Why and How Should We Observe the Torah? Judaism and Revelation

In “The question of authority: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Theories of Revelation,” by Associate Professor of Philosophy (at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles) Elliott N. Dorff, the question of the revelation of the Torah is explored through the Orthodox, Conservative (multiple Conservative), Reconstructionist, and Reform points of view.

The question of how revelation occurred is critically important for Judaism because it provides the basis of our observance of the commandments (mitzvot) and all of Jewish law (halacha).

The key issue, according to Dorff, is this:

  • If the entire Torah (written and oral law) was transmitted by G-d at Sinai, without human intervention, then we are theoretically obligated to keep every thing in it, with no change except to extend the law to apply to new situations. Moreover, the ability to criticize the text is limited because it is all Divine.
  • If there was human intervention of any kind, the possibility exists that we can change our observance of the Torah more liberally, to keep pace with the historical times and with the culture of the Jewish community. Moreover, we can criticize the text more liberally because there is a human factor involved.

To me, the whole issue of whether Revelation is Divine or had a human hand is irrelevant because:

  • We will never know what happened at Sinai, so any position one takes is a matter of faith. And however you understand what happened—whether G-d transmitted the Torah Himself (Orthodox) or Moses wrote it down (Conservative) or the Jewish people wrote it with divine inspiration (Reform)—it is all from G-d not man.
  • The Torah was transmitted at a certain place and time in history, and we are living in another place and time. Therefore, its principles have to be translated into our historical context in order for us to observe them. There is no way to keep it all “unchanged.”

The point of it all is that we Jews are bound by the Torah because it is G-d’s law. At the same time, we are bound to wrestle with the law and make it contemporary—to make it a living body of law whose principles remain unchanged, but whose practice is always updated to suit the times.

As a way of understanding how to act as a Jew, I like the concept of “progressive revelation” held by the Reform movement. That doctrine states that G-d reveals more and more of Himself to people over time—“as humanity has more and more experience on this earth, human knowledge of what is and ought to be grows, and so the scope and accuracy of revelation progresses as time goes on.” To the Reform Jew, this means that “Jewish law of previous eras is not binding, and…the individual…decides what to observe.” While to me this is taking things too far (I do not believe that Jews can simply cast off the mitzvot because they were given to us in a prior historical era), I do believe that each individual must individually wrestle with faith, and decide for him- or her-self how to observe the commandments. At the same time, every Jew is obligated, before making decisions like that, to learn the relevant Jewish codes that apply to a particular mitzvah, so that his or her decision is based on something more than personal whim or fancy.

We cannot escape the fact that we were given the Torah, and that it is binding upon us. At the same time, we cannot escape the fact that the Torah was given to human beings, not just as a flat set of rules, but as a body of law to be engaged with, updated, and made relevant to every Jew at every place and time in history.