Question: If it is true that the Torah, written with Divine inspiration, but not dictated word for word by God and therefore not immutable, (as evidenced by the various versions of masoretic texts and tikunei soferim, coupled with variants in texts even during the Talmudic period)than is our halachic system flawed, since its foundations do not rest on bedrock?
Answer: There is a well known Baraita (T.B. Hagigah 14b) that relates the story of four sages who entered Pardes (BenAzzai, Ben Zoma, Acher-Elisha Ben Abuya, and Akiva). Ben Azzai gazed and died, Ben Zoma went insane, Elisha became an apostate and Akiva came out in peace. According to some, the sages entered “Pardes” in order to achieve an absolute and total understanding of Torah. Kabbalists interpreted their experiment as a journey into the Pardes –an encounter with the divine truth. It would appear that the kabalistic version holds merit in view of the Talmud’s discussion of Elisha’s encounter with the angel Metatron and subsequent apostacy. When Elisha saw Metatron sitting and writing in heaven, he assumed he was a deity (since only God was allowed to sit) and proclaimed there are indeed two powers in heaven. (There are those that say that it was this statement earned Elisha the reputation as a heretic. Rabbi Tsadok HaKohen of Lublin believed that ultimately he became a heretic not because of the dualism, but because as the result of his encounter with God he believed he no longer had to obey the law).
The search for truth demands the questioning of all previously held assumptions that we have learned and believed. It means that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. It may also mean that there is no ultimate truth and that the nature of truth is that it is constantly being revealed within different contextual frameworks. Something like a hologram-every angle producing a different image. The search for truth requires abandoning religious rhetoric and nomenclature that has been accepted and popularized by different religious denominations including but not limited to the orthodox. For example, standard fare is to claim that the Divine revelation at Sinai is irrefutable because there were 600,000 Israelites who were witness to the event. This argument is obviously disingenuous because those witnesses are no longer present and their testimony isn’t verifiable. They left no documentation attesting to the epiphany, nor were there any secondary sources who recorded what they were told by the primary witnesses. All we have is the Pentateuch which in effect serves as its own witness attesting to its own veracity and as we have demonstrated wasn’t an accurate document. Its lack of accuracy raises a host of other questions which have far reaching implications such as our halachic system and its development. An example of this might be the rules governing the mixing of meat and milk products. The torah text mentions “lo tivashel gdi bachalev imo” three times. Because of this redundancy our Rabbis instituted a host of dietary laws that have defined the Jewish people throughout our history. If there were inaccuracies in the text, than why would we assume that this wasn’t an inaccuracy? Perhaps it should have been repeated only once or perhaps not at all, thus changing the dynamics of the laws pertaining to mixing meat and milk. Another consideration is the correct usage of the word “chalav”. Is it “chalav” – milk, or perhaps “chalev”- fat, both spelled the same in Hebrew. A critical approach to the text would have impacted on the development of Jewish law.
Elisha Ben Abuya’s (known as Acher in Talmud) odyssey poses several questions which are very important in the search for truth. What are the limits of searching? Who sets the limits? Why are there limits if one is to find the truth? What kind of questions can we pose? Are we entitled to draw conclusions based upon our observations? Do we have to accept dogma even if we can’t accept those principles? Does it make us hypocritical or at least inconsistent if we continue to practice “halacha l’maaseh” even if we are still questioning? These are important questions for consideration.
There are many who believe that if one “questions” than one is on the path of Elisha Ben Abuya. Not necessarily. If we don’t question than how can discovery ever be made and how can we ever honestly validate our religious convictions? Surely we all agree that it was God’s plan to have man designed with a brain with incredible potential for discovery. The purpose of mankind is to increase and maximize his potential for transcendence. As in every field of the sciences and humanities mans advancement can’t be expected without framing intelligent questions and seeking the answers. It stands to reason that in the discipline of philosophy and theology we are presented with the same challenges. To regurgitate the same litany of beliefs as held for thousand of years doesn’t necessarily validate them as.
Many years ago, having completed studies for Rabbinical Ordination and pursuing graduate studies, these were the issues that consumed me. Corresponding with my professor of Philosophy, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz I raised these issues, fearful that I was on the doomed trajectory of Elisha Ben Abuya. His answer which developed into a series of letters encouraged me to continue questioning and searching. Framing and articulating the questions, he maintained, would ultimately prove to be more important than the answers. I do believe that no matter how much we question there remains an indelible qualitative linkage between the questioner, his questions and the tradition which he questions.
There is, to be sure, a moral, ethical and historical imperative to honor the Torah and to practice its teachings. It really doesn’t matter who wrote it. It isn’t important whether it was dictated word by word by God to Moshe Rabbeinu, or whether it was a Divine revelation which latter went through many emendations, and permutations in the form of Tikunei Soferim and various versions of the Masortic text. The sheer weight of history, our cultural and ethical development based on Torah and the sacrifices made over the generations justifies in and of itself honoring the Torah as it has come to us through the generations in the form of shemirat mitzvoth. The tragedy of Elisha Ben Abuya was that he didn’t relate to Torah within the complex context of historical imperative. Even when in the process of questioning and searching, the “practice” of Mitzvoth is what ultimately will contribute to discovery and self discovery.