ASK THE RABBI
May 2018 question:
If we do not believe that the Torah was given by God on Mt Sinai to Moses, but rather that it was written by human beings at a much later time, how does this impact our religious life?
May 2018 Answer:
I think it impacts our religious life very little. And I say that because most of what we do as part of Jewish religious practice is derived from what the rabbis of old prescribed for us, ostensibly based upon Torah but not specifically required by it.
The religious practices mandated by the Torah are mostly about the bringing of animal, grain, and libation offerings to The Temple which stood in Jerusalem; the Book of Leviticus is full of the details of these rites, and there is in Numbers a long list of the specific offerings required for the festivals. Though the Torah tells us to make Shabbat “holy”, it doesn’t have anything to say about how to accomplish that.
If a Jew who lived 2000 years ago suddenly appeared in our community, s/he would have no idea what our practices are, where they came from, and what they accomplish. Likewise, if a Jew alive today were to appear in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, s/he would be bewildered by the lives our Jewish ancestors lived. No Shabbat candles; no separate dishes for meat and milk; no prayers to be said at specific times of the day, week, month, year; no Pesakh seder as we know it.
And while our practices evolved over the next 2000 years, they did not come directly, or in some cases even indirectly, from the Torah. Contemporary Jewish life is the creation of the sages who ultimately gave us the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries on Torah and Talmud, the codes of Jewish law, and the Responsa Literature.
That said, I also understand your question to refer to how we would treat the Torah in worship services, and how we study it, etc. I think these things would change very little (the early Reformers had already come to believe that the Torah is not the revealed word of God), because we respect and value the customs that kept our people alive despite the best efforts of our enemies. We know that, whether it came from God or humans, the Torah has important and profound things to teach us, and that it is our challenge to discover these things and learn from them.
We also know that we honour our ancestors by following their practices, even though we feel free, and even required, to modify them to meet our own needs. Kashrut, the dietary laws are a good example. Even today, many Jews do not eat pork, simply because that has been an identifiably Jewish practice for millennia, and though there is no sound rationale for it, they continue to do so, perhaps out of loyalty to parents or grandparents. There are lots of Jews who do not bring pork (and perhaps shellfish) into their homes but eat these things elsewhere. If nothing else, we can say that the dietary laws are a matter of accepting and living with an imposed limitation on our free will; they are therefore an exercise in self-discipline.
If we took an informal survey at services, I think we’d find very few attendees who believe the Torah to be the revealed word of God. They are there for other reasons. But they are there, and that is what counts.