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The Revolutionary Revelation

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

What would a world without Torah look like?

What would the world look like if the Torah had never been given? Join me, if you will, for a tour of New York City in a hypothetical world where the revelation at Sinai never took place.

We drive across the Brooklyn Bridge, speed down the FDR Drive, and park our car in a massive concrete-and-steel garage. We walk through the streets of downtown Manhattan and crane our necks to gaze at the glittering tops of the skyscrapers. Knowing that the pagan civilizations of antiquity excelled in technological accomplishments, we're not surprised that technology forges ahead in a world devoid of Torah.

Next we meander through Lincoln Center. We hear the music of a concert in progress, pass a theater where a contemporary drama is being enacted, and see well-dressed people lined up to buy tickets for the ballet. Art does not need Torah to flourish.

From there we head to Wall Street. We peek into the Stock Exchange. Business and commerce are thriving. No difference here.

Our tour then takes us to residential neighborhoods crammed with high-rise apartment buildings. Here for the first time we notice something missing. There are no schools.

There is one lively academy for the wealthy and well-born, but education for the masses? How ludicrous!

What happened to PS 132 and Woodrow Wilson High School and City College? Uptown, we are told, there is one lively academy for the wealthy and well-born, but education for the masses? Our guide snickers. "How ludicrous!"

As Rabbi Ken Spiro points out in his superb book, WorldPerfect education for all was an implausible notion in the pagan world (as in polytheistic societies today), where the literacy rate was generally 1/10 of 1%. Even ancient Rome, which needed a literate ruling class to administer its far-flung empire, boasted a literary rate of only 10-15%. Not only did Greece and Rome not deem it beneficial to educate the masses, but they viewed education as a potential danger to the stability of society.

The Torah innovated the idea of education for all. It specifically commanded parents to educate their children. [Deut. 6:7] In fact, a code of law as intricate as the Torah and as obligatory on all members of the society, inherently demanded study. If a Jew didn't know what all the commandments entailed, how could he fulfill them? Thus mass education was a Torah-mandated value throughout Jewish history, causing the medieval monk Peter Abelhard to write: "A Jew, however poor, even if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for understanding of God's law. And not only his sons, but his daughters."

As we continue our tour of New York City, we notice that we have not heard a single ambulance siren. When we ask, "Where are the hospitals?" we are met with a blank stare. "You must know what we mean," we persist, "the place where the sick are cared for and lives are saved."

A glint of understanding: "Oh, yes. We have a place which provides medical care… for those who can afford it, of course."

"And for the others?" we ask, appalled. "You can't just let them die."

"Why not?" is the puzzled retort.

No society before Torah or without Torah attributed intrinsic value to human life.

No society before Torah or without Torah attributed intrinsic value to human life. It follows that for the government or society to spend its resources to heal or preserve life -- and to feel such urgency to save life that they would outfit ambulances -- would be considered a nonsensical enterprise. The right to life, which the American Declaration of Independence considered "self-evident," was not evident to any society in the world before or after Sinai, except where the Torah's influence penetrated.

On the contrary, infanticide of undesirable babies (such as girls and those with even minor disabilities) was universally practiced, and endorsed by such "enlightened" thinkers as Aristotle. Killing for entertainment was the most popular amusement in ancient Rome, where 50,000 people would crowd into the Coliseum to watch convicted criminals (for capital crimes such as professing Christianity), slaves, and POWs fed to the lions and gladiators fight to the death. In between these spectacular killings, lest the crowd get bored, routine executions by burning, beheading, and skinning people alive were offered for amusement during intermission.

Into a world where killing for convenience or sport was the universal norm, the Torah introduced the concept of the sacredness of life. "Do not murder," the sixth of the Ten Commandments revealed at Sinai, was not simply ethical pragmatism as it was in other ancient law codes, whose goal was to protect not the individual, but rather the stability of society. The Torah asserted that all human beings -- including infants, slaves, and convicted criminals -- were holy because they were created in the image of God. As the Talmud proclaimed: "He who saves one life is as if he had saved the whole world." The value of the individual -- and therefore his or her life -- is a Torah innovation.

