torah mi-Sinai” means that each and every word and letter of the entire Torah was verbally dictated to Moses and that he wrote down the exact version of the Torah we have today, there is no way to reconcile that dogma with a composite edited document comprised of multiple sources, written, revised, and edited over the course of hundreds of years. But the brittle concretization of metaphor into literal fact constricts fertile images into mere description.
Held in the straight-jacket of Protestant-inspired literal reading scripture—true or false, historically accurate—and then honed by scientific descriptions as either accurate or distortion, zealous defenders of the Jewish faith miss the delicious ways that pre-modern Jewish lovers of Torah exulted in the many meanings that the text could birth.
The Talmud (b. Menachot 29b) tells the story of Moses not fathoming the meaning of a verse that a later sage, Rabbi Akiva, is able to deduce from the text, while the good rabbi attributes his reading to Moses himself: הלכה למשה מסיני “it is a teaching of Moses from Sinai”—but this is a teaching that Moses had never heard and didn’t understand. Turns out that “the” tradition is more malleable and variegated than many of its modern-day defenders appreciate.
On a deeper level, academia and traditional belief in Torah MiSinai are certainly reconcilable. “Torah from Heaven” doesn’t reduce to literally “a book that came down as is from heaven.” It means teaching whose roots are found in that mythic encounter, in a public perception of the divine that distilled through the people Israel into words, ours and God’s.
When we abandon the overly literal approach to the dogma of Torah from Sinai, the Torah’s voice can be heard מסוף העולם ועד סופו “from one end of the world to the other,” echoing across the ages. The phrase blossoms into the insight that wisdom, feeling, and doing contribute to human thriving and relate us to the cosmos and the world around us, and offer opportunities for gratitude and service. Heavenly Torah is the cosmos distilled into words. Its truth is found in its insight, its capacity to elevate and engage.
Don’t confuse mechanics (how does God transmit content) with philosophy (can we discern cosmic wisdom and love)? It is my faith that God does give us Torah from within us and among us. We are the vessels that discern the divine concern and we are the inkwells that turn that loving concern into words. They are ours, and they are God’s. Torah from Sinai is, as the Talmud notes, any cherished innovation enunciated by any sage whenever it is ready to be revealed.
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January 18, 2022
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Dr. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He is also Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. He is a frequent contributor for the Forward, Times of Israel, a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and is the author of numerous books, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (2015). www.bradartson.com.
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