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If Most Jews Are Not Fundamentalists, Why Should They Observe Jewish Law?

Jewish Law and Its Authority
Responsa by David Golinkin

On the first night of Pesach, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles gave a sermon in which he stated that modern archaeologists almost unanimously agree that the Exodus from Egypt never happened. His sermon made the front page of the Los Angeles Times on the sixth day of Pesach. A short while later, six Orthodox rabbis published a half-page ad in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

“We find it inconceivable that matters of our enduring faith are so frivolously dismissed. Are we to rewrite the first of the Ten Commandments, which predicated all of God’s expectations from man on a historical relationship with God stemming from the Exodus?” states the ad, adding, “How tragic is this misbegotten attempt to rob people of their historical and religious heritage.”

All of this was duly reported in The Jerusalem Post (April 29, 2001, p. 4) and later highlighted by Jonathan Rosenblum right before Shavuot (The Jerusalem Post, May 25, 2001, p. B9). Rosenblum, who grew up in the Conservative movement and later became Haredi, takes great pleasure in attacking the Conservative movement on a regular basis. His attack on Rabbi Wolpe, Prof. Schorsch and others states, among other things:

“[The Conservative Movement] has reduced the Torah to another variant of ancient wisdom literature. beautiful, interesting, even inspiring – yes; a guide to life – no. If God never spoke to the Jewish people, how would finite man have any idea of what He wants from us? And why would we subject ourselves to the rigors of the Law, if that Law is not His will, but rather the contrivance of a set of human authors?.. The Halacha cannot be so reinterpreted. They are either objective rules of behavior or they are nothing..”

So says Jonathan Rosenblum. Yet, despite his clever rhetoric, he has missed the point entirely. He thinks that it is easier to observe Jewish law if you believe in the verbal revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. That is undoubtedly true. But he further states that the rules of the Halacha “are either objective rules of behavior or they are nothing”. In other words, Jews should either observe Jewish law, the halacha, as the word of God or they should observe nothing. Polls taken in Israel and the United States for many decades show that 80% of Israeli Jews and 90% of American Jews are not Orthodox, which in most cases means that they are not fundamentalists. Therefore, according to Jonathan Rosenblum, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora have no reason to observe Jewish law since they do not believe in the verbal revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Indeed, Rosenblum’s approach has been the tragedy of the Israeli school system for fifty-three years – either you are Orthodox and belong in a dati (state religious) school where you study the full range of Jewish texts and observe Jewish law, or you are nothing and you belong in a mamlachti (state) school where you study and practice almost nothing. That, of course, is why the Schechter Institute supports one-hundred-and-four TALI schools and kindergartens throughout the State of Israel. Because we believe that the Torah and the mitzvot belong to all Jews and not just to the Orthodox.

Jonathan Rosenblum’s version of Judaism works for 10-20% of the Jews in the world, but Rabbi Wolpe was addressing himself to the other 80-90% of the Jews in the world who are not fundamentalists: if you are a modern Jew who takes archaeology seriously, and are aware of the many contradictions in the Torah, and are aware of the various bible manuscripts and do not believe in the literal revelation of the Torah – why should you observe Jewish law and tradition?

I recently spoke on this very topic in Toronto within the framework of the Rabbinical Assembly Convention and my talk was based, in turn, on a fifty-page Hebrew responsum I wrote two years ago for the Va’ad Halakhah (Jewish Law Committee) in Israel. Here I would like to summarize the end of my responsum in which I addressed the question: What makes the Torah holy and authoritative for a non-fundamentalist?

1) According to Rabbi Yohanan (Gittin 60a), the Torah was not given to Moses all at once, but in stages, while a number of medieval rabbis said that the Torah was given to Moses and other prophets in stages. This approach does not believe in Torah from Sinai but in Torah from Heaven. In other words, the Torah was given to Moses and other prophets at different periods of time and each prophet was influenced by his own dialogue with God.

2) A second approach says that the Torah itself is not revelation, but a humanly mediated record of revelation. Since the Torah is the human record of God’s word, the bible is not perfect. To what can this be compared? To a person who listens to a record or tape. He wants to hear the voice of the singer, but he has to do so through the imperfections of an imperfect medium. The Torah then is like the record or tape and not like the Singer Himself.

3) The third approach says that we don’t know exactly what happened at Mount Sinai three thousand years ago – but that doesn’t really matter. The authority of the Torah doesn’t stem from what happened at Mount Sinai, but from the way that Klal Yisrael/Catholic Israel/the collective Jewish people understood the Torah for the past three thousand years. This was the approach of Solomon Schechter and other well-known Conservative rabbis.

4) A fourth approach says that the Torah expresses the eternal covenant or brit between God and the Jewish people. The main thing in a covenant between two parties is not the original written document but the actions and the feelings that have accrued over the years. The study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot express our covenant with God for the past three thousand years and that is not affected by which part of the Torah was said when.

5) The fifth approach says that Torah study and observing the mitzvot sanctify our lives and make the profane sacred. The exact source of a certain passage does not alter the ability of the Torah and mitzvot to bring kedushah to our lives.

6) The sixth approach says that the sanctity of the Torah stems from the fact that our ancestors saw in her our holiest book. They studied Torah and would not place another book on top of her, and kissed her, and fasted for her when she fell, and even sacrificed their lives in order to study her and observe her commandments. To what can this be compared? To the Western Wall. This outer wall of the Temple, built by Herod, only became a center of worship and pilgrimage around the year 1520. But the Kotel has become holy since then through the tears and prayers and notes and pilgrimages of millions of Jews. So it is with the Torah. It became sanctified through three thousand years of study and kisses and reverence and observance and this sanctity does not change in light of new discoveries about the origins of the Torah.

Finally, to return to the fundamentalist approach, I would like to conclude with an episode from December, 1613, in which Galileo defended the theory of Copernicus from the fundamentalists. Copernicus said that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun, while the fundamentalist Catholics said that this is heresy which contradicts various passages in the bible such as Psalm 103:1,5 which says that the earth is stationary and Joshua 10:12-14 which seems to imply that the sun revolves around the earth. After offering an astronomical interpretation of Joshua 10, Galileo says that he “personally wished to abandon all such astronomical interpretations, on the grounds that the Bible spoke to a more important purpose. As he had once heard the late .Cardinal Baronio remark, the Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven – not how Heaven goes.” (Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter, New York, 2000, p. 65).

We might paraphrase: The Bible is not a book of history, but of His story. The story of Creation does not come to teach us that the world was created in precisely six days, but that one God created the universe and everything in it. The story of the Exodus does not really care whether the Pharaoh involved was Ramses II or some other Pharaoh, but rather that you shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This was the main thrust of Rabbi Wolpe’s sermon; I agree.


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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