Ask the Rabbi: Is Judaism an 'Evolving' Religion?

The Question:

As I understand it, Judaism is an evolving religion. The ethos of Joshua, who slaughtered whole peoples, was superseded by Ezekiel, who condemned collective punishment. Further refinements where made by the Rabbis of the 1-4th Century AD. Moses Maimonides was influenced by Aristotle, and that had a lasting effect on the religion. The European Enlightenment was another influence. Do you see Judaism as static and eternal, or evolving?

Scholars talk about the difference between Biblical Judaism and Rabbinical Judaism, the latter being what is practiced today. Is this distinction accepted among the adherents of the various strains of Judaism?

Thank you,
“The Perplexed”


The Answer:

Judaism is an “evolving” religion only to the extent that we live in an “evolving” world.

That is, we live in a world which presents ever new situations and new technical developments which must be made to fit within the framework of halacha, the Jewish law which governs the practices and guides the everyday life of any traditional Jew.

However, the halachic process is easily — and often! — misunderstood, so I offer here a brief description and history, with a few examples.

The heart of traditional Judaism is the Torah, whose revelation on Mt. Sinai was witnessed by the entire Jewish nation gathered at the foot of the mountain. At the time, the nation declared: “Na‘ase vënishma‘” — “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus X, 7).

It is that “hearing” with which we now concern ourselves.

The Torah was deliberately given in two parts — one written, the other oral — in order to guarantee the accuracy and faithfulness of its transmission through the generations. If you think about it for a moment, even before we read a word of the written Torah, you’ll see that an oral component is necessary to any written document. Something external must define the terms and units of measure, for instance, or specify how it is that the letters are to be read. The technical term for any ancient document whose oral component is no longer known is “indecipherable.”

What is more, the existence of two Toroth (the plural of Torah) is mentioned repeatedly in the Five Books of Moshe, as well as the later prophetic and historical books which make up the rest of Tanach, as the Hebrew Bible is known. To list just some of the references: Exodus XVI, 28, XVIII, 16-20, and Leviticus XXVI, 46; in the Prophets, Isaiah XXIV, 5 and Ezekiel XLIV, 24; and in the Writings, Psalms CV.45, Daniel IX, 10, and Nehemiah IX, 13.

Once one actually begins to read the written Torah, one quickly notes that there appear to be many places in which assumptions are made by the text which require explication somewhere, if the Torah is to be observed. To give only a few examples:

(1) Israel is enjoined to observe the Sabbath, and to refrain from performing on it any mëlacha. Indeed, performing a mëlacha on the Sabbath is so serious that it potentially carries a death sentence (cf. e.g. Exodus XXXV, 2). Yet, exactly what is covered by this crucial term is never defined in the written Torah; it is left to the Oral Torah.

(2) In Deuteronomy XXIV, 1-5 we meet with a technical discussion of the details of divorce without ever having considered the formalities of marriage. These are explained in the Oral Torah.

(3) Two apparently contradictory passages are Exodus XII, 15, which seems to say that Passover lasts seven days, and Deuteronomy XVI, 8, where it appears to last six days. These are reconciled and explained in the Oral Torah (Pësachim 120a).

(4) In Deuteronomy XII, 21 we read that animals are to be slaughtered for sacrifice and meat, ka’asher tzivvithicha, “as I commanded you.” You will search the written Torah in vain for the commandment; it is to be found only in the Oral Torah.

The oral component of the Torah is enshrined in the Talmud (the word literally means “Learning”). The Talmud is itself divided into two parts: the earlier Mishna (from a root connoting repetition, as it is intended for constant review and memorization) and the discussion, the “class notes,” if you like, of the Mishna known as Gëmara (the Aramaic word for “learning”).

Given, then, that an oral component is presupposed and required by the written Torah, what evidence is there that the text of the Mishna, the oldest part of the Oral Torah, is that oral component? Quite a bit, actually. Here, again, are a few examples:

(1) Leviticus XIII-XV contains a detailed description of a medical condition called tzora‘ath, often mistranslated “leprosy.” The Oral Torah also discusses aspects of this condition, and in Nega‘im VI, 1 specifically addresses a person present at Sinai who exhibited symptoms of the condition, and asks if he was subject to the restrictions which had not been known before the Torah was given. The Mishna “grandfathers” him in.

(2) In Numbers XXXV, 9-34, Israel is commanded to designate six ‘arei miqlat, “cities of refuge,” for those guilty of manslaughter or negligent homicide. In the Mishna (Makkoth II, 4) it is specifically ruled that even though three of the cities had been designated by Moshe before the conquest of the Holy Land, they were not operative until the completion of the conquest and designation of the remaining three.

(3) In Leviticus XIX, 23-25, the laws of ‘orla, under which fruit trees may not be harvested for the first three years after they begin bearing, are discussed. In ‘Orla I, 2, the problem of young fruit trees planted by the Canaanites and captured by Israel is discussed (they are ruled exempt from ‘orla).

(4) In Numbers XXVII, the case of the daughters of Tzëlofechad, who died in the desert without a male heir, is discussed. The Mishna (Bava Bathra VIII, 3) discusses technical details of the division of the inheritance amongst the girls.

In addition to the above examples, the Talmud also contains numerous other rulings made by Moshe and his immediate successor, Yëhoshua‘ bin Nun (“Joshua”), at the very dawn of Jewish history, all of which serve to confirm and corroborate that the Oral Torah in our possession is indeed the one alluded to in the biblical citations supra.

These rulings are almost as old as Israel, and no one with an unprejudiced mind would think that these rulings were proposed after the events to which they relate, “theoretically,” as it were. It is simply absurd to suggest that later rabbinical authorities ruled concerning, e.g. tzora‘ath at Sinai. What would have been the point? Who would have been affected by such a ruling?

The written Torah makes it very clear that the revelation of Torah ceased with Moshe (cf. e.g. Deuteronomy XIII, 1), and it provides for its administration by the rabbinical authorities in the generations which followed. Thus, in Ibid., XXX, 11-12, we learn that the Torah is lo bashamayim,“not in the heavens,” but in the hands of human beings (cf. also Bava Mëtzia‘ 59b). In Numbers XI,16-17, Moshe established the first Sanhedrin; in Deuteronomy XVII, 9-11, rabbinical leadership is established.

Obviously, the original Torah, oral and written, did not contain detailed instructions concerning the halachic ramifications of electricity, say, or automobiles. The very terms would have been meaningless to the people stationed at the foot of Sinai over 3300 years ago, or indeed to any subsequent generation until a bit over a century ago.

Nonetheless, the principles of the Torah, together with the rules of Torah exegesis and analysis, the rules, if you like, of Talmudic logic, provided as part of the Oral Torah, make it possible to find and develop rulings to cover new circumstances and new developments of this sort. Once granted to us, it is up to us to administer it and adapt the world as we understand it to the Torah’s needs to preserve its eternal values. This necessity has given rise to a vast halachic literature based upon and utilizing the principles enshrined in the written and oral Toroth.

Now, for the example which you raised in your question …

Yëhoshua‘ leading Israel to conquer the Holy Land from the Canaanites is an example of what is known as hora’ath sha‘a, an instruction pertaining only to a particular time and place, never to be repeated.

That said, as the Talmud makes very clear, Yëhoshua‘ followed the halachoth governing warfare, and offered the Canaanites three options:

(1) Leave the country and go elsewhere (one of the seven Canaanite tribes, the Girgashim, took him up on this and relocated to North Africa);

(2) Submit and acquiesce to the rule of Torah (as the inhabitants of the city of Giv‘on did, cf. Joshua IX, 27); or

(3) Fight, and face the consequences.

As I said, this applied to a uniquely depraved people then resident in the Holy Land. Were there any Canaanites left today, it would still be a requirement; as there are not, it no longer has any effect.

The Mishna itself tells us of the Torah: hafoch bah vahafoch bah dëchola bah (“Turn it over and over, for everything is in it.”

The Torah which is in our hands is the blueprint of the world in which we live, and hence we are supremely confident that every aspect of that world, as unfolded through new discoveries and applications of science, now and in the future, can be adapted to it.


If you have a question about anything which piques your interest or curiosity concerning Jewish law, tradition, or history, if there is a Bible verse (from the Hebrew Bible, please) which you’d like elucidated, or if there is anything else about which you’d like to hear a rabbi’s perspective, please send your questions to [email protected] or leave them in the comments section below.