By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I know that Orthodoxy believes that the Torah was given at one time and its laws are static and unchanging with the times. Orthodox tradition, however, contradicts this very belief. I recently heard a lecture from a leading (non-Orthodox) rabbi who quoted a passage from the Talmud about Moses at Sinai, whom tradition regards as having heard the word of God directly. He was transported many centuries ahead into the academy of the sage Akiva. During the lesson, one of the students asked Akiva how he knew that his interpretation was the proper one; he answered that it was given to Moses at Sinai. Moses, however, could not understand his reasoning and could not remember ever having received this law from God. Nonetheless it is regarded as having been given to Moses. We see clearly that Moses gave the basics and Akiva changed it in accordance with the need of the times he lived in, but it’s still considered Moses’ law as he gave the foundation from which to start. How can you reconcile this teaching with contemporary Orthodox belief?
With all due respect to your rabbi, he quoted the passage incorrectly and out of context.
The passage you are referring to is Tractate Menachos 29b, which says the following: “When Moses went up above [at Sinai] he found the Holy Blessed One sitting and attaching ‘crowns’ to the letters [of the Torah]. He asked him: ‘Master of the Universe, why do You have to do this?’ He said to him: ‘At the end of many generations will be a man named Akiva ben Yosef who will derive hills upon hills of laws from each crown.’ Moses said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, show him to me.’ He said to him, ‘Turn around [and I will show you the future]. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row [of R’ Akiva’s disciples], but he could not understand the discussion, and was crestfallen…. His disciples asked R’ Akiva, ‘How do you know this?’ He said to them, ‘It is a law given to Moses on Sinai.’ When Moses heard this, he felt comforted.”
It is clear from this passage and its commentators that this took place before Moses actually received the body of the Torah and its laws, as G-d was still putting the finishing touches on the Torah. Moses could not have possibly forgotten the law discussed by R’ Akiva since he had not yet been taught the laws!
Knowing he would be the conduit of transfer of the Torah from G-d to the Jewish people, he was crestfallen when he could not fathom the intricate debate, although he was not yet versed in the subject at hand. How was he qualified to deliver the Torah if he could not fathom it? When he heard, however, from R’ Akiva that the very debate he did not yet comprehend was transmitted by none other than himself, he was reassured that once he would be taught the body of the Torah by G-d, he would be endowed with the intellectual capacity to grasp its most profound and elusive concepts and would be able to accurately transmit its message.
The message of this passage is that the profundity of Torah and the ability to grasp it is a G-d-given gift. Torah is from the infinite “mind of G-d,” and our finite minds are unable to grasp infinite concepts unless they are endowed to us as a gift from the Al-mighty when He sees that we try our best. This could not be farther from the misinterpretation unfortunately presented to you.
I would also take issue with your basic premise, that traditional Judaism is static and unchanging with the times. The concepts of Torah are timeless, and are the fiber of a living, breathing document which pumps life into the most modern of times. The vast body of responsa literature extrapolates the timeless precepts of Torah to deal with the thorniest of contemporary issues. The many thousands of volumes of responsa and commentary show that Torah knowledge and application grows with the times, bearing witness to the vibrancy and relevancy of Torah to our lives until today and beyond.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried