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The Enduring Power of the Torah

There’s no greater source of wisdom

by
Sotonye Jack
October 01, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

With overall sentiment toward religion suffering a downward trend over the last 100 years, especially in the last decade—with the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans jumping from 16% to 26% between 2009 and 2019, and the number of Americans attending either a church, mosque, or synagogue dropping below 50% for the first time in nearly a century—claiming that a sacred text like the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, can be the most life-altering work ever written might seem laughable to a sizable subset of Americans. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

What every human being across time and place and race and culture has looked for, whether their motivations were known to themselves or not, has been some way to accurately model the world and live according to rules compatible with being a growing, thinking thing. And from the problem of theodicy and why the good suffer, to issues of cosmology and to the right way to live here on Earth, there has been no greater source of wisdom that I’ve found than the Torah, and I’ve tried everything.

The answers weren’t in the years I had spent as a Christian—the problem of evil resolved via divine scapegoat, a malicious agent that an Almighty God somehow can do nothing about? A God who claims to have made the world and man within it who condemns desire as adultery and wealth as sin?—and they weren’t in the thousands of hours I had spent meditating, which made me more self-centered than any normal, healthy adult should be, an experience found to be a common (and counterintuitive) effect of meditation in a 2018 study conducted by Gebauer, et al. These left me unsatisfied, as the answers were not here. The answers were at the foot of Mount Horeb, safely kept inside the Tent of Meeting, and this realization led me down the rich and edifying process of conversion a little over a year ago.

Many may dismiss the Torah as outmoded by newer, ostensibly more sophisticated, and more secular guides for human organizing, like maybe some watered down variant of socialism. But any system of ideas with an unbroken chain of observance spanning 3,500-plus years, surviving civil and exogenous wars, famine, pestilence, immigration, emigration, natural disasters, and basic human lunacy, is probably more sophisticated, more consistent with human flourishing, than many might think.

The intellectual history inspired by the Torah makes the point even more clearly. The preeminent Torah scholar Maimonides, the father of all Jewish philosophy, is the best example that the Torah is not a work for the uncouth, having influenced some of the most important thinkers in the West including Newton, Strauss, Leibniz, and Spinoza. Maimonides distinguishes the Torah in his seminal work, Guide for the Perplexed, by emphasizing the fact that, unlike a great many philosophies, it does not demand inhuman degrees of self-denial or self-flagellation for the fulfilment of its statutes, but demands a perfect mean between proscribed acts and prescribed rejoicing, and goes on to relate the compatibility of the Torah with ideas you’d find in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Pretty sweet.

The later German-born Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Moses Mendelssohn, the son of a Torah scribe who was the first to translate the Torah from Hebrew into German, described the compatibility of Judaism with Enlightenment principles and discoveries in science in a way that eventually contributed to the “Jewish Enlightenment” beginning in the 1770s, which moved the Jewish people out of the social outskirts and into the fray of secular German society.

Mendelssohn argued in his work Jerusalem that Judaism is a natural religion consistent with the tenets of rationalism, which I take to simply mean exactly what the prophet Moses details in Deuteronomy 30:12, that this teaching is not “in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’” This is a teaching close at hand and attainable for everyone. I recall hearing the commandments for the first time as a child and wanting to meet God and thank him for making rules that don’t rely on the accident of birth for their adherence, as most religions require, since these were laws I’d follow even inadvertently in the course of my life no matter where I was born—they were rules that were so close, so natural to what it means to be human.

The world as I see it now is one ordered by flawless and compassionate reason—man was given laws that will invariably maintain harmony with what would make him most happy, and this in turn, according to the Torah, makes God happy. Be fruitful and multiply, rest from all work every weekend, appreciate what you have and ignore the possessions of everyone else; the widely known commandments are what Pew research surveys and Gallup polls show every year are most important to the well-being of the average American. And not only are these laws sensible, the promises made about them, as far as I’ve seen, are true. While Christianity and meditation (or the thousand other things I’ve tried) on the other hand all made promises to bring about some measurable (as far as subjective measurements go) effect if their tenets were followed to the letter, they were all falsifiable, and not one passed a basic test to deliver what they advertised.

Life does not get better when you practice nonattachment and try to see good circumstances as being equal to the bad, that doesn’t even make sense; and there is no self-actualization, no growth to be had from turning hours’ worth of our attention inward. I’m certain billions of people have had the same experiences that I’ve had, and if they truly haven’t—if anything asked of the father in the name of the son has truly been given, and if meditating on the breath has truly brought them interior peace and quiet—then we’d probably be living in a much different world. But we aren’t living in that world, and Judaism provides an elegant explanation about why, which Maimonides has articulated in his treatment of magic—there’s nothing to it.

The sermon given in the 19th chapter of the book of Matthew (which sounds eerily similar to the ascetic sentiments of Buddhism) where the ostensible son of mankind’s creator exhorted us all to leave our homes, to leave our wives and our children, and follow him, did not lead me anywhere good, and how could it when family is what we’re meant for? And what greater disappointment is there than being led into committing injustice against our own humanity? In contrast, the Torah, the teaching I’ve now sworn my life to, is a teaching of perfect justice, the law of the God who is everything I wish I could be, who rules through a righteous right hand, never permitting prosperity to the wicked except to ensnare them, bring their terribleness down to bear on someone more deserving, or to bring glory to himself by their downfall. A God who created the world for his pleasure and decreed the commandments so that man can maintain his well-being forever. What is greater than a teaching so beautiful?

If that all sounds as compelling to you as it does to me, and if the ways you’ve tried to improve your understanding of the world haven’t satisfied your heart, I strongly encourage you to join me on this journey. This is not evangelizing, it’s just advice from one human who has wanted to figure out this world to another. The Torah has changed my life and perspective like nothing else ever has. And if you don’t believe me, well, there’s a new cycle of Torah reading beginning this week—test it for yourself and see. You may be in for an interesting, revolutionary surprise.

Sotonye Jack is a Substack partner and creator of the written-interview platform Time Well Spent.

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