Jewish fundamentals: Is the Torah divine or human in origin?

Remove God from the Ten Commandments and you have nothing more than ten suggestions.

MIDDLE STREET Synagogue, Brighton, England. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MIDDLE STREET Synagogue, Brighton, England.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There can be no more important question in Judaism.
Is the question important? And if it is, are there rational arguments to believe in the divinity of the Torah?
Let’s begin with why it is so important. I’ll explain by way of a personal illustration.
In my teens and early 20s, I had some tension with my parents. This is hardly worth mentioning because tension with parents – especially in one’s younger years – is the norm. I mention it to make a crucial point about the Torah and morality. No matter how distant I felt from parents, I always honored them, always treated them with respect. For example, from the day I left my parents’ home at the age of 21 until my mother died 39 years later, and my father 46 years later, I called them every week.
I did so – at least in my early years – for one reason: I believed that God had commanded me – yes, me (the Ten Commandments are all in the singular) – to honor my father and mother. It is incontestable that people are more likely to do something (good or evil) if they believe God commanded them to do so. Remove God from the Ten Commandments and you have nothing more than ten suggestions.
A second reason for the importance of the divinity of the Torah is that if men (and/or women) wrote the Torah, anyone can change it. Men change what other men wrote. While the rabbis on occasion modified a Torah law, even though they regarded the Torah as given by God, those occasions were rare and limited in scope (such as the prozbul, which allowed Jews in Israel to charge interest on business loans to other Jews).
Jews who do not regard the Torah as divine can – and usually do – end up disregarding some fundamental Torah principles. To cite two contemporary examples, nearly all Conservative and Reform Jews, including the Conservative and Reform movements, have not only rejected the Torah’s man-woman definition of marriage, they have rejected the only God-based intrinsic human distinction: male and female. They have accepted the Left’s claim that there is no objective distinction between male and female; that the very terms “male” and “female” are social constructs. The Torah is adamant that the male-female distinction be preserved. If, however, you regard the Torah as a collection of human documents emanating from the Late Bronze Age, what difference does it make? Orthodox Jews have withstood the denial of the male-female distinction solely because they regard the Torah as the word of God.
A third reason belief in the divinity of the Torah is vital is that it enabled Jews to make major sacrifices when it came to Torah principles. Torah-believing Jews sacrificed their incomes so as not to work on Shabbat, and often sacrificed their lives (al kiddush Hashem), because they believed the Torah is from God. Greeks don’t die for Homer’s books or gods.
The Jewish people would not have survived for thousands of years without this belief. Jewish survival depends on Jews believing in a divine text. The offspring of the great majority of Jews outside Israel who do not believe the Torah – or at least the Ten Commandments – is divine will eventually assimilate.
Now, some may agree with the above but not be able to believe in a God-given Torah. The idea strikes them as too irrational.
Before making the case for the divinity of the Torah, I should note that I do not make a case for how the Torah was revealed. I am only interested in who ultimately wrote it, not how it was written. Nor am I making a case for the divinity of the Oral Law.
1. The Torah is virtually as different from everything that preceded it as Creation was from what preceded it. In other words, both Creation and Torah came, as it were, ex nihilo (out of nothing). And just as creatio ex nihilo argues for a Creator, so does the Torah. I offer dozens of examples in The Rational Bible, all of which suggest either moral and intellectual supermen are the source of the Torah or God is. There are no other explanations.
2. The God of the Torah is completely different from every god prior to the Torah. For the first time in history, a deity, the God of the Torah, is universal. All other gods were national or ethnic gods.
3. For the first time, God is moral, not capricious. Therefore, for the first time, man can argue with this deity.
4. This God, unlike all other gods, judges – by the same moral standard – all nations and individuals.
5. The God of the Torah, unlike all other gods, is completely de-sexualized. He does not engage in sex with other gods or with humans and He was not born.
6. The God of the Torah loves human beings and wants to be loved. Another first in human history.
7. The God of the Torah is invisible, incorporeal.
8. The God of the Torah is not part of nature, as all other gods were. God is creator of nature.
Every one of those characteristics was unique to the God introduced by the Torah. I find the idea that people made all this up considerably less rational than the idea that God revealed it.
9. The Torah is the first text we know of that describes the creation of woman. Moreover, she in the pinnacle of Creation in the Torah.
10. In the religious bibles of all other religions, the people of those religions are described positively. In the Torah, the Jews are constantly described in negative terms. It is inconceivable that Jewish authors would have depicted their own people as negatively as the Torah does.
11. In contrast, and equally unexpectedly, the Torah frequently depicts non-Jews in positive terms – often as the heroes. Noah is a not a Jew, nor are the Egyptian midwives. (Despite Midrashic claims to the contrary, the text seems very clear Shifrah and Puah are Egyptian. I offer multiple reasons why they are in my commentary. And, for the record, it was also Abarbanel’s view that the midwives were Egyptian). Caleb, the hero of the spies story – the one spy (other than Joshua) to give a favorable report – was not ethnically Hebrew. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law and mentor, was a Midianite. And, of course, Moses’s life was saved by the daughter of Pharaoh. Given the (justified) animosity toward the Egyptians, why would a Jew later make up such a story?
12. The number of later Torah and other Jewish laws violated by the patriarchs, matriarchs, and Joseph strongly argues for the authenticity of the text and against the notion that later Jews wrote the text. Traditional Orthodox explanations that patriarchs really didn’t violate Torah laws are not only not rationally convincing, they undermine a major argument for the authenticity of the Torah narrative.
13. The Torah’s morality was a unique innovation. Its most frequently repeated law is to love the stranger. What other religious text had such an injunction? The choosing of Abraham’s seed – the Hebrews, Israelites, Jews – was done in order for this people to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. Where else was such a notion ever conceived? “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from the Torah. Every ancient people had a flood narrative, but only in the Torah’s flood story does the God save the hero because he was the most righteous person – rather than, for example, the handsomest or strongest. And, for the first time in history, the universal practice of human sacrifice was outlawed.
14. The Torah’s profundity about life is unmatched by any other literature. The rest of the Bible is a close second, but it is all based on the Torah. That is why there are more Bible commentaries than commentaries on any other literature. That’s why even non-religious figures throughout history revered it more than any other literature. Abraham Lincoln, who rarely attended church, kept a Bible on his nightstand, and said of it: “The Bible is the best gift God has given to man.” The American founders Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, neither of whom was religious, so revered the Bible, they designed a Great Seal of the United States which depicted the Israelites leaving Egypt. Most of America’s founders regarded America as the Second Israel (not replacing the First). The inscription on the most important symbol of the American Revolution, the Liberty Bell, is a verse from the Torah (Leviticus 25:10). On the insignia of Yale University are the Hebrew words Urim v’Tummim, the words on the breastplate on the high priest in the Torah.
And, remember, this was written in the Late Bronze Age.
Indeed, the Torah (and the rest of the Bible) is the basis of Western civilization. And this civilization will not long endure its neglect. American and other Western universities have become moral and intellectual wastelands, and I am certain the absence of and contempt for God and the Bible at the universities is the primary reason. “Wisdom begins with fear of God” (Proverbs 9:10). No God, no wisdom.
I AM well aware of the moral arguments against divine authorship – such as the Torah’s not completely outlawing slavery, the stoning of the rebellious son, the ban on male homosexual sex, the execution of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat, “eye for an eye,” the scientific arguments and the Torah’s alleged inconsistencies. In the course of teaching the Torah for 45 years to people of every religious and non-religious background, I believe I have found rational explanations for just about all of them. On the few occasions I could not, I acknowledge it.
For example, I believe the Torah itself makes its own number of Israelites in the wilderness – generally understood to be about two million – impossible. But the handful of problems I could not solve hardly renders the Torah a man-made document when considering the Torah’s unparalleled greatness. I no more regard the things I cannot explain as invalidating God’s creation of the Torah than I regard the things I cannot explain about the world (whether unjust suffering or seeming “mistakes” in the design of the human body) as invalidating God as the creator of the world.
My belief in – and love for – the Torah is so great that I came to understand that I don’t believe in the Torah because I believe in God; I believe in God because I believe in the Torah.
The writer is an American nationally syndicated radio talk show host, author of 10 books and president of PragerU. The second volume of his five-volume commentary on the Torah, The Rational Bible, will be published in May. He may be reached at