of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali
Click here to return to Sanhedrin archive catalogue.

Today's shiur is dedicated by Mrs M. D. Fabrikant, whose husband Lev z"l died last February. Last Shabbat she gave birth to their daughter, Gabrielle Lev, and this Shabbat she will be taking her to synagogue for the first time.


, , . , . , . , . , . , . , . , . , :

Designation by Elders and the Decapitation of the Calf are done before [a Bet Din of] three, according to Rabbi Shim'on; Rabbi Yehudah is of the opinion [that the number is] five. Ĥalitzah and Refusal [must be done before a Bet Din of] three. Redemption of Neta Reva'i and of a second tithe which is of unknown magnitude [must be done before] three. Redemption of Donations to the Bet Mikdash [must be done before] three. Evaluation of chattels [must be done before] three; Rabbi Yehudah says that one of them must be a priest. [Evaluation of] real estate [must be done before a Bet Din of] nine with a priest added. [Evaluation of] a human being - similarly.


Mark Levenson writes:

In today's shiur you cite (with apparent concurrence) "modern biblical criticism" for the "historical development" of Ruth prior to Genesis and Deuteronomy. I was taught in my Conservative religious school that the Movement accepts the principle of the Torah's receipt by Moshe from G-d at Sinai, per Rambam's 13 Articles of Faith, which of course would require Genesis and Deuteronomy to have come into existence hundreds of years prior to Ruth. Is this no longer the position of the Conservative Movement, or do I misunderstand the situation?

I respond (at inordinate length):

One of the glories of the Conservative Movement is its generous pluralistic attitude towards differing ideologies. What one is taught in a "Conservative religious school" would depend on who was doing the teaching (but then I suppose this would be true of any learning situation). Many great and eminent scholars, among them many rabbis, have espoused and justified the findings of "modern biblical criticism", and this is in no way "extraordinary" in the modern Conservative Movement - and my guess is that it is the view of the majority of today's scholars. At any rate, this is immaterial, since - as I have already written - it is also within the parameters of Conservative Judaism to maintain the Mosaic etiology of the Torah - though those holding this view will find difficulty, in my opinion, in reconciling many internal inconsistencies of the Torah.

Several years ago, to resolve a moment of personal crisis, I began setting my own theology in order, and the result was the germ of a book. (The book has never got much farther in its development!) The question that Mark has raised is, in my view, so important that I unashamedly quote large chunks of what I then wrote for myself. (I apologize for the length of today's shiur - but one has to do something to work off all those "hamantaschen"!)

The Written Torah states that at Mount Sinai the prophet Moses delivered Torah to Israel. For the Jewish people, the real importance of the event at Sinai was the utter conviction of the participants of the reality of God; that conviction is what has been passed on throughout our generations. The awesomeness of the occasion was impressed upon the people by a violent electric storm: it seemed to them that God spoke in the thunderclaps, and delivered to Moses what was required of the people (Moses spoke and God matched him with a thunderclap [Exodus 19:19]). Inspired by the utter conviction of the reality of God, what the mind of Moses then apprehended was mankind's noblest and most sublime aspiration yet. This was cherished and passed on from one generation to the next.

Modern scholars perceive within the text of the Torah four separate recensions, each having a different origin and emphasis, but all representing Israel's understanding of God's demands of man. According to scholarly opinion the components of the Written Torah as we possess it today where already woven together by the middle of the fifth century BCE Indeed, it is all but certain that the ceremonies described in chapters 8-10 of the book of Nehemiah record the canonization of the Written Torah in Jerusalem in the year 444 BCE.

However, the constant re-understanding of God's will did not stop with the recension of the Torah, but was continued thereafter in the form of the development of the Oral Torah. Not only does the Written Torah itself represent constant forward development, but also the Oral Torah is an organic continuation of the Written Torah. The difference is that the Written Torah offers a new revelation for each new understanding, while the Oral Torah offers a new interpretation.

