Thursday, September 13, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Not in Heaven

Every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we read the following words from Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy, Chapter 30:

“11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

When we say that the Torah is “not in heaven,” what do we mean?

The Jewish tradition has understood these words in a few different ways. Many of you are familiar with the Talmudic passage from Bava Metzia 59b where Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are arguing about the ritual purity of a certain type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer gets frustrated and invokes all kinds of miracles and finally a heavenly voice to prove that his position is the correct one. But upon hearing the heavenly voice Rabbi Joshua rises and says “it is not in heaven,” and therefore we pay no attention to heavenly voices. The rabbis of each generation have to decide the law; we don’t have the option of appealing to God directly. The Torah is not in heaven. It was once, but God has chosen to give it over into human hands.

It is this human role in the system which has allowed Judaism to adapt and grow over the centuries. When a religion has no possibility of amending its laws -- or when those amendments depend on direct ratification from God -- it becomes very difficult if not impossible to adapt to changing conditions. If I ever announced to the congregation that God had spoken directly to me and commanded a new law or changed an old one, what would your reaction be? Is there room in Judaism for a sense of a new revelation that is not rooted in the text? Why or why not? 

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