Torah or God? Judaism’s crisis of absolutes

לכבוד רעי אחי באמת

In the introduction to his book Tiferet Yisrael, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (the Maharal) 1voiced the previously unspoken dilemma of his religion: does devotion to Torah exclude a simultaneous devotion to God?

According to Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, few Jews have contemplated this point of tension: “Jews have often loved the Torah with homage due to God, acting as if God and Torah were one and the same. Although such identification is hardly ever expressed, few have had the audacity to say that this was not the case”. 2

The Maharal’s controversy is founded on the premise that a person cannot be fully devoted to two realities at once. The validity of his concern depends on this: Do God and Torah exist as a concurrent reality or as two distinct realities? Alternatively, is the Torah God’s ultimate aim for the Jew, or does God have a will above and beyond the Law? 3

Judaism does not offer a consistent response. On the one hand, many authorities support the validity of the Maharal’s contention:

1. Scripture shows that God sometimes required the prophets to act beyond or even contrary to the Law 4. Elijah was required to eat unclean food 5, Hosea to marry an adulteress 6 and Isaiah to appear naked in public for three years 7.

The Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said of a scholar immersed in study, “he is so deeply absorbed that he has forgotten there is a God …”. 8

Reb Mordecai Yosef of Izbica taught that God’s majesty was more sublime than Torah and that under certain circumstances the Torah had to be set aside for the sake of God.

The God of these prophets and scholars is absolute, and His will and purposes transcend the Law.

2. The prophets, the Talmud and some of the later rabbis seem to agree that the Torah would be reduced rather than expanded to the point of its essential wisdom, and that it would then terminate altogether.

The Talmud records a famous saying of Rabbi Simlai: “Moses gave Israel 613 commandments. David reduced them to 10, Isaiah to 2 and Habbukuk to one: the righteous shall live by his faith”. 9

The prophet Jeremiah contemplates a time when the covenant of the Torah would be superseded by a new covenant (“days are coming says the LORD when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel … not like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt” ). 10

The rabbis have likewise contemplated the prospect of a time beyond the Torah, usually linked to the coming of Messiah. Professor Heschel provides a synopsis: “There is a famous saying by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: ‘A time will come when the Torah will be forgotten.’ This generally filled a Jew with nightmarish dread. What would become of us without the Torah! But Reb Mordacai Yosef interprets the saying thus: ‘There is no need to fear that the Torah will be forgotten. A time will come when it will no longer be possible to learn God’s will by studying Torah. But that will be a time of illumination, when all things shall have regained their pristine quality, when men’s hearts shall be so firmly attached to the Lord that they will not be capable of straying from His will. When might this be? Surely after the Messiah’s coming?’” 11

3. Some have understood the Torah to be a partial insight into a more profound but yet hidden wisdom. Again professor Heschel offers a useful synopsis: “It is often tacitly assumed that the Torah is the highest source of wisdom and that all divine mysteries are revealed in it. Yet some Jewish mystics insisted that the Torah as we know it is but a reflection of the hidden wisdom and that only some of its mysteries have been revealed”.12

The Midrash Rabba on Ecclesiastes 11:7 states: “The Torah which a man learns in this world is vanity in comparison with the Torah of Messiah.”

4. Regarding Abraham and Job, Reb Simcha Bunam stated, “Their souls sprang from a source higher than the Torah, and thus they were able to comprehend the nature of God without its help”. 13

“Many a problem could not be unravelled through study of the Law. Intuition was needed to decide upon them. If a man was [in spirit] descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose lives were dedicated to Heaven, he might rely upon his intuition where the traditional laws did not offer adequate guidance.” 14

Yet, while all of this supports the idea of God and Torah as distinct realities, the idea of conflicting loyalties towards God and Torah is, by certain other precepts of Judaism, a vain notion. By the Talmudic doctrine lo ba’shamaim hi 15, that which has been handed down by God is regarded as no longer subject to God’s interference or interpretation. The Law is said to have been committed to the rabbis and they alone may determine its meaning and rule on its application.

The doctrine originates in a dispute between a rabbi and his colleagues. The Talmud records that the rabbi appealed to heaven for support of his position, and that God replied in his favour. At this, one of his opponents rebuked the Voice, saying: “It is not in heaven.”

“What did he mean by this? Said rabbi Jeremiah: “That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline.’” 16

Since God has thus distanced Himself from the Law, there cannot be any conflicting loyalty. For purposes of practical religion, there is no God beyond the Torah.

How can Judaism contain such contradictory positions?

The outcome of rabbi Loew’s thesis – although few would be willing to concede it – is that Judaism may have made an idol out of Torah. “An idol,” according to Webster’s dictionary, “is anything which usurps the place of God in the hearts of his rational creatures.” According to New Testament theology, idolatry is to “worship and serve created things rather than the Creator”. 17

But is Torah indeed the absolute of the Talmudic faith? Beyond an absolute there can be no higher cause or authority. If God is precluded – as discussed earlier – is there anything else which takes precedence over the Law?

There is an important tenet of Talmud 18 which clearly establishes such a cause, namely:picuach nefesh doche et col hatorah coola (a life-threatening situation sets aside the whole of the law completely). 19

Evidently, by virtue of this doctrine, it is the preservation of the Jew – rather than observance of Torah, or obedience to God, or any other cause or demand or authority – that is to be regarded as Judaism’s ultimate objective.

This tenet is best understood in light of the historical crisis in which the rabbinic faith had its origins. The destruction of the 2nd Temple, the near extermination of the Jews under Titus and the new exile after the Bar Kochba rebellion – these things taken together caused an existential crisis which Judaism could not resolve within the covenantal paradigm of biblical theology – unless it accepted the verdict of the New Testament. 20

While the patriarchs and many of their descendants built their faith on the fulfilment of God’s promises, the authors of modern Judaism formulated their religion in response to the perceived failure of all these promises, at the time of their nation’s greatest crisis and disappointment. The rationale for their religion was not the fulfilment of God’s promises – which seemed to them to have failed irreparably – but rather the preservation of a people under threat of disintegration.

This objective was to be realised by continuing the process of Jewish segregation and distinction – as practiced by the patriarchs and required by the Law for the sanctification of the covenant nation. Under the Talmud, however, the Torah is reduced from a covenant to a moral code, i.e. the Sinai covenant becomes the 613 mitzvot – and ethnicity rather than faithfulness to God becomes the basis of distinguishing the Jew. The Law of Moses is abstracted from its biblical context and only that which is most useful for the moral and social differentiation of the people is emphasised – and augmented by a host of peripheral rules.

However, the fathers of Talmudic Judaism (the rabbis of the Yavne Academy) had a further hope beyond mere self-preservation. The application of this code would lead – as its ultimate goal – to a universal display of the righteousness and innate superiority of the Jew and would thereby vindicate their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. 21

As a further consequence of the doctrine lo ba’shamaim, if the Law has been divorced from God and the rabbis instituted as its new arbiters and mediators, then the Talmudic faith is not – in its normal practice – dependent upon the existence of God.

Both God and Torah have becomes subordinate abstracts employed towards the absolute goal of Jewish preservation and elevation.

How is this achieved as a religious system?

The new absolute introduced through the doctrine picuach nefesh is reinforced by undermining the biblical doctrine of salvation. This is done through an exposition of the maxim col yisrael yesh lahem cheleq b’olam haba (all Israel have a share in the world to come), whereby Jews are emphatically taught that ethnicity pre-determines their eternal destiny in Paradise 22. The only threat to this universal assurance is the loss of the Jewish identity – which in modern rabbinic teaching would not result through atheism, mysticism, spiritism or any other biblical aberration – but only by believing that Jesus is the Messiah.

Once salvation is automatic, man need no longer depend on God for this assurance, neither to relate to God as a personal and living Being, nor ultimately even to acknowledge His existence.

Taken together, the doctrines of picuach nefesh and col yisrael would thus propagate the following belief: whereas eternal life is the automatic assurance of every Jew, the preservation and elevation of Jewish life in the present reality is the true object of his religion.

Against this, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth stand in complete antithesis.

In contrast to picuach nefesh, Jesus taught that it is our eternal destiny that is in the balance and that it is better to accept death than to forfeit salvation: “do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. But rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” 23. Further, “What does it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” 24

In place of personal elevation and the attainment of superiority, Jesus teaches: “He who finds his life shall lose it. And he who loses his life for My sake shall find it” 25. And, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” .26

The New Testament, in contrast with col yisrael, teaches that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son (cf. 1 Chron. 17:13) , that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. He who believes on him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God”.27

“Someone asked him, ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.’” 28

Our eternal destiny depends on our reconciliation to God – by the way which He has provided – whereas the life we presently experience is temporal and worthless other than for purposes of finding this Salvation.

In contrast with Talmudic Judaism, biblical Christianity 29 maintains God as the absolute of its faith and the fulfilment of His promises as its true hope. It does so, however, on the basis of a new covenant and a new Law.

Christianity would claim the following in light of the writings of the Jewish scholars:

‘A time will come when the Torah will be forgotten.’ 30

The New Testament teaches that the Law was an intermediate step, given until a greater truth was revealed: “Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Messiah, that we might be justified by faith” 31. “For Messiah is the end [or, goal] of the Law”. 32

Thus the prophetic injunction cited by rabbi Simlai (“the righteous shall live by his faith” 33) has been realised in this manner: namely, that instead of a righteousness attained through the Law, we are justified by our faith in the promised Messiah and the efficacy of his redemptive work. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”. 34

We concur with the conclusion reached intuitively by the Jewish mystics, “that the Torah as we know it is but a reflection of the hidden wisdom and that only some of its mysteries have been revealed” 35. Jesus is himself proclaimed to be “the revelation of the mystery that was kept hidden since days of eternity”. 36

We would direct these mystics to the One to whom Moses and the Prophets testify: the crucified Messiah, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” 37. For the gospel is indeed “the wisdom of God [spoken] in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” .38

This wisdom was not to be found in an even more comprehensive code that would encompass an even greater ambit of human endeavour so as to bring it all into conformity with God’s will, but rather in this:“Christ in us, the hope of glory.” 39 He is indeed, in the words of Reb Bunam, the “source higher than the Torah,” by whom we are “able to comprehend the nature of God without its help” .40

Whereas it is said that, “If a man was [in spirit] descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose lives were dedicated to Heaven, he might rely upon his intuition where the traditional laws did not offer adequate guidance 41,” we would rather say that “he who has the Spirit of Christ has the mind of Christ,” 42 so that the indwelling of God causes us to say, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” 43 , in order that the life we now live is no longer for ourselves, but for him who died for us and was raised again 44. And with that Spirit and that mind, “the spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment”. 45

The written code becomes entirely redundant as we crucify the flesh with its passions and desires 46 and the Spirit guides us into all holiness and truth, Christ “having abolished in his flesh the Law with its commandments and regulations” 47.

The time of illumination spoken of by rabbi Mordacai Yosef has indeed come, for scripture testifies that: “Light has come into the world” 48, so that “whoever follows me shall never be in darkness” (John 8:12).

Of those who receive Him, it is written: “For it is God who said, ‘Out of darkness Light shall shine;’ who shone in our hearts to give the brightness of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. 49

Those who are led of the Holy Spirit are under a higher authority and prone to a direct unction and have indeed forgotten the written code. These will testify that the phenomenon described by rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is an extant reality.




1. 1525-1609 CE
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, Secker and Warburg, London, 1974. P. 58.
3. The term “Law” is intended in this article as synonymous with Torah, i.e. including all the midrashic teachings, homilies, and ethical and moral insights of the Talmudic tradition.
4. In the first two examples, God’s instruction to the prophet goes against specific requirements of the Law. Leviticus 17: 15-16 renders a person defiled if he eats anything that dies by itself of is torn by beasts. Leviticus 20:10 & Deut. 22:22 require that an adulteress be put to death.
5. 1 Kings 17: 2-6.
6. Hosea 1: 2-3; 3:1.
7. Isaiah 20: 2-4.
8. Heschel, op. cit., pp. 58-59.
9. Talmud, Makkot 23b; Habbakuk 2:4.
10. Jeremiah 31: 31-32. (“הנה ימים באים נאם־יהוה וכרתי את־בית ישׂראל ואת־בית יהודה ברית חדשׁה׃
לא כברית אשׁר כרתי את־אבותם ביום החזיקי בידם להוציאם מארץ מצרים אשׁר־המה הפרו את־בריתי …”)
11. Shabbat 138b; Heschel, op. cit., p. 60.
12. Heschel, op. cit., p. 59.
13. ibid.
14. Heschel, op. cit., p. 60.
15. Translated as “it [i.e. the Torah] is not in heaven”.
16. Baba Mezia 59b, pp. 352-353; See also Daniel Gruber, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah: the origins of rabbinic authority, pp. 111-120.
17. Romans 1: 25.
18. Derived from Deut. 4:1, and discussed in various places including tractate Sanhedrin, in the chapter haba bemachteret.
19. The doctrine is somewhat mitigated by excluding the prohibitions of murder, idolatry and adultery. Thus a person may violate the stringent Sabbath laws to get a sick person to hospital, but a person who is love sick for a married woman cannot have relations with her, even if he will die.
20. I.e. that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple came as God’s judgment on the nations for the sin of rejecting Messiah. See Matthew 23: 34-38; Luke 20: 9-19; Luke 21: 20-24.
21. The Zohar later taught that all Gentiles should walk on four legs like animals, except that God wanted them to appear to be human as a test of Jews’ loyalty to Torah and God.
22. Pirke Aboth; Sanh. 10:1.
23. Matthew 10:28.
24. Matthew 16:26.
25. Matthew 10:39.
26. Mark 9:35.
27. John 3:16-18.
28. Luke 13: 23-24.
29. The English word Christ is derived from the Greek “Χριστός” which means “anointed one” or “Messiah”.
30. Shabbat 138b.
31. Galatians 3:24.
32. Romans 10:4.
33. Makkot 23b.
34. Romans 1: 16-17.
35. Heschel, op. cit.
36. Romans 16:25.
37. 1 Corinthians 1: 23-24.
38. 1 Corinthians 2:7-8.
39. Colossians 1:26-27.
40. Heschel, op.cit.
41. ibid.
42. 1 Corinthians 2: 7-16.
43. Galatians 2:20.
44. 2 Corinthians 5:15.
45. 1 Corinthians 2:16.
46. Galatians 5:2.
47. Ephesians 2:15.
48. John 3:19.
49. 2 Corinthians 4:6.