Does it really matter?

Above is an important (or maybe not so important?) question that has crept its way into Modern Orthodox Judaism.

It used to be that all Orthodox Jews believed, or said they believed, or were taught to say they believed, that the Torah was literally transmitted from God to man (in the person of Moses) at Sinai.  To think otherwise would have been a repudiation of God’s Laws; perhaps of God, Himself.  Indeed, apostasy.

Now, though, the principle seems not to be so universal; so required. The “obligations” in one’s belief system may have new rules.  One, it seems, can now be said to believe in God as an observant Jew without also believing that the Laws in the Torah were actually God’s Laws, dictated to Moses. Rather many, including a growing number of well-regarded rabbis, believe (or at least say) that it is enough that, because there is a “tradition” that God Himself transmitted these Laws – a tradition, honored, in place and working since Sinai – we are obliged to follow them as a matter of faith even if we believe, in the quiet of our aloneness, that these Laws may have actually been manmade.

Thus, to more and more people, it seems, “it really doesn’t matter” if God authored these Laws, or if man simply “enacted” them in God’s Name, in order to accord them infinitely greater gravitas. And so, even for those who believe that God did not actually dictate His Laws, they believe that they must nonetheless honor them scrupulously, however arbitrary, irrational or even, pardon me, facially ridiculous they may seem. To be sure, when believers first came to believe in “God’s command”, there was no linguistic analysis to suggest the possibility or even likelihood of multiple, human, authors of the Bible.

Let’s look to those Laws that we know God did not enjoin from atop Sinai (or anywhere else) – use of electricity on Shabbat, the eating of cheeseburgers.  These injunctions are necessarily latter day interpretations (constructs) of the rabbis – yet we follow them religiously, as if they were contained in the Written Torah itself. And so, if the rabbis can have proscribed conduct such as this with equivalent authoritativeness to the Torah’s interdictions, why, it follows, can’t they have actually created the Torah’s own Laws?  This may seem to be a reductio ad absurdum – but maybe not so absurd after all. Maybe – could it be? – the author (or authors) of the Five Books Of Moses didn’t even include Moses!

Indeed, for those who believe “it doesn’t matter”, the argument is simple: there is a “tradition” that His Laws were given birth by God through the parturient canal of Sinai. Accordingly, those who believe in the divinity of the “tradition” must follow the Laws as if they stand on spiritual as well as historic fact, even if those Laws are acknowledged to have a rabbinic origin.

So what about another hypothesis – a middle ground, of sorts.  Moses did encounter God on a mountaintop at Sinai, or maybe in a dream. It was a true encounter. During this “visit”, God told Moses, his chosen prophet for all time, to tell the history of the world’s beginnings and of the Children of Israel, and to establish a system of laws to give to – indeed, to impose upon – the Children of Israel. Moses did God’s bidding.

In this setting, God empowered Moses to tell the Jewish people and the world what occurred before Moses was born, and what existed in his lifetime. But God – totally confident in Moses’s capacity to decree a system of laws – did something else, too.  He directed that Moses not only craft Laws, but that he tell the Children of Israel that God Himself had created those Laws and transmitted them to Moses at Sinai.

Now, given the greatness of the man whom God chose, none of the Laws would be “bad” – they would rationally serve the interests of world order: e.g., laws against murder, theft, adultery.  And what about the laws that defy rational understanding: the proscription that one may not wear garments woven of linen and wool, or even the decree that one may not eat certain animals, fish or crustaceans?  Presumably, those ordinances too would be worthwhile – not to serve civility or the other values, but as a vehicle to promote human discipline.

But why not tell us that it was Moses, not God, who created these Laws?  After all, God still would have been the prime mover in a “Great Chain Of Being”   — the Laws would have been created at His behest.  Perhaps – the argument would be made – if God bowed out of the equation, fully passing the baton to Moses, prayer would seem to have no productive consequences for mankind.  Indeed, would obedience to His Laws be quite the same?  Presumably not, except for the “tradition” of it.

