Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: What happened at Sinai? (The meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim)

According to the Biblical text, at Mount Sinai the Jewish people 'encounter' God and receive the Torah, which is considered to be divine, or 'Min Hashamayim,' (from heaven). In fact, the belief of Torah Min Hashamayim is a key doctrine of Judaism, one which often distinguishes traditional theological thought from heresy.

But what does it actually mean?

This week we looked at the debate surrounding what was received at Sinai, a debate which also touches on something much wider – what the margins of legitimate, traditional thought within Judaism are.

Contrary to what is generally taught (atleast when I was growing up in the UK), there is a wide spectrum as to what Torah Min Hashamayim could mean. On the one hand, it could mean anything from 'instruction' (Torah) whose origins are 'divine' (from heaven). On the other, it could include the written and oral law (Torah) that were literally received from heaven. In fact, one Rabbi Isaac even suggests that what a learned student will one day teach before their Rebbe was already given to Moshe on Sinai.

Ultimately the Rabbis disagree as to the meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim (or where the lines of heresy are drawn). The maximalist position demands belief that God gave Moshe the entire Torah, without Moshe adding anything of his own accord. The minimalist position meanwhile 'merely' demands belief in the concept of revelation (or not worshipping idols).


Sometime over the last few hundred years, the Maximalist position (Torah Min Hashamayim as meaning the whole Chumash given by God to Moshe) won out. In fact, it won to such an extent that this position is often mistakenly considered to be the only legitimate traditional opinion on the origins of the Torah, with any other position being classified as heretical.

However, (and dont tell Artscroll) there are several problems with the Maximalist view. In fact, it seems that even many traditional commentators (such as Abbaye or Ibn Ezra) didnt even believe that the entire Torah (Chumash) was given by God to Moshe.

Yet if Torah Min Hashamayim doesn't mean what the Maximalists claim, what could it mean?

Ibn Ezra suggests that the divine aspect of the Torah is reflected in its commandments, rather than its narrative.

Others argue that the meaning of Torah Min Hashamayim should be seen as similar to the blessing Hamotzai Lechem Min Haaretz (who brings out bread from the ground). In other words, even though humans turn wheat into bread, we still consider bread to have come from the ground, similarly, the origins of the Torah are divine, yet humans have an integral part in turning it into something 'edible'.

We ended with one of my favourite ideas, from Abraham Joshua Heschel who reinterprets Rabbi Isaac's comment suggesting that what a learned student will teach in front of their Rebbe was already given at Sinai (above) to mean that revelation at Sinai plants within each of us our ability to cognitively develop and innovate, to come up with new ideas.

Click here for the source sheet and audio recording.

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