The proceeding of Torah from God to man is called revelation. What is the difference between the mechanics of revelation presented here and the more traditional view? For those who have no conceptual problems with a God that is quasi-human, or at least is possessed of man-like personality, there is nothing untoward or problematic in the Deity having a will and informing mankind of that will. When I play my CD or my VCR too loudly my neighbour has a will and informs me of it quite clearly. So, too, for our ancestors in the past and for many contemporaries today, God may be understood as revealing His will - either by theophany as at Mount Sinai or by inspiration as with the classical prophets. For me, such a conceptualization of the divine is too simplistic. In the view presented here, man is constantly reaching upward, striving to understand what the moral, ethical and practical implications of the very existence of the Deity are for him. According to this view, instead of a quasi-human God reaching down to man, man - constantly trying to be more Godlike - reaches upwards towards God, trying to achieve a more perfect apprehension of the implications of the divine for man; trying to understand more clearly, more perfectly what exactly is being imposed upon us as an absolute "thou shalt"; what must we, here and now, understand by the behest "Thou shalt do that which is absolutely and universally right". The former view (in which God leans down from His heaven, as it were, and announces His will) is theocentric; the latter (in which man tries to pierce through to make intellectual contact with the divine) is anthropocentric. In the former the impetus is deemed to come from God, whereas in the latter the impetus comes from man.

According to this latter view man has a new perception of what God demands of him (what used to be called a new revelation) from time to time. (When scholars perceive within the text of the Torah four recensions, each having a different origin and emphasis, it is merely a reflection of this concept.) According to this view not all the Torah was produced at once in the time of Moses, but some of it is the result of several different revelations, each at a different time. Such a view, which is considered to be heterodox in some quarters, was not considered to be exceptional in the past. The great medieval commentator Abraham Ibn-Ezra (1089-1164) several times in his famous commentary on the Torah makes veiled innuendoes that the text of the Torah (as opposed to its historical kernel) postdates Moses. One such place is his comment on Genesis 12:6. At this point the Torah has described how the Patriarch Abraham arrived in Canaan from Mesopotamia, and traversed the country in a symbolic act of taking possession, despite the fact that "the Canaanite was then in the land". Ibn-Ezra comments: ''The Canaanite was then in the land' - possibly the land had just been conquered by the Canaanite. If this interpretation is incorrect, there is a more correct esoteric one - but it would be prudent to leave it unsaid". What Ibn-Ezra leaves looming in the air, his glossator, Yosef Bonfils (fifteenth century) makes explicit:

"How can [the Torah] here say then with its connotation that the Canaanite was then in the land but now is not, if Moses wrote the Torah and in his day the land was indeed possessed by the Canaanites? Obviously, the word then was written at a time when the Canaanite was not in the land, and we know that they were only dislodged subsequent to Moses' death... Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?"

(Please note how simple it was in the pre-orthodox ages: if Ibn-Ezra were writing today he would have been dubbed "Reform" - and we can only guess what would have been done to Bonfils.) Thus we have arrived at one of the most meaningful differences between orthodoxy and Masorti Judaism. Orthodoxy sees Torah as a document delivered from Heaven on a once-only basis whose validity is unchangeable for all time. Masorti Judaism sees Torah as a document in which is revealed for us the practical results of the ongoing attempt to ascertain the divine behest over a long period of time.

As I have indicated previously, in the year 444 B.C.E. at the very end of the biblical period, under the religious and political aegis of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Written Torah in the form in which we possess it today was contractually accepted by the assembled representatives of the community of Israel as the statutory instrument of Israel's government, both public and private. Our commitment to the Torah to this very day stems both from the contractual nature of its acceptance and from our conviction that it all comes from the Deity. But the immutable Written Torah is not the rule by which Israel lives: the Torah, as understood and interpreted by the oral tradition is Israel's rule of law. In this way, the Written Torah is constantly being re-understood by the rabbis, its licensed practitioners. The Oral Torah (rabbinic law) is, in essence, developmental - dynamic and not static, and is a living continuation of the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the means whereby the Written Torah is made constantly relevant. Should rabbis abdicate this duty, Torah is in grave danger of becoming outdated and irrelevant. We have already noted that this is the major difference between Masorti Judaism and Orthodoxy. Masorti Judaism is committed to the oral tradition maintaining for us a vibrant and relevant Torah. In Masorti Judaism the Torah lives, is dynamic, is eternally valid and eternally relevant. This is achieved through the developmental mechanisms of the Oral Torah. But these developments must be permitted to come about with great caution and with the general consent of the majority of the authorities of the age (or at least, with the general consent of the majority of the authorities of the age that accept the principle of dynamic Torah), thus preserving klal Israel.

