What do you think when you hear the word Torah? The answer depends on your religious upbringing.
If you are from a Jewish background, the Torah is often associated with a set of 613 commandments, which every Jew is expected to observe.
If, however, you are from a Christian upbringing, you may associate the Torah with the Law given at Mount Sinai. You’ve been taught that Torah was given as a way to heaven under the Old Covenant and was done away with at the cross. If you come from neither a Jewish nor a Christian background, you may be asking, “Why does it matter?”
Regardless of your persuasion, understanding what Torah is and what Torah is not can foster peace within our community. Beit Shalom Balevav (House of Peace in the Heart) places this information before you to help you make an educated choice regarding Scripture.
What is Torah?
The word Torah comes from two Hebrew roots: one means ‘instruction’ the other means ‘light.’ Because the word ‘Torah’ was translated into the Greek language as nomos, which literally means ‘law,’ most English Bibles translates this word as the Law. However based on Hebrew, this does not render an adequate translation. In Hebrew terms, Torah means the light of divine instruction.
As Psalm 19 states: “The law (Heb. Torah) of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul…The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes” (New American Standard Bible).
This divine instruction was given in the form of an ancient scroll which Moses completed 3400 years ago at the end of his life’s journey in the Sinai desert (around 1400 BCE). In Hebrew this scroll is called Sefer Torah, because it is written at the end of the scroll, “It came about, when Moses finished writing the words of this law in a book until they were complete, that Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, ‘Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may remain there as a witness against you.’” (Deut. 31:24-26).
This scroll of the Torah was copied by hand with special diligence throughout the centuries until our present time. Every synagogue today has at least one scroll in its possession from which the weekly reading is done.
In the 2nd century BCE, the Torah was translated into Greek language under the patronage of the royal family of the Ptolemies who ruled in Hellenistic Egypt. The translation was called the Septuagint and was broken into the five sections, or books entitled Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This is how the books of the Torah or the Pentateuch (five books) are known to English readers. They will be found at the beginning of any English regardless of its translation.
After bookbinding was invented around the 2nd – 3rd century CE, Jewish scribes also created a book version of the Torah and called it Humash, the five books. They gave names to the books using the first words in each book: Bereshith, In the Beginning; Shemoth, the Names; Va-Yiqra, And He Called; Ba- Midbar, In the Desert; and Devarim, the Words.
Is all Torah about laws, rules and regulations?
Actually much of the Torah records history. Besides laws, Torah presents to us consistent history of our world and the human race. It is the Torah which tells us that we are not a mere product of the evolution of apes but were created in the image of a loving God. There is no other book in the world except the Torah, making as clear a claim about the origins of humanity. And generally, the story of creation found in the Torah is mutually accepted in Judaism and in Christianity.
Similarly, the core Christian belief about Jesus as the giver of everlasting life makes absolutely no sense without the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden found in the Torah in Genesis 3. While it isn’t possible to provide scientific proof for a six-day creation, there are sufficient physical, geological and paleontological evidence to support the facts provided in the flood story presented in Genesis 6-9. Also from the standpoint of historical linguistics, the origin of human languages as described in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 makes perfect sense.
Historical narratives, which take about half of the entire Torah, present valuable information about the character of God, the Creator of this world, and His relationship with people. The story of Abraham who lived in the early second millennium, around 1800 BCE takes us back to the roots of two Abrahamic nations—the Jews and Arabs that exist today and have a profound impact on the present global situation. The story of the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob, the son and the grandson of Abraham, contains lessons about the ethics of family life and the historical consequences of wrong marriage decisions. These decisions were the root cause of the events which led Jacob’s family into Egypt, where they were subsequently enslaved.
The largest section of the Torah narrative is dedicated to the history of the Exodus of the descendants of Jacob (Israel) from Egypt and formation of the people of the covenant. In Hebrew, the word ‘covenant’, berith, means God’s solemn oath of faithfulness, which He gave first to Noah and then to Abraham. The same oath was also given to the Israelites after God delivered them from Egyptian bondage and led them to the Sinai desert on their way to the Promised Land.
