Were ‘The Rabbis’ Decrypting The Torah?

If you argue that God Himself dictated to Moses the first four Books of Moses — pretty much, the party line — you have to conclude that something else was also at issue. After all, God couldn’t possibly have intended literally some of what He commanded. For example, could He have literally intended “an eye for an eye”?  God actually intending, for a civilized society, that if you poke out someone’s eye yours gets poked out doesn’t seem serious or rational.

So there are two possibilities. First, while He was “dictating” the Torah to Moses, during breaks in the action He would tell Moses off line what He, God, really intended by His words. And because Moses didn’t have his memo book or iPhone available to jot down those intended meanings, Moses had to commit them to memory, which memories he later passed down to his successors, and they in turn their successors. And therein, in that historical “game of telephone,” lay the problem. That is, “this is what Moses actually told us”— and it’s only because the successors heard it differently that there are multiple interpretations of what Moses actually reported orally.  By the way, this all assumes that God actually had those “One on one” talks with Moses while dictating the Torah, and so accordingly at least Moses knew what God really intended.

Or there’s a totally different possibility. That is, the first “Four Books” are encrypted. Their true meaning is plainly contained in the Books themselves; but somehow, presumably with God’s Blessing, “the Rabbis of old” – call it Rabbinic Judaism – were given and accordingly  possessed the algorithm needed to decrypt it. And they articulated that decryption in one of two ways. They might say that “this is what Moses handed down” to us. Or this is what God actually intended, and “we ourselves” figured it out — even if they don’t articulate it quite that way.

Herein lies the problem. If we accept the notion that, for some unexplained reason, God didn’t want committed to writing for posterity exactly what He meant at the time He transmitted the Torah to Moses, what was Moses’ intent when, in Deuteronomy, he was reportedly speaking his own mind? Meaning, this suggests that Moses, too, just like God, encrypted his own words when he wrote the fifth book, the Book of Deuteronomy, during the last few weeks of his life.

And, if so, for what reason? Here is a human being, Moses, telling human beings his view of the Law and the historical narrative — for example, that it wasn’t necessarily his hitting the rock that deprived him of the Promised Land, but rather that God got angry at Moses because of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 3:26).

Perhaps Moses should have told us straight up, mano a  mano, what he meant instead of leaving us with “the Rabbis” again being required to step up — this time, though, to explain Moses’ thinking rather than God’s. One can essentially begin to understand God’s intention to seem mercurial in His communication with mankind; but Moses was one of us. Why wouldn’t Moses want us to easily and effectively understand the plain meaning of what he was saying?

Sort of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? The wonderment is that the Rabbis always maintain, without using the word, that they essentially possess “the algorithm” – even if the first Four and, indeed, the Fifth Book too, never told us with any level of clarity that God actually intended to accord the Rabbis the right, the duty or even the ability to correctly decrypt the Torah for the House of Israel.

Just a thought!

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 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.
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