14.3. The Problem of the Torah as Law

This concept, which sees the giving of the Torah as a compulsory measure, at first seems rather strange to Judaism. As a rule, in popular Jewish religious literature, the laws of the Torah are extolled as the ideal. But in fact, the anomic line of thought, which disparages the importance of the law, is not at all alien to Judaism, but, on the contrary, is deeply rooted in it. This approach emphasizes that the Torah was forced upon the Jews[1] at Sinai, and argues that in Messianic times the restrictive laws will be abolished, such that people will not need to teach each other. Every person will independently understand the Torah, by virtue of the Divine spark that he harbors within himself[2].

We wish to emphasize that the issue here is not that the Torah will be abolished in Messianic times, but that the commandments will cease to be “law” – their status will change. In Messianic times, the commandments of the Torah based on an ordered set of rules will become an internal guide to action. The Patriarchs of the Torah proceeded from this inner sensation – they were able to realize the commandments without being guided by formal laws. The commandments were natural values for the Patriarchs, which they understood from within – a much higher level of spiritual development than a system in which the commandments serve as legislative norms.

However, so long as the Jewish people, and all of humanity, have not yet risen to this level, the laws cannot be repealed. Judaism’s Messianic goal is for all of society to be built on ideals and on love, not on laws and coercion. But any attempt to build such a society prematurely, to “repeal the law” before humanity is truly ready for such a transformation[3], is a form of false Messianism.

Moreover, because the Jewish people accepted the laws of the Torah under duress, there are people in every generation who yearn to throw off the yoke of the law. In their souls they sense this law as a form of violence that has been inflicted on them, rather than an obligation that they accepted of their own free will. But they fail to realize that the world has not yet reached that level of spiritual development where the law can simply be replaced by values and ideals. The actions of these people are therefore destructive, even if we allow that their motives are not entirely without merit. But at the same time, while we understand that it would be utterly premature to repeal the law at this time, it is essential that we strive toward that goal, in order to ensure that in the future, values and ideals that will be internally motivated, but universally acknowledged, will replace the law as the foundation of human society.

We must therefore not idealize the Divine law. For their proper development, the Jewish people need not only the Sages who preserve the Law, but the defectors too, who from time to time lead their own rebellion against it. Although their intent is to defy and destroy, such destruction counters the blind worship of the law. And that too is important.

[1] According to the Midrash (to 19:17), immediately before the giving of Torah the Almighty held the mountain suspended above the Jews, and told them that if they would not accept the laws of the Torah, He would allow the mountain to fall, and Sinai would become their national gravesite.

[2] This condition of the Messianic times is described by the prophet Jeremiah: “No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, ‘Heed the Lord’; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me – declares the Lord” (31:34). That is, every person will have innate and intimate knowledge of God’s Torah.

[3] One of the indicators of humanity’s readiness for the law to be declared superfluous will be the complete elimination of violence, as Isaiah famously prophesied: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Isa. 2:4). Notwithstanding that those prophetic words are literally carved in stone at the entrance to the United Nations headquarters in New York City, it is obvious that humanity today is still very far from achieving that.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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