With Shavuot on the horizon, a persistently nagging question requires addressing: Why do so many Jews not believe that Torah — both the written and the oral law — has any relevance to their lives? The question is timeliest ‘4/7/365, but the Festival of the Giving of the Torah — which most Jews will ignore, if they even are aware that it has come — offers a natural peg to hang it on.
Here are some of my thoughts, which few are likely to agree with. They are offered, however, in the hope of starting a serious discussion on remedies.
One answer, I believe, is the unrelenting frontal attack on the written Torah by scholars who insist that "God did not write this book" and neither did Moses. A central tenet of this "fact" is that the Exodus around which the Torah revolves is a myth.
If, however, it is a myth, as these scholars claim, then there is also a reality: that there is no point to us as a people and we have no obligations to God. (It is amazing, though, how many scholars will say that the myth in no way diminishes the Torah’s status.) We are to "be holy," because God is holy and He is "the Lord who brings you out of the land of Egypt" (see Leviticus 11:45). If a fellow Jew "has become poor, and his means fail with you; then you shall relieve him…. You shall not give him your money for interest, nor lend him your food for profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (see Leviticus ‘5:35-38).
To be holy, we are told in Leviticus 19, means to respect parents; not lie, cheat, or deceive; and not stand by doing nothing when someone is in trouble. It means promptly paying workmen; not insulting people, or their intelligence. It means creating a system of justice that is truly just, and maintaining "honest and just weights, measures and balances."
Why? Because "I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, shall you observe all My statutes, and all My judgments, and do them" (see Leviticus 19:36-37).
If the Exodus is a myth, none of this is relevant to us as commanded things.
Another answer is the opposite side of that argument — that a "real" Jew must believe that the Torah is 100 percent the product of God’s dictation to Moses. Anyone who believes that Moses wrote just a single verse on his own is a heretic. Torah, in this context, includes the legal decisions of the talmudic sages; God gave it all to Moses on Mount Sinai (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 99a).
Now this is a fact: The written Torah contains inconsistencies, bad grammar, spelling errors, duplicate stories, contradictory legislation, and assorted anomalies. True, the sages and commentators have done handstands trying to show that God made all these blunders on purpose, but that is a hard sell to people already skeptical. Besides, there is not a single Torah scroll existing today that can claim to be an authoritative text.
Already in the 1’th century, this was evident. Thus, Rabbi Meir Abulafia, a recognized authority on the subject, stated, "A person who wants to write a Torah scroll correctly … would find himself probing blindly through the darkness caused by the discrepancies, and in the end would fail to achieve his goal." (See his introduction to Masoret Seyag LaTorah.) Anyone today who doubts this is invited to compare the text of a Yemenite Torah scroll to the text in a Hertz chumash.
So if people have to believe that every word comes directly from God to us through Moses, they would rather believe that none of it does. It is all a myth.
The only myth is that many (most?) of the talmudic sages actually believed that all of the Torah — written and oral — was dictated to Moses. Clearly, they did not.
Numbers Rabbah 19:6, for example, states, "Matters that had not been disclosed to Moses were disclosed to Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues." Spin it any way you want, you still cannot make it say that God gave Moses oral laws that Moses did not know anything about.
Many of the talmudic sages clearly had their doubts about the Mosaic authorship of certain passages in the written Torah and said as much. (See, for example, a discussion in BT Bava Batra 14b-15a, or a similar one in BT Menachot 30a. There are other instances, but this is not the place for that exposition.)
Commentators, too, were not so convinced. Consider, for example, the 11th-century French exegete Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 10:’9, in which Moses is trying to convince an in-law to help guide the Israelites to Canaan:
"[Moses said,] ‘In just three days will we enter the land.’ [He said this] because at first they believed that they were setting out directly to enter the Land of Israel], the sin of the spies not yet having taken place]. However, they sinned by their complaints [when 10 of the spies reported that an invasion of Canaan would surely fail]. And why did Moses include himself among [those who would enter the land, seeing that he was not destined to do so]? Because as yet the decree [banning him from entering] had not been handed down and he believed that he would enter with them."
Rashi could not write this if he really believed that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. For if He did, Moses would have known that the incident of the spies was only days away, that Israel was destined to remain in the wilderness until 40 years after the Exodus, and that he himself would be barred from entering Canaan.
For my part, I believe that God did dictate the Torah to Moses, not just on Mount Sinai but throughout the wilderness sojourn. I also believe that "Torah" is defined the way "the Torah" defines it: teachings, laws, but not narrative. There is "this is the torah of the peace offering," but no "this is the torah of Abraham purchasing a burial cave."
That is what I believe. Call me a heretic.
In fact, call me whatever you like, but this Shavuot, this Festival of the Giving of the Torah, we whose sacred task it is to teach Torah — it matters not which stream we are wading in — need to spend some time figuring out how we can get the people Israel to accept it.