Torah as our way toward God
Parashat Yitro is one of the most extraordinary pieces of human literature ever written. In it we hear the original revelation of Torah at Sinai – the only time ever recorded in human history that God revealed Self to an entire nation, as opposed to one individual. “Torah mi-Sinai”, that Torah has been revealed at Sinai, is a central principle of Judaism. Debate within the streams of Judaism exists as to what precisely we mean by this term. In the Torah itself, the precise timing and nature of the revelation is opaque (did it happen in one instant, over 40 days and nights while Moses communed with God, over the 40 days of wandering in the wilderness ?). The answer to that question will place one along a continuum of how much of the entire Torah is the record of revelation.
Orthodoxy has claimed that the entire five books must be taken as the literal revelation from God to Moses; any other position, for them, is heresy. (They also include the Mishnah as the later recording of Oral Torah that had been handed down from Moses, to Joshua, to the prophets to the sages and then to the rabbis as part of the precise revelation from Sinai.) The unorthodox approach states that Torah is a process of communication, and that the human hand is inevitably interwoven in the revelation by having written it down. No matter where one stands on the continuum, Torah becomes the content of our covenant with God.
But, this week’s Torah portion is also remarkable in that it opens up with a much more mundane story of Yitro, a non-Jew, who guides Moses as to how to administer law to the people. From this, and other aspects of Scripture itself, we learn that wisdom and knowledge are not unique to Judaism, but an aspect of what it means to be human. The following comments come from the desk of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks regarding God’s covenant with humanity and with Jews. “Judaism has an unusual dual structure. On the one hand, there is the covenant with Noah, and through him, with all humanity. On the other, there is the covenant of Sinai, specific to the Jewish people. This means that though Judaism is a particularist faith, we also believe that all human beings have access to God, and – if they are righteous – a share in the world to come.“Corresponding to this, Judaism has a dual epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is hokhmah, wisdom, which is the universal heritage of mankind. It flows from the definition of humanity as the image and likeness of God.
Rashi translates ‘in our likeness’ as meaning, ‘with the capacity to understand and discern’. On the other hand, there is Torah, the covenant binding Israel to the sovereignty of God. There is nothing universal about this. Torah flows from the highly specific historical experience of the patriarchs and their descendants. It sets forth a unique code of sanctity, by which the people were to govern their lives.
“Among the differences are these: wisdom is the truth we discover, by reason, observation and experience. Torah is the truth we inherit. Revealed at Sinai, it has been handed on from generation to generation. Wisdom teaches us facts; Torah teaches us laws. Wisdom tells us how the world is; Torah tells us how it ought to be. Wisdom is subject to proof; Torah requires something else, authentication, meaning that it has come down to us through the centuries by way of a reliable chain of transmission from sage to sage.” Sacks’ comments should help all Jews, no matter where we stand along the continuum of understanding Torah, to accept it as the basis of our story that compels us to right action. It should also enable us to see how we can embrace both Torah and humanity, celebrating, not rejecting the wonderful wisdom of the world in the arts, philosophy, history and science. This week’s parasha can open our eyes to being part of this world while working to improve it at the same time.