We must stand before God in service to Him, not out of benefit - opinion

Let us stop justifying Judaism solely because of the human benefits it provides. Let us stand before God in service and in awe, savoring our encounter with Him and His higher wisdom. 

 Is it time to stand before God in service to Him, not out of how Judaism benefits humanity? (photo credit: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash)
Is it time to stand before God in service to Him, not out of how Judaism benefits humanity?
(photo credit: Greg Rakozy/Unsplash)

No one has ever been to heaven and back, except for our greatest leader, Moses our teacher. Three times he ascended heaven to draw the word of God down to a human audience. After two of these expeditions, he descended carrying sacred words engraved upon stony tablets. 

As Moses neared the end of his life, the nation began to doubt whether the word of God could be acquired without a leader who could ascend to heaven. Addressing these fears, Moses reassured us that even after his passing, the word of God would still remain accessible. Though the study and practice of the divine will seem intimidating, it can be attained through hard work and persistent study, even by mortals incapable of scaling the heavens. 

Moses announced that “Torah is not in the heavens nor does it lie across the oceans” but is available to us “in our hearts and upon our tongues.” The knowledge of God’s word may seem distant or even unreachable, but it can be secured through diligence and commitment. 

Is Torah in the heavens or on Earth?

A rabbinic parable aptly captures Moses’ reassurance: Two people walk into a large room and observe a piece of bread dangling from a high vaulted ceiling. The foolish person is overwhelmed, doubting his ability to ever reach this hanging bread. The wise person, however, deduces that “someone must have hung it there.” Whenever ability exists, methods can be devised. 

Religious excellence often feels daunting and frightening. By proclaiming that Torah isn’t in the heavens, Moses informed us that the will of God, though originating in heaven, was delivered to Earth and can be mastered by the humans who inhabit this planet. 

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)
DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

Centuries later, Moses’ statement, reformulated in a different context, became a foundational statement about the role of rationalism within Judaism

In the 1st century, several Talmudic scholars were deeply engaged in an important halachic debate. The majority of the rabbinic plenum ruled against a minority opinion of the great sage Rabbi Eliezer. 

To authenticate his minority position, Rabbi Eliezer summoned supernatural miracles. He ordered the trees to levitate and the waters to flow backward, hoping to corroborate his legal position against the majority. Unmoved by these signs, his colleagues firmly rejected any notion that supernatural omens could resolve Talmudic debates. 

Jewish law, they affirmed, can only be arbitrated by human logic and rational analysis, not by paranormal input. 

In rejecting these miracles, the rabbis invoked Moses’ original statement that the Torah was no longer residing in the heavens. Once the Torah was delivered to the human realm, it was not subject to mystic data and heavenly rulings. The interpretation of God’s word, once inserted into the human domain, would be shaped by human analysis and rational inquiry of God’s word – and not by heavenly prophecy. 

By issuing this iconic phrase, Moses had originally intended to reassure an anxious nation that the Torah was attainable even without superhuman voyages to heaven. At this later stage, however, this famous expression became a motto about the rationality of Torah logic and of Judaism in general.

THE RATIONALITY of Torah analysis is firmly anchored in Jewish religious practice. Since the fundamentals of faith can never be empirically proven, religion is always a leap of faith. It is precisely the lack of empirical proof which lends religion its passion and its fervor. Our deepest passions in life stem from our irrational dedication to ideas and people. When we suspend our ration and believe in something unprovable and larger than ourselves, passion grows. Cynics of religion mock non-rational faith – but believers celebrate the depth and resonance it lends to our experience. 

However, since religion is founded on non-empirical faith, it can become superstitious and random. As belief itself can’t be proven, religious experience risks becoming haphazard and occult. Our belief that the Torah isn’t in the heavens but subject to human analyses has firmly grounded Jewish practice and Jewish culture in reason and logic.

More so, as a people who practiced a rational system of Halacha, we also applied our rational minds to the world around us. We excelled in professions that demanded rational analysis. We spearheaded the development of science, technology, and philosophy – decoding mysteries and applying newly discovered information to improve the human condition. 

Our rationalism also helped us wrestle with a hostile world. Facing constant historical setbacks, we didn’t sink into hollow despair but devised practical workaround solutions to our predicaments and disabilities. Our rational bent, derived from Moses’ proclamation that the Torah isn’t in the heavens, created a sturdy and logical process of Jewish Halacha and also generated a hardy rational-based Jewish culture, capable of surviving very difficult historical conditions. 

YET, DESPITE our rational bent, we also occupied a second world, beyond human logic and beyond empiricism. We lived firmly grounded on Earth, but we also pondered heaven. We trusted in a God that the human imagination could not possibly describe. Judaism was always a thrust into a different realm – beyond human experience and beyond human ration. 

Additionally, as we investigated our terrestrial world, we also acknowledged worlds above us, which lay beyond the ken of scientific tools of inquiry. The study of Kabbalah helped us map worlds we could never see but we knew existed. Even for those who didn’t actively study Kabbalah, the mere knowledge of upper realms stretched our experience beyond the affairs of this world, thereby amplifying our lives. Our world wasn’t the only realm, it was merely the one we inhabited. 

We always strode delicately between these two realms. Following Moshe’s assurances, we were confident that Torah was delivered to Earth and could be acquired by humans and analyzed by humans. We built a religious system and a national culture heavily based upon the foundations of rationalism. However, even while we lived on Earth, we never gave up the heavens. 

THROUGHOUT OUR history, some Jewish communities tilted toward greater rationalism, while others angled toward greater esotericism. However, we always straddled both worlds. The high and the low, the rational and the mystery. Anchored to our world, we also knew how to transcend our world in search of a higher being. Our spirit and religious hearts hiked to heaven. 

Unfortunately, we are gradually losing transcendence. Judaism is becoming too grounded on Earth and is quickly losing altitude. In a hyper-empirical world refashioned by the scientific revolution, religious rituals seem irrational to many who, sadly, have walked away from classic ritual behavior. 

However, even Orthodox Jews who steadfastly maintain religious traditions and rituals have crafted a highly rational form of religious experience while deemphasizing the esoteric parts of religion. 

Too often, we justify faith and religion purely in “earthly” and human terms: Religion provides meaning, values, social welfare, familial bliss, Shabbat respite, personal discipline, healthy relationships, and tikkun olam. All this may be true, but all these values are grounded in our world. We have clipped the wings of religion, and rarely do we fly to heaven.

In the words of Rebecca Goldstein (36 Arguments for the Existence of God), we are witnessing the “sad sight of human life untouched by transcendence.”

This Rosh Hashanah, let us recover some of that transcendence. Let us stop justifying Judaism solely because of the human benefits it provides. Let us stand before God in service and in awe, savoring our encounter with Him and His higher wisdom. 

Let us transcend this world, even for a few days. Let us reach for the heavens. Moses came down; let us rise above. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has rabbinic ordination and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.