“Torah Is from Heaven!” What Do We Really Mean?
Did Mike Pence Lie about his Children?
During his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, then governor Mike Pence declared that his children were “the three greatest kids in the world.” All three! That’s quite a lucky hand. Hard to believe though. Was he lying? Was he delusional? Why did the media not begin to fact check whether this was indeed the case?
Moreover, how is such a claim to be evaluated? What are the criteria for “greatest kids”? Is it greatest in how they treat their parents? Overall talent? Are looks a factor? Also, how do we test the rest of the kids in the world? Is a statistical sampling sufficient? What about kids in non-Western countries that are difficult to access? Finally, why wasn’t the audience insulted on behalf of their own kids?
The reader at this point has certainly lost patience with me. “He didn’t mean it literally!” someone will tell me, “it is just a way of expressing love.” “You’d have to be obtuse not to realize that,” another will say. I agree, of course; this was as obvious to me as it was to everyone else. It is so obvious, in fact, that not even the most left-wing anti-Pence TV personality felt it worthwhile to call him out on it. We all recognize that this kind of statement is not meant as an objective claim; it is not even quantifiable. Instead, such statements are meant to express a parent’s feeling of love for his or her children.
Pence was not pitting his children’s greatness against that of audience members’ children but expressing to the listeners in a kind of understood code that he is “a family man.” This is why he was met with applause and not boos. The audience was filled with people who ostensibly share Pence’s valuation of their own families, and listeners understood his statement as a declaration that he is “one of them,” i.e., a good man who loves his kids.
A Statement of Fact or Loyalty? The Importance of Context
To apply the above to Jewish theology: What do we mean when we say that the Torah is “divine” or “the word of God” and similar locutions?
Two opposite interpretations highlight two very different approaches to faith and religiosity: Are we making a factual observation, subject to various forms of argumentation, that the Torah was, indeed, written by God? Or, are we making a statement about our feelings about the Torah, about its significance to us, our relationship and fidelity to it and the people it represents?
If it is the former, it seems only fair that we subject the claim to critical scrutiny, which it cannot withstand.
Adjusting to Modern Notions
Ancient notions of science were not limited to claims based on empirical testing and quantitative analysis. Often they relied primarily on theoretical musings and impressionistic models, such as Empedocles’ theory that the world is made up of four elements or Hippocrates’ medical theory of humorism, that four vital bodily fluids regulate the human body.
The ancients had little if any knowledge about how the universe worked, how old the earth was, how life came to be, etc. Moreover, their world was infused with powers that are more akin to what we would call magic than what we would call science. History was a mix between factual knowledge, traditions, and myths.
In such a world, it was reasonable to tell a story about the Creator flooding the earth to punish humanity or splitting a sea to save a chosen people without worrying about fact-checking. Neither would it have felt “ahistorical” to speak about how various nations each descended from a man whose name was adopted as an ethnonym: Israelites are descended from a man named Israel; Moabites from a man named Moab, etc.
Although it is unclear that ancient story tellers meant this as a literal explanation, it is likely that the fine distinction between historical and mythic was unimportant to them, and that people could have believed this and not believed this at the same time. This is because such stories did not stand in stark contradiction to sounder ways of understanding the nature of the world and its history.
Modern notions of science and history cannot accommodate any of this, however: Women were not created from the rib of a man, snakes did not lose their legs because of sin, the terrestrial world was not drowned in a flood four thousand years ago, and at no time in history did humans live for 900 years. The same is true for the Torah’s description of history. The world never was made up of 70 nations, each the descendant of one of Noah’s sons. Israelites are not all descendants of a man named Israel any more than Americans all descend from a man named America or British from a man named Britain.
In short, dispassionate analysis of the Torah shows that its historiography is mythic in nature and its scientific assumptions are outdated; and this is just about accuracy. The Torah has other problems as well. Its stories and legal collections contain contradictions, and its laws, although often inspiring, are sometimes cruel and morally problematic.
