Fifteen “how do we know” and “why” questions

When studying the Written and Oral Torah, which are there to connect us with God so we can create holy spaces for Him here in this world, it is unavoidable to run through your mind epistemological questions. For example, “How do you know the Torah is true?” Or, “Why so many rules around how to pray when all of it should be merely spiritual?”

Epistemological questions — those pertaining to knowledge and belief around a topic — are valid. We are rational beings with a full potential to seek truth objectively. We were given that potential, so leveraging it to understand is natural. In this article, we present a list of fifteen such questions various readers have submitted to along with links to the related answers (which are really cool, by the way!).

How Do We Know That We Heard G‑d at Sinai?

Har Sinai
A reader asks for proof that the Jews heard God speak at Mount Sinai beyond reasonable doubt. The response begins with an overview of the nature of conspiracies and historiography along those lines. Then, it proceeds to underline the value of eyewitness testimony by many, as was the case of Jews who heard God speak. Here’s a quote from the article:

We’re not talking about a couple of broken shards, or an excavated building for archaeologists to argue over. We’re not talking about the account of a single individual, or of a handful of ready-made believers. We’re talking a mass eyewitness account of a wide spectrum of observers, passed down in an unbroken chain through multiple paths without distortion. We have the consensus of an entire nation for over 3000 years on a single version of that event (Jewish people actually agreeing on something!).

Here’s a related article we have published on the veracity of the Torah.

Is there an independent source that can verify the events recounted in the Torah?

A reader asks if there is some other, independent historical testimony of the Mt. Sinai event besides the mere testimony of the many Jews who first witnessed God speak. The response revolves around the method of evidence used in the context of history and what it means to believe in something beyond mere proof.

If Judaism Is Spiritual, Why All the Rules?

A reader is understandably frustrated with the existence of rules around everything in life. Why so many rules even in the Torah? The response relates rules to the freedom of choice; here’s a quote:

Why did He choose that good is good and bad is bad? Why did He choose that stealing, lying and murder should be harmful? Why did He choose that they could exist at all? […] Because He chose. That is what lies beyond all that is beyond—beyond even the infinite: The freedom to choose. And that is where all things began.

Why Not Just Go By the Book?

Torah Scroll Illustration
Asks a reader: What’s up with all these customs and traditions Jews have, which aren’t even alluded to in the Torah? The response distinguishes between text and context to move on to the need for interpretation, which has brought about the referred tradition.

Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis?

What’s up with this “Talmund” and “Mishnah” law, which seems to be a compilation of best hits of various rabbis? The response provides the motivation for decreeing halachic law based on the dynamics initiated by Moses.

Moses wanted more than education. He wanted participation. […] In sum, the process of halachah is a populist dynamic, by the people, for the people, yet simultaneously, on the authority of Divine Law. This is the answer to your question, where do these rabbis get the authority to make such laws to begin with? The answer is that they receive it from three sources: From G‑d, from Moses and from the people.

What is the “Oral Torah”?

I can cope with the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, the Books of Prophets, and the Poems, but what’s up with the “Oral Torah?” The response starts with an inference to “additional unwritten material” in Exodus 24:12.

What If I Believe in Only the Written Text of the Torah?

Should we trust the “Oral Torah?” Is there a motivation to have an unwritten Torah to complement the written Torah?

The Torah says, “You shall slaughter an animal as I have commanded you.” What was it that G‑d commanded Moses? How can we know?

How Is the Torah Interpreted?

How do we interpret what we read in the Torah? Should I literally take an eye or a tooth from my adversary? The response lists the various exegetical methods of the Torah.

Any insight in Torah is acceptable as long as it (makes sense and) does not contradict any of our fundamental beliefs.

How Can the Commentaries All Be Right?

Of the many interpretations and commentaries, which one revolves around the truth? Or are they all true despite the differences?

When our holy commentators studied a story in the Torah, they each noticed another aspect of this truth. And so, we treasure them all.

Why Can’t the Rabbis Agree on Anything?

Carl Schleicher, BeimRabbi
Carl Schleicher, BeimRabbi

A reader is upset at the fact that no two rabbis seem to agree on a Torah topic. Why would that be? The response provides a nice overview of what arguments are all about and how to reach a consensus on a topic by considering he questions: “What does the Creator want with His universe?” A couple of case studies are also presented for further elucidation of the provided answer.

The Murky Truth About Truth

Is Torah the ultimate Truth?

You know what they say, “Put two Jews together and you’ll have three opinions.”

How and When Was the Torah Written?

Did Moses act as scribe while on top of Mount Sinai as God was dictating him what came to be known as the Books of Moses? Or is this a simplistic explanation? The response provides an overview of the story according to Judaism and the writing process involving Moses.

So, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist, explains: all the prophet needs to do is catch those words of G‑d as they are a little less condensed and crystallized, up in a higher world. There things are a lot clearer–less static, more signal. And from there those prophets get an idea of what’s coming down–before it actually gets here

Torah, Slavery and the Jews

Wait a minute, Torah sanctions slavery?!

The tension screws tighter: Why are we kind and compassionate? Because “the Holy One, blessed be He, gave us His Torah.” So how can that same Torah that makes us kind permit oppressive labor of a fellow Divine Image?

Morality: A Catch-22?

What’s the story behind moral relativism and absolutism? Where does Judaism stand?

Judaism sees morality as absolute. Yet, although it has many moral laws and norms by which Jews are expected to live, its universal morality–the laws which Judaism believes should apply equally to all peoples and cultures–are very basic. Called the seven Noahide laws, the first six are prohibitions against murder, stealing, adultery, cruelty to animals, idolatry and blasphemy. Thus, Judaism is minimalistic rather than imperialistic about the application of Judaic moral standards on others.

What Does G-d Need Us For?

If God is all perfect, why does He need us?

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Moses on Mount Sinai
Jean-Léon Gérôme: Moses on Mount Sinai

So creating us could not have been in order to fulfill a need. It was something G‑d chose to do. He doesn’t need us, He wants us. What does G‑d want from us?

Noahide Café

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