Let’s turn it around somewhat. Assume there was no physical encounter between Moses and God. No Sinai. No dream. Instead Moses, or another charismatic and culturally Jewish man – within himself inspired by God, descendant from Abraham and Sarah but acting on his own accord – imagined in the night of his soul an encounter with God. Moses, or that other man, created Laws identical to those promulgated by Moses in the earlier hypothetical, and attributed them to a Divine-like inspiration at Sinai, but in this scenario, without God’s imprimatur.

Let’s also assume that this Moses created a regimen of belief in, and prayer to, God in order to keep the Children of Israel on the straight and narrow. Once again, “tradition” –  and, as before, an efficacious tradition designed to promote world order and good conduct. Would those who believe that “it doesn’t matter” if God Himself actually laid down the Laws, who might be equally accepting if God told Moses to draft the Laws, also “religiously” adhere to Laws wholly derived by man, as if God had transmitted them to Moses at Sinai?

Unquestionably, all those born as Jews who choose to be identified as such are in some way culturally bound to Judaism, however we elect to worship God or honor the commandments attributed to Him.  Whether or not we pray to God, observe the Sabbath, or adhere to the laws of kashruth, that cultural linkage exists irrespective of one’s fealty to religious observance.  Individuals maintain the freedom, given that we now live in a non-theocratic state, to label themselves as observant or secular, to make their own choices and to reject choices made by others.

All of that said, can one be an observant Jew and a “true believer” in God – an individual who prays to God with kavanah and follows the Torah’s commandments – agnostic to the issue of whether God Himself transmitted the Torah and its Laws to man; whether God authorized man (or a man) to create the Laws and attribute them to God; or whether God has existed since Creation, yet has left man and nature, as it were, to pursue their natural courses completely independent of His involvement?  And yes, one more question: can one be observant, and still be considered a believer, if he also believes that that Higher Power – God, Himself – withdrew, long ago, from participation in the world’s affairs?

These are weighty questions, indeed. Still, it seems, they should only be questions for the individuals asking about themselves. We no longer, for better or worse, exist in a theocracy. Only the individual has – or should have –the legitimate right to characterize himself as  “observant”, as a “believer”,  or as an adherent to God’s Law.

Still, it does matter how one chooses to characterize oneself in terms of his beliefs and belief system. If others wish to dissociate themselves because his “beliefs” don’t “measure up”, that is certainly their right. But as Spinoza would say, “what Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter.”  Meaning, one’s unwillingness to accept another’s belief choices  more likely reflects on his narrowmindedness than on the belief system of he whom he denounces as an Apikoros.  

* * *

The purely ancillary mention of Spinoza above leads finally to this.  In 1656, Spinoza, who, parenthetically, philosophized an unorthodox (namely, pantheistic) view of God’s place in the world, was excommunicated from “the people of Israel” by the rabbinic establishment of Amsterdam for heresy: Spinoza’s beliefs apparently didn’t measure up.  One might understand the reason for the excommunication as intended to safeguard the Jews of Amsterdam from possible religious persecution.

Notably, however, the Amsterdam rabbis, “by decrees of the angels”, did “excommunicate, expel, curse and damn” Spinoza for his opinions “with the consent of God, Blessed Be He.”  Put aside Spinoza’s idiosyncratic belief system.  More relevant to this article would be to imagine precisely how the rabbis of Amsterdam came to know that God Himself “consented” to the excommunication.

Many (myself included) don’t believe that God had any role whatsoever in Spinoza’s excommunication.  And some, at least during the days of Spinoza, presumably did – perhaps some do today.  Beliefs and belief systems often differ widely.  Does that make those who have believed in God’s “consent”  regarding Spinoza “Observant”,  and those who haven’t “non-Observant”?

Or, paraphrasing the above title, “should it really matter”?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.