God Doesn’t Come Down to Earth Lower than Ten
“The heavens are the heavens for YHWH, and the earth was given to humankind.” — Psalm 115:16. Reflections on the 10-year anniversary of TheTorah.com.
Creation is a difficult process, and even God took multiple steps over time to complete the creation of the world. The Mishnah tells us:
משנה אבות ה:א בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם.
m. Avot 5:1 The world was created in ten utterances.
The Mishnah next notes that it takes time for humanity to progress:
משנה אבות ה:ב עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מֵאָדָם וְעַד נֹחַ... עֲשָׂרָה דוֹרוֹת מִנֹּחַ וְעַד אַבְרָהָם...
m. Avot 5:2 There were ten generations from Adam to Noah… There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham….
It takes ten generations from Adam until the righteous Noah is born, and it takes another ten generations before God finds Abraham, the person who would carry the divine message to the world.
Change, including moral progress, takes many generations.
The Process of Torah and TheTorah.com
Receiving the Torah is also a process that begins with ten. While we celebrate Shavuot as “the time the Torah was given,” we are commemorating God revealing only the “Ten Commandments” in the initial theophany at Sinai. The rest of the Torah is given to Moses later. To transform the Israelites into a people who live their lives by God’s laws, God begins by listing just some of the requirements, and the rest is filled in over time.
I started TheTorah.com to cultivate a paradigm shift in the way we study Torah. When I first came across academic Bible scholarship while working as a kiruv (outreach) professional, it was traumatic. Not because I began to question my faith, but because the insights made sense; I couldn’t believe I lived in a world where this knowledge was not taught to me. Scholarship strengthened my connection to God and helped me understand Judaism and appreciate Torah study in a profound way.
I looked at the movements outside the Orthodox community to see how they integrated this knowledge. I found, to my surprise, that while the liberal movements accept biblical criticism, there is little integration of its insights into Torah study even there.
I felt alone. If we really believe in God, why is the Jewish world not teaching this? Why are we afraid to update our understanding of Torah and revelation in a way that fits with contemporary notions of truth, science, history, and ethics?
To try to understand why this knowledge was not being integrated into broader Jewish education, I reached out to rabbis and whoever would agree to meet with me. For the most part, people agreed with my observation, but when I asked them to help do something about it, the conversations stalled. I felt their fear and reservations; no one wanted to be part of it—until I met Marc Zvi Brettler, and a little later, Zev Farber, who shared my vision.
Ten years later, TheTorah.com has begun to successfully change the discourse, but a lot more work remains to be done. If we want this broader knowledge to be pervasive in the world, it is up to us to do the work.
Ten Handbreadths to Reach God
In the story of Akhnai’s oven, in response to a heavenly voice that sides with his opponent, Rabbi Joshua famously declares לא בשמים היא “the Torah is not in Heaven,” offering a new take on Deuteronomy 30:12. Although God is the source of the Torah, it is now part of the human realm.
The Talmud presents this image elsewhere symbolically, stating that God never descended to earth because the earth is the human realm:
בבלי סוכה ה. רבי יוסי אומר: מעולם לא ירדה שכינה למטה. ולא עלו משה ואליהו למרום, שנאמר השמים שמים לה' והארץ נתן לבני אדם.
b. Sukkah 5a Rabbi Yossi says: “The divine presence never came down to earth, nor did Moses and Elijah go to heaven, for it says (Ps 115:16): “The heavens are the heavens for YHWH, and the earth was given to humankind.”
The Talmud challenges this statement, asking how this claim is possible given that the Torah states that God alighted upon Mount Sinai:
בבלי סוכה ה. ולא ירדה שכינה למטה? והכתיב וירד ה' על הר סיני! למעלה מעשרה טפחים. והכתיב ועמדו רגליו ביום ההוא על הר הזיתים! - למעלה מעשרה טפחים.
b. Sukkah 5a The divine presence never came down to earth?! But doesn’t it say (Exod 19:20) “YHWH came down upon Mount Sinai”?! [God remained] ten handbreadths above ground. But doesn’t it say (Zech 14:4): “On that day, He will set His feet on the Mount of Olives”?! [Then as well, God will remain] ten handbreadths above ground.
Even when God comes down to earth, to reveal the Torah on Mount Sinai and to announce the end of days on the Mount of Olives, God leaves a buffer zone of ten handbreadths.
A Collective Effort
This Shavuot, TheTorah.com has bridged the gap, climbed those metaphorical ten handbreadths. It has been a collective effort:
Without generous individuals stepping forward to support us, we would have fizzled out long ago, which is why we need your support to sustain us in the next decade.
Without the 500+ scholars willing to take the time to write for us and share their knowledge, we would have been limited in scope, and not TheTorah of everyone.
Without my co-founder, Marc Brettler, whose guidance, expertise, and experience touches every article; without my “chavrusa,” Zev Farber, whose combination of scholarship in traditional Torah and academic scholarship is unique; without David Bar-Cohn’s skill and dedication, and without the other staff members, TheTorah.com would not have been possible.
Finally, without you, our readers, the project would not be complete.
It is my prayer that the divine presence will descend upon us and the work of TheTorah.com, helping us to continue our mission in the years ahead.
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Rabbi David D. Steinberg is the co-founder and director of TheTorah.com - Project TABS. He learned in Manchester Yeshiva, Gateshead Yeshiva, and Mir Yeshiva. Steinberg took the Ner Le’Elef Rabbinical Outreach training course and moved to Huntington, NY in 2002 to work as an outreach rabbi for the Mesorah Center. In 2007 he joined Aish Hatorah NY as a Programs Director, managing their Yeshiva in Passaic and serving as a rabbi in their Executive Learning program. In 2012, he left his rabbinic post to create TheTorah.com.