02 Jul

The Divine Origin of the Torah

What are the fundamental beliefs of Judaism? At the most fundamental level they can be reduced to belief in the divine origin of the Torah, that the Torah was given to the Jews by the Almighty Creator. The basic question then becomes not whether or not God exists, but rather: is revelation possible? Judaism’s answer is that although we cannot say anything about God’s essence, we definitely can say that God speaks. While the act of belief itself is imprinted into human nature, it does not naturally manifest itself in terms of belief in Hashem. Man’s natural tendency is to believe in paganism and idolatry, to believe forces that are to be found within the world and not beyond it.

But can we accept this claim using our faculty of reason? Judaism teaches that one must not believe in anything that contradicts reason. The claim of truth of the revelation is that, logically, this kind of story cannot be invented. The very idea of revelation of the Almighty Creator is foreign to the human consciousness. It is not something that can be thought up spontaneously, even as a fabrication. In fact, from the pre-historic age until today there has not been any culture who has thought up a story where the Creator speaks to an entire nation. It is this very uniqueness of the claim of national revelation that testifies to its authenticity.

The Fundamentals of Jewish Belief

What are the fundamental beliefs of Judaism? The conventional answer is Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith that he records in his commentary on the Mishnah: God’s existence, God’s oneness, reward and punishment, revival of the dead etc. But the problem with this approach is that it requires the believing Jew to memorize thirteen different statements. For this reason, over the years, the Rabbis have attempted to reduce the number of principles, or to combine them.

Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, in his book, ‘The Light of God’, outlines six principles. His student, Rabbi Joseph Albo, continued in this direction and reduced them to three: God’s reality (that He is incorporeal, He is one, He created), the divine origin of the Torah (prophecy, Moses’ prophecy, the eternity of the Torah) and reward and punishment (the world to come, revival of the dead…).[1]

The trend of more recent generations has been to reduce Jewish belief even further to only one principle: the divine origin of the Torah.[2] But why not reduce it to the belief in reward and punishment? Because the idea that every action has a consequence can be learned by simply observing the natural world. So, why not retain only the principle of God’s existence? Because we do not truly comprehend this existence. Moreover, the term ‘existence’ as related to God is used artificially, because God cannot be reduced to categories of human consciousness. So it is therefore not accurate to discuss Him in a philosophical context. The famous argument about whether God does, or does not, exist, is actually quite hollow, because God cannot be captured by human concepts of existence and lack of existence. Just as we cannot speak of light as being sweet or bitter, we cannot speak of God as existing or not existing.

And so, there is a tendency to say that the central principle that Judaism is built upon is ‘Torah from Heaven’ (meaning that the Torah is of divine origin). To put it differently: The basic question to which Judaism is the answer is not whether or not God exists, but rather: is revelation possible? To say this bluntly, we would say that the Jew cannot say anything about God, but he can say that God definitely speaks. The sentence, “And God spoke to Moses saying,” that appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Scripture, is the primary unique teaching of the Torah of Moses.

This approach includes two more points. First, belief is presented here as something living and dynamic – persona speaking to persona without mediation. Belief that is based on intellectual proofs of God’s existence brings someone into contact with content that is static; it has no dynamic, experiential dimension.

Secondly, without the belief in revelation, Judaism could not have any expectations of humanity. Belief in Hashem is not natural, and someone who has not been exposed to the tradition of revelation, would be incapable of believing in a transcendent God; who, on the one hand, created the world, but is at the same time interested in every detail of our lives. Belief itself is certainly a human inclination that is imprinted in our nature as people, but it does not naturally manifest itself in terms of belief in Hashem. Man’s natural tendency is to believe in paganism and idolatry. This is a belief based on a deep and serious relationship with the forces of nature – and these forces are to be found within the world and not beyond it.

