Why Not Just Go By the Book?
Question:Many—if not most—of the customs and traditions that comprise “Judaism” are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Why can’t we just follow what’s written there? Really, isn’t it heresy to add on to G‑d’s word?
Response:You can go ahead and just follow your own literal understanding of the Five Books of Moses, but it may make life a little uncomfortable. For one thing, a lot of people will have to be stoned to death—for such matters as breaking Shabbat, adultery, etc. And an awful lot of teeth and eyes are going to go missing, too. Please let me know just where you’re planning to sacrifice all the sheep necessary to atone for other sins. Also, better find a kohen who will take all your tithes. Then come all the laws of impurity, which—if you want to follow “what’s written there”—may make marriage quite a feat nowadays. And you’ll have to sit in your house all day every Shabbat—in the dark and cold.
Or you could follow the traditional reading of the Torah, one that explains “an eye for an eye” as monetary compensation, and renders a sentence of capital punishment close to impossible—and a lot more humane when it does have to be carried out. Sheep offerings apply only in times when there is a Holy Temple; in the meantime, other means of atonement are available. The laws of ritual impurity as they apply today will be quite manageable, even enhance your marriage. And you could sit in a warm house, or take a walk in the park on Shabbat. All with the knowledge that this is what the text really means, and always meant. After all, do you really think G‑d meant for you to lead an impossible life?
Perhaps that’s why the Torah itself instructed us to take any difficult case that arises to the wise men of our times, and to “not turn from the words they tell you to the right or to the left."1 We don’t just read the book and decide what it means, each man for himself; we follow a tradition of received interpretation. When it comes to extending that interpretation yet further, G‑d Himself authorized those wise men to do that job. That way, the entire structure grows organically, with integrity to its original meaning. And that way, there’s one Torah for all the people.
Text and contextBut then you’ll probably have a bigger question: Who says we got the interpretation right? And anyways, how could human beings, no matter how wise, have the right to interpret G‑d’s Torah?
Well, that would be a problem if we accept the Joe Smith version of the Five Books of Moses. That’s the version in which Moses goes up the mountain, finds five books, brings them back down and tells the people, “Look here what I found! We better keep what’s written in these five books, or else!”
In other words, if we believed the text has no context other than that G‑d said to do it, then we would be stuck with just what the text says, and that’s it. But the truth is, there is no text without context. Context is to text what water is to fish, roads are to cars and the internet is to web browsers: the text is still text without context, but it’s totally meaningless and irrelevant. Context is the breath of life. Because context is what tells you the purpose of the text, how to read it and what to do with it.
Political parodies, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm, are good examples of books that take on new meaning when you know their context. A personal diary or a biography written for family members might be another example. The insider reads a totally different story than an outsider who just snuck a peek.
So let’s take a look at the context behind the Five Books of Moses. Fortunately for us, unlike Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, Moses himself references much of the context within the text itself. He even provides some hints as to how the book was written. At the end of forty years of wandering, just before entering the land, Moses tells the people, “Listen, I’m not coming in there with you. But G‑d told me to to write all this down and hand it over to you as a testimony, so you’ll keep everything I’ve taught you over these forty years. Here it is. Learn it as you learn a song. Teach it to your children, so that they will teach it to their children. Because everything you will need until the end of days is in it.” That’s basically the content of the book of Deuteronomy, known in Jewish circles as Mishneh Torah—“the repetition of the Torah.”
Real-life storyStories that were likely written in earlier scrolls as well. Of course, when they had heard those stories, there had been much elaboration. That’s the way scrolls were read back then: you read a verse and then explained, elaborated and expanded the panorama, then read a little more and explained again. So, of course, Moses understood they would do the same thing.2 They get to the stories of their great-great-grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. Someone says, “Hey, it’s missing the story of how Abraham smashed the idols in his father’s house!” Someone else says, “Look, how big a scroll do you want him to write? He wrote the most crucial points and those things we might forget. But that story? Nobody will forget that story, never.”
So when they read that part of the scroll to their children, they added in that story. And of course, no one ever forgot.
Eventually, they arrive at the story about themselves. Imagine that: they get to see all that they had experienced from a different perspective, the way G‑d and Moses saw it happen. They read about the plagues, reading out loud (all reading was out loud until modern times) and excitedly adding in their own memories and emotions, so that the story would be deeply embedded in their children’s minds, hearts and souls. Often, they were able to see how Moses alluded to a missing detail with a nuance of the text or an extra word.
