The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

So what do we need this Torah for anyway? Why should our lives be bound by a collection of tales and precepts that claims to have been conveyed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus? It’s a legitimate and important question as we embark, tonight and tomorrow, on Shavu’ot, the holiday that commemorates the revelation at Sinai.

The psychological view is that human beings need a framework, discipline, and the Torah provides us with a life-plan that makes us better people. The problem with that is that if we look around us we can see people who are meticulous in their observance of ritual but are not just or righteous in their ways. The sages had a name for this kind of person: naval be-reshut ha-Torah-a scoundrel with Torah sanction.

The simplistic view is that God made a deal with us and, if we keep up our end of the bargain by observing the commandments, we get rewarded. The problem is that, objectively, if we put this concept to empirical test, it doesn’t work. The rabbis knew that. On page 9b of the Berachot tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Zeira performs just such a test. Discussing the proper order of prayer, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Elyakim declares that everyone who goes straight from the blessing of redemption into the Amidah prayer can suffer no harm. Rabbi Zeira shoots back: “I went straight from redemption to prayer and I was harmed.”

And there are other answers-we observe the commandments because that’s what Jews have always done (well, usually, until recently), or to get back at Hitler and his like, who wanted to rid the world of the Torah.

What’s clear is that the Torah doesn’t guarantee any of these things. It doesn’t automatically make us better people, it doesn’t automatically reward us, it doesn’t guarantee Jewish continuity. So why bother?

But this is perhaps a sign of the Torah’s greatness. Because it guarantees nothing, it leaves moral choice in the hands of each and every Jew. A person can perform the commandments by rote and never consider the moral implications of what she is doing. But if one chooses to observe and to think-and it’s a choice one must make, not an easy one-it forces one to think hard, about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be.

The Torah can be a refuge for those who choose not to think, but that’s not how its scholars and greatest practitioners viewed it. In the section of the Book of Numbers we read in synagogue on Shabbat, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno comments on the commandments regarding the Nazarite. The Nazarite was a Jew who took upon himself special holy vows for a fixed period of time. He is not to cut his hair, refrain from drinking wine and eating grapes and their products, and avoid contamination by corpses. Sforno, who lived in Italy and was well-acquainted with Christian monasticism, notes the relative mildness of the Nazarite vows as compared to those demanded by monastic orders. The reason the Nazarite’s vows are mild, he says, is because more extreme asceticism distracts the mind and makes it hard to study and think. To demand that of a man or women who seeks to enter a holier state would be to obviate the entire purpose of God’s revelation, he says.

In the end, then, the Torah isn’t good for anything-unless we consciously and deliberately choose to make it so. If we make that choice, we are rewarded, and we become better people.

10 thoughts on “The Torah–Who Needs It?”

  1. I am reading Hanta Yo composed from the history of the Lakotah (Sioux). Almost 1100 pages, it reminds me of Moby Dick in the way it takes the reader deeply into the practices of a particular group, down to every detail of daily life.

    Reading your post, I am reminded of the way in which the Lakotah (and, I’m sure, other native-America groups) are always made aware of what they are doing and why. Nothing happens for no reason. No winds blow, no storm passes, no animal appears without an associated meaning that is good or bad. Certainly no action occurs within the community without comment from others. There is a deep sense of what is right and an obligation to voice it.

    Without a Torah, their rules are conveyed through behavior that is either lauded or rebuked, and aurally by reminders to each other that “the grandfathers say so” A person who acts as the town crier not only passes the news but some advice along with it on how it should be taken and what the people should do in response to it.

    Within the social web it is acknowledged that each man must make his own decisions and no one can tell the adult individual what to do.

    In modern America, we have retained the individual freedom to make decisions (expanding it to women, I’m happy to say) while casting off the social web or, better said, leaving the individual to make the best of whatever social situation he or she is accidentally thrown into. This has resulted, I think, in the only rule we have left – you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

    This rule combined with a large land in which anyone can move about as they please and a high-tech economy that produces all goods without the necessity of intimate cooperation allows a workable system for people who may or may not have a moral sense. But it is a cold world and people can easily break down to commit all manner of horrors. Who IS that person walking down the street? Does it make sense to say hello? What might he do?

    A religion can tie people together, as does the Torah. A way of life such as that of the Lakotah can too, where none can survive without the whole. I think even the Golden Rule by itself is a standard to live by. But we now have science that rejects the spiritual aspect, the awe, the fear, the hope, the God that underlay the “reason” for things. Science gives us reasons but no purpose.

    It’s possible for individuals to live with this, but it takes a will to do so and a commitment to a set of rules that are chosen without the sanction of a higher being. Many will refuse to do so, continuing to insist on the absolute will of God that does not countenance those who “refuse to hear”.

    Humans are under test, as we always have been. But this is new territory for the mind. We have, through intellect, undermined what has supported our species for millenia. We have outsmarted ourselves! Can we handle our enlightenment?

