The Secret of Judaism’s Vibrancy

Yitro By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 21, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The insignia for a Jewish chaplain in the armed forces of the United States is the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, worn prominently on both lapels. My father, the immigrant rabbi, wore his with pride when he was a civilian chaplain at the Valley Forge Army Hospital during World War Two and the Korean War, as did I when I served a two-year stint as an army chaplain from 1962-64 at Fort Dix and in Korea. The insignia has always appealed to me because of what it represents: the core experience of God by Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. What could be more central? This is the event that determines the nature of Judaism and the destiny of its adherents.

And yet there is a noticeable reluctance in Judaism to single out the Ten Commandments as the indisputable relic of divine revelation. We know that at one time, when the Second Temple still stood, the recitation of the Ten Commandments, along with the three paragraphs of the Shema, was part of the daily liturgy. The Palestinian Talmud reports, however, that once the Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis did not transfer the reciting of the Ten Commandments into the synagogue liturgy. The reason given is that people should not be misled into thinking that only the Decalogue was revealed at Sinai. And to this day there is no trace of the Ten Commandments in the text of our daily prayers.

It is true that often an artistic replica of the tablets adorns the top or front of the holy ark in our synagogues. In the wilderness, the tablets of the Decalogue had in fact been kept in the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 10:1-5). But for us the symbol merely connotes a part for the whole. The tablets suggest the entire Torah which is contained in the ark.

The Rabbis never tried to make of the Ten Commandments the equivalent of the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount, the concise statement of Judaism’s essence. Unlike Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of the first century who lived in Alexandria and wrote in Greek, they did not expand the Decalogue midrashically to include the totality of Jewish law.

This predilection to downplay the uniqueness of the Decalogue finds expression in the unprecedented declaration by Rabbi Simlai, a third-century Palestinian sage, that God gave Moses a total of 613 commandments, that is, 365 negative and 248 positive ones. Rav Hamnuna in Babylonia provided the scriptural basis: “Moses charged us with the Teaching (the Torah) as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4).” The letters of the Hebrew word “Torah” add up to the number 611 (every one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value), and if we add to this the first and second commandments of the Decalogue, which is all that Israel supposedly heard directly from God, we come up with the number 613, proof positive for Rabbi Simlai’s claim!

Indeed, both rabbis have conspired to diminish the significance of the Decalogue in two ways. First, God’s revelation encompasses all of the commandments of Judaism and not just the first Ten. And second, in the case of the Decalogue, the whole community heard only the first two, with the rest being transmitted to Moses alone. This interpretation turns a public and collective experience of revelation into a private one. What is so distinctive about our parasha is precisely the participation of the entire people. “The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens (Exodus 20:19).” Yet to reach the number 613, Rav Hamnuna posits a view that restricts Israel’s participation to merely the first two.

Maimonides, for his own reasons, follows this line of interpretation in The Guide of the Perplexed. He writes: “It is clear to me that at the Gathering at Mount Sinai, not everything that reached Moses also reached all Israel. Speech was addressed to Moses alone…and he…went to the foot of the mountain and communicated to the people what he heard (Guide of the Perplexed, translated by S. Pines, pp. 363-64).”

But to return to the first implication of Rabbi Simlai’s declaration, the basic question is to identify the contents of revelation. The Decalogue is downplayed by Rabbinic Judaism in order to fortify the view that all of Jewish law, not just the Written but also the Oral, was revealed at Sinai. The number 613 is a symbol; it stands for the totality of the legal system, the Bible and its vast rabbinic complement, and the authority of both, says Rabbi Simlai, emanates from Sinai.

The most striking instance of this expansive claim is well known but often overlooked. It appears in the chain of tradition that opens Pirkei Avot, The Teachings of the Fathers. “Moses received Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly (Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 603).” What is it exactly that God gave Moses at Sinai? The awkward English translation of “Torah” without an article reflects the Hebrew text literally. If the author had wished to refer to the Written Torah, he would have added the definite article. But then he would have told us something we already know from the Bible itself. The point of this chain of tradition is to assert what wedon’t know; namely, that the Oral Torah also comes from Sinai and is no less divine and authoritative than the Written.

Though tucked away in the middle of the Mishna (the legal compendium edited by Rabbi Judah the Prince around the year 200 C.E.), Pirkei Avot serves as a kind of introduction to the ethical and religious underpinnings of the entire work. And it contends unequivocally that the plethora of law to be found in the Mishna, mostly unknown from the Bible and unconnected by exegesis to any biblical foundation, are also of Sinaiitic origin. Clearly much more was at stake than just the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud tells the story of a gentile who was considering conversion to Judaism. What interests me is the question he posed to both Shammai and Hillel. “How many Torahs do you Jews have?” When Shammai responded that we Jews have two, one that is Written and one that is Oral, the gentile said he was prepared to accept the first, i.e. Scripture, but not the second, i.e. Tradition. Shammai dismissed him outright, but Hillel did not and went on to convince him that without the body of rabbinic interpretation, the Written Torah was incomplete and unworkable.

The gentile’s question points to the revolution effected by rabbinic Judaism, the creation of a divinely sanctioned interpretive tradition that steadily deepened and adapted the Written Torah. While the prospective convert wanted only the Torah he could take out of the library and peruse, the Rabbis dared to affirm that both Torahs were co-terminous and equally sacred. At Sinai God implicitly ceded control over the Written Torah to its later rabbinic expositors who would preserve its pliancy and pluralism in God’s name. The Mishna, not to speak of the Talmud, abounds in licit disagreement.

By definition fluid because “unwritten,” the Oral Torah became an ingenious instrument of change that facilitated evolution even as it sustained continuity. The tragedy of Jewish fundamentalism is that it turned the Oral Torah into a second Written Torah and thereby robbed Judaism of any capacity to transform itself. In the subtle words of Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christianity, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism (i.e. fundamentalism) is the dead faith of the living.” By keeping the Ten Commandments out of the liturgy, the Rabbis underscored the sanctity of tradition with its power to keep Judaism engaged and alive.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Yitro are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld