Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 25 1999 9:30 PM

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

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Dear Mr. Dubner:

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In a 1996 article in the New York Times Magazine, you described the climax (up to that date) of your evolution as a Jew: "able to see that religion itself is man-made, I began to wrestle with a new idea of G-d. ... Quite organically, I had begun to think Jewishly about G-d."

Religion is "man-made," and this is the "Jewish" way of thinking about G-d? No, in fact, authentic Judaism rules out any notion of our ancestral faith being "man-made." The bottom line belief of any correctly informed Jew is that in the Sinai desert Moses received from the Lord two Torahs: one written, the other an oral explanation of the written Torah. All else follows from that fact.

Why do I believe this? The key question is: What happened at Sinai? I accept the Torah's own answer, described above--to which there is only one coherent, if dismaying alternative.

Sure, Reform and Conservative clergymen say, in effect, "Well, part of the Torah's account of its origins may be true: part of it may be from G-d, however not all. That's why we are empowered to change Jewish teaching as our powers of reason dictate."

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But consider what such religious liberalism implies. No doubt you'll agree with me that either G-d gave the Pentateuch to Moses at Sinai in its familiar form--or He did not give it in that form. If He didn't, then either: a) no G-d has issued any commandments to the Jewish people; or b) if He did, perhaps through fiddling around by ancient scribes and "redactors," the exact nature of those commandments has become unclear.

If a), then obviously we are worshipping the wrong G-d, this so-called "G-d of Moses." If b), then G-d is not a deity worth worshipping. What alleged "Almighty Lord" is too feeble to keep his instructions to us available in an intact form for a mere few millennia?

As a corollary, anyone who accepts that the precise text of the Torah was revealed to Moses has no coherent option but to accept the Oral Torah. The Five Books of Moses are cryptic, filled with concepts that are undefined in the text but on which correct religious observance depends. Do you think the Israelites who stood at Sinai received no explanation from G-d of such enigmas? Again, two possibilities here: either a) the Five Books of Moses are a hoax, forged ("man-made") to justify post facto the customs of some antique Semitic tyranny, and thus no explanation was called for; or b) the Written Torah was given together with an oral companion.

Once more, answer a) excludes belief in an Almighty Lord, who would not need to depend on a massive hoax as his vehicle for revelation.

Of course many modern Jews don't believe anything at all happened at Sinai. This assertion is at least internally coherent. If these deniers are right, however, then the notion of a "Jewish people" amounts, as the philosopher Will Herberg said, to "a persistent and rather malignant delusion."

So Jews who value intellectual coherence over naive sentimentality have two choices: either to accept the traditional understanding of where the two Torahs come from, or to recognize the history of the Jewish people as a genealogy of delusion. In the latter case, why continue to identify ourselves as "Jews"? For the sake of modern Jewish culture? For the bagels, the liberal politics, the second-rate artistic tradition, the self-important whining, the fondling of past victimization? Give me a break.

Best wishes,
David K.