The Torah talks very little – actually, not at all (at least explicitly)– about the coming of the Mashiach, the Messianic Era, or the World to Come. The Torah is very focused on this world, worrying about such subjects such as treating one’s employees fairly, damages caused by person or property, ensuring safety around the house, what we may eat, supporting the poor, justice, being kind to strangers and a host of other subjects that deal with day-to-day living.
One of the philosophical debates between the Greeks and Jews concerned the eternity of the world. The Greeks believed that the world has existed from time immemorial and thus, had no actual beginning. Jewish thought has traditionally believed—based on the opening word of the Torah, Breisheet, “in the beginning”—that there was a beginning to the world.
“Stay far away from a lie” (Shemot 23:7). Unlike the other mitzvot in the Torah where we are just told not to do something, when it comes to lying, we are enjoined to stay far away from an untruth. Presumably, this is so because man’s nature is to lie—as King David cried out, “all men are liars” (Tehillim 116:11). Like a recovering alcoholic who must stay far away from alcohol lest he relapse, we are all in recovery mode when it comes to speaking the truth.
The Jewish people have long been accused of being robbers and thieves. The importance of countering this accusation was so crucial that it is, at least according to Rashi (Breisheet 1:1), the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation. As the Torah’s description does little to explain the process of creation – in fact, it complicates rather than expounds – it was included, Rashi posits, to teach that G-d is the Creator and He can give the land to whomever He pleases. We are not thieves; rather, we are there by Divine right.
The last chapter of masechet Sanhedrin is like no other in the Talmud. Almost devoid of legal discussion, it contains some 23 double-sided pages of aggadic material, more than any other chapter of the Talmud. The exact status of aggadah has been the subject of a long-standing debate, with many of our great commentators arguing that it is not fully, if at all, authoritative. It often reflects the views of individual rabbis whose opinions may be argued with, something that has no place in the legal views of our Talmudic greats.
“Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven's name is destined to endure. And if it is not for [the sake of] heaven's name, it is not destined to endure” (Avot 5:19). In a tradition as rich, varied and nuanced as ours, disputes over the interpretation of Torah are not only inevitable, they are desirable. Debate is a crucial component of Torah, allowing us to sharpen our reasoning and reach new understandings of Torah—provided the debate is truly for the sake of heaven, and absent ulterior motives.
“Do not profane your daughter and make her a harlot” (Vayikra 19:28). One has to wonder exactly whom the Torah is addressing. What kind of father (or mother) would turn her daughter into a harlot? It is for this reason that our Sages (also) understood the verse as referring to some lesser violation; yet as is the way of the Torah, these lesser violations are “upgraded”, teaching us to take these more minor sins much more seriously.
“The entire house of Israel is commanded to sanctify the Name” (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 5:1). The language is striking, and the context – the opening words (for the general public) of the Mishneh Torah – instructive, indicating the importance of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem. Many associate this mitzvah with the obligation to give up one’s life rather than transgress the three cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery and murder.
“And you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions” (Devarim 6:5). Clearly, if we are obligated to love G-d with all our heart and soul—the verse Rabbi Akiva invoked as he gave up his life to sanctify G-d’s name (Brachot 61b)—we are obligated to love G-d with all our possessions. While this should be obvious, it is in fact not, as there are those who love their money more than their lives.
Fundamental to Jewish theology is the belief that both the Written Law and the Oral Law were given by G-d at Sinai. While the finite Written Law, i.e., the Torah, contains the words of the Divine Lawgiver, the ever-expanding and infinite Oral Law reflects man’s interpretation of the Divine text.