In India in 1981, I knew a couple whose 22-year-old son had been injured in a traffic accident while riding his motor scooter through the streets of Calcutta. The young man lay on the crowded thoroughfare for seven hours, until he bled to death. This is a society where Torah has not penetrated.

Our tour of Manhattan-sans-Torah takes us to a small but stately building. We're informed that this is the courthouse for the entire city. "How can such a small courthouse serve millions of people?" we ask, perplexed.

"Millions of people?" is the astonished reply. "Only a few thousand people -- the elite -- have the right to bring lawsuits."

When the Torah laid down the principle of equal justice before the law, the rest of the world must have laughed. "You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the mighty" [Lev. 19:15] would have been regarded as outlandish had not God commanded it. According to the Torah, even a king is not above the law and even a slave is not below it. Jewish courts do -- and always have -- heard cases initiated by wronged workers, women, and foreigners. By contrast, ancient Athens, the so-called "cradle of democracy," extended full legal rights to only a few thousand men who owned land, leaving its other hundreds of thousands of residents (including women, artisans, peasants, and slaves) with no recourse to the law.

In the corridor of the courthouse, we notice something curious on the wall. It is a conglomeration of twelve lines of numbers. "This is a calendar," our guide explains. "It marks off the days, months, and years."

"What about the weeks?" we ask.

"What are weeks?" our guide inquires quizzically.

The division of time into seven-day units punctuated by the Sabbath, a day of rest, is an invention of the Torah. It corresponds to no natural cycle. Completely counter-productive of material goals, the Sabbath addresses the spiritual need for reconnection and re-creation. Even those denizens of the Western world for whom "the weekend" means not spiritual refreshment but shopping at the mall must appreciate the Torah's gift of one day off in seven.

Having lived in India, a society where every day resembles every other (except for the Sunday closing of schools and government offices, imposed by the British colonizers), I have seen how human beings are eroded by the tedium of a 365-day year of unremitting work. Now, in the small courthouse, I look around and notice the same exhausted expressions.

We head over to First Avenue and 46th Street only to discover that the familiar landmark of the United Nations headquarters is absent. Bewildered, we ask: "Isn't there some international body whose purpose, at least in principle, is to settle disputes between nations in a peaceful manner, without resort to war?"

Our guide is confused. "What would be the point of that? War is the noblest endeavor of man. War spawns heroes -- mighty warriors whose prowess vanquishes the enemy. And how else will a nation expand its borders and increase its power without the glorious enterprise of war?"

We despair of a meeting of minds, and begin to search for a curved wall where the antithetical vision of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah is emblazoned: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nations shall not lift up sword against nations. Neither shall they learn war anymore."

There isn't even the ideal of peace in this world in which the Torah was never given.

We search in vain. There is no inscription, no wall, not even the ideal of peace in this world in which the Torah was never given.

We walk north, past the fashionable uptown, into a low-income neighborhood, and here the most conspicuous difference grips us. The streets are lined with unfortunates -- blind people, crippled people, starving children. They reach out their hands and plead with us for help. It reminds me of the cities of India. "Why are these people on the street?" we demand. "Where are the orphanages? The social service agencies? The institutions for the blind and the deaf? The soup kitchens? The rehabilitation centers for the handicapped?"

"What are you suggesting?" comes the outraged response. "There's nothing like that here, and why should there be? We didn't hurt these people. It's not our fault if they're hungry or handicapped. We bear no responsibility to help them."

As Ken Spiro points out in WorldPerfect, into a world where numerous law codes prohibited murder, theft, and various anti-social behaviors, the Torah burst into the scene with a completely novel concept: the obligation to proactively do good. "Love your neighbor as yourself," [Lev. 19:18] and "Do not stand by your neighbor's blood," [Lev. 19:16] charged humankind with social responsibility, an idea that sans-Torah societies never dreamed of.

The Torah, which Thomas Huxley called, "the Magna Carta of the poor and of the oppressed," drove this point home with a multitude of specific commandments aimed at providing aid to the impoverished, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. The Torah obligated human beings to take responsibility for the welfare of people outside their own clans and beyond the precincts of their own homes, not because it was salubrious for the body politic, but because a just and loving God demanded compassion from all His children for all His children. This planet has never known a more original idea.


Our tour of New York City would not suffice to reveal the truly cataclysmic revolution caused by the revelation at Sinai. Without Torah not only our world but also our lives would be profoundly different.

If we lived in a world in which the Torah had never been given, we would be unrecognizable to ourselves. As author Thomas Cahill, a Catholic, wrote in his book, The Gifts of the Jews:


Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings. And not only would our sensorium, the screen through which we receive the world, be different: we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.


It is important to keep in mind that all the innovations with which Cahill credits the Jews (whom he labels, "the inventors of Western culture") have their source not in the Jews themselves, but in the Divine revelation to the Jews. While the Patriarch Abraham was indeed an original thinker and the one who discovered monotheism, no person or force in the world could have so radically changed the world. The lever which lifted the planet had to be positioned outside it. Such drastic transformation could have been initiated only through Divine revelation.

What was the paradigm shift that revolutionized human thinking and striving? Cahill points out that all ancient cultures viewed time as cyclical. No event or person was . He writes:


The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had. But their worldview has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code.


Time is the warp upon which human beings weave their sense of reality. Where time is regarded as cyclical, reality is characterized by fate, the inexorable predictability of nature, the devaluation of the present moment, and the futility of human striving.

Circles have no purpose; they revolve round and round. The gods of the ancient pantheons, like the gods of India today, claim no purpose. Their actions are divine sport, lila in Hindu terminology, meaning "play." In such a worldview, the only worthy human goal is liberation -- to somehow escape the wheel of birth and death.

The Torah introduced a purposeful God, with a plan for human history.

The Torah introduced a purposeful God, with a plan for human history. If humankind will obey the commandments -- the Divinely ordained blueprint -- then a utopian world will ensue. The future will be different -- and better -- than the past. Thus the Torah introduced linear time. In so doing, it catapulted humanity into a world of meaningful moral choices, where human beings could create their own destinies, forge their own futures.

The narratives of the Torah take place in linear -- not cyclical -- time. They recount the stories of people who were important not as archetypes (as in all other ancient epics), but as individuals, people who were important not because they wielded great power, but because they made significant choices.

Those inner choices impacted their descendents and created history. History not as a record of wars waged and won, but as a testimony of moral battles that gave life meaning and purpose. Abraham obeying God even at the cost of his precious son's life, Jacob wrestling with the angel of evil, Joseph resisting the temptations of Potipher's wife, Moses reluctantly accepting the mantle of leadership at the burning bush -- these are the momentous events which the Torah chooses to recount. In so doing, it imbues all of our lives, all down the ages, with meaning and possibility.


The upcoming holiday of Shavuot commemorates the world-shaking event of the Divine revelation at Sinai. It is a day to reaffirm our commitment to studying and implementing the Torah.

On that day 3316 years ago, the infinite God burst through the barrier of human finitude and in the presence of an entire nation revealed His Commandments.

Thomas Cahill's description of the setting is lyrical:


It is no accident, therefore, that the great revelations of God's own Name and of his Commandments occur in a mountainous desert, as far from civilization and its contents as possible, in a place as unlike the lush predictabilities and comforts of the Nile and the Euphrates as this earth of ours can offer. If God -- the Real God, the One God -- was to speak to human beings and if there was any possibility of their hearing him, it could happen only in a place stripped of all cultural reference points, where even nature… seemed absent. Only amid inhuman rock and dust could this fallible collection of human beings imagine becoming human in a new way.


The revelation at Sinai was the singular most momentous event in human history. When I consider what our lives would have been without it, I can only shudder.


In Honor of my mother
Muriel (Miriam bat Sarah)
and in loving memory of my
Herbert (chaim ben Josef) Schnider

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