Of course, books and essays have been written to “answer” these problems, but even the best of these defenses must make use of special pleading. Ironically, the very fact that this special pleading is so ubiquitous and vehemently argued demonstrates that it is a declaration of loyalty, which is often impervious to critical scrutiny.
Belief in Torah from Heaven as a Statement about Us
Regardless of what it originally meant, in modern times, the proposition “Torah is from heaven” should be understood as an experiential claim, a description of the speaker’s feeling about the Torah and relationship to it. To put this another way: When discussing the question of Torah from Heaven and mitzvah observance, we need to decide, which is the cart, and which is the horse?
Is it that we happen to believe that God literally dictated the Torah to Moses and taught him the mitzvot and for this reason we are attached to them, or are we primarily attached to Torah and mitzvot and as a result feel that they are divine or from God?
To return to the introduction, do parents just happen to feel that their children are the best and for this reason, they love them and cherish them, or is it that they love and cherish their children and as a result feel that they are the best? Obviously, we can all agree that it is the latter. So too, I would argue, when it comes to the Torah and mitzvah observance, for many of us, this is the case as well. This model of religious attachment can be termed “relationship religiosity.”
Does This Make Sense?
Some may push back against the notion that it is possible to be observant and attached to Torah without believing in a factual Torah from Heaven. Some may claim: “Look, at least the fundamentalist position makes sense: They believe that God literally commanded them to keep these laws, so they do.” But how does self-delusion make sense? Does the position of the flat earth society “make sense” because they believe it?
Humans have many coping mechanisms when dealing with a reality that conflicts with their viewpoints. One such coping mechanism is denial; you simply assert your position or find a way to “make it work” despite the odds. I understand this reaction and even engage in it myself at times; it is very human, but it certainly does not “make sense.”
Whether a person believes that God literally dictated these laws or not doesn’t change whether God did so or not, nor does it change the way the evidence stacks up. The only difference is the nature of the reaction to contradictory evidence.
In my view, the best way forward for those of us who feel that mitzvah observance is part of who we are, but who are unwilling or unable to make objective claims that are anything but, is to put the horse before the cart. It is not some inexplicable belief in revelation that brings us to keep mitzvot, but rather it is the connection to mitzvot that makes us experience the Torah as coming from God. It is our way of bringing the divine into our lives and of finding our place as Jews in a large world.
The Commandedness Problem
The relationship religiosity model for Orthodox Judaism raises the problem of commandedness. Belief in Torah from Heaven generally brings with it the feeling of mitzvah obligation.(The word mitzvah means “command” not “good deed.”) God commands the Jews to keep the Torah and thus we do it because we must. In fact, R. Chanina, a third generation amora from the land of Israel, lauds Jews with a feeling of obligation, stating that “a person who observes out of obligation is greater than one who observes without obligation.”
Can Torah observant Jews who understand the story of God’s revelation at Sinai as a mythic construct, and the claim of Torah from heaven as metaphorical really experience this commandedness? I would argue that many of us do experience this commandedness from an emic (inside) if not from an etic (outside) perspective.
Etic – Free Choice
From an etic perspective, as Peter Berger argues in his The Heretical Imperative, all religious behavior in non-theocratic countries is a choice. This is not only true for people with a modern perspective, who think this way explicitly, but it is true of fundamentalists as well. In the backs of their minds, most religious people in the western world know they can walk away from observance if they so desired, and thus experience choice on some level. No police officers are looking to arrest wayward religious people, nor are courts waiting to convict them.
Chareidi Jews, for instance, who believe with all their heart that the revelation is literally true, and that they will go to hell if they do not keep the mitzvot, can still decide not to keep anything at any point, whether because of sudden lack of faith or even a rebellious tendency. No one can actually stop them.
Certainly, they would pay a steep social price, and likely a steep familial price, for such an act, but so would a Senate Republican who suddenly decides to become a Democrat or a liberal Supreme Court justice who decides to overturn Roe v. Wade. Some choices are hard, even excruciating, but they remain choices.