It is interesting to note that God did not form the covenant based on some genetic or racial exclusivity. Among those who left Egypt after the ten plagues fell on it were not only physical descendants of Jacob. “A mixed multitude also went up with them” (Exodus 12:38). This multitude consisted of every non- Israelite who chose to accept the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. All they had to do was follow the instructions of Moses during the last plague which was supposed to take the lives of every Egyptian first-born child.
To avoid the doom, those who believed in God had to circumcise all males in their family and join the Israelites in eating the Passover lamb. Then their first-born would not be harmed and were considered as native born Israelites and could be absorbed into one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Besides narratives and stories, Torah also contains laws. The book of Exodus describes an awesome scene at Mount Sinai when God, with His own voice, spoke Ten Words also known as the Ten Commandments, to all the Israelites standing at the foot of the mountain. Later, God inscribed them on two stone tablets, which He gave to Moses so that He could place them inside the Ark of the Covenant.
There are three sections in the Torah which contain legal materials. Theologians give them unique and distinct names: 1) The Book of the Covenant, which begins with Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20-23; 2) The Levitical Code in the book of Leviticus; and 3) The Law Code of Deuteronomy found in the book of Deuteronomy 12-25. Besides these three sections there are several chapters of the book of Numbers, which also contain laws.
How many laws are in the Torah?
In the early centuries, different rabbis counted the number of ordinances in the Torah by simply enumerating the commands ‘to do’ or ‘not to do’ in the text. There were differences in how the rabbis broke down legal sentences and regarded similar commands. Thus they arrived at different numbers, which fall between 589 and 650. The average number mentioned in the Rabbinic tradition is 613. By the late 9th century, rabbinic scholars composed the full list of 613 commandments, which became the standard in Judaism today. Traditionally, Jews accept that the Torah has 365 negative or ‘do not’ commandments (Heb. Mizvot), and 248 positive or ‘do’ commandments.
However, a large number of the commandments of the Torah relate to the sacrificial rituals, which were performed in the Sanctuary or Tabernacle (Heb. Mishqan) God commanded Moses to construct. This sanctuary served as the basis for the First Temple (Beit Ha-Miqdash) erected by king Solomon in 980 BCE, which was destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple, which was restored in 515 BCE after the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity underwent a massive upgrade under Herod the Great by 10 BCE. This building was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Since that time all commandments which are related to the temple rituals cannot be observed.
Do Jews differentiate between laws connected with the temple and other laws?
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews pray for the restoration of the temple service in anticipation that when it is restored all commandments, which cannot be observed now, will be observed. On the other hand, the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews calls the sacrificial rituals which were performed in the Temple null and void. He argues that all these sacrifices of lambs and goats were meant to teach people about the future atoning death of Jesus on Calvary.
For example talking about the Passover lamb in 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (I Corinthians 5:6). Paul calls Jesus the Heavenly High Priest, “Who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the LORD erected, and not man” (Heb. 8:1-2). Therefore, according to Paul all the commandments which are associated with the
Temple have found their fulfillment in Jesus either at the cross or in His ministry in Heaven, and they will never be needed again.
Besides commandments which deal with sacrifices, there are a number of commandments, which are written in the context of the judiciary system established by Moses with the help of his father-in-law Jethro. Commandments of this type are not for individual observance. Instead, they are kept within the structure of governance that was established in Ancient Israel in accordance with God’s plan.
God wished that Israel would become an exemplary country where everyone would want to live. Through this example, He intended to bring all the people of the world to Himself. This system functioned when the people of Israel lived in their promised land according to the tribal structure assigned by Moses and Joshua. However, things changed after the death of king Solomon.
Wide spread idolatry—especially among the tribes who lived in the North—led 10 tribes to split off from the Davidic Kingdom of Judah in 920 BCE and create their own state, the Kingdom of Israel, and separate worship centers. This kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Such historical circumstances played a major role in the fact that some commandments that dealt with governance and tribal structure could not be observed any longer.
The remaining kingdom of Judah, named after the largest tribe within its borders, was taken into Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the First Temple, and many Jews never returned to their homeland—creating multiple diasporas (ethnic communities outside of a native country) across the Mediterranean and in the East. For three centuries after the Babylonian captivity, Judea was ruled by the Persians and then
the Greeks, and then it fell under the Roman occupation in the middle of the 1st century BCE. All these occupiers limited the functioning of the Jewish justice system prescribed by the Torah and imposed their own.
