Is there a primordial Torah?


Is Orthodox Judaism committed to the existence of a Torah that pre-existed the world? This paper argues that Orthodoxy is so committed unless it can find compelling philosophical or theological reasons to reject the possibility of such an entity, and then to re-interpret allegorically all of the texts that speak of such a Torah. Providing an ontology of primordial texts, I argue that no compelling reason can be found to deny the existence of the primordial Torah.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    A number of traditional sources that make this claim will be explored in what follows.

  2. 2.

    Heschel (2005, pp. 541–542) explains that medieval thinkers would often use the word ‘kadmon’ to mean uncreated, but that it originally could be used to describe something ‘created before the creation of the world’. Sometimes the Torah Kadmonit is referred to as the Torah Keduma, which simply means ‘the ancient Torah’—my choice of ‘Torah Kadmonit’ follows Nachmanides (Introduction, Commentary to the Pentateuch) who refers to it as a ‘Sefer Kadmon’—a Primordial Book—this phrase has the benefit of expressing that it isn’t just old, but created before the creation of the world, and potentially eternal.

  3. 3.

    The word ‘Torah’ can mean instruction, as in Genesis 26:5. In Leviticus it often refers to a specific chapter of Priestly law (see, e.g. Leviticus 6:2). In Deuteronomy, the word takes on a wider extension, to refer to a book, although it isn’t always clear which book (see, e.g. Deuteronomy 31:26). In later usage, it can refer to the entire Hebrew Bible, and sometimes to the entire Rabbinic canon. For a survey of Rabbinic uses of the word, see Neusner (1985).

  4. 4.

    How well-buttressed is well-buttressed enough? Which sources are to be considered part of the Rabbinic cannon? What constitutes a ‘sufficiently compelling’ consideration? I leave these questions unanswered, to be adjudicated by one’s Rabbinic sensibilities.

  5. 5.

    Lichtenstein (2003) defends the rationale of this ahistorical practice. See the discussion between Ruben (2013a, b), Williams (2013), Payton (2013), and Lebens (2013a, b): it is by no means obvious that ‘true successors’ of an intellectual tradition have to understand the doctrines and texts of their school in the way that their predecessors did. See also Ameriks (2014).

  6. 6.

    See Sherira Gaon’s responsum on this issue, as quoted by Carmell (2005, p. 5).

  7. 7.

    Maimonides fails to codify demonological laws from the Talmud. Tractate Sanhedrin 101a rules against inquiring of a demon the whereabouts of one’s lost property, a law which is codified by the Shulchan Aruch, YD, 179:16, but omitted by Maimonides in the Mishnaeh Torah. See Lewis (1905, pp. 485–486).

  8. 8.

    When he doesn’t ignore them, Maimonides reinterprets them (see Guide I.7). The Me’iri attempts to reinterpret quite consistently throughout his commentary to the Talmud. See his comments to BT Pesachim 109a s.v. becama mekomot. Soloveichik (1991, pp. 50–52) even recasts demonology as microbiology.

  9. 9.

    See Bi’ur ha-Gra, YD, 179:6, note 13.

  10. 10.

    Talmudic demonology is often susceptible to empirical disconfirmation. For instance: one could run a double blind trial to see whether the protective measures against demons prescribed in the Talmud carried out by a large group of subjects derive any benefits.

  11. 11.

    I’m not saying that I am providing reasons for belief in the existence of the Torah Kadmonit, but only for acceptance of it—‘acceptance’ picks out a wider category of epistemic states than ‘belief’. I say this in order to reconcile my argument in this paper with more liberal positions about the epistemic demands of religious commitment (see, e.g. Howard-Snyder 2013). Judaism probably doesn’t demand belief in a particularly large list of propositions, if any, but it might demand certain sorts of acceptance of propositions that one needn’t altogether believe. To give an illustration of what acceptance might be: one might think of acceptance as entering a proposition into one's premises for the purposes of practical reasoning.

  12. 12.

