Torah Evolves with Mankind


In the last two videos (#5 “Torah is Not Only for the Jews” and #6, “Judaism is not a Religion”), we discussed the idea that the Torah was given to the Am Levadad so that we could model to the rest of the world a society based on the principles of ethical monotheism: justice, kindness, and holiness.

If you think about it, this means that through the actions of the Am Levadad, who are supposed to study it and live by it, the Torah is meant to be the driving force behind the moral and spiritual development of humanity.  The first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel in modern times, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, spoke about this a lot – he talked about how humans have a natural built-in tendency to grow and develop. Thousands of years ago, he said, people were much less morally developed than they are today, and it is the Torah that has helped facilitate the transformation.

Born in Russia in 1865 to a father who had studied in the Volozhin yeshiva and a mother from a Hasidic background, Rav Kook began his rabbinic career in Lithuania at the age of 23. In 1904, he immigrated to the land of Israel and became the rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding agricultural settlements. Already at this stage, Rav Kook was distinguished by the love and respect he held for non-observant Jews, and especially for the chalutzim, the pioneer farmers who were settling the land.  In 1921, he settled in Jerusalem and was appointed Chief Rabbi of Palestine, a position he held until his death in 1935.

Drawing on the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidut, Rav Kook’s unique philosophy emphasizes the inherent goodness of all creation.  One of his ideas, which is particularly relevant to the theme of this video, is that everything in the universe possesses an inherent inner drive to improve itself.  Here are translations of a few short excerpts from his writings that express this idea:

“There is a soul in every spark that strives to elevate itself…and this is certainly true of every creature, which is constantly growing through every aspect of its existence, both within its physical reality and beyond it….  And this is even more true regarding people, families, nations, and cultures….

Triumphs and failures are constantly present, both in the state of an individual and in the state of the world as a whole. However, their primary trajectory is toward growth and improvement.  Even moments of great failure should be seen in the same light as the waxing and waning of the moon, the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, or a person’s inhaling and exhaling…. Each of these pairs seems to be opposites, yet they all contribute to the fullness of life. [Human successes and failures must be seen the same way.]” (Orot HaKodesh Vol. 2, pp. 538-539).

“Since [the generation] is constantly improving, since it senses within itself an inner nobility and sensitivity, a strong inclination to understand, to improve itself…it is constantly thirsting for knowledge and understanding, together with an instinctive urge for honesty.” (Maamar HaDor)

“It is human nature to walk on the path of righteousness. When a person strays from this path and falls to sin…his inner sense of justice makes his heart sad, and he is decimated by his pain. He thus rushes to correct his misdeeds, until he feels that his sin has been erased….” (Orot HaTeshuva 1:1)

“In the earlier generations, most people were not very intelligent.  At the same time, the geniuses were giants in knowledge, so that they could be capable of lifting up the undeveloped masses. Yet as history progressed, knowledge expanded to the masses, and the geniuses became less great. (Kevatzim miKetav Yad Kodsho, Pinkas Rishon l’Yaffo 79 – translation courtesy of Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz, The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook, Jerusalem:Gefen Publishing, 2018).

So as we said in the previous video, the Torah is meant to be the engine driving human moral and spiritual development.  But this leads to a problem – when the Torah was given, the world was very different than it is now, in so many ways.  The Torah that was given at Sinai needs to remain relevant throughout the entire process, as the world progresses.  How is that possible?

The issue we’re grappling with here exists on two levels. To start with, human civilization has progressed significantly since the Torah was given, and some of the Torah’s laws (for example, the ones permitting slavery or regulating the treatment of enemies during wartime) seem inappropriate or even immoral by contemporary standards.  

According to our analysis, though, the question is much deeper than this. It’s not simply that our society’s morality has improved to the point that some of the Torah’s laws seem out of sync with our values. It’s that this moral progress has been the point of the Torah!  After all, ideas like the inherent value of every human being are major themes in the Torah, and to a very large extent, modern Western society has learned these values from the Torah (via Christianity).  

In other words, as the Torah succeeds in assisting human moral progress, it creates a problem because its own laws – which may have seemed quite forward-thinking when they were given – begin to appear primitive and unethical!

Let me tell you a quick story.  A few years ago, I was approached by a serious, thoughtful, and committed Reform Jew who wanted to understand more about Orthodoxy. I asked him what he thought the difference is between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. After thinking for a moment, he told me, “Reform believes that traditional practices must be updated and changed to meet the times, while the Orthodox live exactly as our ancestors did.”

