On the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, synagogues traditional read the section of the Torah known as Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20), which includes Moses’ admonition, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?” Thanks to its use in a famous talmudic discussion, the phrase “it is not in the heavens” has come to signify the principal that Scriptural interpretation is a task for human reason. Moshe Taragin examines the power of this rationalist strain in Judaism, as well as its pitfalls:
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 halakhah, we also applied our rational minds to the world around us. We excelled in professions which demanded rational analysis.
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 Moses’ proclamation that Torah isn’t in the heavens—created a sturdy and logical process of Jewish halakhah and also generated a hardy rational-based Jewish culture, capable of surviving very difficult . . . conditions.
At the same time, Taragin observes, Judaism has always had its mystical tendencies, existing alongside the legal and logical:
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.
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 [repairing the world]. 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.