Pikudei (Exodus 38, 21 – 40, 38) – the Divinity of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses)

The term pikudei means accounts or recordings as in the opening verse of the Torah reading Pikudei (Exodus 38, 21) – “These are the accounts of the tabernacle”. The Tabernacle occupies a central position in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and is the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel (and continues to be a center of ritual and sacrificial worship after the Israelites enter the land of Israel until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon). The Torah reading of Pikudei begins with a recording of the materials used in the building of the Tabernacle (a portable tent like structure that is seen as the dwelling place of the presence of God) and the materials used for the priestly garments. At the end of the Torah reading Moses blesses the Israelites (Exodus 39, 43), and the Tabernacle is then set up. What stands out in the Torah reading of Pikudei is the detailed repetition. Instead of such a detailed repetition, wouldn’t it have been enough to simply say that all of the materials needed for the Tabernacle and the priestly garments were brought by the Israelites?


The detailed repetition here in the Torah reading Pikudei raises a theological question – in what sense is the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) to be regarded as Divine? Before addressing the question, I want to discuss the concept of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) being regarded as Divinely revealed, which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition.


Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in the theological sense of a faith commitment not just in God but in Jesus as the messiah – and, in principle, there can be no such thing as a secular non-believing Christian (who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah). By contrast, Judaism is a religion in the pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people – and a way of life is a culture. There are Jews who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. What defines one as a Jew is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but (according to traditional Jewish law) being born of a Jewish mother or having converted. What unites Jews is not a faith commitment or a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice but belonging to a people with a shared history, common language of the Jewish people (Hebrew), a national homeland (Israel) and a shared culture and heritage. Judaism as a way of life and culture does not necessarily presuppose belief in the existence of God or in the Torah being Divinely revealed (or any other belief).


Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century), is the first and only thinker in the Jewish tradition to codify principles of faith within a legal framework as a binding theological dogma in codifying his “13 Principles of Faith” as commandments in his law code, the Mishneh Torah. His “13 Principles of Faith” are a comprehensive set of principles (including among others existence of God, Divine revelation, Divine providence, the coming of the messiah, and revival of the dead), and are widely accepted throughout the orthodox world as a binding dogma. In my view, Maimonides was aware that a binding dogma is a distortion of traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature, and he was aware that according to the Talmudic tradition the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the basis of Jewish law are positive and negative commandments of action (מצוות עשה ולא תעשה), and not of faith or belief – and, he codified his principles only for the unlearned Jewish masses as a political and religious leader (and not as a philosopher) in the main for historical reasons in order to strengthen them (as Christians and Moslems had codified principles of belief).


There is then no binding theological dogma in the Bible, and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify any binding theological dogma. There is a remarkable Talmudic source (Shabbat 31a) in which a pragmatic conception so characteristic of the Talmudic tradition is reflected. Rava, a great Talmudic teacher, delineates questions that one will be asked on judgment day – such as whether one has related to one’s fellow human being in righteousness (integrity), whether one has established time for study of Torah, whether one has been occupied (in the continuing of the human species) in fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply, whether one has waited optimistically in expectation of salvation, whether one has searched after wisdom.


All of the questions that one will be asked on judgment day according to Rava are of a pragmatic nature that concern not theology (nor observance of law and ritual practice) but one’s psychological and moral character traits and moral behavior involved in the living a life of Torah. According to Rava, questions of a theological nature concerning philosophic beliefs such as whether one believes that God exists or whether one believes that the Torah is Divinely revealed are simply not crucial questions asked of a person on judgment day.


So, in traditional Judaism, based upon the Bible and Talmud, there is no requirement to believe in God, and no requirement to believe that the Torah is Divinely revealed. However, there is no question that beliefs such as belief in God and belief that the Torah is Divinely revealed are central beliefs of the Jewish tradition – though such beliefs do not have the status of binding dogma that must be accepted.


If we return then to the Torah reading of Pikudei, the question is in what sense we can say that the Torah is Divine in regard to the detailed repetitions regarding the Tabernacle and priestly garments. The very idea of a Tabernacle as a center of ritual and sacrificial worship in which the main form of ritual practice was the performance of animal sacrifice by a heredity priesthood is widely seen as primitive in our contemporary world. Moreover, if the Torah is regarded as Divine, are there not more important things to tell us than detailed and repetitive information about the making of the Tabernacle and priestly garments? In addition, there are passages in the Torah that conflict with our contemporary moral values and attitudes and which we would regard as immoral – such as the extermination of Midianites (Numbers 31, 3-24).


In raising such a problem of passages that strike us as primitive or immoral in relation to the notion of Divine revelation – there is an implicit assumption in order for such passages to be considered a problem in viewing the Torah as Divine. The assumption is that the Torah is Divinely revealed in a literal sense of God speaking the words of Torah and Moses writing them down – and, in light of such a conception the problem then arises of how the Torah can be regarded as Divine or sacred if there are such passages that we perceive as primitive or immoral.


But, who says that we must accept such a conception of the Torah being Divinely revealed in a literal sense? There is no dogma, or codification of beliefs that must be accepted in the ancient Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and Talmud. In the Bible there is no binding dogma, and the Talmudic rabbis did not codify any dogma or beliefs that must be accepted. In addition, the concept of Divine revelation is subject to interpretation.


Maimonides in his 13 Principles of Faith seemingly codifies in his 8th principle the principle of Divine revelation in such a literal sense as God speaking or dictating and Moses writing. There are several problems with such a conception of revelation in a literal sense of God speaking. First, speech is a human activity presupposing a tongue and vocal chords. Does God speak? If one says that God does speak, then this is in violation of Maimonides’ 3rd principle of God having no physical form. Second, what about Moses? According to such a conception of God dictating and Moses writing, Moses is like a secretary and anyone could function as such a prophet-secretary. This is a bit insulting to Moses. Finally, if God (assuming that God is conceived as having conscious will like a human being) wanted an accurate recording of the Torah, instead of dictating to Moses, wouldn’t it be better to send a tape recording?


Actually, Maimonides in his 8th principle of Divine revelation explicitly states that the image of God speaking or dictating and Moses writing is a metaphor. I just previously pointed out that Maimonides codified his principles of faith a binding dogma only for the unlearned Jewish masses. In my view, Maimonides as a thinker held radical Aristotelian conceptions in general as a thinker and regarding each of the principles that he codified as a binding dogma.


According to Maimonides’ Aristotelian conception the prophetic experience involves an emanation (like the rays of light emanated by the sun, which is an image that Maimonides uses) from God Above to the prophet below, through the mediation of the active intellect (an Aristotelian term that we need not understand beyond the knowledge that the active intellect is a power emanated from God, and is the point of contact between the emanation from God and the soul or mind of a human being who develops oneself intellectually to the extent that one’s mind unites or joins with the active intellect constituting intellectual enlightenment or prophecy). Prophecy then, for Maimonides, is not a verbal revelation from God Above to the prophet below but a process by which a human being develops oneself intellectually (following a stage of moral purification) in order to achieve philosophic or prophetic enlightenment – and, such enlightenment, using the image of light (contained within the word enlightenment), consists in a metaphoric sense of an emanation of light emanated ultimately from God, and to which the soul or mind of the prophet unites or joins by virtue of his or her spiritual development.


Maimonides’ conception of prophecy and revelation as the attaining of intellectual enlightenment is very similar to a contemporary notion of Divine inspiration in a moral sense of attaining moral enlightenment that is widespread outside the orthodox Jewish world among non-orthodox Jewish thinkers. Such thinkers also conceive of the Torah as a human document that according to modern historical scholarship was not written by Moses but produced and edited in the Israelite culture long after the period of Moses. According to such a notion of Divine inspiration, the Torah is seen not as Divinely revealed in a literal sense of a verbal revelation from Above to below, but as a product of human wisdom and creativity inspired by the Divine spirit. Such Divine inspiration is experienced as a flash of light, as an intuitive grasp of truth (whether moral or intellectual). Inspiration in this sense is considered Divine in that God is seen as the ultimate source of the inspiration – and, such Divine inspiration may be considered as a form of Divine revelation as well in that it is seen as a revelation of the Divine within human nature.


The Bible is an ancient document and naturally there are things in it that our ancestors, the Israelites, perceived as moral or enlightened, and which we living in a different culture and time period regard as immoral or primitive. By the way, when we compare the Torah or the Bible to other documents from the surrounding pagan world in the ancient Biblical period, then often what may appear to us as immoral may actually be quite moral in its time period – and, often what may appear to us as primitive may actually be quite enlightened in its time period.


From a practical and legal point of view, we as Jews in traditional rabbinic Judaism live not by what is written in the Bible but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish tradition – and, therefore, in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21, 24) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood not according to the plain meaning as requiring monetary compensation. In not being bound in the realm of law by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, the Jewish tradition is thus able to evolve and develop, and, an important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.


The Torah is sacred, in my view, not because it is the last word but because it is the first word of our tradition – and, this does not presuppose the existence of God, and does not presuppose that the Torah is Divinely revealed or inspired. The Torah as the first word of our tradition is sacred because it is the historical, moral, spiritual and inspirational foundation of the Jewish tradition revealing the moral and spiritual direction of traditional Judaism.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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