    In this excerpt, Winston is weaving together references from various sources in Philo, e.g.: Quaestiones in Exodum 2.124; De migratione Abrahami 103; De confusione linguarum 63, 146; Quod Deus sit immutabilis 31; Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 205, 234; De fuga et inventione 112; De vita Mosis 2.134; Legum Allegoriae 3.96; De somniis 2.249; and De plantatione 9–10.

  13. 13.

    Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 205–206.

  14. 14.

    De opificio mundi 16.

  15. 15.

    Quaestiones in Genesim 2:62.

  16. 16.

    To be fair to him, Boyarin (2006, p. 114) does eventually concede that, at least, ‘Philo oscillates about whether Logos, God’s son, exists separately or is totally incorporated within the godhead.’.

  17. 17.

    You might even read the Prologue to John’s Gospel in the same way, distinguishing between an uppercase and a lower case g: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a [i.e., second/deputy] god’ (John 1:1). The lack of the definite article before ‘θεός’ in the final clause makes room for such a translation. If John’s Binitarianism was less than clear, how much more so was Philo’s!.

  18. 18.

    See Winston (1985, p. 15).

  19. 19.


  20. 20.

    As translated by Yadin (2004, p. 117); I add the completion of the verse in Deuteronomy.

  21. 21.

    Yadin (2004, p. 119).

  22. 22.

    Even if people used to worship the Memra, as Boyarin (2006, p. 119) argues they did; Jews have a history of worshipping angels, despite Rabbinic opposition to this practice. This doesn’t automatically entail that they thought that those angels were gods or part of God rather than intermediaries.

  23. 23.

    I use ‘BT’ as an abbreviation for ‘Babylonian Talmud’, PT for ‘Palestinian Talmud’.

  24. 24.

    Yadin (2004, p. 141).

  25. 25.

    See Yadin’s (2004) introduction for a discussion about the historical accuracy, and the heuristic utility, of the division between the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael.

  26. 26.

    The book is still personified, but this now seems to be a metaphor only. One reason to continue the metaphor of personhood, is to highlight what Yadin (2004) calls the ‘presponsiveness’ of the text of the Torah; a text which seems to educate us.

  27. 27.

    At one point, he claims that they might have got rid of these doctrines altogether had they not been too popular to eradicate (Boyarin 2006, p. 143). I reject that reading because there are ample Biblical and theological reasons to hang on to these posits.

  28. 28.

    See Runia (1989, p. 411) and Urbach (1975, pp. 199–200) for a comparison between Genesis Rabbah and Philo’s De opificio mundi.

  29. 29.

    Admittedly, not every version of the text includes the clause ‘through which the world was created’, but a large number of versions do; versions with which Orthodox Jews would be familiar.

  30. 30.

    The relevant part of the Mishna is likely to be a later interpolation, but Orthodox Judaism, relatively impervious as it is to source criticism, is going to relate to it as a Mishna, regardless of these considerations.

  31. 31.

    Clearly, a detached historical academic study of these texts might want to distinguish between an eternal Torah that pre-exists the world, and a heavenly Torah written later on, perhaps just before the revelation at Sinai. But, in addition to reasoning from Divine atemeporalism, as I have done in this paragraph, an Orthodox theology will often be motivated by a harmonizing principle that seeks to reconcile divergent texts when doing so doesn’t seem to do tremendous violence to those texts. This gives us added reason to think that the Talmudic texts are speaking about the same Torah Kadmonit that is ubiquitous in the Midrashim.

  32. 32.

    Not every member of the list is to be read hypostatically, but some of them clearly could be, including the Torah. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi reads this list differently to me (Kuzari 3.73), as we shall see in “Theological worries” section.

  33. 33.

    As he is cited by Heschel (2005, p. 339).

  34. 34.

    Ibn Ezra’s Introduction to his Commentary to the Pentateuch, Path 4.

  35. 35.

    For the purposes of this paper, much of “The ontology of literature” section has to summarise the conclusions of my more lengthy paper on the ontology of literature (Lebens 2015).

  36. 36.