Under this reality the Jewish judicial system both in Judea and in the diaspora had to be adapted significantly. Instead of appointed judges and officers who exercised judicial and executive functions and could carry out both civil and criminal justice, in 1st century Judea and the diaspora, the teachers of the Torah became the ones responsible for rendering judgment.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people lost their statehood for over 19 centuries and thus, the laws that dealt with statehood, governance and judiciary could not be kept at all. While Jewish communities scattered across the globe always maintained their local judiciary, known as Rabbinic courts (Heb. Beth Din), under those historic circumstances these courts could not enforce literal compliance with all the pertaining commandments found in the Torah. In most cases, all Rabbinic courts could do was arbitrate in civil matters.
With the rise of the modern State of Israel in 1948, religious Jewish authorities began debating about the applicability of these laws within the reality of the new statehood. This presents a formidable challenge. On the one hand, Israel does not have a constitution, declaring it is governed by the heavenly authority of the Torah. On the other hand, Israel does not position itself as a theocratic state (one where ecclesiastical authorities rule in the name of God). This causes constant friction between the government and some ultra-religious Jewish groups, who don’t want to recognize the state like this and wish to enforce their understanding of the laws of the Torah.
What was Jesus attitude toward the laws governing theocratic Israel?
Jesus’ attitude to Israel’s earthly theocratic statehood and judiciary is clearly spelled out in the Gospels. While Jesus was widely accepted as a rabbi, he refused to be a judge or a lawyer, as many of His counterparts did. In the story described in the Gospel of Luke, one individual asks Jesus to help him to sue his brother over their inheritance. Jesus answers him “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”
While he definitely claimed to be the Messiah the son of David, he absolutely refused to be crowned by his followers, which disappointed some of them. When the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate questioned Him, and asked if He was indeed the king of the Jews, Jesus answered: “You say rightly that I am a king” John 18:37. However, before this statement He said to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
With the death of Jesus and the destruction of the Second Temple, the theocracy of Ancient Israel came to its end—its original purpose completed. Sharing in Matthew 24 His Divine foreknowledge of what was going to happen, Jesus predicted the latter event and prepared his followers for it. Knowing that for many centuries Jews would be living as foreigners in different countries, He did not emphasize laws which His followers wouldn’t be able to apply. Rather, He drew their attention to the great principles of the Torah.
With many opportunities to do so, it’s interesting that neither Jesus nor his disciples ever expressed plans to establish a Christian theocracy. Rather, the testimony of the disciples is that believers in Jesus should live peaceably within Judea and within the diaspora. Yet, today some Christian groups heavily promote the idea of applying laws from the Torah, which dealt with ancient Israel’s statehood and its justice system, to our present reality. They actively seek the government’s participation in enforcing them.
This isn’t new. Such attempts have appeared repeatedly throughout Christian history. The Inquisition, which tortured and executed people by burning them as heretics, is just one example of the lengths Christianity went to enforce conformity. Few recognized they were pushing a Torah-violating agenda as well as one ignoring the core teachings of Jesus.
The New Testament stance is clearly against all attempts by any government to control the relationship between humans and God. The book of Revelation, as well as the book of Daniel, call any political system which unites church and the government an Antichrist.
Has Jesus nullified the laws of the Torah?
Such views have been prevalent throughout much of the history of Christianity. For many centuries, the church taught that Jesus rejected the Old Testament, abandoned Judaism and started a new religion—Christianity.
In 1865, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, who was a professor in Berlin University, wrote a book on the history of Judaism. Rabbi Geiger dedicated a special section of this book to the New Testament period and the person of Jesus. This was the first time in Jewish history a rabbi read the Gospels with a positive attitude and wrote in his book that he found nothing against the principles of the Torah in the teachings of Jesus. Geiger described Jesus as a pharisaic rabbi and a knowledgeable teacher of the Torah. In Geiger’s opinion, it was the church, which later rejected the principles of the Torah.
Since Geiger, many Jewish and Christian scholars have arrived at similar conclusions. First century Christianity was not a separate religion. It was born within pharisaic Judaism and existed beside many other branches of Judaism such as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. According to the book of Acts, the first Christians were Torah observing Jews, some of whom even continued to offer sacrifices at the Temple.
