What proof is the Torah?

This summer, the Knesset passed a draconian law unfairly targeting a segment of the Israeli public of which I am a proud part: alcoholics. Taxes on liquor shot up across the country, and the higher the alcohol content, the higher the price. Shocking! Who’s to say that 4% Coors Light should be cheaper than Yekev HaGalil’s 96% Gold?

Oh, it’s our Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Never mind then, I can’t say no that beautiful, beautiful man.

Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is a difference between different types of alcoholic drinks. After all, there’s a reason that we drink beer in steins, wine in goblets and vodka in shot glasses. The proof is in the proof.

You see, there’s a raging debate in the English-speaking Jewish community this summer, based on the new website, TheTorah.com, which features the writings of Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber and others, aiming to harmonize Orthodox and academic approaches to biblical studies. From YCT to YU, from the RCA to the Aguda, Orthodox Jews are struggling to define what is an acceptable view of the divine origin of the Torah. You might remember the same thing from over a decade ago in the Hebrew-speaking Jewish world, when it was called Tanakh be-govah einayim  (literally, “the Bible at eye-level”). Now the acronym is TMS, for Torah from heaven (shamayim) and Sinai.

What does this all have to do with alcohol? Perhaps more than one might think. We keep obsessing over the eighth Maimonidean Principle of Faith, in which he basically quotes the Talmud’s statement that anyone who declares that any verse of the Torah was “not said by the Holy One, Blessed be He, but by Moses of his own accord” is a heretic (anonymous beraita in Sanhedrin 99a; also R. Eleazar of Modiin, Sifrei, Num. 112), but the Talmud itself elsewhere (Abbayei in Megilla 31b) says exactly that, in the same words, about the Curses in this week’s Torah portion (and, presumably, the rest of Deuteronomy).


It seems to me that Maimonides is a bit of a straw man here, or maybe a scarecrow. We don’t really know what he means because he does not explain it. He merely codifies both Talmudic rulings (Laws of Repentance 3:8, Laws of Prayer 13:7).  Furthermore, the core of the objection seems to be that one is attributing the given verse or letter to man and not to God. As far as I can tell, the current debate has nothing to do with this, as everyone seems to concede that the Torah comes from God. True, he does introduce the topic in his Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1) by saying that “the whole Torah which we have today was the one given to Moses,” but he goes on to explain that the problem is in viewing some parts of the Torah as having greater holiness than others, and this introductory part is mentioned only there, not in Mishneh Torah.  It’s also worth noting that Maimonides also attributes the Oral Torah to Moses, knowing full well that the Talmud is full of arguments and disputes.

So can we move on from Maimonides? What is more concerning to me is the idea of our Torah being the Torah of Moses, and this is where our alcohol analogy is relevant.

Sure, there are Tannaitic opinions that the last eight verses of the Torah were written by Joshua, leaving the Mosaic content at just under 99.9%. Or maybe it’s the last twelve, since Moses never comes down after ascending Mt. Nebo, bringing the Mosaic content to just under 99.8%. Or maybe it’s those last four chapters, since in Deut. 31 the Torah is already handed over to the Levites, complete, bringing the Mosaic content down to below 97.9%. There’s still a world of difference between that and saying that Moses only wrote a few chapters of the Torah, maybe some poems, travelogues or genealogies. There’s a world of difference between saying that Abraham didn’t have camels or live until 175 and saying that he never existed. Is it really so ludicrous to distinguish between the Coors Light and the 96% Gold?

Excuse me, it’s time to refill my tumbler.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.