Emic: Personal Obligation
How we experience this choice internally is something entirely different. Objectively speaking, there may be nothing stopping us from sinning, but subjectively, it can feel as if there is. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, for instance, who believe with all their heart that the Torah as practiced today is the literal word of God, do not experience mitzvah observance as a choice. Accordingly, I would argue that even observant Jews who do not believe in the literal truth of Torah from heaven, but are living or embracing it in our lifestyle and religious discourse, can experience a genuine feeling of commandedness, an obligation to keep mitzvot.
People do not experience their lives based on abstract knowledge. On a concrete level, scientifically speaking, we know that we are on a giant ball spinning rapidly and careening through space, nevertheless, we experience being on stationary ground. Similarly, we know that our bodies are mostly empty space, but we experience ourselves as solid; we know that we are collections of atoms and molecules, but we experience being an integrated whole with a purpose. On a more abstract level, we know that our children are like any other people in this world, but we experience them as unique and special. In all these cases, the experience feels like reality, even if we know in our minds that it is not.
In a similar way, I know that “commandedness” in a strict sense is a mythic and social construct and that God never literally said to do these things. Nevertheless, I experience mitzvah observance as an obligation to God and the Jewish people. Whether this is because I was raised this way, or because something about the religion connects to my being, or some combination of these factors, keeping mitzvot and living a Jewish life feels like a fulfillment of divine command and not like a lifestyle choice, despite my abstract knowledge that it is almost certainly the latter.
Many of us who feel part of the mitzvah observant world do not experience daily “choices” such as “should I eat treif today?” or “should I put on tefillin this morning?” It could be that challenges come up here and there that bring such questions to the fore, but in general, these behaviors feel like obligations and not options.
To put it another way, the experience of commandedness is part of our identity as religious Jews. Identity is not a simple choice; it is a combination of upbringing, inclination, and life experience over time. It becomes an essential factor in how we parse the world.
Is Treif Food Really Food?
Once, on a family road trip from Atlanta to Miami to visit my parents, we stopped somewhere to fill up with gas and snacks, and the gas station store had almost nothing. I remember commenting to my wife with frustration, “there is nothing to eat anywhere around here!” Then I stopped for a second and laughed.
There were six restaurants in the strip behind the gas station which I could see perfectly well, even while I was complaining about the lack of any food in the area. But the restaurants weren’t kosher, so even though I “saw” them, they didn’t register as restaurants. For all intents and purposes, they simply weren’t there. In other words, I knew with my mind that they were there, but I did not experience them as there. Nor did I experience my ignoring them as a choice.
In reality, of course, it was a choice. Nothing was physically stopping me from going inside and having lunch. Nevertheless, I did not go through a conscious process of saying to myself, “I could go in there and eat but I choose not to”; it simply didn’t occur to me as an option and I stuck with pretzels and coffee.
Commandedness without Literal Commands in Classic Observance
The attitude I am describing in which mythic constructs feel like reality is much more common and familiar than most might think. Consider the fact that for most of us, even mitzvot that are rabbinic commands, like not eating chicken and cheese together, or even just minhagim (customs) such as wearing a kippah or lighting Shabbat candles – are experienced as literally commanded. This despite the fact that at least those with a yeshiva education know full well that these latter practices are not in the Torah or defined in the Talmud as Torah law (דאורייתא).
The Blessing of Tzivanu
This can be highlighted by noting how we even say the blessing, “who sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us to…” (אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו) over matters that are explicitly rabbinic commands, such as reciting Hallel on festivals, lighting Chanukah candles, or reading the Megillah. We even recite it on practices that are purely customs, such as lighting Shabbat candles, reciting Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (just Ashkenazim), or reading the other Megillot (Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations) from a parchment scroll (the Vilna Gaon’s custom).
Admittedly, the rabbis defend our referring to rabbinic commands as divine commands by arguing that all rabbinic commandments are essentially commanded by the Torah in the verse “do not veer” (לא תסור; Deut 17:11 as interpreted in b.Shabbat 23a). The rabbis interpret this verse as a command to listen to what the rabbis say (the circularity of this reading should be apparent), yet this is a post hoc abstraction. The real reason this practice began, I believe, is because people experienced these acts as mitzvot.
