A 30-year-old woman arrived in the emergency room. She was bleeding internally from an infection in her abdomen and she needed surgery, immediately.
As I, a junior physician, took her blood, she told me she was a Jehovah’s Witness and as such would not accept blood transfusions under any circumstances. She explained that the Bible was central to her life. I told her I felt the same way.
However, we meant different things. For her, certain passages of the Bible—Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10, which prohibit the ingesting of blood—required of her the ultimate sacrifice. She believed that every word of Scripture was God’s word, in accordance with the dogma of the Jehovah’s Witness community. I wanted to run home and bring her a volume of the Talmud to demonstrate how our sages interpret these lines of Torah in many different ways.
Several members of our medical team attempted to reason with her, but there was nothing we could do. Over the course of the next few days, we watched powerlessly as this young woman’s life slipped away.
Everywhere we look there are people who claim to know the mind of God and base their assertions directly on the Bible. This kind of literalist thinking should be profoundly troubling to us as Jews, because our Torah actually contains the most radical challenge to a fundamentalist reading of Scripture in all of religious literature. Somehow, this idea has gotten lost.
You might say that if Christianity begins with an act of immaculate conception, Judaism begins with an act of immaculate misconception—because revelation in Judaism is not what it seems.
The Torah tells us that after the Children of Israel were freed from the slavery of Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law of God. This was God’s own Law, divinely written on the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain. Let’s imagine what Moses might have felt at this point. He has led the Children of Israel out of Egypt. They have all seen the signs and wonders. Moses now has in his hands the most valuable, most sacred, and most urgently needed object in the history of humanity.
Imagine then his astonishment, when instead of finding the Israelites ready to accept the revealed moral code, he finds them dancing in reverence and awe around an idol—the Golden Calf—which they themselves had created.
Now, what would you expect Moses to do at this point? After all, God’s first commandment explains that if you worship other gods, you’re in trouble. And so, you might anticipate Moses appealing to God to smite the undeserving Israelites. Instead, Moses does something extraordinary. He takes the tablets of the Law and smashes them on the ground.
What does this act signify? The story implies that revelation is not the answer to our circumstance. It suggests that Moses understands that if we had to live our lives based on revealed morality, it would infantilize us. Given the credulity of the human creature, divine law itself would become an idol, an excuse to relinquish what is most precious in us, our moral autonomy.
What we have here is not a story of revelation, but a story of the dangers of revelation. Moses understood that the weakness we have for dogmatic thinking and the longing for safe truths—the same flaws that had led the Israelites to the Golden Calf—would always hinder the flourishing of society.
By breaking the tablets, Moses showed the Israelites, and us, that nothing, not even revealed law, is so sacred it cannot be tested by human experience. What was needed was not to exchange the slavery of the body for a slavery of the mind, but instead to create a tradition alive with questions and debate and glorious differences of opinion.
Following his audacious act, Moses ascends the mountain again. And after what must have been an awkward conversation, God tells Moses to write his own tablets. Notably, whereas the first tablets were “inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18), God instructs Moses to carve out the second tablets himself: “Write for yourself (ktav-lecha) these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27). These human-wrought tablets then become the law that forms the heart of the Hebrew Bible.
After Moses dies in the valley of Moab, the People of Israel mourn his passing. In the final line of the Bible, we read: “No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). Which awesome deeds? The text does not say. However, the medieval commentator Rashi, quoting earlier sources, states: “This refers to the fact that Moses’ heart inspired him to break the tablets…and the Holy Blessed One concurred.”
Of all Moses’ achievements—releasing the Israelites from slavery, splitting the Red Sea, bringing them to Mount Sinai, and then leading them to the very edge of the Promised Land—the greatest was the breaking of the tablets.
This is of profound relevance in today’s world, because if the Law of God is not beyond questioning, then all the more so are man-made laws. Paradoxically, in Judaism, the moment of revelation coincides with something akin to enlightenment. Right from the beginning, even God agrees that to seek truth means to question authority. Quite literally, it means to break the rules.
To some people, however, the idea that morality is nothing more than a set of laws constructed by fallible humans seems insufficient, even dangerous. And yet, to such a worry, modern science, psychology, and especially modern neuroscience have found some striking and potentially reassuring answers.
Neuroscience has shown that every mental state, every thought and feeling, has a physical representation in the brain. The mind is what the brain does. Furthermore, the human brain is composed of numerous interconnected circuits. Partly hard-wired, meaning genetically encoded, and partly soft-wired, through learning and experience, these modular networks enable us to navigate our complex social world.
At the most basic level, human morality is grounded in our ability to feel empathy. The physical substrates of empathy reside deep within the emotional part of the brain, in a circuit of brain structures that includes the amygdala. Studies have shown that a person’s ability to empathize directly correlates with the level of amygdalar activity.
However, empathy is not merely genetic. The values we grow up with and the culture in which we live add crucial color to our emotions. On a larger level, society influences who we feel empathic towards and in what way.
To understand how morality is simultaneously innate and learnt, consider language. People used to think of language as a completely cultural phenomenon. We now know that human beings have a specific linguistic ability. With minimal input, children are able to pick up language at astonishing speed.
In the same way, children intuitively understand moral questions. If you doubt this, try, as I have done, to renege on a promise you’ve made to a three-year-old. You will find that the mind of a three-year-old is not like a blank slate at all. It is more similar to a Swiss army knife, with fixed mental modules, predictable patterns of behavior, and a sharp sense of fairness. Honesty and deception, obedience and rebellion, fairness and injustice—these all fill a three-year-old’s day.
The role of parents and teachers, and, more broadly speaking, the role of culture, is to sustain that innate ability. The early years are crucial. As in the case of language, there may well be a window of opportunity after which mastering moral questions becomes like learning a foreign language.
What modern neuroscience suggests is that the Bible had it right. We must cultivate moral maturity, without resorting to revelation. Blindly trusting in authority is a barrier to human freedom.
Where the Hebrew Bible ends is only the beginning of the story. The Talmud recounts that the Israelites carry the Ark of the Covenant with them throughout their wanderings. Later, when they rest it in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem, they place the broken divine law alongside the tablets of Moses. As humans, we carry with us both tablets, our fallible human laws and the fragments of our shared humanity.
In his greatest hour, Moses showed us we have nothing to fear. The tablets of God were broken, but we remain intact. Our task, too late for my patient but perhaps not too late for us, is to break the spell of Sinai. Only then, following Moses’ example, can we begin the real work of hammering out what constitutes a moral society.
Daniel Reisel, a junior physician based in London, holds a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Oxford.