Jesus was born and raised in an observant Jewish family. According to the Gospel of Luke, His mother after she gave birth to Him in Bethlehem came to the Temple and brought all the purification offerings which were required in accordance with the commandment of Leviticus 12. In accordance with the commandment found in Genesis 17, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day at the Temple. Luke also records that when the family resided in Nazareth they went on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year during the Passover.
From the outset of His three and a half year ministry he said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mathew 5:17-19). Aren’t the laws of the Torah for Jews only?
Unfortunately, this misconception exists in both Judaism and Christianity. While a common traditional Christian belief (based on the decision of the apostolic council in Jerusalem described in Acts 15) states gentiles are bound by only four commandments, since medieval times, Jewish tradition states that gentiles, or the children of Noah, are supposed to keep only seven commandments. In contrast, Jews are bound by all 613 commandments of the Torah.
Both these misconceptions presume that God has a double standard—one for Jews and one for gentiles. This is not supported in the Torah.
The idea of seven commandments for the so called ‘sons of Noah’ originated in the Tosefta, a 2nd century Rabbinic document. However, the original intent of this tradition was different from its modern interpretation. The text in the Tosefta speaking about the ‘sons of Noah’ dealt with the legal status of pagans when they came to Israel for business but had no interest in joining with the People of the Covenant. God never intended to force people into accepting His Torah, and the Rabbis understood this. So they developed these minimal legal norms which pagans had to abide by while visiting Israel. If such a pagan at some point became interested in God, then he or she changed classification from a Noahite to a sojourner. Torah applied to such individuals.
As to whether the decision of the apostolic council was limited to four commandments, we need not get into the intricacies of biblical exegesis. We can take a first-hand look at the laws of the Torah and ask the question for ourselves, “Were these laws intended only for Jews or do they have a universal application?”
Here are some examples.
“You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14)
“You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16)
“You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.
You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute (Exodus 23:1-2).
“None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness... The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother;
you shall not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness
of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father—she is your sister—you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is near of kin to your father. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is near of kin to your mother. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother. You shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter- in-law—she is your son’s wife—you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness. They are near of kin to her. It is wickedness” (Leviticus 18:6-17).
“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity” (Leviticus 18:19).
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion” (Leviticus 18:22-23).
“If a bird’s nest happens to be before you along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
“You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).
“You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD” Leviticus 19:28 — New American Standard.
“Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them” (Leviticus 19:31).
“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
While the laws are written in the language and cultural context of the 2nd millennium BCE and addressed the ancient Israelites, it is clear that their principles and their message is universal and applies to everyone. The examples shown above deal with various aspects of human life such as interpersonal relationships, sexual purity, having a relationship with God and even animal welfare. It is not possible to think that God would expect such ethics from one people and allow others to operate on a different set of principles. It is absolutely illogical to think that it’s acceptable for non-Jews to be cruel.
Why do the words “For from Zion the Torah shall come forth” matter?
These words are taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Here is the full context:
Many people shall come and say,
“Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways,
And we shall walk in His paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law (Torah), [For the Lord’s teaching will go out from Zion - NLT] And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3).
These words are living proof that from the very beginning God intended to bring the light of His Torah to all humanity. The people of Israel were chosen to be God’s agents in the work of teaching the principles of God’s justice, love and compassion to the world. This is why Jerusalem was meant to become a center for Torah learning and teaching for the people who live on planet Earth.
In God’s plan, Torah learning leads to peace and stability because love is the foundation of every action. God promises through His prophet Isaiah a time when He will mediate between nations and settle international disputes. In response:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).
Unlike other religious or holy books, Torah, as the revelation of the Creator of this world, reflects His plan for humanity. God wants us to live in a better world, and Torah reflects the principles of His governance, ethics and interpersonal relationships. As the Creator, God designed His laws in such a way that they would reflect the best care for His creation.
As the prophet Jeremiah relays:
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11).
Torah is the ultimate source through which we, His creation, can have knowledge of our Creator. Thus it is the foundation of the entire corpus of Word of the Lord or the Holy Scripture.
Is Torah relevant for us today?
Despite the fact that the laws of the Torah are written in an archaic language and style, their ethical and moral value retains utmost significance throughout the generations—even in today’s modern and technologically advanced world. They reflect God intimate love and compassionate care for all of His creation. The Torah’s instructions demonstrate His will for perfect harmony—for every aspect of His creation to flourish, thrive and benefit from His wisdom and grace.
When He gave Moses and the prophets who followed him instructions for living in a way that pleases Him, He also outlined a lifestyle that would benefit every inhabitant of this planet. Let us consider some of today’s most pressing issues in light of the Torah.
Before the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God gave them a promise, “If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you” (Exodus 15:26).
This promise proved true in the past.
Following the health laws of the Torah throughout the centuries would have prevented much of the
disease which ravaged Europe. In spite of the crowded conditions in which Jews were forced to live, following Torah principles kept them healthier than their Gentile neighbors. Unfortunately, this failed to lead the uneducated to wonder why fewer Jews fell victim to the plague. It only enhanced their antisemitism.
Eating the foods God labeled unclean has led to devastating loss of life. For example, the H1N1 virus is one of the viruses associated with the 1918 flu pandemic. (It was also epidemic in 2009.) Pigs carry
the virus, and raising and eating pigs allowed this virus to adapt to a new host—humans. Estimates are that one third of the world’s population was infected (500 million) and from 20 - 50 million people died.
Adopting basic sanitation practices, which has been outlined in the Torah thousands of years earlier, contributed to a steep decline in early 20th century Europe and America. Evidence-based data reveals that poliomyelitis, typhus and other contagious epidemics declined in frequency as practices taught in Torah were implemented:
Burning trash and rotten food
Bathing and washing hands
Burning garments contaminated by mold
Removing human and animal excrement from neighborhood
Burning structures when a mold infestation returned after thorough cleaning. Today it is known that
mold spores may contain toxins that cause severe reactions such as rashes, lung infections and breathing difficulties.
As removing dirt and filth from body, home and community became the norm, health improved. When the health laws of the Torah are followed today, they reduce the risk for many diseases and illnesses.
Trichinosis. This tiny parasitic roundworm is present in pig, bear and walrus meat. When these meats aren’t cooked to an adequate internal temperature, they survive digestion to invade the host’s body. The symptoms include eyelid swelling, conjunctivitis of the eyes, muscle pain and swelling. While rare in the US today, death from infection still occurs in countries where anthelmintics aren’t readily available.
HEV. Pigs carry the Hepatitis E virus. Human infections have been reported. While HEV usually resolves itself, infection can results in acute liver failure.
Amnestic shellfish poisoning. Caused by domoic acid, a toxin that can build up in shellfish as they filter the water in which they live, mild symptoms may be permanent short-term memory loss. Severe symptoms include death.
Paralytic shellfish poisoning. Caused by multiple toxins that can build up in shellfish as they filter the water
in which they live, milder symptoms include loss of coordination, speech problems, nausea and vomiting. Severe symptoms include death.
Ebola. The 2014 outbreak can be traced to one person eating fruit bat meat—an unclean meat. Primates are also carriers and thus should not be consumed.
Pandemics. While there have been some scares since 1918, the improved sanitation practices in developed countries has helped us avoid a world-wide pandemic.
Marriage and Family
Embracing the principles of marriage and family outlined in the Torah, as occurred as literacy in Scripture increased during the 18th and 19th centuries laid the foundation for the rights women in Western society experience today. Unfortunately, the continued misreading of Scripture is often used to deny the elevated position Torah gives to women.
When the marriage and family principles outlined in the Torah guide family life today, it strengthens the family and society.
Men feel confident in nurturing women both at home and as significant contributors within the community.
Women appreciate the special strengths men possess and cease competing with them.
Children learn their value, and to become productive and to contribute to the world around them.
Land Ownership, Agriculture and Environment
Owning land was a right and privilege. Every family was giving an inheritance. For those who lost their land due to hardship or indebtedness, there was the jubilee year in which a family could get their land back. The tenant-land laws were a ‘grace’ system, yielding the maximum potential for flourishing, while not allowing each family to remain enslaved or impoverished.
The laws governing agriculture also established a sustainable system of soil preservation and soil fertility. The land rested every seventh year, and fruit could not be harvested for the first four years after planting. The people were required to compost (replenish the soil) and prune their trees. These laws yielded maximum quality and allowed the land to work, replenish and thrive. Thus, the land and people were committed by reciprocity. The land had to flourish under your care and stewardship, or you would be cut-off from it.
