Hebrew In Israel | Is The Torah A Religion? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | Is The Torah A Religion? – Learn Torah

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The Oxford dictionary defines religion as the following:

  1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

          ‘ideas about the relationship between science and religion’

  1. 1.1count noun A particular system of faith and worship.

          ‘the world’s great religions’

  1. 1.2count noun A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.

          ‘consumerism is the new religion’

After giving the modern English definition of the word, we ask ourselves “Is the Torah a religion?”

This is a common discussion I have not only had with myself, but with many people I know.  It is a problem for many people to look at the Torah as a religion, mostly because organized religion has made many feel far from God.  When we look into houses of worship of any sort, we see mostly ritual and feel as if God is not there.  Even the prophets had a problem with the common belief that ritual is all it is, and we find Yirmiyahu call out:

ג כֹּהאָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֵיטִיבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶם, וּמַעַלְלֵיכֶם; וַאֲשַׁכְּנָה אֶתְכֶם, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.  ד אַלתִּבְטְחוּ לָכֶם, אֶלדִּבְרֵי הַשֶּׁקֶר לֵאמֹרהֵיכַל יְהוָה הֵיכַל יְהוָה, הֵיכַל יְהוָה הֵמָּה.  ה כִּי אִםהֵיטֵיב תֵּיטִיבוּ, אֶתדַּרְכֵיכֶם וְאֶתמַעַלְלֵיכֶםאִםעָשׂוֹ תַעֲשׂוּ מִשְׁפָּט, בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין רֵעֵהוּ.

“Here is what YHWH-Tzva’ot, the God of Isra’el, says: “Improve your ways and actions, and I will let you stay in this place.  Don’t rely on that deceitful slogan, ‘The temple of YHWH, the temple of YHWH —these [buildings] are the temple of YHWH.’  No, but if you really improve your ways and actions; if you really administer justice between people;” (Yirmiyahu 7:3-5).

I think these words epitomize the problem many of us have.  How can we feel close to God when the system we are to follow no longer represents God’s will?  Where is the justice?  Where is the goodness?  Where are the values of God that man is supposed to follow?

These questions led the late Martin Buber to conclude that the prophets presented a new form of Torah keeping which was based on morality and less on law (Buber, 1975).  However, Buber, and many people in the modern world, were and are influenced by the modern views on religion, and ignore the facts we actually have.

Religion and Society

In the ancient world there was no separation between secular and religious life.  State and religion were not only not separate, but the state was part of the religion.  Every nation had a god, and that god personified the ideals of that nation.  The city of Assur was named after a god, and this god protected its people and provided for them.  Kings and leaders were part of the religious system, and many of them, specifically kings, functioned as priest or temple servants.  It is a modern-day idea that god only belongs in a house of worship.  However, in the ancient world every decision or move a nation would make was directly connected to their god.

Therefore, religion, or the idea of a religion, was foreign to them because it was a part of life in every aspect, and no one could separate between the two.  No one was “religious” because it was part of life the same way we breathe and pay our taxes.  If you didn’t follow the practices of your people you were out of society norms and would become an outcast.  This core idea of nation and identity is the core of “conversion” in the bible—the acceptance of the social norms of Israel as dictated by the Torah.

Is There a Word for Religion in Hebrew?

It is interesting that Hebrew (and for that matter, many ancient faiths) does not have a word for religion.  In ancient times, religion was not a separate way of life from your regular life.  It was a belief that all the universe is governed by a power, and we are to respect this power.  Religiosity was not something you chose, but was imbedded in the culture of the people.  However, the principles of  משפט Mishpat and חוק Choq were used to indicate the ways of Torah and the people.

Modern Hebrew

Later in time we find a word which is used today in Modern Hebrew to indicate religion.  The word דת-Dat for modern day speakers is used to represent the principle of religion. However, this word can be traced to Akkadian, and then later to Persian, and actually means “Royal Decree”(CAD,1959. 122).  The principle that a religion is a system of laws took over the principle of being in covenant.  It is true that the Torah is based on laws, but without the heart of it, which is the covenant, what do the laws mean?  It must be a combination of Law and Covenant/Loyalty which leads us in our walk with God.


Rituals were considered a social norm, and diversion from a ritual was seen as a blemish of the proper conduct of things.  The Torah states that some laws are חוקה Chuqah- Unchangeable law such as the red heifer and the laws of Pesach.  It is clear that in the Temple there was order, an order governed by the watchful eye of the priests as stated:

וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתִּי וְלֹא יִשְׂאוּ עָלָיו חֵטְא וּמֵתוּ בוֹ כִּי יְחַלְּלֻהוּ אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדְּשָׁם

“The kohanim must observe this charge of mine; otherwise, if they profane it, they will bear the consequences of their sin for doing so and die in it; I am Adonai, who makes them holy.” (Leviticus 22:9)

The book of Chronicles, in its treatment of temple service, points out the accuracy of the practices as done in accordance to the book of Moshe.

וַיָּשֶׂם יְהוֹיָדָע פְּקֻדֹּת בֵּית יְהוָה בְּיַד הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק דָּוִיד עַל בֵּית יְהוָה לְהַעֲלוֹת עֹלוֹת יְהוָה כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשִׁיר עַל יְדֵי דָוִיד.

