Shavuot is when Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People by God, but according to our most recent survey of Jewish identity, half of British Jews believe the Torah to be a human creation
Dr Jonathan Boyd
25 May 2023
Dr Jonathan Boyd
25 May 2023
At the core of the festival of Shavuot, which falls this year on May 26 and 27, is matan Torah – the giving of the Torah by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. It celebrates a defining moment in Jewish history and perhaps the most important idea: the notion that the Torah is divine and constitutes the legal covenant between God and the Jewish People.
Yet according to our most recent survey of Jewish identity, conducted at the end of 2022, only about one in every eight Jewish adults in the UK today believes that the Torah is the actual word of God. Far more – indeed an entire half – see it as wholly human. The remaining 38% adopt a middle-ground position, regarding the Torah as divinely inspired but not to be taken literally.
Unsurprisingly, attitudes on this issue differ significantly depending upon one's type of religious practice. Haredi Jews almost universally believe that the Torah is the actual word of God, non-practising Jews almost universally see it as a human creation, and there are gradations of belief between these two poles depending on where one sits on the denominational spectrum. Critically, however, all the people reflected in these data are Jewish, revealing how diverse Jews are on even this most fundamental element of Judaism.
But anyone who knows the Jewish community well will be unsurprised to see these results. It is entirely conceivable to be Jewish and not believe in the divinity of the Torah. The fundamental reason for this is that biology bestows one's Jewishness rather than theology; at the most basic level, most Jews today are Jewish by dint of their parentage over and above their belief. So the ideas embedded within Judaism, even one as central as the notion that the Torah is the actual word of God, are not preconditions for Jewish status – one does not have to believe it to be Jewish.
That said, it is worth noting that those who believe that the Torah is divine are more likely than other Jews to maintain that many aspects of Jewishness are 'very important' to them. The Jews in that group, shown in the chart below in blue, are notably more likely than their less believing fellow Jews (shown in orange and grey) to maintain that 'strong moral and ethical behaviour', 'supporting Israel' and 'donating funds to charity' are 'very important' aspects of their Jewishness. It largely goes without saying that this is also the case for overtly religious aspects of Jewishness, including 'believing in God' and other elements not shown on the chart, such as prayer, studying Jewish religious texts, and keeping Shabbat and kashrut. So there is a sociological relationship between the belief in the divinity of the Torah and seeing other aspects of Jewishness as essential – they typically combine to form a robust Jewish identity.
That said, one exception to this rule is noteworthy. The pattern is reversed for 'supporting social justice causes' – in this instance, those who regard the Torah as human are most likely to stress its importance to their Jewish identity. This exception reveals a significant division that exists between Jews today: the most traditionally observant believers clearly regard strong moral and ethical behaviour to be an essential aspect of their Jewishness, yet are notably less likely than more liberal or non-believing Jews to see that morality reflected in contemporary social justice causes. The definition of what is moral is by no means settled among Jews, and the divisions we see in Israel today over judicial reform and territorial ownership reflect this tension.
And that brings us back to matan Torah. The questions facing Jews most acutely this year are twofold: they concern both the authority of the Torah (whether it is divine or human) and its moral contents (what it obliges Jews to be and do). Given the intra-Jewish differences and tensions we see now, the conversation about these issues may be more important than the particular answers we choose to tell ourselves. Perhaps the critical point is less whether God gave the Jewish People the Torah on Mount Sinai and more how Jews collectively relate to that idea in a way that seeks to understand, respect and engage with the many different interpretations of it that have developed over time.
Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...Read more