Judaism Teaches: Question Authority, Think for Yourself
A 30-year-old woman arrived in the emergency room, bleeding internally from an infection in her abdomen. She needed surgery – immediately.
As I, a junior physician at the time, took her blood, she told me she was a Jehovah’s Witness and would not accept blood transfusions under any circumstances. She explained that the Bible was central to her life. I told her I felt the same way.
However, we meant different things. For her, certain passages of the Bible – Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10, which prohibit the ingesting of blood – required of her the ultimate sacrifice. She believed that every word of Scripture was God’s word, in accordance with the dogma of the Jehovah’s Witness community.
Several members of our medical team attempted to reason with her, but there was nothing we could do. During the next few days, we watched powerlessly as this young woman’s life slipped away.
Her death made me painfully aware of the dangerous belief that revelation is destiny, and it confirmed my belief that God wants us to question authority and think for ourselves in making moral decisions. My conviction is based on a close reading of the Israelites receiving the Law of God at Sinai.
The Torah tells us that after the Children of Israel were freed from the slavery of Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Torah from God. Imagine Moses’ astonishment when he descended the mountain with the holy tablets and found the Israelites dancing in reverence and awe around the Golden Calf. Moses does not call on God to smite the undeserving idol-worshipers. Instead, he smashes the tablets on the ground.
What does this act signify? It suggests to me that Moses understands that revealed law itself would become an idol, an excuse to relinquish what is most precious in us – our moral autonomy.
What we have here is not a story of revelation, but a story of the dangers of revelation. Moses understood that the weakness we have for dogmatic thinking and the longing for safe truths – the same flaws that had led the Israelites to the Golden Calf – would always hinder the flourishing of a moral society. What was needed was not to exchange the slavery of the body for the slavery of the mind, but instead to create a tradition alive with questions and debate and glorious differences of opinion.
Following his audacious act, Moses ascends the mountain again and, after what must have been an awkward conversation, God tells Moses to write his own tablets. Notably, whereas the first tablets were “inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), God instructs Moses to carve out the second tablets himself: “Write for yourself (ktav-lecha) these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27). These human-wrought tablets become the law that forms the heart of the Hebrew Bible.
After Moses dies, we read in the final lines of the Bible: In the valley of Moab, “No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). Which awesome deeds? The text does not say. However, the medieval commentator Rashi, quoting earlier sources, states, “This refers to the fact that Moses’ heart inspired him to break the tablets…and the Holy Blessed One concurred.”
Of all Moses’ achievements – releasing the Israelites from slavery, splitting the Red Sea, bringing them to Mount Sinai, and then leading them to the very edge of the Promised Land – the greatest was the breaking of the tablets.
This is of profound relevance in today’s world, because if the Law of God is not beyond questioning, then all the more so are man-made laws. Paradoxically, in Judaism, the moment of revelation coincides with something akin to enlightenment. Right from the beginning, even God agrees that to seek truth means to question authority. Quite literally, it means to break the rules.
Where the Hebrew Bible ends is only the beginning of the story. The Talmud recounts that the Israelites carry the Ark of the Covenant with them throughout their wanderings. Later, when they rest it in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem, they place the broken divine law alongside the tablets of Moses. As humans, we carry with us both tablets, our fallible human laws and the fragments of our shared humanity.
In his greatest hour, Moses showed us we have nothing to fear. The tablets of God were broken, but we remain intact. Our task, too late for my patient but perhaps not too late for us, is to break the spell of Sinai. Only then, following Moses’ example, can we begin the real work of hammering out what constitutes a moral society.
Daniel Reisel is a physician based in London.