Y’hoyada appointed officers for the house of YHWH under the supervision of the Kohanim and Leviim, whom David had assigned turns of duty in the house of YHWH, to offer the burnt offerings of Adonai, as written in the Torah of Moshe, with rejoicing and singing in keeping with David’s orders.” (2Chro 23:18)

An interesting case of keeping to ritual but bending the rules for the greater need can be found 2Chronicles.  We find King Hizqiyahu praying over the breaking of the Passover protocol when it was done with participants who were unclean.  It is clear the writer understands the problem, but yet the message is clear that the rituals prescribed in Torah must be kept as close as possible.

טז וַיַּעַמְדוּ עַלעָמְדָם כְּמִשְׁפָּטָם, כְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה אִישׁהָאֱלֹהִים; הַכֹּהֲנִים זֹרְקִים אֶתהַדָּם, מִיַּד הַלְוִיִּם.  יז כִּירַבַּת בַּקָּהָל, אֲשֶׁר לֹאהִתְקַדָּשׁוּ; וְהַלְוִיִּם עַלשְׁחִיטַת הַפְּסָחִים, לְכֹל לֹא טָהוֹרלְהַקְדִּישׁ, לַיהוָה.  יח כִּי מַרְבִּית הָעָם רַבַּת מֵאֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה יִשָּׂשכָר וּזְבֻלוּן, לֹא הִטֶּהָרוּכִּיאָכְלוּ אֶתהַפֶּסַח, בְּלֹא כַכָּתוּבכִּי הִתְפַּלֵּל יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ עֲלֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר, יְהוָה הַטּוֹב יְכַפֵּר בְּעַד.  יט כָּללְבָבוֹ הֵכִין, לִדְרוֹשׁ הָאֱלֹהִים יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתָיו; וְלֹא, כְּטָהֳרַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ.  כ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶליְחִזְקִיָּהוּ, וַיִּרְפָּא אֶתהָעָם.  

Now they stood at their stations, as prescribed in the Torah of Moshe the man of God; the Kohanim splashed the blood given to them by the Leviyim.  For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves; therefore, the Leviyim were responsible for slaughtering the Pesach lambs and consecrating them to YHWH on behalf of everyone who was not clean.  For a large number of the people, especially from Efrayim, Menasheh, Yisakhar and Z’vulun, had not cleansed themselves but ate the Pesach lamb anyway, despite what is written. For Hizkiyahu had prayed for them, “May YHWH, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God, YHWH, the God of his ancestors, even if he hasn’t undergone the purification prescribed in connection with holy things.”   YHWH heard Hizkiyahu and healed the people. (2 Chronicles 30:16-20)

We find that there was not a problem with the idea of ritual, and more so, ritual is imbedded in Torah law.  If we combine the above statement by Yirmiyahu we can conclude that ritual was expected.  However, if ritual overtook the core principles of Torah, which were to do justice and righteousness, then the ritual is to be ignored.

Justice and Righteousness

One of the most common themes in the Torah is the keeping of social balance with keeping the honor of God.  Yirmiyahu, as demonstrated above, cries out to first keep the social justice before the ritual.  The idea of keeping social justice was a very common theme in many ANE cultures(Tadmor, 2006, 51-55), and can be found for example in the code of Hammurabi in the opening:

“When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.” (Translation by L.W King).

Keeping justice in the nation was the outcry of many of the prophets, but they never said it was outside of the laws of Torah.  The prophets focused, each in their own generation, on the issues of the time, and by the end everything was spoken about.  Keeping justice was a basic and fundamental rule in Israelite society, together with keeping the ritual laws.  We find justice as a fundamental idea in the keeping of a king’s throne in the following verses:

ז כִּסְאֲךָ אֱלֹהִים, עוֹלָם וָעֶד;    שֵׁבֶט מִישֹׁר, שֵׁבֶט מַלְכוּתֶךָ.
ח  אָהַבְתָּ צֶּדֶק,    וַתִּשְׂנָארֶשַׁע:
עַלכֵּן מְשָׁחֲךָ אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שֶׁמֶן שָׂשׂוֹן—    מֵחֲבֵרֶךָ.

Your throne, God, will last forever and ever;
you rule your kingdom with a scepter of equity.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of joy in preference to your companions.”  

(Psalm 45:7,8 Hebrew numbering)

The Psalmist in these words points out that justice is the reason a king is enthroned, and only because of this justice he is king.  However, the king was also the patron of the temple, and justice was part of Torah.  Hence, justice, Torah and temple ritual are parts of the overall divine will.


בובר מרטין, תורת הנביאים, ירושלים, 1975

מנחם צבי קדרי, מלון העברית המקראית, רמת גן, 2007

תדמור חיים, אשור בבל ויהודה מחקרים בתולדות המזרח הקדום, ירושלים, 2006

CAD volume D p.122, Chicago U 1959

Code of Hammurabi, Yale University, The Avalon School online source

Photo Attribution: By Lawrie Cate (Flickr: DSC03551) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

One comments

Rocky Jackson

February 4, 2018 at 6:29 pm

That was remarkably interesting, thank you

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