Rabbi Shimon the Righteous said in Pirkei Avot (and later at Jewish summer camps): al shloshah dvarimi haolam omed, the world stands on three pillars: on Torah, on Avodah (prayer), and on Gemilut Chasadim (on acts of kindness). One may think of it like a stool: without even one of its three legs, the thing collapses. This applies to us Jews as well — if we have Torah & kindness but no prayer, there’s an emotional disconnect from our spirituality and and our Creator. If we have Torah & prayer, but no acts of kindness, then we can become what Maimonides called a naval birshut hatorah– a scoundrel with the Torah’s permission! And if we have prayer and kindness but no Torah, then we may lack the wisdom or inspiration to live (and moreover, to pass on) a Jewish life.
So much of the High Holy Days are focused on the last two: avodah, reconnecting with God through prayer, and gemilut chasadim, reviewing our actions so that we can be kinder and better in the new year. But without Torah, our world cannot stand. So I want you to come with me to learn what it means to be the people of the book.
What do we mean when we say the Torah is divine?
Let me begin by stating what I’m not talking about. I’m not going to discuss many of the well-trodden issues in Jewish theology. Long-debated dichotomies like “Torah from Sinai” vs. “Divine Inspiration” will not be my subject. Nor will I go into detail about how the Torah is not meant to be read or internalized as a science textbook. I can also guarantee that I will not going to solve all of our issues with specific institutions or laws in the Torah many find objectionable, like those having to do with slavery, sexuality, or sacrifice.
In speaking about the divinity of Torah, there are always two fundamental problems.
The first problem is that no one can be convinced that the Torah is divine. It’s like convincing a person to love somebody, or convincing someone to trust a stranger with the keys to their house. It’s not a matter of persuasion, it’s a matter of feeling and experience.
The second problem is that I am not trying to establish a fact — I’m trying to invite a belief. When it comes to belief, there’s an important distinction that you probably know, and that is the difference between belief in and belief that. You can believe that it’s going to rain. It makes no demands on you — other than at the wardrobe level, if you don’t want to get wet. That’s belief that.
You believe in your spouse that they will take care of you for the rest of your life. You believe in your child that they will grow through something difficult. Believing in something is not about affirming facts, it’s about opening one’s heart. This type of belief in is very different from blind faith. When you believe in someone you love, it’s not blind at all. It’s emotional and experiential. It is because you see the best in that person and know how that person inspires you, makes you feel, and cares for you. You, therefore, trust them.
So I am not here to give us a bunch of facts so that we can go home smarter. I’m actually inviting us to believe in the Torah, to be open to a relationship with it, that it may be divine, transcendent, and meaningful beyond a passing glance.
A book worth opening at least once a week.
But again, this is an issue of trust, of faith. And so to accomplish that end, I can really only do one thing: Tell you a story.
For lack of a better term, let me take you on a speed date with the Torah. Now this is my take, just one way of telling it, and it isn’t gospel. But this is what I would say if asked: What is the whole thing really about? Here goes:
The Torah is, fundamentally, a protest against chaos and a world run by power. Think of most of the myths you learned as a kid: Gilgamesh, the Greek & Roman Gods, or even consider the way people talk about interpersonal or international politics today. All describe a tragic world with few winners and many losers, a world of manipulation and exploitation, where those with power (god or human) are fickle, impulsive, and, quite definitively, not good.
The Torah protests this chaos. Instead of a world formed by impulse or battle, God speaks — Vayomer Elohim. The world in Genesis is formed by words, and by order. This is a world where God’s first plan is to care for all of his creatures in a nice, big garden. Where humans will be governed by rules and by being our brother’s keeper.
God tries to enact these ideals with all of humanity and fails (Kain and Abel, Noah, the Tower of Babel), and decides that a family is a more powerful tool than a mass movement. Rather than an imperialist faith where all will believe or perish (and we’ve certainly seen many of those movements come and go), this one family will reject the human impulse to dominate the world, and instead live and grow as an example — a light unto the nations. That family begins with our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, a couple who left the entrenched fads, follies, and moral decay of the gigantic metropolises of their day, Ur and Haran, to move out West and do something utterly new. Generation after generation, this family will defy convention by not putting any of its first born sons in charge (its own protest of received power structures) and will try, with many lessons learned and tons of mistakes, to become a spiritual, ethically intentional community. They will eventually prosper and will move from a family startup to a second-stage organization: a people. After four generations they will find themselves financially secure in the power-worshipping center of Egypt, but will suffer there from a lack of power and then from xenophobic oppression.
