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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Authentic Jewish Statehood Based on Mt. Sinai? An Oxymoron!

An increasing number of voices in Israeli society, and even within the new government, are calling for transmuting the country into an “authentic” Jewish State. Chief among them is Rabbi Avi Maoz of the nationalistic, ultra-religious (in Israeli parlance, “khardal”) party NOAM, who has been appointed Deputy Minister in the Education Ministry, in charge of its “external” programs i.e., those outside the core course curriculum taught during regular school hours. The appointment has caused a firestorm of protest, not only among the opposition parties.

Einstein used to indulge in thought experiments (Gedankenexperiment) to envision things that could not be seen at the present. Let’s indulge in something similar. What would a Jewish State based on “Mount Sinai” and the halakha (Jewish Law) look like?

The first thing that comes to mind is that this could only be a thought experiment because the question carries within it a profound contradiction: the halakha as we know it did not exist – and could not have existed – at the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. That’s not my opinion: it is stated very clearly in the Talmud (Bavli, Minkhot, 29):

At the time when Moses ascended the heavens [passed away], he found the Lord sitting and tying crowns to [the top of] letters. He said before him: Lord, who is hindering you? The Lord said to him: There is one person at the end of several generations and his name is Akiva ben Yosef who is going to demand every jot and tittle of the laws. Moses said to the Almighty: show me. The Lord said to him: Go back. Moses went and sat [in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash] at the end of eight rows and didn’t understand what Akiva and the students were talking about.

If that weren’t “hint” enough that over the approximately 1500 years between Moses and the Talmud the Jewish law underwent radical change, then the Talmud is even more blunt in the following passage. In a harsh argument over an abstruse question of Jewish Law between Rabbi Eliezer of one opinion and all the other rabbis of another opinion, the former had God perform several local miracles (e.g., nearby river reversing its course) if his ruling was the correct one. All such miracles occurred immediately, but the other rabbis did not concede their opinion. Frustrated, Rabbi Eliezer asked the Almighty to say out loud who was correct – which a “voice from heaven” promptly did:

“Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer when his opinion is always the halakha?” Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and replied: “The halakha is not in heaven.” [A quotation from Deuteronomy 3:10-14] …for You [God] already wrote at Mount Sinai in the Torah: “the majority opinion rules”! (Bava Metziah, 59b)

And indeed, anyone familiar with the Torah – and the Talmud – is well aware of the vast gap between the two. For those less learned, the following Gedankenexperiment examples (a mere drop in the ocean) should at least be illustrative of the oxymoron called “Mount Sinai Halakha.”

1) Imagine Israel as a country where a person is considered Jewish if either one of their parents is Jewish. After all, throughout the entire Bible, children were “Jewish” (Israelite) through their father: patrilineal descent e.g., King David whose great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabite. The Talmud’s rabbis were the ones who turned that on its head – to exclusive matrelinear descent, a ruling that exists to this very day to the consternation of hundreds of thousands “semi-Jews.” And if we have mentioned Ruth, why not follow her Torah lead for modern conversion? All a potential convert needs to do is explicitly identify with the Jewish People, as she did.

2) Imagine adding a Torah reading to Hanukkah celebrations and prayers. Although two Books of Maccabees were written, neither was chosen by the rabbis to be included in the biblical canon. In fact, it’s the only major holiday in the Jewish calendar (!) that doesn’t have a specific Torah reading, or even a special collection of readings e.g., Passover’s Haggadah, Tisha B’Av’s Lamentations (Kinot), etc.

3) Imagine Judaism (and Israeli messianic fervor) without a “Messiah.” After all, there is no mention whatsoever in the entire Torah of such a concept. When the word “mashiakh” does appear, it means “to anoint,” as in a king (the modern Hebrew word “mishkhah,” of that same root, means a lotion). And if that’s not part of biblical Judaism, then neither is “Resurrection” (“tekhiat ha’maytim”). Both were taken directly from Greek sources (e.g., Plato’s Phaedrus). True, there are Jewish sources during the late biblical period that talk, even at length, about resurrection as well as the concept of an ultimate Messianic Age, (e.g., the Book of Enoch; The Wisdom of Solomon) – but the rabbis excluded these books from the biblical canon that they established!

4) Speaking of death, perhaps we can also imagine the elimination of a particularly non-biblical practice: visiting and praying at the graveside tombs of Jewish “saints” e.g., Rachel, Joseph, Baba Sali et al. After all, the Torah makes a point of mentioning that no one knows where the greatest Jew of all is buried: Moses (Deuteronomy 34: 6), presumably because it was against such hero worship. Service of the Almighty was to be carried out exclusively at the traveling mishkan and later in the Jerusalem Temple.

5) Finally, imagine tweaking Israel’s draft law by following the Torah’s list of people exempt from the army (Deuteronomy 20: 5-9). Here are the only reasons listed there for such an exemption: just married and either hasn’t yet built his house or produced the first fruits of his new vineyard; recently engaged to a woman but not yet having wed her with consummation of the marriage; and an outright coward (who would strike contagious fear in his fellow soldiers). That’s it. Nothing about “scholars” studying Torah (or anything else). Indeed, even the Levites who had holy work to perform, had to join the army (at least in a defensive war; probably also in a war of choice) – so “scholars” certainly are part of the non-exemption totem pole.

The bottom line: even the most strictly Orthodox today wouldn’t want to base official policy of the State of Israel on “Mount Sinai Judaism.” Anyone who says they do want that, doesn’t really understand what such fundamental Judaism really called for.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com