Sermon – The Problem of Divine Authorship of Torah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 February 2010

You know things are beyond hope, that it is too late for you, when you have favourite Torah portions. But I do.  I have portions that I look forward to coming round each year And this week’s sidra, Parashat Mishpatim, is one of them.

It is not the most obvious choice:

It doesn’t have the sacred drama of last week’s Sinai narrative.  It doesn’t have the subtle literary nuance of parts of the Genesis narrative.  It doesn’t have the strong ethical message of other legal passages like Kedoshim and some of the codes in Deuteronomy.

If I can steal a phrase from our Bat Mitzvah:  most of Mishpatim seems like “an irrelevant list of random rules”.

Worse, in fact, because some of those rules are not just random but unreadable…  Alongside some very good ethical messages about establishing justice and avoiding oppression we find laws which are not merely odd but alienating: slavery and sacrifice, selling daughters, executing sorceresses.

And, to add to this, our parashah contains one of the strongest, most problematic expressions of classical theism in the whole Torah – worse even than the second paragraph of the Shema.  Snuck into our portion, attached to these rules, is a divine promise:  “You shall serve the Eternal your God, and God will bless your bread and your water.  And I will remove sickness from your midst.” And it goes on: “I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hands and you will drive them out before you”.

So how can this possibly be one of my favourites?  Surely, surely, I should be looking forward to next week – to the relative safety of the building of the sanctuary in the wilderness.

But parashat Mishpatim has one great quality.  It forces us to think.  It forces us to be a serious Jew, to really engage with our relationship with our text.  Straight after the drama of Moses on Sinai, with its perfect moment of divine revelation, its simple message about text, the Torah, perhaps inadvertently, I’d like to think not, forces us to face the realities of its own paradigm.

It forces us to really think – not only about these laws but therefore about the whole way in which we read Torah.

A classical view of Torah, and I will inevitably have to lose some of the nuances which have evolved over 2500 years, so please forgive me, understands the Torah as the primary method of communication from a God with an interest in human activity.  This view is called in rabbinic literature ‘Torah min HaShamayim – Torah, or here more specifically Law, from heaven’. In the early Orthodoxy of the nineteenth century, it is known as ‘Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai – the Law of Moses from Sinai’.

It hangs on the description of revelation described in Mishpatim and the sections of Torah around it, on the idea that, as we will read in a few weeks, the tablets of stone were inscribed with the very finger of God.  It understands Torah as a normative work of divine authority – prescribing for us how God wishes us to behave, with the attached promise of divine reward and punishment, exactly as described in our portion.

Torah is to be read as a work of divine authorship which may have been given at one moment in history but was given with the promise that it contains instructions about how to live – instructions that will be reflected back in how God responds to us.  And so the rabbinic exercise, the fundamental Jewish activity, so fundamental that classical Judaism also understood this too to be given at Sinai, that fundamental Jewish activity is interpretation of this core work to understand what the law means, to find out how best to meet divine will.

It is a model that has produced some of the most beautiful literature in the world.  For me the halachic endeavour is the source of great academic and spiritual fulfilment.  But as a method of reading our texts for modern times, Torah min HaShamayim is by its very nature limited.  And for me that is nowhere clearer than when we look at the great legal collections of the Torah, like Parashat Mishpatim.

Because this model essentially demands full buy in.  It allows little room for differentiation between Mitzvot, little scope for different understandings of divine presence in the world.  If one instruction is a normative statement of divine will by virtue of its origin, then the same must necessarily true of the next commandment in the list, however abhorrent I may find it.  When we approach Torah in this paradigm we attach to it the ultimate authority for our world view rather than the other way around.  As the Orthodox thinker Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his Halachic Man: “When Halachic Man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand.  He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles”.

Torah min HaShamayim therefore gives us no mechanism for privileging, for example, that which is ethical in Torah – that which is about care for those for whom we are responsible, about lending graciously to the poor, about being just and fair to all, about giving our best in the service of God – all of which are found in our portion.  It gives no way of privileging those over, for example, the law that a man who seduces a virgin must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price to her father.

Torah min-HaShamayim does not allow us to identify one as representing divine will while the other is a law which should not be considered normative.

This is, of course, the great challenge at the heart of how we read religious text.  Can we, and then how can we identify the Eternal truths at the heart of a sacred text whilst not being bound by those which are problematic?

The answer, at least for me, is the recognition that Torah is the work of humanity.  It was written in a historical context by our ancestors who were seeking to express for themselves their understanding of divine will, to grapple with their own theological questions.

I recognise that in taking this approach I make a sacrifice.  I risk the text losing its authority – If I remove divine origin I have to explain why any aspect of this law, this tradition, should be privileged in my life over any other legal code.  And it is, much as it pains me, entirely coherent to deny it such a place. I also lose the simplicity of application that the classical model allows.  To read Torah as a formative work from history rather than as a normative prescription for Jewish life is incredibly hard work: I can no longer accept Torah, or the halachic exercise which is based upon it as a detailed outline of divine will for me, but must struggle with every aspect to find its expression and meaning in my life.

But I believe I gain more than I lose.  I give myself permission:

To read our greatest formative text with a critical eye – to differentiate between the good and the bad – between the Eternal truth and the law given at a fixed point in time in a certain historical context. To understand statements of theology as just that – attempts at theology by our ancestors – ones which have helped to form our current religious life but need not dominate it.

I give myself permission to compare our Law with other law from the same context – to see the places where our ancestors were progressive and the places where they were unable to escape from their cultural milieu.  When we do so, as in, for example, Nahum Sarna’s wonderful book Exploring Exodus, we can see quite how radical our ancestors were in their pursuit of human rights, even where this does not come through in the biblical text.

I give myself permission to look beyond the specifics of the mitzvah to seek to identify within the text the values which our ancestors sought to express and to reapply those values to modern life.

Despite, in fact because of its difficulties, Parashat Mishpatim is one of my favourite Torah portions.  In the heart of the Sinai narrative it presents us with a weird mix of laws – ones we can really keep and laws we can’t; Laws that are modern and relevant and speak to the very heart of modern ethics alongside laws which make sense only at a certain time and place.  And so Parashat Mishpatim demands that we come to it as serious, rational modern people, approaching it and by extension Torah with a critical eye.  That we come to it informed by our own ethics and values rather than merely coming out of it armed with law and precept.  It demands of us that we think.  And that is the greatest thing any work can ask of us.