Is the Torah actually inspiring (or uplifting)?

One would think the answer would be simple: yes or no. In fact, the answer may depend on who you are.  Or, maybe, the answer hinges on whether you believe the Tanekh was actually intended to inspire or uplift, at least in terms of the incidents or stories it presents.

I decided to take a very unscientific poll of friends and acquaintances – mostly observant Jews who have been schooled in the Torah – and asked the following:  “What, for you, is the most inspiring or uplifting (the words are intended by me to be synonymous) incident in the Tanekh?”  As I thought about their responses and wrote this piece, I wonder if I even asked the right question.  And if I did, is the question even fair given my personal definition of inspiring?  At least in my view, when you compare the stories of the Tanekh which may uplift with those in secular life, or even in the New Testament (heresy, I know), the intent of the Hebrew Bible’s Author(s) may just not be the same.

My friends asked specifically about Scripture offered the following incidents or stories as having inspired (or uplifted) them the most: the Creation of the World (Genesis 1); the Creation of Mankind (Gen. I); God revealing Himself at Sinai (Ex. 19-20); the Prophet Nathan confronting King David over His conduct with Bathsheba and Uriah (II Sam. 12); the dedication of the Temple (II Chron. 7); Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37); the defeat of Goliath by the youthful David (I Sam. 17); the selection of David to be King of Israel over his brothers (I Sam. 16);  Jacob’s deathbed decision to give greater Blessing to Ephraim, not his elder brother Manasseh (Gen. 48); when Joseph revealed his identity to his eleven brothers in Egypt (Gen. 45);  when Ruth told Naomi, “Where Thou Goest, I Will Go” (Ruth 1);  when the Ark arrived in the City of David, David danced wildly and then reproached Michal, daughter of Saul, for criticizing him (II Sam. 6); Aaron losing his two sons and somewhat defiantly challenging Moses for having reproved him during his mourning (Lev.10); the splitting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14, 15); when Miriam watched over her baby brother Moses in a basket along the river at risk to herself (Ex. 2); the barren Hannah’s vow that if a son was born to her, she would offer him (Samuel) to God for a lifetime of service (I Sam.1); when Rebecca persuaded Jacob to falsely tell Isaac that he was Esau, to gain “the blessing of the first born” (Gen. 27); and when Jael spiked a tent peg into Sisera’s head and killed him (Judges 4).

All are important responses, but none of these present, for me at least, anything in the nature of an inspirational or uplifting “good deed” by mankind (aside, perhaps, from the Miriam story).  In other words, no conduct demonstrating tikkun olam or an inspirational mitzvah connoting kindness toward, or sacrifice for, one’s fellow man.  And it is not because those questioned don’t value tikkun olam or mitzvot bain adam l’chavero.  Rather, I wonder, does the Tanekh typically express such sentiments in stories or incidents?

Let’s suppose, however, that my question included “inspiring” or “uplifting” incidents in the Christian Bible. Consider the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke, 10:30-37).  A man is attacked by thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, left for dead. A priest, and then a Levite, see him lying there in extremis but cross to the other side of the road to avoid him, essentially leaving him to die. A Samaritan, however, then comes along. He binds the dying man’s wounds, and pours oil and wine to help heal him.  The Samaritan goes further: he places the sick man on his own donkey and brings him to an inn. He asks the innkeeper to care for him, and the Samaritan offers to compensate the innkeeper.

The priest and the Levite, apparently, were too occupied with rushing to perform their  Temple duties to attend to the sick man. But the commoner Samaritan, as it were, did “God’s work”.

Quite a lesson.  Inspirational by just about anyone’s standards.  Answers as to what is inspiring or uplifting in the secular world also take on a hue very different from that found in the Tanekh:  John McCain insisting on staying (subjected to continuing torture) at the Hanoi Hilton, until his fellow prisoners who preceded him in captivity were released; the firefighters and police who ran into the World Trade Center on 9/11 risking certain death; the passengers on Flight 93 who tried to take down the terrorists; Doctors Without Borders; the Six Day War; the man who stood down the tanks at Tiananmen Square; the inner strength of Helen Keller; Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban at age 13, who still rallies for the rights of women and girls; the American soldiers who liberated Hitler’s death camps; the founding of the State of Israel; the rebirth of American and Jewish communities after the Holocaust; and the “righteous gentiles” who saved Jewish lives at great risk to their own lives.

Or, for those who define inspiration somewhat differently, the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Lincoln’s second inaugural address; the election of Barack Obama; Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon; and the invention of air conditioning  (I hope said in jest – I can’t be responsible for what inspires some of my friends). I did, by the way, exclude from my question inspiring incidents in one’s own life – e.g., how the parents of one of those asked survived Auschwitz, or the birth of one’s own grandchild – inasmuch as others might not empathize with or relate to such a personal response in the same way as the individual responding.

The Torah – call it, our Hebrew Bible – certainly speaks of charity and strongly encourages, in a number of ways at least, the milk of human kindness. And God did, of course, perform miracles; but to me, those events are better described as awe-inspiring, not inspirational. The Tanekh, though, let’s face it, doesn’t tell stories like The Good Samaritan.  Surely my friends would have identified such stories as uplifting or inspiring, had they been apparent to them.  Or I would have noted one myself had one come to mind.

And while this is not intended to suggest in any way that “theirs is better than ours”, it is also worth noting that when in the Christian Bible, the Pharisee testers, who surely considered Jesus as human, presented to Jesus a woman caught in an act of adultery and wanted to stone her under the Law of Moses, Jesus defied their supposed piousness by telling them: “He who has not sinned, let him cast the first stone,” thereafter reproving the woman to sin no more. (John 8, 1-11). It would be hard to deny that this story is inspirational – a mirror held to mankind’s conscience as conduct worthy of personal reflection.

Just as I was about to give up, to conclude that we primarily learn our compassion, our charity and our humanitarian-ness from non-Biblical places or sources, a valued friend  succinctly and very plainly confronted me thusly: “Are you crazy? You don’t consider the Torah’s repeated, gripping, trumpet, whether in story form or not, to treat kindly the widow, the orphan and the stranger to be inspirational or uplifting? What’s wrong with you?”

And, of course, he’s absolutely right!


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 and Cardozo 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 not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.