Torah min Hashamyim and Rabbinic Law

Following on from my previous blog, (Who is a Jew?), I was thinking (as one does) about the subject matter for my next blog.

According to classical interpretation, we are taught/believe/meant to believe in Torah min Hashamyim, Torah is from heaven and that Hashem is the source of the Torah and his words sacrosanct. Here’s my dilemma; in orthodox Judaism, many of our laws are Rabbinical having been interpreted or even changed by great Rabbonim of the past. So, these orthodox Rabbonim, believers in “Torah min Hashamyim”, have then made changes as they see fit!

I was sitting in Shul yesterday (2nd September 2017) and in between the various Parsha’s of the Sidrah (Ki Seitzei) I re-read them for points of interest. In the 1st Parsha there is a section discussing some of the laws relating to Polygamy. Rather than the laws themselves (which would probably take up an entire blog in their own right) I was cognisant, we no longer allow polygamous relationships, and that this had been changed by Rabbinical Law.

Chabad sources state “Approximately one thousand years ago, the noted German scholar Rabbi Gershom – the Light of the Diaspora – banned polygamy. This was accepted by the Ashkenazi community immediately.” Ye,t is this not at odds with “Torah min Hashamyim”. So many of our laws today are based on Rabbinical Law as well as that from the Torah, but there is clearly a distinction between “interpretation” and “alteration” of  laws. The former can be easily reconciled with “Torah min Hashamyim” whereas the latter cannot – or at least not without stretching a point to its absolute limits.

So.. what makes a Rabbinic decree changing “Torah min Hashamyim” acceptable.

I ask this rhetorical question as a result of the recent attacks on Rabbi Dweck, head of the Sephardi community in the UK, who made statements attempting to reconcile Jewish Law on Homosexuality (of course this only relates to Male Homosexuality as Female Homosexuality is not mentioned by name in the Torah) in a compassionate manner. I am not going to debate his statement, but instead look at his treatment by the “establishment”. As a result of his statement, a flurry of verbal abuse from so called religious leaders ensued. Pressure was put on the (UK) Chief Rabbi to ensure that Rabbi Dweck was never allowed to express such an heretical opinion again, (or at least whilst he remained part of the establishment). A Beth Din (legal court) was put together under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi, and decided that Rabbi Dweck was so ill advised to make such a statement that he immediately had to relinquish being a Dayan on the Sephardi Beth Din, to submit the contents of his future public shiurim and lectures for approval, and that he would not return to his former congregation in New Jersey to be a summer scholar-in-residence, as he has done previously. He was however, permitted to remain Head of the Sephardi community in the UK. A severe punishment one may think for going against the establishment.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs suffered an even harsher punishment, having his licence withdrawn by the Chief Rabbi, so he could no longer Head a “religious” congregation in the UK. His crime; to state that whilst he believed in “Torah min Hashamyim” he didn’t necessarily believe that every word was dictated by Hashem to Moshe. Rabbi Jacobs was so well thought of prior to this incident that he had been selected to Head up Jews College in London – effectively the seminary that trained all Rabbonim under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi, so it was never a question of his knowledge and ability, merely he was thought to have stepped “out of line”. If you have a spare 2 hours have a listen to his lecture on Torah min Hashamyim, it is most enlightening, you may not agree with everything he says – I don’t – but his analysis and reasoning is very thorough and deserves consideration.

In my opinion, Rabbi Jacobs interpretation lends itself much more to Rabbinic Law, than the strict interpretation, yet, and here is the irony, it is Rabbi Jacobs views that got him “disbarred” by those who believe in the strict interpretation of “Torah min Hashamyim” yet are happy to accept Rabbinic Law such as the banning of Polygamy.

We often say that Religion and Politics shouldn’t/don’t mix, but these decisions seem to combine both. Irony, contradiction, hypocrisy, or, if you are a member of the right club or inner circle you can just simply make it up as you go along.

Rabbi Gershom actually changed the law, Rabbis Jacobs, certainly was trying to interpret the law, Rabbi Dweck perhaps was applying, “Torah she-be-al peh” – those laws, statutes, and legal interpretations that were not recorded in the Five Books of Moses, part of which are Edicts (Gezayrot). Chabad note that “Until the end of the Talmudic Era (approx. 1500 years ago) there was a central rabbinic authority which issued Gezayrot which were accepted by all the Jews. Since that time, different communities have assumed upon themselves various stringencies, but rarely are there universally accepted Gezayrot”.

More irony, that Rabbi Gershom’s law change is accepted, Rabbis Jacobs and Dweck’s interpretations are not.

Perhaps in a thousand years, Rabbi’s Jacobs and Dweck will be viewed with the same respect as the German scholar Rabbi Gershom. Will they be viewed as latter day Messiahs or just very naughty boys!!!

About the Author
Born in Manchester and educated at Hasmonean in a religious environment, Mike now runs his own business specialising in design an implementation of residential and business AV systems .