A Third Torah

The first five books of the Bible, traditionally attributed to Moses, are also known as the “Written Torah,” dictated by God and transcribed by Moses. Later came the “Oral Torah,” consisting of 2,711 mishnayot, traditionally held to have been spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai, and then passed down orally to successive generations of Jewish leaders, until they were faithfully written down about 1,500 years later, as the foundation of the Talmud.

These two Torahs are the heart and brain of the Jewish religion. But the provenance and history of these scriptures is rather far from the traditional notion. The “Written Torah” is now believed to have been written, compiled, and edited in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.—although there’s no way to know how long its components existed in oral form. The mishnayot emanated from the ideas and oral traditions of the pharisees/rabbis, developed over several hundred years after the return from the sixth century exile. The first Torah was heavily concerned with matters of the Temple and priesthood, written for Jews whose main interaction with God was through sacrifices and cultic rituals. The second Torah was written for Jews forced into the diaspora after the destruction of the great Temple (70 C.E.) and the disastrous Bar Kochba uprising (~130 C.E.); it contained an arcane and detailed exploration of all the extant Jewish beliefs and folkways, as well as a somewhat fanciful version of what Judaism was like while the Temple still stood.

My sense of Jewish history is that these two Torahs are inflection points in an ethical evolution that began in the middle- or late-Bronze Era and extends to the present day. Those under the priestly yoke of the first Torah were told that the rules enforced in the temples were commandments from God and were administered without mercy. Those under the yoke of the Talmud, however, learned the art of disputation and legal argument; it became possible for a group of rabbis to reject a “divine message.” The answers to our ethical/legal questions are “not in heaven,” they learned. And when God heard this, he laughed and said, profoundly, “my children have defeated me!”

This ethical evolution moved the ancient Jews to increasingly rely on the aspect of life that is said to most in the image of God: Reason. Judaism has been a vector of ideas, replacing one system of thought with a more recent and current set of newer ideas — often called interpretations, so as to retain respect for the prior system.

Through the Middle Ages, Talmudic Judaism became increasingly elaborate and arcane. To master it required years of study, as well as a high IQ and an exceptional memory. Not surprisingly, it spawned anti-intellectual and mystical reactions, more accessible to the unlearned and superstitious. Still, though, the main version of Judaism (and there have always been multiple versions) remained highly legalistic and comprehensive.  The underlying assumption was that for every choice a Jewish person could make, there was a decision most pleasing to God; the warrant for this Godly choice could be found in the two Torahs and the library of canonical commentaries. The goal was to anticipate every possible ethical decision and provide the right course of action; when entirely new problems presented themselves, a panel of scholars would prepare a responsum that amended or supplanted the existing law. Thus, an “orthodox” Jew knows not only what pant-leg to put on first (the right) but also how many times a Jewish astronaut circling the earth several times a day must daven.

This ethical system, which still seems to serve millions quite well, began to face some serious opposition in the 16th and 17th Centuries. On the one hand, scientific discoveries challenged the coherence of many Biblical ideas and the conception of God that they implied. (The earth simply did not exist before the sun.) And eventually science and scholarship undermined sacred beliefs about the provenance of the Written Torah, and, by implication, much of Talmud. The Torah, it became clearer and clearer, was the work of Judean writers, not of God or Moses. And the Bible, always fascinating and frequently instructive, was to be regarded not as a magical object but as a…BOOK!

At the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment (roughly 1650-1800), Baruch Spinoza wrote an analysis of the relationship between church and state (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) in which he assaulted the idea of the divine selection of monarchs, showing that such was incompatible with freedom of thought. Along the way he wrote the first extended work of Bible Criticism, in which he concluded:

I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting Nature, and is in fact in complete accord with it… The task of Scriptural interpretation requires us to make a straightforward study of Scripture, and from this, as the source of our fixed data and principles, to deduce by logical inference the meaning of the authors of Scripture … allowing no other principles or data for the interpretation of Scripture and study of its contents except those that can be gathered only from Scripture itself and from a historical study of Scripture.

In short, the Bible is a book, like other books. When it is inconsistent, contradictory, or ethically suspect, it deserves the same treatment we’d apply to any other intellectual text. This conclusion causes some people to conclude that the Age of Enlightenment begins with Spinoza’s Tractatus; it is an era in which philosophy and science are prized over religion and tradition, where baseless claims are discounted as superstition, and the Bible and Talmud are neither necessary nor sufficient for the pursuit of ethical insight.

And “ethical insight” is the central issue here.  I agree with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s definition of Torah as “everything written for the ethical education of the Jewish people.” And that is why I nominate Spinoza’s Ethics as a candidate for the third Torah, a further inflection point in the history of Jewish ideas.

It is beyond the scope of this little essay to describe or explain the Ethics. Like any respectable Torah it rewards a lifetime of study with ever-richer insights.  But I can outline its parts to introduce it to those who are curious. Like the Written Torah, the Ethics is presented in five books, each the logical foundation of the next — like an immense Euclidian proof:

Book 1: Of God

Spinoza’s God is not outside the universe; rather, everything in the universe is a mode or aspect of the substance God. Human beings perceive God as Nature or, more precisely, Natural Law. Far from being supernatural, God and Nature are two names for the same thing. Natural law, moreover, is inviolate (by definition) and deterministic.

Book 2: On Mind

Spinoza attacks the notion that mind and body are separate substances or entities, also know as Cartesian Dualism. The mind is part of the body, also subject to natural law, and therefore incapable of free, or uncaused, action. Not only can there be no afterlife, but also there is no free will and, moreover, our senses and feelings are usually untrustworthy.

Book 3: On Emotions (Passions)

Ideas shaped by our immediate passions and emotions are untrustworthy because they make the mind passive; such ideas are contingent and inadequate. Ideas formed by eternal feelings, however, like the “intellectual love of God,” are adequate and, in a sense, immortal.

Book 4: Of Human Bondage

Humans are bound by their passions—love, hate, jealousy…–and unable to make rational decisions. That is why peaceful society seems almost impossible.

Book V: The Power of Reason

Only Reason can deter and offset the effects of the passions and guide correct ethical decisions. The goal of life is to live in such a way that Reason, Virtue, and Freedom are three names for the same thing.

Spinoza himself would be enraged at such a proposal, at the suggestion that his work was a Jewish book. Although he began life as a brilliant Torah/Talmud scholar, he eventually reached the conclusion that, while the goal of religion is obedience, the goal of philosophy is non-sectarian truth. The Ethics, however, I (as a Spinozan Rabbi) believe is the next stage beyond Rabbinic Judaism, and, like Albert Einstein, I find it to be filled with “Living Jewish Intelligence.”

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