The Modalities of the Torah

God gave the Torah to all the Jews for all times, but if the Jews were different, or time had progressed differently than it did, would He have given a different Torah? Is there a possible world, a distinct way the world can be, in which the Torah would be different?

The Torah was meant for the Jewish people, so shouldn’t it conform to the Jewish people? If there were a possible world with a different Torah, then our set of laws would not be fixed. They would change based on the world surrounding them. The Torah would be something dynamic and dependent on the way the world is. Consider, for example, a world where humans do not have arms. Would the mitsva of tefilin still apply?

A gemarah states that the Torah existed before God created the world and explains that He created the world with the guidance of the Torah.[i] Hence this gemarah clearly believes that there is no possible world that could require the Torah to be different since the Torah guided God in his creation of the world. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his commentary to the first two books of the Pentateuch, also takes this view.[ii] He states that God decided from the beginning of creation that “because of” the mitsva of matsa and marror, the Exodus should occur.[iii]

This view places a limit on the number of possible worlds there could be to the set of possible worlds that allow for the mitsvot to exist in their present form. This set of possible worlds is only slightly limited; many possibilities, such as some person having red hair or living somewhere other than where he actually lives, could still be actualized since they have no bearing on the laws of the Torah.

This explanation immediately seems odd. It would mean, for example, that there must be doves so that certain types of sacrifices that are to be given in the times of the Temple can be given. Doves would be necessary beings, in that no possible world could exist without doves. Classically, God is the only necessary being. Can doves really be on the same level as God–the all powerful being? Could really not exist without doves?

Even deeper, though, this explanation contradicts the notion of free will, a fundamental belief in Judaism.[iv] How could Pharaoh and the Egyptians have had free will if it was determined from the beginning of creation that the Jews would be enslaved in Egypt? Maimonides admits that Pharaoh loses his free will eventually, but in the early stages of the Jews’ settlement of Egypt, Pharaoh retained free will: Maimonides  singles out Pharaoh’s initial plan against the Jews as an act of free will. Based on the previous explanation, though, Pharaoh would not have had free will; he had to enslave the Jews and devise this plan.

Did the nation of Amalek have a choice to attack the Jews if the Torah had already determined that they should be remembered for the wrong they would do? If the mitsva of remembering Amalek’s wrongdoing necessitated that they would attack and harm the Jews, then they did not have free will.

In response to these critiques, it might be posited that the written law of the Torah must be the same – the letters and words on the pages of the Pentateuch must be the same – but the understanding of the words could be different. Commentators often reinterpret the verses of the Torah in order to align the words of the Torah with reality. The gemarah in Sanhedrin states an opinion that there was never a ben sorer u’morer, wayward son; the law of ben sorer u’morer was only written to allow the Jewish people to receive reward for learning it.[v] Rabbi Shlomo Epstein in his commentary on the Pentateuch adds that ben sorer u’morer was written to teach us about proper childrearing.[vi] He reinterprets the verses in light of the non-existence of wayward sons. Maimonides does the same thing. He reinterprets the stories in the Pentateuch about angels visiting the Patriarchs as dreams. Angels, according to Maimonides, can never take physical form, and hence he reinterprets the words to conform to what he perceives as reality.[vii] Like Maimonides and Rabbi Epstein, the rabbis could have reinterpreted the Torah to conform to a different reality.

This new explanation has its own problems. It makes the verses of the Torah have whatever meaning the interpreter likes. The Torah lacks concrete meaning, and, in turn, lacks objectivity.[viii]

Rather, there must be some flexibility regarding what the Torah could be, with some rigor regarding how we understand Biblical verses as they are written. The Torah must be understood in its natural way, while still permitting other possibilities, such as Pharaoh not enslaving the Jews, Amalek not attacking the Jews, and doves not existing.

Medieval Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo presents an opinion that addresses these issues.[ix] He explains that the Torah can change depending on the time period and place. Albo introduces this idea by showing the progression of history: first there was Adam who was not allowed to eat meat, then there was Noah who could eat meat, and then there was Abraham who was commanded to practice circumcision. Albo explains that God commands new laws, like in the case of Abraham where the law of circumcision, and retracts old laws, like in the case of Noah who was allowed to eat meat. Unlike the previous opinions, Albo feels that the Torah can change, but God decides the change, not man.[x]

The advantage, as Albo explains, of this opinion is that the Torah will fit the recipients better. He compares this to giving sustenance to someone. Meat and bread are proper for an adult, while not proper for a child. The same can be said about the Torah. A certain possible Torah might be good for one people or possible world, while another might be good for a different one.

