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Sermon for Shavu'ot 1--Who wrote the Torah?
June 02, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Here is the sermon I presented on the first day of Shavu'ot. Enjoy!

Who wrote the Torah?

I know that is a loaded question, but I want to ask it beneath the theological bias that each of us brings to the answer. To respond to the question with a glib assertion most usually "God" overlooks the evidence that comes from the content of the Torah itself. To respond with the smug assertion of modern scholars J, P, D and E overlooks the counterintuitive nature of much of what we hold sacred.

So I want to set up my own straw man and knock it over, but I hope in doing so I can make a point that I consider to be crucial to our understanding of our relationship to Torah.

Let me distill Torah to the small section we affirm is the reason for today's festival: the Ten Commandments. Let me remind you in brief what they are:

  1. God brought us out of Egypt.
  2. We should not worship anything else as God, especially idols and images.
  3. We should not take a false oath by God's name.
  4. Remember Shabbat.
  5. Honor your parents.
  6. Do not commit adultery.
  7. Do not murder.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not lie.
  10. Do not covet.

I won't spend time pointing out the anomalies, including the dubious status of the first one as a commandment and the variations in the version in Deuteronomy, to name two. Those, in summary, are the ten we have, the ten we affirm were revealed on this day all those years before.

What made these instructions necessary? I have said this before, and I affirm it again: if people were not worshipping idols and committing adultery and stealing already, God would not have invented the sin just to teach the remedy! Nobody turned to a neighbor at Sinai and said, "Vus is dos `murder?'" Part of the genius of these ten commandments is that they do not require commentary not that we don't have commentary but anyone who has ever rolled his or her eyes at the suggestion that they be careful playing near the pillar of smoke by day knows what "Honor your father and your mother" is talking about.

In fact, you could make the case that at least one purpose of the book of Genesis is to document the origin of sin. Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote a piece some fifteen years ago on exactly this subject. He identified the events in our prehistory that paved the way for the commandments. While Rabbi Gellman attributes actions of God to the foundation for the Ten Commandments, the events themselves presuppose that without documentation to the contrary, we would have said that the Ten Commandments might have emerged as the natural inclinations of humanity.

Take the most obvious one: You shall not murder. The first murder occurs so early in the Book of Genesis you might think it was part of the divine plan. Cain lures Abel into the field and strikes him down with malice aforethought. The motive isn't even clear, but the intent is evident. God seems genuinely surprised by Cain's decision to un-create what God created.

Or look less obviously at the fifth commandment Honor your father and your mother. Virtually every parent-child relationship in Genesis is fractured. Noah's son mocks him, Abram leaves his father behind, Isaac disappears from Abraham's life after the akeidah, Jacob deceives his father, Simeon and Levi double-cross Jacob. With these stories providing the basis for the establishment of the People Israel, Torah is almost compelled to acknowledge a string of extraordinary exceptions by codifying the respect parents deserve.

Sit down and read carefully the narrative of humanity, from the sixth day of creation to Sinai, and you will find ample evidence of the creativity of human beings in antisocial behavior. Categorize them, shuffle the deck a little, and you'll find that there are ten basic types of that conduct:

  1. The chutzpah of egotism and arrogance
  2. Idolatry
  3. Inventing God's will
  4. Recklessly exploiting the world
  5. Dismissing parents and ancestry
  6. Dismissing human life
  7. Sexual exploitation
  8. Confiscating the fruits of another's efforts
  9. Lying in one's self-interest
  10. Jealousy that someone else has it better than you

I think you might make the case that some parts of Torah are proactive attempts to refine the human being and elevate our spirit, but at its core the Torah is a response to the way human nature turned out. It is as if God were saying, "Here's what I was thinking when I began this endeavor. I was hoping it would be self-evident, but it appears that it isn't. So do this and don't do that and the world will work the way it should."

To argue otherwise to argue that God or any other author presumed that we human creatures were given default shortcomings in order to justify a later revelation is to argue that human beings in general and Jews in particular were created for the sake of Torah.

In fact, there is an almost fatalistic slogan that emerges from the Jewish mystical tradition: yisrael v'oraita v'kudsha brikh hu chad hu; "Israel, the Torah and the Blessed Holy One is all one." It is a sort of Jewish trinity the People Israel, the Torah and God are all manifestations of the same unique one-ness. Culturally and religiously we are so uncomfortable with that notion that we sing it with a missing piece: yisrael, yisrael v'oraita chad hu; "The People Israel and Torah are One," a chant more of solidarity than anything else.

By the same token, the suggestion that the Torah is nothing more and nothing less than the blended work of a series of human authors, perhaps inspired by some spiritual consciousness, forces us to invent something for which there is less evidence than the existence of God: a systematic philosophy that someone or some ones were so familiar with that they could edit together disparate writings into a mostly cohesive and comprehensible epic. It defies the rational mind and logic that it purports to serve; it projects backwards something that wasn't thought of until the day before yesterday.

And it reduces Torah to something of no greater consequence than the writings it has inspired.

So who wrote the Torah?

You did, and you do. By attempting to live a human life with the consciousness of the Divine Being in Whom we find the source of human life, people just like you and me wrote the Torah. It became necessary because of who we had become. It became necessary because of our desire to live up to our potential, and of God's desire to see us succeed in that endeavor.

Every sin begets a corrective rule. Every transgression provokes collective and individual conscience. Every willful act of belligerence provokes a palette of emotions anger, love, regret, consternation, reflection, introspection on our part and on the part of our Creator.

The Israelites who arrived at Sinai with the story of their ancestors on their tongues and in their blood brought the experiences that wrote the Torah. What was revealed to them was what they needed to know to know what they needed. That exquisite moment of meeting between heaven and earth meant that what happened there once was always possible, in every moment, even if it would never happen again.

The Jews who arrive at the study hall, at the book, at the synagogue with their own stories on their tongues and in their blood write Torah at every one of those moments. When we step to the Torah and show it reverence, when we point at a word and chant it aloud, when we take up a quill and dip it in ink and inscribe a letter on a parchment in fulfillment of the ultimate mitzvah on the list of hundreds, that exquisite meeting of heaven and earth becomes possible once more.

This forsaken holiday celebrates a gift we didn't deserve but could not have lived without. And it reminds us that people just like us made that gift necessary and made that gift possible. And if they, who never knew Torah until the moment it was given, could write Torah, then so can we.


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