Is Torah a Religion?

When the world hears the word, Torah, they think of Religion.

The Oxford dictionary defines religion as the following: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. A particular system of faith and worship. A pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.

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

This is a common discussion among many people I know. It is problematic for people to look at the Torah as a religion, but it occurs due to organized religion having made many feel far from God.

When we look into houses of worship, we find ritual and feel as if Yehovah is there. Many people mistake ritual and feelings for Yehovah. It is also a common belief, however, that ritual is all it is and therefore, devoid of God (Yehovah Elohim).

We find Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) call out:

Jeremiah 7:3-5 Thus said יהוה of hosts, the Elohim of Yisra’ĕl, “Make your ways and your deeds good, then I let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these false words, saying, ‘This is the Hĕḵal of יהוה, the Hĕḵal of יהוה, the Hĕḵal of יהוה!’ For if you truly make your ways and your deeds good, if you truly do right-ruling between a man and his neighbour. (Jer.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 How can we feel close to God when the system we are to follow no longer represents Elohim’s will?

Where is the justice? Where is the goodness? Where are the values that man is supposed to follow?

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 religious system. Every nation had a god, and that god personified the ideals of that nation. 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 refused to follow the practices of your people / your nation, 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. 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 embedded 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. 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 Yehovah.

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: “The Priests 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: “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 2 Chronicles. 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.

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 Elohim, YHWH, the Elohim 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 embedded in Torah law. If we combine the above statement by Yeremiah 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.

One of the most common themes in the Torah is the keeping of social balance with keeping the honor of Yehovah. Yeremiah, 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 , 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: “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 )

Those words of the Psalmist 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.

Lastly the Psalmist said, ” My tongue sings of Your word, For all Your commands are righteousness. 173 Your hand is a help to me, For I have chosen Your orders. 174 I have longed for Your deliverance, O יהוה, And Your Torah is my delight”.


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