  2. Can a Jew “think hard about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be, without the Torah?” Did no one do so before the first Sha’vuot? In short, is it possible for a Jew to be moral and ethical and responsible without being observant?

  3. Well put 🙂

    We’re taught that we should serve God without expecting any rewards. The reward for mitzvah is mitzvah. Or, as my beloved Roman ceasar taught, the only reward for virtue is virtue.

    Chag sameach.

  4. I know what I’d like – Muslim morality and Jewish aesthetics. Then I could enjoy the sort of Israeli rock music that I enjoy anyway (of which there is lots embedded in my blog), but with a clear conscience. More to the point, I could complete my learning of the Hebrew language, and write a nice, book length introduction to Israeli rock, that would humanise the Jewish Israeli people for mainly secular, youth oriented, English speaking audiences in the US and Europe, and give me a chance to hang out in Israel and meet some of the musicians I most admire (and whose lyrics still baffle me, incidentally).

  5. p.s. – I’m delighted you approved that remark, which must seem bizarre. In fact, I have had a draft application to the Open Society Instutute on file at their website for several months, awaiting sponsors (I need three, respectable but not necessarily academic – maybe you can help).

    As for my hebrew, I unfortunately fell out with my Hebrew teacher in London when she decided I was not ‘conversion material’. Consequently, if I was to interview one of my idols, such as Berry Sakharof or Rami Fortis, I would get about as far as “Ani choshev she… ” and then get stuck. I have the means to teach myself basic spoken colloquial modern Hebrew (scores of CDs made for the families of US State Dept. employees posted there, plus phonetic and proper transcriptions) but it is hard without a real live companion to learn with.

  6. Niqnaq-
    Could you explain why you like “Muslim morality and Jewish Aesthetics”? What’s wrong with Jewish morality? Are religiously observant Muslims more “moral” than religiously-observant Jews? I don’t think so. Are Islamically-run societies such as those in Iran and Sudan and those that are forming in places like Iraq or Gaza or Southern Lebanon more peaceful and honestly run than other societies?

    My view of the Torah is as follows: The Jews are a People and the Torah is their Constitution. Just as all citizens in a constitutionally-run state have a say in how it is run along with a personal responsibility to obey the laws their Constitution empowers, the same with the Jewish people. All Jews, even those who don’t conciously follow the all o fthe laws their Torah-Constitution provides for, have an inherent part and stake in the system, just like in any Constitutional state.

    I do take issue with Haim’s comment that the Torah doesn’t guarantee Jewish “continuity”. Jews have been following the Torah for thousands of years and out of devotion to it have been intensively educating their young to appreciate it. If it has lasted this long and we are seeing such successful “continuity”, then somebody is doing something right!

  7. Y. don’t confuse the term Constitution with the Torah or as most Christians like to refer to it as the Old Testiment(wrong). As the recent remark made by a Rabbi, I think his name was Solomon, mentioned in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in last month’s Atlantic on Israel to wit; we have no need to consider democracy because their is no mention of democracy in Torah. A good book on what I consider a constitution is in Eric Lane’s recent book The Genius of America ,not Israel’s quasi- theocractic so-called constitution .”constitution ;The system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribes the nature,funtions,and limits of an institution,as a government”. A constitution applys to all people within a country not a certain segment just because they consider themselves to be the only one’s chosen to be members of the body politic on a religious basis

  8. Haim, this discussion reminded me of a joke I read online about the origins of the Ten Commandments (only mildly offensive/ un-PC):

    God came down and first he went to the Germans and said, “I have Commandments for you that will make your life better.”
    And the Germans asked, “what are Commandments?”
    And the Lord said, “Rules for living.”
    “Can you give us an example?”
    “Thou shalt not kill.”
    “Not kill? We’re not interested.”

    So He went to the Italians and said, “I have Commandments.”
    And the Italians wanted an example, and the Lord said, “Thou shalt not steal.”
    “Not steal? We’re not interested.”

    He went to the French and said, “I have Commandments.”
    The French wanted an example and the Lord said, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
    “Not covet my neighbor’s wife? We’re not interested.”

    He went to the Jews and said, “I have Commandments.”
    “Commandments? How much are they?”
    “They’re free.”
    “Good then, we’ll take 10!”

  9. I knew someone would pick up on that phrase, “Muslim morality and Jewish aesthetics”! That’s why I referred to my comment containing it as bizarre!

    The simple answer is that this formula applies to me – a unique being with unique needs and desires, both good and bad, or potentially good and potentially bad, and many involving those delightful and infuriating beings, “the Jews,” of whom I am not one, and almost certainly could never be one. It is therefore possible to phrase this situation in an interesting way : is it not the case that the Jewish people are somewhat heavily armored against being loved in this way, i.e., by someone who is not destined to “join” them?

    I don’t want to use this blog to stage a debate about my own spiritual and political problems, though, which is what it would turn into – I have my own blog for that, which is a bottomless pit of current affairs, Israeli rock videos, and moaning:

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