How would it transform our society if these principles were embraced by everyone?
In addition, recognizing the principles of the Torah is the only solution for cleaning up our environment. Some laws, which have been seen as only dietary, actually have an impact upon the environment. For example, shellfish filter fecal coliform from fresh and salt water. This is a bacteria all warm-blooded animals produce, and it can cause serious illness. Torah protects the planet by instructing humans to not eat God’s natural filter. Abstaining from shellfish protects water quality.
Whole ecosystems are under threat because God’s instructions about clean versus unclean animals for dietary consumption have not been known. When pigs escape into the wild, they become significant predators and carriers of disease. In 1982, only 17 states had a feral pig issue. Now, 35 US states are facing threats to livestock, native ecosystems and human and animal health due to pigs escaping from farms and going feral.
Humane Animal Treatment
Torah commands compassion on any animal encountered, even if it is your enemy’s, trying to relieve its suffering and burden if possible. Torah says animals should participate in a Sabbath rest each and every week, and you can’t muzzle a working animal. You must allow it to eat its share while it works for your good.
Torah teaches that a person’s personal gain and greed is subordinate to the best interests of the workers and the beasts of burden—even at the expense of great profit.
Economics and Worker’s Rights
Rejecting the business ethics of the Torah ensured an environment of oppression and subjugation across Europe. Rebellion against inhumane living conditions and unfair wages led to revolution repeatedly. However, the most violent and cruel unrest was seen in the 20th century. Such unrest is still with us.
When the business ethics outlined in the Torah are embraced, it creates an economy where the well-being of others is central and profit secondary. From its inception, the seventh day of the week, Sabbath, has been a reminder. We are all equal, and there is only One who is above all. We also don’t have to work seven days a week to have a thriving business, and we can pay fair wages and pay promptly. All these principles foster positive employer/employee relations. Torah commands equal weights and measures, no extortion, no usury to a fellow or brother, and no fraud allowed—without exception. In fact, you can’t keep collateral overnight if the debtor needs it to sustain life. You have to give the collateral back by sunset each day.
Another principle of Torah is to avoid debt, but when debt is incurred, the lender must follow ethical practices which don’t place a burden upon the borrower. If you know the person who owes you isn’t in a position to pay you back, you wouldn’t demand payment. Instead, you are to help the person who owes you to regain a solid financial position. If this proves impossible, the debt has to be written off. In Theocratic Israel, Torah’s debt-creditor system was a ‘redemptive’ system, which required the creditor to take ownership for a debtor’s situation. The principles can still be used today outside of a theocratic setting.
In addition, Torah condemns concealing the true condition of something during any transaction. Defects and discrepancies in property and merchandise had to be disclosed to potential buyers. This ensured every transaction was mutually beneficial to both parties. Every business transaction was meant to be consummated in an environment where the good of the community was above the self-interests of making lucrative deals.
Today’s economy is teetering because it’s built upon growing the money supply through credit. Lenders follow practices which fill their pockets. Growing corruption in currency manipulation has plagued our economy with inflation and cyclical economic recessions since the 1980s. This is so familiar most of us believe it is normal. In our ‘modern’ society, credit has transformed our identity from investment, commitment and sacrifice to consumption, instant gratification and convenience.
The most recent ‘adjustment’ nearly shut down many nations’ capital markets and brought our national economy to the brink of collapse—all because we’re enslaved to a debt- driven economy. No one seems able to determine who or what is ‘taking’ value out of the system. However if Torah principles were central to our economy, there would be more flowing into the economy than flows out—all because Torah builds the economy by empowering everyone to contribute to its strength.
Because God gives humans dignity, He also emphasizes knowledge and wisdom. Even in the daily temple rituals, God designed a system of enactment and empowerment.
Torah expects parents to be actively involved in education. Rather than placing the responsibility for nurturing children in wisdom with schools and teachers, Torah points us to a vital truth. The learning that builds the greatest emotional intelligence is that which happens when you’re doing ordinary stuff—waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in rush-hour traffic, taking the children to or from school, etc.