And then, to the dos and don’ts: all the laws that Moses had taught the entire community over forty years. The issues they had been debating with one another, that the elders had spent years working out. Until now, whenever an issue was unclear, or its application ambiguous, they had gone to Moses himself for clarification. Thousands of such cases had been resolved in this way. Joshua, Eleazar, Ithamar, Phinehas, Caleb and many other elders had likely recorded the decisions on those cases, and taught them to their students in turn.
Moses writes, “Keep the Shabbat holy.” He doesn’t need to tell them what is Shabbat, when is Shabbat, how it’s kept. Everyone knows that. They will teach it to their children when they read the text. And anyways, everyone will grow up doing it. “Keep the Shabbat” (and why) is just about all that needs to be said.
The same with “they shall be for totafot between your eyes.” Everyone knows what those are, just as they know what is to be written on the doorposts of their homes and how to make strings on the corners of their garments. There will always be Jews doing those things. For the next thousand years or so, not much more need be set in writing. And again, these students of Moses are amazed to find how the details themselves are all subtly alluded to in the nuances of the text.
But look at this: When it comes to laws of the priests and the temple, a wealth of detail lies before them. How many sheep, what age sheep, where, who, when, how. These are things, it appears, that may be corrupted. The priests could turn around one day and say, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. What do you people know?” It makes sense, therefore, that here Moses’ scroll goes into the gritty details. So, too, does the degree of detail on laws to do with the land, such as tithes, the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. Although they must have discussed these with Moses at length, they haven’t yet had a chance to yet put them into practice.
There is no doubt that these five books must have been extremely fascinating (and revered) as soon as they were available. Imagine now, in the midst of all this excitement, that some literate smart-aleck walks over the hill and turns up in the Jewish encampment on the east bank of the Jordan. He asks to look at this scroll and proceeds to give his interpretation. “You guys have got it all wrong,” he declares. “There’s nothing in here about Abraham meeting Nimrod. Totafot are not leather boxes. And it says clearly that you can’t leave your home on Shabbat.”
If the people would have the patience, they would simply retort, “Listen, mister, are you a grandchild of Abraham? Were you there when G‑d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Did you ever meet Moses and speak with him?”
Perhaps that is why we call it not Torahism, but Judaism—as in Jew-daism. Because it is not an ideology defined by a book on a mountaintop, but by a book within the Jewish people. In fact, there is a Jewish sect called Karaites—kara meaning “text”—who reject the entire concept of received tradition. But that is not how the vast majority of our sages over the ages have understood us. They did not see us as “the people of the book,” as the Koran describes us—a people defined within the neat framework of a book—but rather the other way around: a people whose very existence defines the meaning of the book. For the book has meaning only within the context of our people, our experiences as a people, and the way that our people have unfolded and applied that which we have received.
The un-bookReally, the root of the error is to believe that the Torah is a book. The Torah is G‑dly wisdom. Moses, the greatest of all prophets, tapped into that wisdom directly. The book is one form of its manifestation—it’s what we call “the written Torah.” In it, Moses managed to encode the entirety of that wisdom, even that which he himself did not fully grasp, somewhat as the double helix of a strand of DNA encodes all the features of an entire organism.
Yet before it was written, the Torah already existed in our world as a lesson from Moses to the people (especially the elders) and their discussion with him. That’s what we call “the oral Torah,” which, contrary to popular misconception, preceded the written Torah. You could say, then, quite literally, that the fullest manifestation of that G‑dly wisdom we call Torah is not how it is written in a book, but how it exists in the minds of the people that received it. And since the Torah is a way of life for all seasons, the Torah includes all the discussions and innovations that have organically emerged from it through the medium of those people over the past 3,300 years.
After all, a G‑dly wisdom must be given by a G‑d who is above time and foresees all. He gave us His Torah through Moses like a gardener plants a seed or a forester a sapling; yet unlike those, knowing all that would sprout and grow over the long life of that tree. “They are the shoot of My planting,” He says, “the craft of My hands in which I take pride.” Like a gardener, He plants the seed. Like a craftsman, He forms the final product, step by step.
Until, by the time Moses finally leads us into the Promised Land, the entire Torah is unfolded in full blossom, through the struggle of the people who received it, guarded it and cherished it. For if the context is earth and the text is the seed, then the Jewish people are a fertile field, the scroll of the Torah a virile seed, and the Torah itself is the planting, the growth and the fruits of a mature tree of life.
For more on the chronology and method of Moses’ writing, see How and When Was the Torah Written?