What is the Torah?

By Hacham Mordecai Alfandari

"...that people has approached Me with its mouth
and honored Me with its lips,
but has kept its heart far from Me
and its worship of Me has been
a commandment of men learned by rote" (Isaiah 29,13)

There once was a famous king who decided one day to visit the rural areas of his kingdom, in order to investigate the social and economic situation prevailing there. When he arrived in a remote mountainous region he saw to his surprise and amazement that not one person in the entire village knew how to read or write. As a result, the population was steeped in the depths of ignorance, believed in superstitions and was unaware of anything happening in the outside world. As befitting a king that desires to improve his people's condition, he commanded immediately upon returning to his palace, that a teacher be sent to that village, equipped with text books.

After some time had passed, the teacher returned to him in tears and with bitterness in his mouth: "They drove me out and stole the books", reported the teacher to the king. The king decided to visit the village as he had done before, to find out what had happened. He was greatly perplexed when he saw, upon entering the houses of the village, that the text books, which had been sent with the teacher to the village, were all being hung on walls in prominent locations. Oil lamps burned in front of the books and tables full of incense were laid out before them, as well as plates of silver, etc. The villagers explained to the king, "Behold, we have received the precious books which you sent us, your majesty, and we honor them according to our tradition; we continue to live as always, and have no use for that man who brought the books. "Oh you fools, of little wisdom", shouted the king, "I sent you the books so that with the help of the teacher you would learn from them, and so that you would understand that your way of life is in error. Yet you made from these books abominations which surpass all those abominations which I hate."

And so it was when the Torah was given to the Children of Israel by the faithful teacher, sent by the King of the universe, with the purpose of distancing and separating the people of God from the errors of the ancient nations who believed in demons and spirits, astrology and the evil eye, magical cults, and who prayed to dead "saints" to intercede on their behalf before their Father in heaven. Indeed, they received the Torah, and placed it in a box on the wall, continuing to study the words of their "wise men" while the lamps full of oil burned before the box.1 But the Torah was forgotten and Israel returned to the superstitions of the ancient nations, believing in demons and astrology, amulets and talismans, the evil eye and tombs of saints. They even drove out the Teacher, saying "It is not in heaven", meaning, that even if a voice comes forth from heaven warning us that we have erred in our interpretation of the Torah, we do not pay heed to the voice because the Torah is already "ours" and He who gave it has no right to intervene - these are the explicit words of the sages of the Talmud and Midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 59b)! Thus the Torah has become a "religion", a "tradition", a commandment of men learned by rote (Isaiah 29:13). There are some people who upon seeing a piece of bread cast upon the ground will run to pick it up and kiss it, a practice which is not mentioned in the Torah, and those same peoplee burn fires on the Seventh Day. They slay the mosquito while leaving the wolf to pounce!  2

We have forgotten that the Torah is a Tree of Life and not a religion. We have forgotten that the Torah requires us to behave according to its laws at all times - when we lie down and when we rise up, at the market and at the workplace. The Torah tells us - And you shall love your brother as yourself (Lev 18:19), it screams to us - You shall surely pursue righteousness (Dt 16:20) - yet we hate our brothers and pursue honor and unrighteous profit.

Thus, the hand of faith has been weakened. Most of Israel has left the camp of the believers, for no one remains faithful; there are no men of truth. The fools have spoken falsehood saying that the People of Israel only survives because of the Hebrew language, or because of its hate for Gentiles, or because of the "Jewish nose", or because of Herzl and Jabotinsky 3.

Brothers, let us look at our actions, remove the false gods from within us, and return to the truth as our Prophets have taught us. Let us purify our thoughts, search in the Torah and in the Holy Writings, and by them straighten our ways. Let us turn not to ghosts and spirits, nor believe falsehood. Let us believe in the Law of Moses and not in the commandments of men. Let us speak truth and not lies, let us not walk in the ways of the uncircumcised, and let us strengthen ourselves by keeping the commandments and performing righteous acts.

And what shall be our measuring rod. Before each action we perform we will ask - Is this according to the will of He who taught us the righteous way? Is this matter written in the Torah? Is this act true or is it superstition? Is its root in the words of the Prophets? Did the Torah require us to do this?!

When all is said and done, the Torah is not a "religion" like other religions. It is a blueprint for living. The trouble is that throughout the generations "wise" men have covered it over with thousands of conflicting interpretations, hiding its plain simple meaning, and have thus caused the nation to err. Therefore, we must be careful, lest the King visit us and find us dealing in abominations.


Note 1: The statement "while the lamps full of oil burned before the box" is an indictment of the practice of leaving an "eternal lamp" burning before the "Holy Ark" in the Synagogue, even on the Sabbath! This is in direct violation of the Biblical injunction "You shall not kindle a fire throughout all your habitations on the Sabbath day (Ex 35,2)." [NG] Back

Note 2: The meaning of "They slay the mosquito while leaving the wolf to pounce" is that the unrighteous shepherds of the people spend their energies fighting for trivial issues (kissing fallen bread, a common practice in some parts of modern Israel) while ignoring the real dangers to their flock (God's wrath for violating the Sabbath). [NG] Back

Note 3: Herzl was the traditional founder of Modern Zionism and Jabotinsky was one of the great Zionist leaders. Both of these men are considered heroes in the State of Israel to this day and in the early days of the State were admired almost as gods. [NG] Back

This article was originally published in Hebrew in the Karaite Journal Ha'Or, Year 2 Volume 7 (Tishrei) [September-October 1957] pp.1-2 under the title "HaTorah Mahi?". Translated from the Hebrew by Nehemia Gordon (Feb. 2000; Revised Mar. 2004).

For more information see:
The Alternative