All this makes it sound as if the Divine law is very human, and to a certain extent this is true. But Judaism is insistent that the ultimate source of the moral law is truly God. God, the personification of the ultimate "thou shalt", is the standard against which we must measure our behaviour. The practical expression of this standard is halakhah, which represents the way that this standard requires us to lead our lives. While it is true that halakhah is developed by man, the danger can be limited of its appeal to the lowest common denominator. Firstly, the concept of catholic Israel (Klal Israel) requires wide-spread support and agreement, a general conviction that a proposed development is indeed Torah, not the personal whim of one sage or the passing fad of one generation. Secondly, the organic development of halakhah prevents "revolution", and assumes that all three aspects of time are represented in the decision - past, present and future. In traditional Judaism there can be no "revolution", only "evolution" - the constant organic development of Torah as representing God's perceived will.

One of the lynch-pins of rabbinic philosophy is the concept of Torah min ha-shamayim - that Torah (both written and oral) comes from God. This presents Masorti Judaism with no difficulty. The rabbis state:

'For he has denigrated God's word and nullified his command' [Numbers 15:31] - such a person shall be utterly excised and it is his own fault: this verse refers to a person who claims that Torah is not from God. Even if such a person claims that all of Torah is from God except that a certain verse originated with Moses and not with God - he has denigrated God's word. Even if such a person claims that all of Torah is from God, except that a certain fine point or a certain academic inference is not - he has denigrated God's word. [Sifré 112]

This view, although based upon an earlier conceptualization of revelation, holds no terrors for us Masorti Jews: we, too, ardently maintain that the whole of the Torah (both written and oral) comes from God - in the sense already described above, in which God's will is perceived more perfectly as the human perceptors progress onward and upward. We insist that man's reaching for God is, indeed, a reaching for God, and that which is finally accepted into the tradition has proceeded from God. Even when some element or other is superseded later on with an improved understanding, it does not mean that the former teaching was not divine; it merely means that man was not yet philosophically developed to a degree that would permit him to understand the full implications of the divine in that particular matter - very much as we understand our parents more intelligently the more we grow.

However, matters do not rest here. Rambam [Maimonides, North Africa, 12th century CE], in the Thirteen Fundamentals that form part of a long excursus that he inserted into the preamble to his commentary to the first Mishnah of Chapter Ten of Tractate Sanhedrin, codified this concept of Torah min ha-shamayim in a way that is problematic for us.

We believe that the [Written] Torah now in our possession is identical to that given to Moses and that all of it comes from God. That is to say that all of it came to him from God in a manner that may be metaphorically termed "speech". No one but Moses can know the true nature of that contact. He was a kind of secretary taking down everything that was dictated - dates, stories and commands - which is why he is referred to as a "tradent". There is no qualitative difference between a verse like "the offspring of Ham were Ethiopia, Egypt, Punt and Canaan" [Genesis 10:6] or a verse like "his wife's name was Mehetavel, daughter of Matred" [Genesis 36:39] - on the one hand, and between a verse like "I am the Lord your God" [Exodus 20:2] or "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" [Deuteronomy 6:4] on the other. It all comes from God and it is all God's perfect, pure and holy Torah of truth.

Surely, had Rambam been formulating his principle today he would have phrased it differently. That which we find problematic in his words is not to be found in the original midrash, but was added by Rambam in order to counteract a tendency that may have been prevalent in his day - to ascribe a relative value to the various components of Torah. In his day, it would appear, there were people who claimed that the lofty passages came from God and the rest came from Moses. We, too, would combat such a claim. We agree with Rambam that "It all comes from God and it is all God's perfect, pure and holy Torah of truth". We disagree with him when he states that "the [Written] Torah now in our possession is identical to that given to Moses". This formulation of Rambam is, of course, entirely at odds with the sentiments implied by Abraham Ibn-Ezra in several places in his commentary on the Torah; for instance see the quotation brought earlier in this chapter, and in particular the gloss on it made by Yosef Bonfils. Ibn-Ezra surely would have rejected Rambam's extension of the original midrash, as we do - and as Rambam himself almost certainly would if he were alive today.

Purim Same'aĥ to all Jerusalemites and Shabbat Shalom to everybody.

Click here to return to Sanhedrin archive catalogue.