JC Sidra Column: Nitzavim-Vayelech

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 19 September 2014

“It is not in heaven”
Deuteronomy 30:12

We sometimes forget just how radical the early rabbis were.
They inherited a text, the Torah, which they understood to be the direct will of God, and made it the foundation for a new, rich religious life, one which is often unrecognisable as that described in the text itself.  Despite an explicit instruction in the text not to add to the law, they built, from within, a structure of Jewish ritual and practice.  Despite an explicit instruction not to subtract from the law, they felt entitled subtly to remove from common practice commandments with which they were uncomfortable.

That they could do so reflected a core religious principle on which their Judaism was founded: lo va-shamayim hi – the Torah is not in heaven.  Rather, Torah is here with us; we are active participants in it.  Human engagement with Torah is itself of Torah – human intellectual activity is not merely allowed, but required, to engage creatively with it.  Interpretation is legitimate as long as it can be grounded within the Torah itself – this to such an extent that, as in a Talmudic story, a law may be described as Halacha l’Moshe miSinai (a law of Moses from Sinai) even though it is utterly unrecognisable to Moses himself.

This is a deeply radical idea of how to engage with a text understood to be written by God, one which privileges human ownership and reason without jettisoning the ideal of divine revelation.  It created a tradition that could encompass a multiplicity of voices, all operating within the same Torah.  There may, inevitably, be disagreement as to the limits of legitimate interpretation, as to which understanding, if any, is right.  But as long as this is creative and not destructive, it is Rabbinic Judaism in action – for lo va-shamayim hi.

To be part of a tradition that can accommodate such diverse richness is an extraordinary thing.  We can only hope, and work, so that in our religious life we can remain so blessed.