Belief

Before we proceed we must first clarify briefly the concept of ‘belief’ (‘Emunah’). The concept of ‘belief’ is often understood as ‘something that cannot be proven,’ but this understanding stands in opposition to its primary meaning, which is ‘something which has been shown to be true.’ Rabbi Judah Halevi, for example, writes in the Kuzari (1:49) that we mustn’t believe in anything without solid proof:

When Moses came… people had already gained great wisdom about heaven and earth, and in this kind of generation Moses stood before Pharaoh and before the Egyptian sages. Even the Israelite sages, who were agreeable to him, investigated him skeptically as they did not fully believe that God would speak to a human of flesh and blood. And they remained skeptical until God himself spoke the Ten commandments to them. So the Israelites accepted him [Moses] not out of naiveté but rather out of wisdom, because they were concerned that perhaps the signs he brought were only manipulations of sorcery or trickery that would not hold up against criticism… But the divine content is like pure gold, that when examined, its value is recognized as being even greater than it seems initially.

We must then consider the question: what are the proofs for belief in the divine origin of the Torah?

Revelation at Sinai

Let us contemplate the book of Exodus (19:1-2):

In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first of the month, they came to the desert of Sinai. They had departed from Refidim and had arrived in the Sinai Desert, camping in the wilderness. Israel camped opposite the mountain.

The Israelites have come to another stop in their journey in the desert. If we were to ask them what the purpose of their stop is, they would certainly reply that this is a rest stop on their way to the land of Israel. In contrast to common perception, the Israelites did not anticipate the giving of the Torah. When they were in Egypt, they awaited someone who would redeem them and release them from servitude and lead them to the land of Israel – the land that in their national tradition had been promised to their forefathers in a covenant with God. Moses appeared before them and informed them that he is the awaited redeemer who will take them out of Egypt, and bring them to the Promised Land. And so, after leaving Egypt they believed that he was the redeemer and expected him to fulfill the second part of the promise – the entry into the land of Israel. Even the passage that was said to Moses at the burning bush: “…when you take the people out of Egypt, worship God in this mountain.” (Exodus, 3:12), does not hint to the giving of the Torah, but only to worshiping God with sacrifices.

And Moses went up to God. And Hashem called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you must say to the family of Jacob and tell the Israelites:’

The Israelites are busy camping and Moses is prophesizing. The words “And Moses went up to God” should be understood as Moses receiving prophecy and not as him physically going from one place to another, as it says immediately after, “And Hashem called to him from the mountain.” From this we understand that Moses was not on the mountain.

What is the substance of this prophecy?

‘You saw what I have done in Egypt, carrying you on eagles’ wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be My special treasure among all nations, even though all the world is Mine. You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you must relate to the Israelites.’

God now introduces the idea that the nation of Israel has a universal-religious role to play, that he has not yet specified: “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Moses came [back] and summoned the elders of the people, conveying to them all that God had said.

Moses appears before the people and explains to them the program. This is a new element for them, as until now they were only aware of a tradition about the coming of a redeemer and entering the land of Israel, but they had no tradition regarding a Torah that is supposed to be given. What Moses has said to them arouses skepticism, doubt: Is this really the word of God, or perhaps it is simply some religious philosophy that Moses invented during his time in Pharaoh’s palace or in Midian? In the concepts of that period, this could take an even more extreme form: maybe a different God, who is not the God of our forefathers is being revealed through Moses’ Torah? This uncertainty is clear in the next passage:

All the people answered as one and said, ‘All that God has spoken, we will do.’ Moses brought the people’s reply back to God.

The emphasis here is that the people want to do only that which God has said, and not what Moses says: ‘All that God has spoken, we will do.’ This is explicit in the following passage:

God said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that all the people will hear when I speak to you. They will then believe in you forever.’ Moses told God the people’s response [to that].

So, God’s response is: There must be revelation so that the people will know that Moses’ Torah is true. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) explains in kind: “[Moses said to God:] ‘I heard from them that they want to hear You. Hearing from a messenger is not the same as hearing from the king. We want to see our king.” This means the messenger is not as reliable as the king, as he could possibly be adding or excluding something from God’s words. The covenant with the forefathers included national elements, such as the land. When Moses attempts to add to this the religious elements the people request direct revelation from God – “We want to see our king.”

Maimonides also, explains that the revelation at Sinai occurred in order corroborate Moses’ prophecy. As he writes in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah (8:1):

The Israelites did not believe Moses because of the wonders that he performed, as one who believes as a result of wonders has doubt in his heart, as this could be done by sorcery and magic. But all the miracles that Moses performed in the desert were in response to a need and not as proofs for his prophecy. The Egyptians needed to be drowned in the sea, he split the sea and drowned them in it; we needed food, he brought us the Manna; were thirsty, he brought water from the rock; Korach’s group challenged him, the ground swallowed them up, and so on all the other miracles. And when did they believe in him? During the revelation at Sinai, when our eyes saw and not someone else’, and our ears heard and not another – the fire, the sounds and the torches, and he approached the fog, and the voice spoke to him and we heard it say: Moses, Moses, so shall you say to them… And from where do we know that the revelation at Sinai is proof of his prophecy and true and without doubt? As it says, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that all the people will hear when I speak to you. They will then believe in you forever.’

From all of the above, it can be seen that prior to Sinai the people did not have complete faith in Moses; their belief was such that it was mixed with doubts, and skepticism.[3]

We also learn from the beginning of the Ten Commandments that the revelation at Sinai was an unexpected event as far as the Israelites were concerned (Exodus, 20:2): “I am Hashem your God, who has taken you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

Why does the Holy One choose to identify himself before his audience by way of the exodus from Egypt? Let us propose a similarly structured sentence: ‘I am Izzy, we met yesterday at the market.’ A person by the name of Izzy introduces himself to someone and mentions the previous encounter that occurred between them. Why the need to mention the previous encounter? Because Izzy looks different now than he did yesterday. Yesterday, he was wearing work clothes and today he is dressed elegantly, and it is as if he were saying, ‘Don’t be surprised, I am the same guy.”

Rashi explains:

At first, He appeared before them as a war hero, and here He appeared before them as a merciful elder… Don’t think that there are two entities – ‘I am the one who brought you out of Egypt.’

During the exodus it was clear to the people that their God has a political goal – to bring them to the Land of Israel – and so he appears before them as a hero who wages wars. But at Mount Sinai they were told that this God wants to give them a Torah, and now he appears as a wise elder, as the head of a Torah academy. The God that wants to bring them to the land is understood to be the God of their forefathers, and the God who wants to give them Torah is seen as Moses’ God. Therefore, God says: I am the same one. The deeper meaning of this statement is that there is no disconnect between the religious and the political.

The Uncertainty

From the passages describing the revelation at Sinai it is clear that the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah was not trivial. They would not accept a miraculous sign as absolute proof of Moses’ being a true emissary of God; it is only after they heard Gods’ voice that they became convinced. Apparently, hearing God’s voice is something essentially different from any type of miracle, and it has the capacity to convince a skeptic. This means that the revelation at Sinai was not a hoax, because it occurred against the background of extreme skepticism on the part of the receivers.

This account also teaches us the value of skepticism: If our forefathers would have accepted Moses without doubting him, they would not have merited direct revelation, and we would not have any solid basis for the certainty of the Torah.

Certainty in the Biblical Story

Another question should be posed: How can we know that the entire Biblical story is not fabricated?

Here we must pose two fundamental tenets. The first: Any story about a formative event of a national identity is true. For example, how do we know that the French revolution actually occurred? We need not go to France and analyze historical documents. It is enough to perceive the impression that this revolution has left on the French people and on the entire Western world to be convinced that it actually happened. The same goes for the Holocaust: Pictures and documents aside, (even though their authenticity cannot be doubted), the fundamental evidence of the reality of the Holocaust is the collective trauma that it has left on the Jewish people. Anyone who observes the Jewish people externally can see that there was a holocaust, because we behave as victims of a holocaust.

