The Torah: Its Place in Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

For most Jews, the Torah is more than a book, more than a scroll. It is the sacred symbol of the Jewish religion. They can no more imagine a Judaism without the Torah than they can imagine a Judaism without God.

While most Jews do not study the Torah, they believe that they ought to. Even if they do not understand it, they believe that it contains eternal wisdom. And even if they are not interested in eter­nal wisdom, they believe that everything valuable in Jewish identity can be traced back to the Torah.

No form of liberal Judaism has dared to dispense with it. Reform Jews praise it and provide the biggest arks for it. Recon­structionist Jews declare it to be one of the three fundamentals of their faith. Ambiva­lent Jews arrange to do Bar Mitzvahs with it. Even many secular Jews regard it as the source of their history.

The Torah is a problem for Humanistic Jews.

The Torah is a theological document. Yahveh (Elohim) is the central figure of the book. He — and not people — determines the course of human history. Without his consent, nothing happens. And without his intervention, salvation is impossible. Even Pharaoh does not “harden his heart” without Yahveh arranging for it. Jewish suffering in Egypt is no more than part of his plan to advertise his power through a dramatic rescue.

The Torah is an authoritarian docu­ment. Laws derive their ethical clout from God’s command. If Yahveh permits, the behavior is right. If Yahveh forbids, the behavior is wrong. Supernatural rewards and punishments do not give authority to the laws. They simply motivate people to do what is obviously the right thing to do. “I am Yahveh, your God,” the endless refrain of the Torah, is a dramatic version of parental intimidation. “I am your father — and I deserve your obedience.” With that kind of moral approach, reason and dignity go out the window.

The Torah is a confusing document. Scientific criticism has revealed that it is a composite of at least four separate docu­ments. Many of its stories contradict each other (Genesis 1 and 2). Many of its laws are mutually incompatible (individual and collective guilt). Many of the events it describes either never happened or never happened in the way they are described. And most of the stories were written cen­turies after the so-called events occurred.

The Torah is a reactionary document. It promotes a lifestyle that is morally offen­sive to most contemporary Jews: a world of family tyranny, female inequality, tribal exclusiveness, theocratic government, and sacrificial ritual.

The Torah is a chauvinistic document. It views the Jewish people as a “chosen” people. The descendants of Abraham are selected out for special protection and special privilege — not because of their own intrinsic merits — but because they are the children of Yahveh’s favorite. Very little attention is devoted to the role of non-Jews and to what Yahveh expects of them and will do for them. The world God behaves like a tribal God.

We should use the Torah as an important historical document, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people.

The Torah is a “sacred” document. It has become a book to be worshiped and defended — not a book to be enjoyed and studied critically. It is an “idol,” set aside for public reverence and held up to public adoration. The contents of the book becomes less important than the ceremon­ial marching and kissing and raising and praising. Sacred scriptures are dangerous, because so long as they are regarded as sacred, they cannot be treated as litera­ture, as the creation of fallible human beings. Because the Torah is an “idol,” many Jews feel a compulsive need to rescue it for contemporary use. The result is a fixation with a short period in Jewish history that may be insignificant to the formation of the modern Jewish personality.

Given these difficulties, what is the place of Torah in the educational and ceremonial life of the Humanistic Jew?

Our answer must be consistent with the basic affirmations of a humanistic ap­proach to Judaism — the irrelevance of God, a rational ethic that derives its authority from human need, a lifestyle consonant with reason and personal dignity, a naturalistic view of Jewish history, the refusal of all idols. It is not our job to fit these beliefs into the Torah. It is our job to fit the Torah into these commitments.

First, let us describe how not to deal with the Torah.

We do not need to rescue the Torah. We do not need to make the Torah do for us more than it can. The Torah is the supreme document of priestly Judaism. It is a skillful expression of a theocratic view of the world and society. No matter what interpretive genius we bring to the text, the Torah cannot be turned into a humanistic constitution — or even a shab­by version of one. A document, two-thirds of whose contents are humanistically em­barrassing, cannot — without dishonesty — be made to serve as the foundation code of a secular approach to Jewish identity.

We must not mock the Torah. It deserves its own dignity. It belongs to the traditional Jews who live by its prescrip­tions. Texts mean what their authors in­tended them to mean. They do not mean what desperate liberals want to make them mean. The writer of Genesis 1 believed in a flat earth and a flat heaven. He did not believe in galaxies and evolu­tion. If he had endorsed those convictions, he would have said so. The writer of Ex­odus 19 believed in supernatural intrusion and divine voice. He did not believe in Moses engaging in philosophic introspec­tion on top of a mountain. The author of Leviticus 19 believed in divine dictator­ship and priestly government. He did not embrace personal freedom and democracy. The rabbis chose to distort some of the priestly intent. The Reformers chose to distort most of it. And certain humanists would have to use every ounce of their guile to turn the texts of the Torah into a plea for an agnostic egalitarian morality.