In short, we experience direct commandedness, and express this in the words of a blessing, even when we know these actions are not divine commands in the strict sense of the word.
But Why Keep Mitzvot?
Even if one accepts that a relationship religiosity is cogent, and that one can experience commandedness as part of one’s participation in the mythic construct of Torah from heaven, why would someone choose to be traditionally religious?
First, as already noted, some of us don’t experience this as a simple choice. I feel Orthodox and live accordingly. To stop, I would need to actively do battle with it, to “divorce” it, as it were. It would require rethinking who I am and where I fit in this world. If doing so were somehow valuable or important, maybe I would, but I do not believe it is. In fact, I feel just the opposite, which leads to my second point.
Many of us consider the continuity of Judaism, Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people to be important. This is, admittedly, circular, since the feeling derives mainly from our being a part of it, but this does not make it feel less important.
That said, no compelling moral argument can be marshalled for why someone should be Orthodox as opposed to a “Yom Kippur” Jew, for why eating kosher everywhere is better than just keeping a kosher home, or not keeping kosher at all. None of these choices has any objective claim on morality, and each reflects the emotional or cognitive stance of the practitioner and his or her worldview.
Identity in Lieu of Certainty
The position that I have developed briefly above is not what many people want to hear when they ask why they should observe mitzvot, as this explanation seems to lack any “shouldness.” The philosophy only works for people who already feel an attachment or at least an attraction to mitzvah observance. But for those who do not feel it, it offers little. Admittedly, this is true, and it is more ethical to say this straight out, since trying to convince people who experience no connection to observance that they “should” do so for some illusory reason smacks of brain washing or social coercion.
I understand that many religious people are looking for something that more broadly reflects “truth” in some objective sense. “God literally told us to do so” is an objective reason to keep commandments. “God will punish you if you do not and reward you if you do” is equally objective, and even a bit—and for some, more than a bit—frightening. “Because keeping mitzvot makes you a better person” or “gives you a better life” have the benefit of being both objective and inspiring.
The problem is that none of them is true in any demonstrable sense. God did not literally dictate these commandments; God did not literally say that rewards and punishments will come to observers and sinners respectively; mitzvah observant people come in all moral flavors, good, bad, and average; mitzvah observant people can have good lives, bad lives, and average lives.
It is, therefore, impossible to offer a classic “should,” and my religiosity theory only addresses people “like me” who want to articulate their connection to Torah and mitzvot and are not looking for a “should.”
Picking and Choosing in Relationship Religiosity
One frequent critique of observant Judaism without the “shouldness” has been: Why not just do the practices we like when we want to do them, but ignore them at times when they are inconvenient or not meaningful? Why take the life of an Orthodox Jew and make it a personal, dominant lifestyle at the expense of any contrasting lifestyle or type of experience?
I have no ethical critique of such a stance. If a person decides to only keep kosher on weekends, or to keep Shabbat once a month, that is their own business. It is certainly assur(forbidden), halakhically speaking, but that only has meaning to those who buy into the need to keep halakha, and is, thus, tautological to bring up in this context. That said, I believe the “cost” of such a choice can be explained along the lines of relationship religiosity.
A Monogamous Relationship with the Torah
In a relationship, you get back what you put in. If your life is enmeshed with that of your partner’s, then your identities become connected in a serious way and your lives are strongly affected by each other. If you have a partner that you see occasionally, this effect will be significantly diminished. That is not a moral judgment but a realistic observation.
For those of us who identity as Orthodox Jews, it means that we live in a monogamous relationship with Torah as interpreted by traditional Jews for millennia. We experience the commandedness of the mitzvot, the importance of Jewish continuity, loyalty to the Jewish people, the divine touch of the Torah, and a relationship with God.
And yet, the fact that Torah from heaven is a construct informs our need to make sure that this commitment is consistent with other equally strong commitments, such as morality, striving for truth, and making the world a better place. There is likely no perfect way to balance all of this, and the mix of commitments probably changes over time, but such is the eternal struggle of humanity trying to find its way in our vast and complex world.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 4, 2019
November 26, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: