Moses as a Revolutionary Leader, the Torah as Revolutionary Book

Moses was a great religious innovator with a broad view of the world and of humankind, and a vision, perhaps too utopian, of what a godly society should be.

Reuven Hammer
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A recent film, "Anonymous," promoted the thesis that William Shakespeare did not write the opus we think of as "Shakespeare." In Judaism we have a similar question: Did Moses write the Five Books of Moses?

The Torah itself never claims it was written in its entirety by Moses. Rather, it tells us that at Sinai Moses received the 10 Commandments and was given the other mitzvot orally. During the years of wandering, he was given other laws, which - as Rashi and others have said - he wrote down either as they were received or at the end of 40 years. Nothing is said in the rabbinic literature about the portions of the Torah not related to the law.

The relation of Moses to the Torah comprises both a literary question and a question of how one understands revelation. The literary question arises in view of modern scholarship and the "documentary theory," which posits at least four collections of stories and laws, written by different schools and assembled by Ezra the Scribe after the Babylonian exile and proclaimed to be "the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel" (Nehemiah 8:1 ). How then does Moses fit in?

The late Jacob Milgrom tells the famous rabbinic story of Moses listening to the discussions in Rabbi Akiva's academy - not understanding any of it, but being gratified when he hears them say that these laws are "the law of Moses at Sinai." Just as rabbinic laws that Moses never heard of could be traced back to "the law of Moses from Sinai," so too, wrote Milgrom, "the anonymous authors of the Torah's legislation were certain that the laws they proposed were not of their invention but were derivable from Moses' principles, i.e., traceable to Moses himself ..."

As for Moses' part in revelation, revelation does not mean that God dictates as one would to a secretary. Moses - and indeed the other prophets - were not mere note takers. Moses came to revelation because of his character, his beliefs and interests. He and the other prophets were not empty vessels, but extraordinary men and women - vessels of God's inspiration - fulfilling the function of prophecy because they had the genius to do so. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book "The Prophets": "The prophet is a person, not a microphone."

Just as those who accused Shakespeare of being just an ignorant country boy forget that he attended a school in which he was taught Latin and all the ancient classics, so those who doubt Moses' ability forget that he was educated both in Pharaoh's court and by his Hebrew mother. Yocheved passed on to him whatever traditions the Hebrews had learned from Abraham and the other ancestors. Pharaoh's daughter educated him in the royal court so that he had the ancient wisdom of Egypt at his command as well.

Moses was a great original religious thinker, and an innovator and revolutionary who transformed the important religious insights of the patriarchs into a dynamic new religion - the religion of Israel, Judaism - that would yield a new way of understanding God and the meaning of human life, and thus influence the world. In order to form the Israelites into a nation, he had to revolutionize their thought and their actions in three realms: divinity, humanity, society.

The Torah, based on the core of the teachings of Moses, rejects ancient ideas that had formed the basis of the religions of both Mesopotamia and Egypt. In their place, it substitutes new, revolutionary concepts concerning the understanding of the nature of God, the way in which God is worshiped, the role of the priests, the understanding of the nature and importance of human beings, the specific laws that govern daily life and the structure of society, and the importance of morality as opposed to ritual. Who was responsible for all of that, if not Moses, under divine inspiration? He was a great religious innovator with a broad view of the world and of humankind, and a vision, perhaps too utopian, of what a godly society should be.

The Torah is a revolutionary book that even now, some 3,000 years later, has not lost its radical flavor. It is a document that shattered old myths and formulated social laws, thus revolutionizing the concept of what an ideal human society should be. It was, and remains, one of - if not the - great humanistic documents of all time, freeing us from forces of darkness and foolish beliefs, and revising ancient laws in a liberal and humane fashion.

It teaches that humanity is one, as God is one. That magic and superstition are falsehoods. That humans are responsible for their actions and have the choice to do good or evil. That poverty and deprivation, slavery and hatred are evils that must be eradicated. That the earth is not ours to destroy. That love of others is a divine command.

I know of no other ancient or modern document that is so concerned with the welfare of the needy, with those who have no power. It boldly proclaims that God is their defender and protector. No society has come even close to achieving that vision. A society based on the principles of the Torah would revolutionize the world.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative/Masorti Movement, and author, most recently, of "The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths that Changed The World" (Jewish Lights ).

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man writes some of the last words in a Torah scroll before it is taken from the Western Wall into the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: AP