No one has ever been to Heaven and back … except for our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. Three times, he ascended heaven to draw the word of Hashem down to a human audience. After two of these expeditions, he descended carrying sacred words engraved upon stony luchot. To heaven and back.
As Moshe neared the end of his life, the nation began to doubt whether the word of Hashem could be acquired without a leader who could ascend to heaven. Addressing these fears, Moshe reassured us that even after his passing—the word of Hashem would still remain accessible.
Though the study and practice of the divine will seems intimidating, it can be attained through hard work and persistent study, even by mortals incapable of scaling the heavens. Moshe announced, “Torah is not in the heavens nor does it lie across the oceans,” but is available to us “in our hearts and upon our tongues.” The knowledge of Hashem’s word may seem distant or even unreachable, but it can be secured through diligence and commitment.
Someone Hung It
A midrash aptly captures Moshe’s reassurance: two people walk into a large room and observe a piece of bread dangling from a high vaulted ceiling. The foolish person is overwhelmed, doubting his ability of ever reaching this hanging bread. The wise person, however, deduces that someone else must have discovered a route to hang this bread, reasoning that, “someone must have hung it there.” Whenever ability exists, methods can be devised.
Religious excellence often feels daunting and frightening. By proclaiming that the Torah isn’t in the heavens, Moshe, informed us that the will of Hashem—though originating in heaven—was delivered to earth, and can be mastered by the humans who inhabit this planet.
Centuries later, Moshe’s statement—reformulated in a different context—became a foundational statement about the role of rationalism within Judaism. In the first-century, several tannaim were deeply engaged in an important halachic debate about the laws of tumah. The majority of the rabbonim ruled against a minority opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, the rebbe of Rabbi Akiva. To authenticate his minority position, Rabbi Eliezer summoned supernatural miracles. He ordered the trees to levitate and the waters to flow backward—hoping to corroborate his shittah—against the majority. Unmoved by these signs, his colleagues firmly rejected any notion that supernatural omens could resolve a halachic machloket. Halacha—they affirmed—could only be arbitrated by human logic and rational analysis, not by paranormal input. In rejecting these miracles, the rabbonim invoked Moshe’s original statement that Torah was no longer residing in the heavens.
Once Torah was delivered to the human realm, it was not subject to mystic data and heavenly rulings. The interpretation of Hashem’s word, once inserted into the human domain, would be shaped by human analysis and rational inquiry of Hashem’s word and not by heavenly prophecy.
By issuing this iconic phrase, Moshe had originally intended to reassure an anxious nation that Torah was attainable, even without superhuman voyages to heaven. At this later stage, however, this famous expression became a motto about the rationality of Torah logic and of Judaism in general.
The rationality of Torah analysis firmly anchored Jewish religious practice. Since the fundamentals of faith can never be empirically proven, religion is a leap of faith. It is precisely the lack of empirical proof which lends religion its passion and its fervor. Our deepest passions in life stem from our irrational dedication to ideas and people. When we suspend our ration and believe in something unprovable and larger than ourselves, passion grows. Cynics of religion mock non-rational faith, but believers celebrate the depth and resonance it lends to our experience.
However, since religion is founded on non-empirical faith, it can become superstitious and random. As belief itself can’t be proven, religious experience risks becoming haphazard and occult. Our belief that Torah isn’t in the heavens, but subject to human analysis, grounded Jewish practice and Jewish culture in reason and logic.
More so, as a people who practiced a rational system of halacha, we also applied our rational minds to the world around us. We excelled in professions which demanded rational analysis. We spearheaded the development of science, technology, philosophy, decode mysteries and apply newly-discovered information to improve the human condition.
Our rationalism also helped us wrestle with a hostile world. Facing constant historical setbacks, we didn’t sink into hollow despair, but devised practical workaround solutions to our predicaments and disabilities. Our rational bent—derived from Moshe’s proclamation that Torah isn’t in the heavens—created a sturdy and logical process of Jewish halacha and also generated a hardy rational-based Jewish culture, capable of surviving very difficult historical conditions.
The Other Realm
Yet, despite our rational bent we also occupied a second world, beyond human logic and beyond empiricism. We lived firmly grounded on earth, but we also pondered heaven. We trusted in a God that the human imagination could not possibly describe. Judaism was always a thrust into a different realm, beyond human experience and beyond human ration.
Additionally, as we investigated our terrestrial world, we also acknowledged worlds above us, which lay beyond the ken of scientific tools of inquiry. The study of Kabbalah helped us map worlds we could never see, but we knew existed. Even for those who didn’t actively study Kabbalah, the mere knowledge of upper realms stretched our experience beyond the affairs of this world, thereby, amplifying our lives. Our world wasn’t the only realm, it was, merely, the one we inhabited.
We always strode delicately between these two realms. Following Moshe’s assurances, we were confident that Torah was delivered to earth and could be acquired by humans and analyzed by humans. We built a religious system and a national culture heavily based upon the foundations of ration. However, even while we lived on earth, we never gave up the heavens.
Throughout our history, some Jewish communities tilted toward greater rationalism while others angled toward greater esoterism. However, we always straddled both worlds. The high and the low, the ration and the mystery. Anchored to our world, we also knew how to transcend our world in search of Hashem. Though we couldn’t climb mountains, our spirit and religious hearts hiked to heaven.
Unfortunately, we are gradually losing transcendence. Judaism is becoming too grounded on earth and is quickly losing altitude. In a hyper-empirical world—refashioned by the scientific revolution—religious rituals seem irrational to many, who sadly have walked away from classic ritual behavior.
However, even Orthodox Jews—who steadfastly maintain religious traditions and rituals—have crafted a highly rational form of religious experience, while deemphasizing the esoteric parts of religion. Too often, we justify faith and religion purely in “earthly” and human terms: religion provides meaning, values, social welfare, familial bliss, Shabbat respite, personal discipline, healthy relationships and tikkun olam. All this may be true, but all these values are grounded in our world. We have clipped the wings of religion and, rarely, do we fly to heaven. In the words of Rebecca Goldstein (“36 Arguments for the Existence of God”), we are witnessing the “sad sight of human life untouched by transcendence.”
This Rosh Hashanah, let us recover some of that transcendence. Let us stop justifying Judaism solely because of the human benefits it provides. Let us stand before Hashem—in service and in awe—savoring our encounter with Him and His higher wisdom. Let us transcend this world, even for a few days. Let us reach for the heavens. Moshe came down, let us rise above.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.