We must not avoid the Torah. It is so easy to use the Torah as a symbol without ever paying attention to its content. Liberal rabbis love to point out that the Torah is only a sign of God’s continuous revelation, that divine wisdom is present in the best thinking of every Jewish age. But they fail to point out that the editors of the Torah deny future revelations. And the liberal rabbis never fill their arks with the other books they praise. In the end, the Torah becomes a symbol of itself. The weekly readings become perfunctory. The alternatives never get read. An empty parchment scroll with a pretty gown would do just as well.

We must not misrepresent ourselves. We must not imitate Reform Judaism and pretend that Zadokite priests were the precursors of the Enlightenment. Human­istic Judaism is not the child of the official documents of priestly and rabbinic Judaism. It is the child of Jewish ex­perience, 25 centuries of human ingenuity in the face of cruel and unkind fates. Building an ark with a Torah to represent Humanistic Judaism is false representa­tion. It obscures our real history, deceives the public, and prevents us from using the Torah the way we should.

How then should we use the Torah?

Humanistic Judaism should use the Torah as an important historical docu­ment, a resource book for the study of the ancient history of the Jewish people. Although it seems to focus on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it really describes the power struggles and ambi­tions of priests and Jews who lived many centuries after the death of Moses. The Torah is less a description of the life of the Hebrews in the nomadic period and more a revelation of the beliefs and anxieties of the Jews before and after the Chaldean conquest. The editors of the Torah put their sixth century laws and convictions into the mouths of the patriarchs and Moses.

The Torah is a book of clues. If it is studied scientifically (not piously), it will lead us to real events that lie behind the mythology. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may turn out to be symbols of three Amorite invasions of Palestine. Joseph may be transformed into a Semitic inva­sion of Egypt. And Joshua may end up liv­ing 300 years before Moses. The authors of the Torah saw the past through their own political and theological convictions. Jewish history is not what the priestly writers say it was. It is a collection of events that lie behind the descriptions. And the Torah is a collection of clues that lead us to the events.

The Torah is a book about past and pre­sent beliefs. Even if many of the historical statements of the Torah are false, even if many of the laws of the Torah are ethical­ly invalid, they are still assertions that many of our ancestors fervently believed in and that guided their behavior. It may be true that the earth is not flat. But it is true that believing in a flat earth deter­mines your travel arrangements and the way you see your place in the universe. It may be true that Yahveh did not write the Torah. But it is true that believing that Yahveh did write the Torah would in­fluence the way you approached new ideas and justified new laws. Much of establishment Jewish behavior comes from ideas that are to be found in the Torah and its commentaries. The study of these ideas is part of the study of Jewish history, just as is a study of the conditions that undermined these ideas.

The Torah is a book of shared conclu­sions. The priestly writers often reached ethical conclusions that we as Humanistic Jews also have reached. They came to these moral precepts with the sanction of an authoritarian God. We come to these rules with an empirical testing of their consequences. They (the priestly writers) came to these precepts with the belief that the Torah gave them validity. We come to them with the awareness that common sense makes them worthwhile — even if the Torah did not exist. Millions of people in dozens of cultures have discovered that honoring parents and telling the truth were morally important, even though they never saw a Torah. Ethics do not come from a book. They come from human needs and human experience.

The Ten Commandments — like any historic religious code — do not complete­ly pass the test of a humanistic appeal to human dignity. Insisting that Jews remem­ber their dependence on supernatural in­tervention is hardly an invitation to self- reliance and self-esteem. Prohibiting the sculpture of the human form does not ele­vate the independence and creativity of the artist. And arbitrarily choosing one day for everybody to abstain from all sur­vival and pleasure activity has more to do with fear than with rest and recreation. Indeed, children should know about the Ten Commandments. But they should not be intimidated by their antiquity and by their authoritarian history. Rational guidelines are never inscribed in stone. They need to be continually adjusted and amended.

In a Humanistic Jewish congregation, the Torah does not belong in an ark. An ark implies that the Torah is a sacred scripture. And Humanistic Jews do not ac­cept the idea of sacred scriptures. All literature is of human creation, designed to appeal to human audiences and filled with human imperfection. Books are never holy. They may be useful and inspi­rational. But they are never all true and all perfect. And they bear no guarantee of eternal validity.

The Torah belongs in the library. As a scroll, it deserves a place of special honor in the museum of famous Jewish books. Let students study it and evaluate it. Let teachers talk about it and explain its historic power. But let no one worship it or imagine that Jewish identity and ethical living depend on it.

Jewish history — as it really happened — is the source of Jewish identity for Humanistic Jews. No single Jewish book can be an adequate symbol of the ex­perience. A new view of Jewish history cannot be seriously pursued so long as we give too much place to the symbol of the old view.