In Sefer Shemot (Exodus) the spirit of God will dramatically re-enter the scene as he champions his people to defeat the oppressive, corrupt, self-worshiping, and ecologically-manipulative forces of Egypt and makes a divine statement that humans shall not be ruled by might nor power but by law and spirit alone. God will then transform this people into something greater — a nation, which will take up its ancestors’ charge to be a light unto the nations by becoming a nation of priests, living in covenantal relationship to the Holy One. For this they will be grounded in ten constitutional and foundational commandments and six hundred and three other laws that elevate every aspect and choice in human life.
Many of these laws will show up in the next book Vayikra (Leviticus), which will primarily teach this sacrifice-based people for the first time how to have a relationship with God and life that is not based on divine manipulation through burning animals but instead on care, covenant, and teshuva (repentance). This new nation will march onwards towards the Land of Israel where it will try to live out this covenant — not through empire, but through a discreetly bordered country where everyone has a place and which has social and economic protections to make sure it stays that way. On the way to this destiny, the Israelites will experience a forty year delay, stumble many times, and — particularly through the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) — go through multiple leadership breakdowns as they gradually norm to the complex realities of governing a people out of a slave mentality and into a free one.
This imperfect people, trying to do the best they can at this revolutionary way of living with care, will get a final deathbed message, Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) from their wise and unique leader, Moses. They get this message before they cross over into the land they have been promised , before they have to encounter the spiritual dangers of wielding real power for the first time. Moses’ book will be filled with life review of the Israelites’ journey, expansions of laws and spiritual ideas, and encouragement for how to create a place where the presence of God can be really welcomed into our midst. But the Torah will end unresolved — the story building into a spiritual mandate never entirely fulfilled. Ultimately the rest of the Hebrew Bible — the Prophets and the Writings — will be the many experiences of hundreds of unique individuals trying to realize this message of justice, care, and human nobility while enduring human politics and the normal temptations of power, complacency, and corruption.
The Torah remains as the story of an incredible startup with God as a permanent partner, an intentional community trying to build an example society based on love, relationship, and moral strength in protest to history’s chaotic alternatives. That strength is founded in the very truth that each one of us is, as the rabbi taught yesterday, a child of God, filled with a piece of godliness and eternal love.
I can’t convince you that this is divine. I know it because when I read the Torah, from its individual stories to the full sweep of its message, I feel these things about Torah in my bones. Its care, its non-materialism, its recognizing of true human complexity, its nobility, its comprehensiveness, its spirituality. All of these are qualities that we search for in people as much as we do in books.
The question of whether the Torah is man-made or God-made, in whatever proportion, is actually the same question as whether human beings are man-made or God-made.
If you look at your neighbor, and all you see is a woman or man, you might see them as a thing to manipulate, to struggle with, to possess, to avoid, to “fix”, or to fight. You might see in them the very potential for chaos that the Torah first came to protest. And you, in part, would be right.
But if you see your neighbor — any kind of neighbor — as being made in God’s image– you will see them with innate qualities that the Torah models — care, compassion, purpose, nobility, and dignity. You will begin by seeing your neighbor with wonder.
So too, the divinity of the Torah: If you see the Torah as man-made, your eye will seek out all of the qualities and chaos I described. But if you see it as God-made, you will wonder, you will read with an open heart, and you will actually have enough time to develop a relationship.
For belief in the Torah’s divinity is just like belief in the ones you love. It is known from having a relationship, from knowing your loved one’s story, and the way that your loved one makes you a better person.
The Torah is divine, and you can only discover that through relationship, which is the foundation of believing in anything or anyone. So don’t wait for Judaism to be just about bagels, however much you may enjoy them, as well we soon shall. Open the Torah: in synagogue, at a class, online, with a study partner, at home or when you walk on your way. Approach it with the same wonder, curiosity, and openness that you would offer at the beginning of a relationship. Or if you both have had a rocky past, this is a good time to start fresh.
On these Holy Days, we are reminded of the power of teshuva — which means that God believes in us. May that give us permission to be open to Torah, as we would anything or anyone that we think is deserving of love.
This was first delivered on Rosh HaShanah (10/1/2019) at Beth El Congregation in Akron, OH.