In order to clarify what the giving of the Torah actually means, we must first seriously consider, through the eyes of the Torah, the nature of the relationship of the Jewish people to the nations of the world.
At the onset of Jewish history, when God first chose Abraham for his singular mission, the Torah states that the Almighty told him, “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Genesis 12:3). It was for this that God chose Abraham, and, in fact, the other two Patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, as well, whose chosenness God explained similarly. Thus, God’s purpose in choosing the Patriarchs and their descendants, the Jewish people, was to advance all of humanity. The Jews are chosen only to facilitate the advancement all the other nations of the world.
The Midrash relates that the Almighty before the giving of the Torah had wanted to give the Torah to all of humanity, and He offered it to each nation on earth in turn, but none would agree to accept it, because the demands of the Torah did not coincide with their own ethical and religious principles such as they were. Ultimately, only the Jews agreed to accept the Torah. In other words, at the Revelation at Sinai the Jewish people were chosen simply because they were the only ones who would agree to be chosen.
In a future era, however, the Torah will be transmitted to all mankind. The prophet Isaiah famously predicted (2:3): “And the many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.’ for instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
The Jewish people themselves do not need the Torah to come forth from Zion, nor the word of the Lord from Jerusalem – the Jews received the Torah long ago at Sinai. But then the Jews carried it with them from there to Canaan, to Zion, and to Jerusalem. The Jewish people have tested the Divine teachings on themselves by making it an integral part of their lives. This involved also adding the books of the Prophets and the Ketuvim to the Torah, such that the Torah is now the Tanakh – the twenty-four books of the Jewish scriptures. The Torah has thus become accessible to all peoples, making Zion and Jerusalem the place from which the Torah emanates for all of humanity.
The reason that the other nations refused to accept the Torah at Sinai was that the “Torah of the Sinai” is too heavenly, too transcendental, far removed from ordinary, natural life – incomprehensible and therefore inaccessible. However, after the Torah has passed through Zion, through Jerusalem, and through the life history of the Jewish people, the Divine teachings are no longer only the “Torah of Heaven,” for they are now embodied in the Tanakh in its entirety, which is completely rooted on the earth. At that point, all the nations of the world can then begin to receive the Divine light.
Indeed, only after the Torah had been transformed into the Tanakh did the nations of the world become interested in it. Besides translating it so that all peoples could read it in their own language, the nations based their religious belief systems completely on the Tanakh. In other words, all the nations perceive that the Divine light comes to them not directly from Heaven, but must first traverse all of Jewish history, and only then can humanity receive that Divine light. That is why the nations call Jewish history “sacred,” and why it occupies such a prominent position in the history of the entire human race.
Zion (i.e., Jewish history) is an immanent Divine revelation that is inherent in everyday life, supplementing the transcendental Divine revelation that came from Heaven at Sinai. This supplementing of the transcendental with the immanent, which occurs throughout the course of Jewish history, is needed in order for the Revelation to be accepted, not only by the Jewish people, but eventually by all of humanity.
Thus, one nation is not the ultimate destination of Divine revelation, but only a single link in its transmission. At Sinai the Jews brought down the Torah from heaven, proceeded to Zion, processed the Torah into a more “humanly accessible” Tanakh, and then passed it on to all the peoples of the world, thus transmitting the Divine light to all of humanity. In this does the Jewish mission consist.
The Book of Deuteronomy formulates the status of this Divine doctrine as follows: “Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). But this does not mean that the Torah is given only to the community of Jacob. The Torah is given to all of mankind, but it is in the “spiritual possession” of the Jews only, in the sense that they are the “professionals” who explain the Torah to all other peoples.
We can draw an analogy to this from how we generally perceive fiction. An author writes a book for all readers, and its published text then becomes available for comment and discussion by all who are capable of understanding that text. But only the author owns the book as his “intellectual property.” Among the most important rights conferred by that ownership is the fundamental right to interpret the meaning of the words of the text. Readers of the book may find in it additional meanings and associations with their own lives and other things in the world, but that is only a supplemental understanding. The foundational interpretation – the understanding of what is meant by any given phrase of the text – is the exclusive prerogative of the author.
It is in this sense that the Torah calls itself “the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” The Jewish people are not the Torah’s authors, for it was given to them by the Almighty. The Jewish people are His co-author.
The idea of the Jewish people as “co-authors of the Torah together with God” finds expression in a significant part of the Five Books. For example, almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is essentially a speech delivered by Moses, which becomes part of Torah text. Not only Moses, however, but the entire Jewish people took an active part in the writing of the Torah, and not merely with words, but mainly with their actions that were recorded in the Torah. And this is all the more true of the Tanakh, which is an inseparable element of Jewish history.
Because the “congregation of Jacob” has co-authored the Torah together with the Almighty, the Torah, and the rest of Tanakh even more so, are the “heritage of the congregation of Jacob,” which means that only the Jewish people and Jewish tradition can correctly interpret it.
Of course, none of this prevents anyone else from offering further comments and suggesting additional understanding and interpretation. On the contrary, such contributions reveal new aspects of Divine revelation to the world, and are therefore vitally important. But these new aspects can never supersede the foundational Jewish commentary; they can only complement it.
When the Almighty, the primary author of the Torah, transmitted it from Heaven, He communicated to the Jewish people, his co-authors, an in-depth understanding of the Torah, and conferred on them the right to interpret its text. From then onward, the understanding of the Torah and the Tanakh are inseparable from this tradition, maintained and developed by the Jewish people over millennia. Thus, while the Torah is intended to benefit all of humanity, it is the inheritance of the Jewish people alone – their possession and legacy.
However, throughout history there have been two opposing models for understanding the Divine light of Judaism.
The first model – incorrect from the Jewish standpoint – perceives the light of Tanakh, but only while severing it from the Jews themselves. Classical Christianity has followed this path, declaring, “We have your text, and you are now superfluous to us. Moreover, we have our own additions to the text, and our own teachers to interpret it. Therefore, we accept the ancient Jewish heritage, but we reject modern Judaism.”
In the terminology of the Jewish tradition itself, this approach is seen as the bifurcation of Aaron and Moses, which resulted in the creation of the golden calf – “attaching” to God an earthly image. The result of this attachment was to replace a direct understanding of Divinity with Shituf, “companionism” (see below for details).
The second model, which is the Jewish one, sees the peoples of the world as participating in the Tanakh only within the context of Jewish tradition, and not in isolation from it (as per the Christian view). This path is the one adopted and followed by the Bnei Noah movement – “the Descendants of Noah”, “the Noahides” (their commitment to interpreting the Torah faithfully, according to Jewish tradition, also includes upholding and fulfilling the Seven Noahide commandments, that according to Jewish Law are incumbent upon all of mankind).
There were few such people (Noahides) in previous generations, but in our time, with the return of the Jewish nation to the Land of Israel and strengthening of Jewish influence on the world, this movement is gradually seeing a resurgence, as it becomes a “universal Judaism” for all of humanity.