Case studies repeatedly prove that when parents participate in their children’s learning, students become more successful, confident, and intelligent. They develop more life skills, and are more likely to be leaders. A close parent/child bond nurtures the retention of greater wisdom throughout life. It’s because we’ve turned from Torah’s instruction that so many young people have never developed essential life skills.
They’ve also never captured a vision of what they are capable of contributing.
Torah warned that taxation would subjugate a country’s citizens to the demands of the reigning king or political system. So it is today. Our government determines how much of its operating costs we should bear based upon our income. It sends our sons off to war. (Women may choose to enlist, but at this time do not have to register with Selective Service.)
Torah presented a completely different economy. First, a tithe (10%) was expected of all citizens to care for those who ran the religious system around which the culture revolved. This 10% of all increase acknowledges to this day among God’s followers their gratitude for life and the energy He provides to earn an income or to grow produce.
Additional alms or offerings were always a free choice. Systems to ensure the welfare of all were mandated within Torah. Not one was to be ignored, forgotten or discounted as inferior.
Also, the Torah was concerned about families in war. A young man could not be forced to serve in wartime until he had been married for a year. This ensured there was a chance his family name would continue—something vital in that time.
God designed His justice system to be fair. First, He established six cities of sanctuary within the nation’s borders, so that a person guilty of manslaughter never had to travel more than one day on foot before he or she reached a safe zone. Any avenging relative had to bring his or her case before the city’s tribunal.
Here, and nationally, ‘burden of proof’ or ‘innocent until proven guilty’ controlled judicial proceedings. Torah outlined rules for valid evidence, what made a witness credible, minimum number of witnesses, protocols for evaluating evidence, thorough investigations, due process, and fair and just punishment. While there was a death penalty, circumstantial evidence could never lead to its application. Both the criminal and civil jurisprudence systems were designed to ensure a divine promise to our world—that the innocent will not be punished and the guilty will not go unpunished.
The civil system of justice was also redemptive and not merely punitive. It required restoration and rehabilitation. When one person damaged or stole another’s property, more than apology was expected. Restoration to better than before was considered fair and just. This meant the person who damaged or stole property restored an extra 20% over the original value. If the person couldn’t restore, responsibility extended to the family. If the family couldn’t pay, the criminal became an indentured servant, working for the victim at a fair wage until the debt was paid off.
Finally, Torah strictly forbids racial or social discrimination. God is the Author of diversity, and He values every person’s uniqueness, individuality and ethnicity.
Citizenship and Immigration
Israel had an ‘open-immigration’ system to absorb all the nations of the earth and to assimilate all people who wanted to live according to God’s perfect ways of redemption, peace, justice and love. Israel has never been a ‘blood-line’ nation, but rather “God’s servants and His people” (Isaiah 49:3). The plan was to show that living by God’s instructions and by His Word (Torah) brings joy, redemption and prosperity. People would say, “Everything is better in Israel.” People would wonder why their produce is healthier and tastier, why their children were respectful and obedient, and why they didn’t have the diseases they had. While open immigration between countries isn’t possible in our world today, we can still benefit if we learn the ways of the God of Israel. As long as we live here, we can hold our citizenship in His Kingdom and submit to His reign and grace. There was just one constitution that people had to pledge allegiance to in order assimilate and become citizens of Israel (one of God’s people). It was summarized in the Ten Commandments (included in the Torah).
Universal Moral Codes for Living
The Ten Commandments are God’s Constitution. All are based on love—to give to others for their benefit and to care for God and others more than oneself. All deny selfishness and forbid taking advantage of someone else for personal profit or gain. Love fulfills the law and does no harm—physically, mentally, sexually, emotionally, socially, intellectually, financially, and spiritually.
The Golden Principal is to treat others the way you want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). If its not good for others, then it won’t be good for you either. Likewise, if it universally benefits others, it will also benefit you too.
The Sabbath and other appointed times from Torah are given so we remember: We are accountable to God and not man, and there is a God above us at all times that cares deeply for our wellbeing and the goodwill of all people and His creation. For a time, God will accommodate our ways rather than abandon us to destruction. But in the final analysis, there comes a time when the suffering created by selfishness must end. Love requires freewill, but freedom also requires love in order to keep existing.
The day must come when “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD” Isaiah 11:9 (NLT).