Many of the concepts espoused in the Torah and Jewish tradition seem quintessentially modern, yet go back thousands of years. Here’s a roundup of some ideas that we take for granted today that are an integral part of ancient Jewish wisdom.
Judaism introduced the powerful notion that one God created and rules the universe. This was a profound break with the idolatrous models that came before, in which an angry or capricious god was seen to govern events at random, and had to be appeased – often in horrible ways, like child sacrifice.
The Torah, in contrast, provided a radically different model of the universe, which uplifts, instead of degrades. It taught that nothing was random; the world was created for a purpose, and so were we. We each have a divinely-mandated goal in our lives and are charged to reach our potential.
This was a revolutionary idea. Ordinary people were seen as holy, important beings. The Torah describes every individual as being created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God. No matter what our circumstances or abilities, each life is holy and special. All of the elements that make up a civilized society flow from this realization.
2. The Weekend
“Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat to the Lord Your God; you shall not do any work“ (Exodus 20:8). There is nothing inherently logical about breaking up the long monotony of human days: the seven-day week is found nowhere in the natural world. Yet, today, four thousand years after Judaism introduced the concept of Shabbat, the concept of a seven-day week is universal.
The Jewish concept of Shabbat – of ceasing from work for one day out of seven – helped develop the idea of the week, and set society on the path to delineating a specific work-week – and periodic times for leisure.
England’s Domesday Book of 1086 is often referred to as the first national census, but 2,400 years earlier the Torah records a census of the Jewish people (Exodus 30). After leaving Egypt, Moses organized a poll of the Jewish people. It must have been a massive undertaking: he counted 603,550 adult men.
In ancient Israel, Jews were instructed to build “six refuge cities” on either side of the Jordan River, to which people accused of manslaughter could flee before receiving their sentences (Exodus 35:6). In these cities, they were guaranteed protection from relatives of those they were accused of killing and were safe from vigilante justice.
5. Equality Under the Law
Alone in the ancient world, the Jewish people proclaimed the dignity of every person: men and women, rich and poor. Ancient codes of justice routinely contained different laws for people of varying social statuses. Even in the present day, when human rights abuses around the world make a mockery of impartial justice, the Torah remains a beacon of light, insisting that all people – regardless of station – are to be judged the same: “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (Leviticus 19:15).
6. Court System
The Torah contains one of the earliest systems of upper and lower courts. As the Jewish nation grew after the Exodus from Egypt, their leader Moses found it increasingly difficult to adjudicate all their disputes. Moses’ father-in-law Yitro presented him with a unique solution: establish the world’s first comprehensive legal system. Under his guidance, Moses established four levels of courts, from local precincts where people could go to petty disputes, all the way up to high courts that oversaw the lower courts and decided the most difficult cases (Deuteronomy 1:11-15).
7. Animal Rights
The movement for animal rights might seem very modern – current animal welfare laws began to be proposed in Western nations in the mid-19th Century – but they have their antecedents in Jewish thought. The Torah and Talmud are full of detailed instructions on treating animals with kindness: we are forbidden from muzzling an ox during harvests (this ancient practice was meant to prevent beasts from eating the crops) or yoking a strong animal together with a weak one (because it might cause undue strain on the smaller animal) (Deuteronomy 25:4). When we collect eggs, the Torah instructs that we first shoo away the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:7). The Talmud even commands us to feed our animals before we ourselves eat.
8. Crop Rotation
Nowadays, farmers know that to maintain nutrients in soil, it’s effective to rotate crops and to leave fields fallow periodically. In Israel, this practice has a powerful spiritual dimension, as well. “Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. And in the seventh, you shall leave it untended and unharvested, and the destitute of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left of them; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove” (Exodus 23:10-11). This practice – which is still followed by many Israeli farmers today – reminds us that it is God who ultimately controls the land and our lives.
9. Monetary Damages
When the Torah introduced the idea of paying for damages with money instead of one’s life, it was a revolutionary thought. The Code of the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi (1795-1750 BCE) mandated the death penalty for most serious crimes; the 7th Century BCE Draconian Code of Athens made the death penalty the punishment for every crime. Even in the present day, some countries impose harsh physical punishments; in Saudi Arabia, people have been sentenced to have their eyes gouged out; Iran has also used blinding as punishment, sentencing a man accused of stalking a woman to have acid dripped in each eye. Both nations, as well as some other Muslim countries, have used amputation of hands and feet as punishment for crimes.
Jewish law, in contrast, codified various categories of monetary damages for a range of crimes, allowing those convicted of theft or negligence to pay off their debt and resume ordinary life.
10. Public School
In 64 CE, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla ruled that every Jewish child aged six and up should attend school, whether their parents could afford to send them or not. He even mandated a maximum class size – no more than 25 children per teacher. Jewish communities raced to put Rabbi Yehoshua’s ideas into action, establishing subsidized or free schools in Jewish communities the world over. As Chicago educational philanthropist George Hanus has noted: “it is the first instance in recorded history of a people instituting compulsory universal education funded by the larger community…. Many scholars believe Gamla’s model was the inspiration for free public education systems in the contemporary West, including the United States.”