One day, when I was in my early 20s and teaching Torah to religious newbies in Jerusalem, I felt the bedrock of belief shudder beneath me.
There’s a reason the sages wrote that the air of Jerusalem makes one wise. I could feel the vibe everywhere. I loved how a cosmetician might share a Torah thought while giving me a facial, or how a plumber would pick apart some verse in the Torah while he unclogged my sink. Entire communities were high on Torah and performing chesed, acts of kindness. I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without bumping into a scholar or a tzaddik, a righteous person. Naturally I wanted to marry a talmudist and create a home imbued with holiness, and so I went on innumerable blind dates with that purpose in mind. Nothing worked out on that score, though.
Then one day I stumbled upon a book about the Babylonian king Hammurabi and was mortified to discover that the Torah laws I sometimes struggled with — an eye for an eye, for instance, or, say, the one about harsher rules for Canaanite slaves than for Hebrew slaves — also appeared in the Hammurabi Code of ancient Iraq. I was stunned, even frightened. What was that about? Had the Torah influenced Hammurabi, or, God forbid, was it the other way around? The Torah was supposed to be from the mouth of God, word for word, pristine, unaffected by the ideas of men. The mere suggestion of Hammurabi’s influence made the Torah lesser in my eyes, suspect even.
It wasn’t as if I’d been living in an intellectual bubble. I’d always enjoyed asking subversive questions, even if they riled my teachers at the yeshiva high school I attended. I thrived on intellectual challenge, and if sometimes the answers didn’t quite satisfy, I could brush off my doubts like feathers. Eventually the right answer would come.
But when Hammurabi hit me — this was something new and, for me, devastating. It felt like an illness, a cancer. No matter what I did or where I went, I couldn’t forget it.
Suddenly, other irritating and troubling questions began gnawing at me, even pelting me. Was the Torah divine, or something cobbled together by a group of wise people? I was too ashamed to share my questions with my mentors because, after all, I was supposed to be a role model to the ba’al teshuva, the newly Orthodox Jews I taught.
Finally I broke down and spoke with a yeshiva dean who was well versed in biblical criticism. He said the Torah wasn’t given in a petri dish; it had to reflect the economic, legal and social realities of the times, and yet it was the Torah that took those sad realities — slavery, for instance, or the degraded way that women were treated — and, through progressive laws, rectified those entrenched systems.
He showed me a passage in the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mystical thought — “If I were writing the Torah, I could’ve done a better job” — that, for some reason, comforted me. He spoke for an hour, maybe more, about the complicated nature of divinity. Finally he folded his arms and gave me a frank stare. “You’re unhappy,” he declared. “If you’re asking these sorts of questions, your sadness is as plain as the nose on your face.”