In response, I pointed out that, despite some similarities in the stereotypical dress and appearance of some of us, Orthodox Jews are not Amish. Unlike the Amish, Orthodox Jews drive cars, use cell phones, fly on airplanes, and avail themselves of other technological conveniences.

And more significantly, while there are substantial differences between various Orthodox groups regarding the extent to which this principle is applied, all agree that the practical application of laws and traditions must be appropriate for the specific generation, community, and individual involved.

Evolution and innovation have always been part of the halakhic process, and halakhic authorities have often used the tools at their disposal to modify laws to meet the needs of changing times. Well-known examples of this phenomenon include the Talmudic-era prozbul that enables collection of debts after the Sabbatical year, the medieval heter iska allowing loans with interest, and the sale of hametz to a non-Jew before Passover.  All three of these innovations circumvented Biblical laws whose simple observance had become unpractical.

The ban on polygamy, adopted in Ashkenazic communities over 1000 years ago and in some non-Ashkenazic communities only a few generations ago, is another example.

Although this fact is often overlooked, halakhic innovation continues in our generation too – and this is true, in different ways and to different extents, in ALL Orthodox communities. A great example of this is the organized and institutionalized Torah education for women and girls.  Although there were always individual women who studied Torah and achieved high levels of excellence, the idea of a communal school educational system for girls was unthinkable as recently as 160 years ago. Indeed, classical sources seemed to indicate that such an institution would be halakhically prohibited.

Today, though, every single Orthodox community in the world has an entire network of educational institutions, from kindergartens for little girls through elementary, high school, and adult education classes for girls and women. While these institutions differ both in curriculum and study methods, the very existence of these schools demonstrates very dramatically that halakhic observance is neither static nor ossified.

So, I told him, his definition is incorrect – Orthodox Jews do not live “exactly as our ancestors did.” In fact, from a certain perspective, his self-definition of Reform belief, “that traditional practices must be updated and changed to meet the times,” defines Orthodoxy as well.

So then, what is the difference? Or – to put it differently – how can the undeniable reality that today we do not live the same way our ancestors did be reconciled with the assertion that the Torah has not been changed and can never be replaced?

The answer lies in what is perhaps the most unusual aspect of the divine wisdom evident in the Torah: the system known as Torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law), and, specifically, the halakha (the legal system through which the Torah’s commandments are put into action).

When you study Torah sheba’al peh and halakha, several paradoxes become apparent: According to its own self-definition, the halakha is both eternal and dynamic, unchangeable yet highly flexible and adaptable. It is also both human and divine – it’s a partnership between God and man.

The secret behind this powerful system is God’s surprising decision to formulate ethical, religious, and philosophical principles into commandments that, together, form a legal system. In Video #5 I recalled how I realized during my first year in yeshiva that, more than being theologians, thinkers, or spiritual leaders, the Talmudic sages and later rabbis were and are lawyers.

The secret behind this powerful system is God’s surprising decision to formulate ethical, religious, and philosophical principles into commandments that, together, form a legal system.

That may seem odd at first, but its power is enormous. As any skilled lawyer can attest, a legal system is both grounded and evolving, conservative and adaptable. Laws evolve to meet changing needs through a constant interplay of legislation, litigation, public convention, legal decisions, and precedent – and all those elements are present in halakha as well.

A wonderful rabbinic legend (Menahot 29b) says that when he went up to Mount Sinai, Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) found the Almighty “tying crowns” to the letters of the Torah. Not understanding the significance of those crowns, Moshe inquired, and God informed him that well over 1000 years later, a great sage would live named Rabbi Akiva, who would be able to derive many important insights from those crowns.

Moshe replied that he would like to see this man, and God obliged by sending him into the future, where he found himself sitting at the back of Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash (study hall). Moshe quickly became very distressed, because he did not understand any part of the lecture – could it be that, after being transmitted over so many generations, the Torah would become distorted beyond recognition?

The story concludes with Moshe hearing one of the students in the study hall ask Rabbi Akiva what was the source for one of his points. And when Rabbi Akiva responded, “it is a halakha l’Moshe miSinai (a halakha taught to Moshe on Mount Sinai)”, Moshe was comforted.