We must qualify this rule slightly by distinguishing between two types of formative events: There are formative stories that describe a period in which the nation already exists, and there are formative stories that describe a period prior to the nation’s coming into existence. The first type of story is certainly factually true, as it is impossible to add to an entire nation a formative event that did not occur. However, the second type of story is not necessarily true, because it could be fabricated and then propagandized into belief. For example, the myth that connects the name of the goddess Athena to the city of Athens by telling of her planting an olive tree there, is a story that lacks footing because it takes place outside of Greek history. On the other hand, the battle of Troy certainly took place, because it is a formative event that occurred after there already existed a Greek people. Therefore, if we were being told that the Torah was given to our forefathers, and we would base our entire belief on this story, its authenticity could be doubted because it happened before the time that nations existed.

The second tenet is: A story that cannot be fabricated, is true. This claim is made in Deuteronomy (4:32):

You might inquire about times long past, going back to the time that God created man on earth, [exploring] one end of the heavens to the other. See if anything as great as this has ever happened, or if the like has ever been heard.

The text invites us to investigate the stories of other nations around the world and check if there ever was such an extraordinary event, or one has been heard of. “…has ever happened,” meaning a story that actually occurred. “…has ever been heard,” meaning a story that is told, even if it hasn’t actually occurred. So, what exactly are you to look for? (ibid, 33):

Has any nation ever heard God speaking out of fire, as you have, and still survived?

That is to say: The search for a tradition that speaks of revelation of the Creator, as a historical or mythological story, would be futile. Neither can this kind of story be made up, because the idea of revelation of the Almighty Creator is foreign to the human consciousness. The thought that the Creator of all existence would leave His superior dominion and penetrate into reality in order to command people how to prepare food on the Sabbath, is an anomalous thought. It is not something that can be thought, even as a fabrication. And so, it is not reasonable that an entire nation will speak of the God’s being revealed to it. Put differently, the only people that have considered the idea that God speaks are the same people who say he spoke to them, and this shows that they are speaking truth.

Examples

Let us demonstrate the claim with the following story: a small child who has grown up in an entirely Hebrew-speaking environment comes home one day and says two sentences in Japanese. His parents ask: “Who taught you these sentences?” And the child replies that he learned them from two people with slanted eyes and a big camera whom he met on the way home. In this type of situation we are compelled to believe the child because this is no other source from which he could have garnered this information aside from actually meeting some Japanese people. Some types of lies cannot be made up, and so they, a-priori, cannot be told. The same holds for revelation: from the pre-historic age until today there has not been any culture that has even thought up a story where the Creator speaks to an entire nation.

Pre-Socratic philosophy provides us with a useful analogy here. All the philosophers of this period were one way or another pantheists. They could not rise above the limits of the cosmos and recognize a transcendent deity. Indeed, there are mythological stories of gods appearing to people but these stories never speak of a creator, an abstract and transcendent God, but rather of revelations of lower gods who are themselves, at the end of the day, part of creation. And so, if an entire nation is stating that it experienced an encounter with an entity beyond this world, it is certainly speaking truth, as it could not have possibly fabricated such a claim.

We have yet to consider Christianity and Islam. The revelations experienced by Jesus and Mohammad were never told as formative stories of any nation, but these religions nonetheless command a significant force in human consciousness and so these stories have become the basis of collective identities. But herein lies a cardinal difference from Judaism. The historical knowledge regarding the existence of Jesus and Mohammad does not attest to divine revelation to Christians or to Muslims, but only Jesus’ and Mohammad’s activities. If we are to ask Christians why they believe in the prophecies, their answer will be “We believe because we believe.” If the Israelites were to have accepted the Torah because of Moses’ stature alone there would be no difference between the bases of the convictions. However, the historical knowledge regarding the revelation at Mount Sinai that left a huge impression on the Jewish people contains within it the entirely novel concept of national-level revelation, and this is what grants authenticity to the belief in the divine origin of the Torah.

*Note: The above is an unofficial translation of the original Hebrew article.*

[1] See also the Maharal’s Gevurot Hashem, chp. 47.

[2] Abravanel in is Rosh Amana (chp. 22) mentions this opinion but rejects it. Although later on his writings present something very close to this (chp. 23).

[3] Rabbi Judah Halevi explains this passage similarly (Kuzari, section 1: 67).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: