I am writing this post after doing a lot of soul-searching and searching the Torah and Tanakh. I doubt this will be the only such post I will write. This is not meant to be a definitive statement on my beliefs/thoughts about these topics. This is simply meant to be a very shallow look into my ongoing religious-belief process.
I believe that the Torah was given to Moses. I believe part of the Torah was given on Mount Sinai and the remainder was given from God to Moses during the time in the desert. I believe that the Torah was “filtered” through Moses and is not the literal word of God. However, I also believe that God would not permit Moses to completely change God’s words. Moses may not have written exactly what God said to him but he did get the essence of the wording correct.
If God spoke of a certain mitzvot (commandment) then Moses wrote it down in an understandable way. If Moses had made any mistake (such as declaring something unclean that is clean) God would not have permitted Moses to write the mistaken mitzvot – thus, the Torah is true to God’s words and not a man-made invention.
With all this being said, I am uncertain as to whether the Torah we have today is the exact same one given to Moses. While it is true that the oldest manuscripts – the Dead Sea Scrolls – agree with the Masoretic text for the most part, they do not agree one-hundred percent. In addition, we do not have a complete text of Torah from the Dead Sea Scrolls to compare to the Masoretic text. I believe that the Masoretes did the absolute best with what they had and I believe the overwhelming majority of the Masoretic text is true and complete but it is not the exact same Torah given to Moses.
I in no way believe that the Torah was purposefully corrupted – all ancient texts have been changed, not just the Torah. I believe that we must use the Masoretic text as the “official” text of Judaism but we must also realize that there are some holes and some differences with the original Torah given to Moses.
I believe that the mitzvot of the Torah are indeed binding but I also believe that the interpretation of these mitzvot do (and must) change. God gave us all brains and common sense so as our understanding of the Torah and the world in which it was written grows, we must readjust our interpretations. We also must understand that nobody reads and understands Biblical Hebrew fluently.
Halakhah (rabbinic law) is not binding upon any Jew. Halakhah is the human interpretation of Torah mitzvot. I do not believe that an “Oral Law” was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Yes, there were oral instructions that were later written down but these are not an “Oral Law.” Also, there were oral instructions – such as how to make the Tabernacle – that were not written down. These oral instructions were for a specific task at a specific time and are therefore also not part of an “Oral Law.” The Mishnah – which is really what the term “Oral Law” refers to – is the human interpretation of the Torah mitzvot.
The Mishnah may or may not be the rulings of the Sanhedrin (the court that developed out of the elders from Moses’ time) and therefore may or may not be binding. Since we cannot be sure what is and what is not from the Sanhedrin the Mishnah is not binding upon any Jew. The Gemara (commentaries on the Mishnah) is absolutely not binding upon any Jew. These commentaries are simply human interpretations from men who were not part of the Sanhedrin and, for the most part, did not even live in the Land of Israel.
I believe that halakhah can be followed as one chooses but it is not binding upon any Jew. I believe that the commentaries from the rabbinic sources are important for background and historical information. They can be valuable when determining how to follow a Torah mitzvah but they are only commentaries and nothing more.
A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house… (Deuteronomy 24:1)1
If a man for whatever reason he chooses decides to divorce his wife he must give her a divorce document (get). The Talmud and other rabbinic writings have written extensive halakhah regarding how the get must be written and how it must be given to the wife. If the man refuses to give his wife a get the wife becomes an agunah – a chained woman.
According to Karaites either the man or woman can go to the beit din (Jewish court) and request a divorce. Also, if a man refuses to give a woman a get the beit din can give the woman the get and release her from the marriage.
The Reform Movement does not believe that a get is required – a legally-binding civil divorce document is acceptable. However, in the Rabbi’s Manual there is an option for a “Document of Separation.”2 Reconstrucionist Judaism follows the belief that some sort of Jewish Divorce Document should be used in addition to the civil divorce decree.3 Conservative Judaism, like Orthodox Judaism, requires a traditional get in order for a divorce to be recognized. However, in the Conservative-styled ketubah (marriage document) there is generally a clause – known as the “Liberman Clause” – where the beit din can intervene and give a get to a woman whose husband is refusing to give her a get.4
I believe that according to the Torah, a civil divorce document is completely acceptable and should be considered a fulfillment of the Torah mitzvah. However, I also believe that as a Jew I must also be sensitive to the Jewish community. Even though a civil divorce is completely acceptable according to Torah I also believe that, for the sake of peace within the Jewish world, a get should also be obtained.
While conversion is not spoken of – at least not directly – in the Torah or Tanakh it was always an option for the non-Jew. I have already written about the conversion process in an article on my site so I will not go into this extensively.
I believe just as some within the Karaite world believe, based on Exodus 12:48-49, that all one needs to do to convert to Judaism is:5,6
1. Believe in the Eternal One as the only God and renounce all others.
2. Believe in the Tanakh as the words of the Eternal One and the only religious authority – renounce all other writings, doctrines, and creeds as words of men.
3. Study and keep the Tanakh while striving to interpret the Tanakh according to its peshat (plain) meaning.
4. All males must be circumcised.
5. All converts must purify themselves and their homes.
6. A period of learning must take place.
7. Conversion candidates must refrain from celebrating Passover until their conversion is complete.
8. Upon finalizing the conversion the candidate must make a public declaration of his/her intent to convert and leave all other faith systems.
However, since I am also part of the wider Jewish community I think that there, out of necessity, must be a longer and more formal process of conversion. I do not believe that one must take a year in order to convert but I also think this should be up to the rabbi and the individual.
According to Rabbinic Judaism conversion includes three things:
1. Circumcision for the male.
2. Ablution (immersion) for both male and female.
3. Proper witnesses as to the conversion.7
Rambam (Maimonides) also speak of these requirements and adds more specifics to them in his Mishneh Torah (M.T. Issurei Biah 14:1-6):
1. Make sure the person has no ulterior motives.
2. Remind the person that the Jews are persecuted.
3. Tell the person the fundamentals of the faith.
4. Teach the person some of the easy mitzvot and some of the more difficult mitzvot.
5. Teach the person the curses and blessings of following the mitzvot.
6. The male must be circumcised.
7. The male and female must immerse before a Beit Din.8
I see absolutely no problem with either the view of the Talmud or Rambam. This doesn’t mean that the process needs to take an excessive amount of time or money. I also believe that we as Jews must be very open to potential converts and not push non-Jews into the man-made “Noahide Laws.”
We as Jews are commanded to be a “light unto the Nations” and as such we must be actively teaching Torah. We as Jews must be open and welcoming toward those interested in Judaism. We as Jews must actively seek out those who are interested in conversion. I believe that we as Jews should not be shy about spreading Torah to the Nations. I am absolutely for spreading the knowledge of Torah and the beauty and truth of Judaism. I am pro-proselytizing just as our forefathers were in times past. We need to welcome non-Jews into the fold and making sure that those interested in conversion are given the option without undue burdens of time and/or money.
1David Stein (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
2Central Conference of American Rabbis. A Reform Get. CCAR, 1988. [http://ccarnet.org/responsa/narr-369-374/]
3Richard Hirsh. Progressive Approaches to Jewish Divorce: A Reconstructionist Perspective. Ritualwell, n.d. [http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/progressive-approaches-jewish-divorce-reconstructionist-perspective]
4Sanford Seltzer. The Jewish Way of Divorce. Reform Judaism. n.d. [http://www.reformjudaism.org/jewish-way-divorce]
5Nehemia Gordon. Conversion FAQ. Karaite Korner, n.d. [http://www.karaite-korner.org/conversion_faq.htm]
6al-Qirqisani Center. An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom. Troy, NY: al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite Studies, 2003.
7Halakhah.Com. Yevamoth. Halakhah.Com, n.d. [http://halakhah.com/pdf/nashim/Yevamoth.pdf]
8Eliyahu Touger. Mishneh Torah: Issurei Biah. Chabad, n.d. [http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960662/jewish/Issurei-Biah-Chapter-Fourteen.htm]