This poetic image encapsulates the secret of Torah sheba’al peh. Indeed, Moshe could not understand Rabbi Akiva any more than Rabbi Akiva would have been able to understand today’s halakhic debates about subjects such as brain death, electronic commerce, artificial intelligence, or lab-grown meat. But the decisions that Rabbi Akiva taught were based upon the principles Moshe transmitted, just as today’s decisions are based upon those of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. In this way, the halakha can react to societal change and development, while simultaneously molding and shaping that development. The halakha can adapt and evolve while remaining true to its source. 

Orthodoxy responds that the solution offered by Reform is not really a solution. The attempt to update the Torah to keep it relevant results in replacing the divinely-given Torah with human ideas.

This is actually the major difference between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Reform posits that the laws written in the Torah thousands of years ago – when the world was so different than it is today – shouldn’t be observed in today’s world. Therefore, they view the Torah (which they believe may have been inspired by God but was written by people) not as binding laws or commandments, but as the starting point of a very long conversation that must be revisited and updated by consensus in every generation. 

This has been the official policy of Reform Judaism since its inception in 19th-Century Germany, and has remained constant throughout its development, primarily in the United States. Below are a few official statements of the American Reform movement from the late 19th-century through the 21st:

“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” (Pittsburgh Platform, 1885)

“The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel’s ever-growing consciousness of God and of the moral law. It preserves the historical precedents, sanctions and norms of Jewish life, and seeks to mould it in the patterns of goodness and of holiness. Being products of historical processes, certain of its laws have lost their binding force with the passing of the conditions that called them forth. But as a depository of permanent spiritual ideals, the Torah remains the dynamic source of the life of Israel. Each age has the obligation to adapt the teachings of the Torah to its basic needs in consonance with the genius of Judaism.” (Columbus Platform, 1937)

“We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of מצוות (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these מצוות (mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.” (Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999)

“Throughout history, the Jewish people have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition – and yet, since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times….

We believe that Judaism must change and adapt to the needs of the day to survive, and we see the Torah as a living, God-inspired document that enables us to confront the challenges of our everyday lives.” (Official website of Reform Judaism, retrieved May 22, 2023)

The claim motivating this philosophy is undeniably powerful.  However, Orthodoxy responds that the solution offered by Reform is not really a solution. The attempt to update the Torah to keep it relevant results in replacing the divinely-given Torah with human ideas; instead of the Torah guiding our society, society winds up guiding the Torah.

But Halakha (Jewish law), with its legal tools, can solve this problem. Human beings have a major role in its evolution and adaption, and yet the halakha remains divine – as Rabbi Akiva said in the story, it all goes back to halakha l’Moshe miSinai – “the halakha taught to Moshe on Mount Sinai.”

Because of these unique characteristics, the Torah can be developed and adapted, without being changed, distorted, or replaced. Its timeless messages can be applied to the unique circumstances of each generation, and can help move the world, step by step, toward redemption.

In our next video, #7, entitled “Two Paths to Redemption”, we’ll return to our discussion of the Am Levadad’s role in history, and discuss what happens if we do – or don’t – live up to our mission.

Dive deeper

I actually think the polytheist and the atheist are quite similar to each other – in fact, they’re almost identical! One might even describe atheism as a special form of polytheism.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s realize that in classic polytheistic conceptions of the world – even if there was often a “head” or “chief” god, there was no single ruler in charge of everything. Instead, the polytheist viewed the universe as a chaotic place controlled by various powers, which he personified and called “gods”. While the specific names and mythologies varied from one region or culture to another, there were striking similarities between them. They all believed in a pantheon of gods, each of which was thought to be responsible for a different natural or human phenomenon: there was usually a sun god and a moon god, a god of wind, a god of rain, a god (or often, goddess) of fertility, a god of war, a god of love, and so on. And at least in ancient times, these gods often looked and behaved very much like humans: They were jealous of each other, fought with one another, formed alliances, and deceived one another.
To survive in such a world, the polytheist would worship the various gods and try to figure out what they needed so he could win their favor and entice them to act in his interest. He might also engage in magical rituals that he believed could harness various forces to help him.
Now let’s compare this to the way a modern atheist sees the world. Unlike the polytheist, she doesn’t believe in gods with personalities and emotions. But beyond that distinction, her vision of the world is very similar. She also sees a chaotic universe in which various forces interact and clash with one another. Her universe, like that of the polytheist, has no ruler, and nobody in charge.

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