Albo’s opinion, though, would be religiously uninspiring. The Torah would not be special. There would be no intrinsic value in the mitsvot as we have them. They would lack the uniqueness that makes them mitsvot since they would be one of many different possible mitsvot God could have given. They would not be divine, immutable commands from heaven, but more like laws of nature that could be one way or another.

This would be untrue, though. In fact, the mitsvot would have more value if they were different depending on the possible world. Using the allegory of a father buying his son a toy, the toy would be more valuable if the father designed it perfectly for the child than if he simply bought it from the store. It would be the child’s toy, made especially for him. The same can be said about the Jewish people and the Torah. God especially designed the Torah so it would suit the Jewish people and the world they inhabited. It would not be a Torah that was designed for any situation and any people, but a Torah especially for the Jews in the world they lived in.

The nexus of these issue might be found in the Gemarah in Sanhedrin states that the angels refused to give Moses the Torah since it was such a divine object.[xi] Moses replied to them with a litany of questions about their relation to the Torah. He asks whether they have idolatry among them, whether they perform work that they need the Sabbath to rest, and whether they have business dealings. Each time Moses references a mitsva that his question relates to. Since the angels have none of these things, they acquiesce to Moses and allow him to take the Torah.

Were this Gemarah interpreted in light of the earlier explanations, many odd necessities would be implied. Idol worship would be necessary in order for God to command the mitsvot of not worshiping other gods. Man would have to sin by worshipping false gods in order for the Jews to be commanded against that. Again, that would destroy their free will, even if all that would be necessary for the mitsva to be enacted would be one person worshipping a false god. How can anyone be culpable for an action that had to happen?

Hence this Gemarah should be understood as saying that the Torah only has purpose in light of the real physical world, and that the realities of this world are not dependent on the mitsvot, but vice versa—the mitsvot are dependent on this world.

This would mean that the reasons for the mitsvot are things found within this world. If the reasons disappeared, then the mitsvot do too. On the one hand, as stated earlier, the mitsvot have more meaning as a result of this idea. They are uniquely shaped to the world in which they were given in. They have meaning to the practitioner.

On the other hand, the mitsvot’s dependence on real world facts might give reason to believe that the mitsvot can be uprooted. Why should the mitsva be kept if the reason for their enactment is non-existent at this point in time?

This problematic result of our conclusion, though, can only arise if man knows the all reasons for the mitsvot. Indeed the mitsvot are dependent on things in this world, but who says that any particular reason is the one and only reason for the mitsva? For simplicity purposes, the assumption can be made that the reason the Torah gives to any said mitsva is the only reason, but such simplicity would oversimplify a very complex and all-knowing God. He very well could have more than one reason for any given mitsva.[xii]

The mitsva of shiluah ha-ken, sending the mother bird away when taking her eggs, might still apply even if the mitsva did not instill in man compassion.[xiii] There might be other reasons than the ones told to man for any said mitsva, just like there might be other reasons other than the ones written in the Gemarah for any said rabbinic enactments.[xiv] A possible world where the mitsva of shiluah ha-ken was given and the mitsva would not instill in man compassion might exist, but it still stands to reason that there would still be some possible world where the mitsva was altogether not given. Hence the possible worlds where certain mitsvot were not given exist, but which possible world that would be might be hard to determine in some cases.


[i] Genesis Raba 1:4; Nedarim 39b; Pesahim 54b are some examples where it states this idea. Other places hint at it, but these sources explicitly states the idea.
[ii] Bet HaLevi Ex. 13:8
[iii] The ambiguity is in the text. I simply reproduce the ambiguity the Bet HaLevi gives off.
[iv] I take free will to be an integral part of Judaism as the result of the verse in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. I am not the only one who feels this way. Most medieval Jewish thinkers think this. Maimonides is an example.
[v] Sanhedrin 71a
[vi] Kli Yakar Deut. 21:4
[vii] Guide to the Perplexed 2:42
[viii] Though this is not the exact meaning of this second explanation, a certain feel to the explanation lends itself to this critique.
[ix] Albo, Joseph. Sefer Ikkarim 3:14; note that he does not address the previously mentioned gemarah.
[x] In this way, Albo would not be support for the Reform or Conservative movement. Using an anachronism, he would be still Orthodox.
[xi] Sanhedrin 88b-89a
[xii] I make only one exception to my point, which is: if the mitsva requires some action on the part of man, say enslaving the Jews, then it would have to be an mitsva that would be different (even slightly) if that action wasn’t done. Hence I do not intend to contradict myself, but to present a solution to a problem with our conclusion.
[xiii] cf. Deut. 22:6-7, Nachmanides’ commentary on the verses, Mishna Berahot 5:3, and Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna.
[xiv] Cf. Rosh on Avodah Zara 4:7; Tosefot 31a s.v. gasrinan tu; Radbaz to Hilkhot Mamrim 2:2

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