Accepting the Yoke of Heaven
Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion
By Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Urim Publications, 2002, 203 pages
ISBN 965-7108-33-0 9657108330
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 22, 2010
Imagine reading the comments on the weekly Torah portions by a genius who recognized that Judaism today is based on the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah and that these interpretations changed virtually every biblical command. For example, the Torah states clearly that the punishment for cutting out another's eye is "an eye for an eye," but the rabbis interpreted this as money damages. Similarly, the Torah forbids boiling a goat in its mother's milk, which Maimonides explained in his Guide of the Perplexed is a mandate to avoid a pagan sacrificial practice. The rabbis derived from these words the command not to mix milk and meat products, but to wait between eating the two foods, a longer time after meat, a shorter time after milk products.
A couple of examples of Leibowitz's ideas. In his commentary on Ki Teitzei, he notes that the Torah lists 36 crimes for which the perpetrator is sentenced to death. Yet the rabbis made it virtually impossible to carry out any of these sentences. For example, among other things they said that "the sentence could only be implemented if two witnesses warned the person in advance not to carry out this action, inform him of the penalty should he disobey them, and then have the person respond that he intends to carry out the action regardless, and that makes the death penalty outside the realm of the realistic."
In the same commentary, he informs his readers that nearly all of the biblical prophesies never occurred. Why not? The ancient twelfth century Tosaphists explained, prophecy does not tell you what will happen, but what should happen.
He comments on the portion Yitro is that Moses thought that he would not set up an administrative system to decide cases and administer justice because God never mentioned it. However, his father in law Yitro explained to him "that even leadership based on God's word needs human vessels and tools that derive from the faculties and abilities latent within man himself." Therefore Yitro suggested something that God did not say: select men to help you "implement this Torah."
Now, Leibowitz continues, this system of judging the people, preceded the giving of the Torah. Thus there obviously are laws that are based on reason unrelated to the Torah. And, he concludes, the Torah itself must be understood and interpreted by using reason.