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Is the Torah Timeless?

Is the Torah Timeless?

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Question:

I wonder about how the Orthodox view the fluidity of the Torah and the teachings of the past. Clearly there are aspects of the Torah that have been outdated since it was written, such as stoning etc.

What relevance do such passages have to us today?

Answer:

The Torah cannot be read like any other book. It is G‑d's wisdom, and thus has infinite levels of depth. There is no word in the Torah that is outdated; as G‑d is above time, so is His wisdom. It is just that different levels become more relevant at different times. While some laws of the Torah are no longer applied literally, their mystical and deeper meanings are still as relevant today as ever.

Let's take the example you gave — stoning.

Today the Jewish court does not stone people for sinning. But the message behind stoning still applies. Even today we are "stoned" by our wrongdoings. The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) teach that when we sin our heart turns hard and cold like stone. By engaging in evil acts we become desensitised to what's good and right. After repeating a sin a few times, we start to justify it. Soon we feel that it isn't bad at all. When we are criticised for it, we respond with righteous indignation, having convinced ourselves that we are actually acting morally. This is all because we are metaphorically stoned — we are cold and impervious to the voice of our own soul.

On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the Shofar pierces a hole in the stone blocking our heart, and the layers of indifference start to melt away.

That is the mystical view of the law of stoning in the Torah, and it explains a lot of the evil in the world today.

This is just an example. Every law, story and idea the Torah teaches can be taken literally but also has layers of meaning beyond the surface. It is an exhilarating and inspiring journey to discover how those lessons speak to us today.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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Anonymous Payson, UT October 5, 2011

It has been my experience that when I endeavor to make excuses not to keep a commandment that life will push me into difficulty until I see the reason why the commandment exists and why it must be kept. G*d demands adherence and there are few exceptions if we want the protections that come from faith. If we want the protections and advantages, we have to earn them through obedience or learn the hard way that could include stoning. I think stoning will always exist in some measure. My suggestion to you in your questions regarding sexual orientation is to ask yourself what your faith means to you and how do you influence others within it for good or ill with your behaviors. Can a temple be clean with licentiousness? What good is a temple that is not kept pure? Who else will pay for your decisions? Can you really expect to have the same blessings and advantages as others who are observing the mitzvot you are deliberately disobeying? Your own soul's progress may be delayed. Reply

Joshua Berg Burbank, CA June 1, 2009

Homosexuality, etc. I wrote to you because my brother and I have had many disagreements about this issue and he requested that I consult an Orthodox Rabbi. I was hoping to glean something from your answer that I haven't heard before which might make me agree to some extent with my brother's position but, unfortunately, that is not the case. We have addressed the points you made, all of which I take issue to, in our discussions and have not found much middle ground, if any.

I prefer not to respond to you since it is not my goal to change your mind or the position of the Orthodox movement, as misguided as I feel it may be. My desire is to sustain the loving relationship my brother and I have had for our entire lives. I think I need to accept that, even though he believes in something that is very troubling to me and vice versa, we are both compassionate and reasonable people who should not let our differences prevent us from getting along. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario May 31, 2009

More for Joshua There is another issue to address in your comment: You state that "we now know that homosexuality is not a choice." This statement is wrought with difficulties. Homosexuality is not state of being, but a behavior. While it may be that some men have a greater desire for one form of pleasure than another--even to the point of abhorring that which others enjoy--every human being has free choice to rein in his own behavior.

If this were not the case, then almost all men would be labelled adulterers, since monogamy certainly does not come naturally to the vast majority of men. Yet the Torah requires a man to be faithful to his wife, nonetheless. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario May 31, 2009

For Joshua Berg Beautiful question. The Talmud is perpetually dealing with just this question.

The full answer is lengthy, but to keep it simple: Every text lends itself to many interpretations. The Talmudic sages had received traditions concerning the devices to be used to generate these interpretations. When it comes to practical application, one interpretation is chosen, usually by majority consensus of the sages--as the Torah itself instructs.

The passage in Torah that prescribes stoning does not state the exact process. Neither is the adjudication process described in exact detail. The accepted interpretation redefined stoning in a more humane way, as well as effectively rendering it inapplicable under current conditions.

The verse concerning homosexual behavior, on the other hand, is quite explicit and does not allow for an interpretation that could permit it. Those who wish to bypass it can only do so by denying the eternality of the text. Reply

Natan Brooklyn, NY May 31, 2009

To J. Berg Many laws are applicable only in Israel, and many others only when we have a temple. This was part of the law in the first place. Nothing changed Reply

Joshua Berg Burbank, CA May 28, 2009

Stoning How, why and who decides that a passage need not be taken literral any longer? For instance, the abhorrance of two men laying is still taken literally, even though we now know that homosexuality is not a choice, but stoning need not be taken literally any longer. Why are some passages updated to different levels of relevance and others are not. Reply

rational view June 26, 2008

stoning In my opinion, the concept of stoning that is written by G -d in the Torah is a concept of detterence of deterioration of a society. Much like a country that is established for peaceful purposes to preserve the freedom of those living in it may possess nuclear weapons as a detterent to its destruction. Reply

Natan Brooklyn, NY May 21, 2007

Stoning was very rare Even in those days, the Talmud tells us that if more than ONE execution happened over the period of SEVENTY YEARS, that court was considered a 'killer' court. Nevertheless, the Torah finds it important to detail many laws of capital punishment. This detail not only serves as a blueprint for all generations, on a spiritual plane applies to everyone. Reply

Anonymous raleigh, nc May 18, 2007

stoning Why isn't the stoning of people an opportunity to examine the people doing the stoning? We already see the stone used by Moses for the 10 commandments and the stone which Jacob used as a pillow in the wilderness. These were learning opportunities for those in possession of the stones eg Moses and Jacob. Maybe the stones being held by those considering inflicting death with them is supposed to show the individual responsibility of each individual considering using a stone to take a life? And maybe each stoning actually represented a moral failure on the part of the person who threw it down on another person, imitating an angry simulation of Moses throwing down the commandments when he saw the golden calf which actually resulted in the Jewish people being given a second chance (though not so for those stoned)? Instead of a rigid adherence to their view of the law, perhaps each stoning was supposed to be an opportunity for Jews to plead the case of another, much as Moses did? Reply

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