    One can’t deny the possibility of doing this, saying that it’s part of the definition of ‘abstract’ to exist timelessly and therefore not to be capable of coming into existence. First of all, the abstract-concrete distinction is notoriously difficult to define. Secondly, following Thomasson, we’re looking for an ontological category that we have reason to believe lies between the cracks of classical taxonomies. If you’re not happy calling these created things abstract, call them ‘shmabstract’, since they certainly don’t seem to be concrete!

  37. 37.

    Problems raised by Davies (2004) and by Caplan and Matheson (2004).

  38. 38.

    You’re going to have to make sense of the notion of an eternal present to allow for eternal processes like this. Stump and Kretzmann (1981, 1987, 1992) and Stump (2016) try to defend this notion.

  39. 39.

    See e.g., Tanchuma Pikudei 4; Exodus Rabbah 33:1.

  40. 40.

    This part of the paper owes a great deal to Zimmerman (2002).

  41. 41.

    That pre-time would have no metric is a central argument of Swinburne (1993).

  42. 42.

    Translation from Friedlander (1947, p. 161).

  43. 43.

    That this chapter of the Guide might be aimed at the Torah Kadmonit tradition, alongside angelology is suggested by Urbach (1975, p. 200).

  44. 44.

    Friedlander (1947, p. 161).

  45. 45.

    In the Guide, I.65, Maimonides says that, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah is created and it looks, at least prima facie, as if Maimonides is saying that the Torah was created at the time that it was revealed to Moses. This doesn’t undermine my reading of the Guide II.6, according to which the Torah Kadmonit is said to exist and to be identical with the Active Intellect. On a closer reading of I.65, Maimonides isn’t really clear that the Torah was created at the time that it was revealed, only that it was created—Maimonides leaves it open that there may have been a delay between its creation and Moses’ reception of it. It’s also possible that the Torah of Moses is not lexically identical to the Torah Kadmonit; they’re not the same thing. The Torah Kadmonit exists, as a creation of God—one of the separate intellects.

  46. 46.

    Emunot Va’Deot, II.6 (Rosenblatt 1948, p. 107; see also p. 55).

  47. 47.

    Eleonore Stump (2016, pp. 89–97) proposes a ‘quantum metaphysics’ that allows us to shut off some of these strange consequences of identifying God with his essence; including the unsightly consequence that God is a property. On this metaphysics, we can say that God is identical to his essential properties, and that God isn’t a property. I don’t want to rule out the possibility that her quantum metaphysics might be of help to the classical theologian, but without some heavy duty philosophy, the sovereignty-aseity-intuition certainly gets into all sorts of trouble.

  48. 48.

    Emunot Va’Deot, II.12 (Rosenblatt 1948, p. 130).

  49. 49.

    See Emunot Va’Deot VII.2 (Rosenblatt 1948, pp. 265–267), and Treatise I.5 (Rosenblatt 1948, pp. 16–26).

  50. 50.

    See Emunot Va’Deot, VII.4 (Rosenblatt 1948, pp. 272–273) and the variant version, VII.5, which was the basis of Ibn Tibbon’s translation (Rosenblatt 1948, pp. 423–426).

  51. 51.

    Kuzari 3.73.

  52. 52.

    Sefer HaIkrim 3.12.

  53. 53.

    In the words of Rav Huna (BT Shabbat 63a): ‘a verse cannot depart from its plain meaning.’

  54. 54.

    Even a simple impure literary abstractum has literary content—that content is not an ontological constituent of the impure abstractum, since the impure abstractum is simple. It is rather a property held by the impure abstractum.

  55. 55.

    My talk of ‘commitment’ to the Torah Kadmonit’s existence is consciously framed in terms of acceptance rather than belief, see footnote 11 above.


  1. Ameriks, K. (2014). History, succession, and German romanticism. In D. Nassar (Ed.), The relevance of romanticism: Essays on German romantic philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boyarin, D. (2006). Border lines: The partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Caplan, B., & Matheson, C. (2004). Can a musical work be created? British Journal of Aestehtics, 44(2), 113–134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Carmell, A. (2005). ‘Freedom to Interpret’, an online essay.

  5. Davies, D. (2004). Art as performance. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Friedlander, M. (1947). The Guide for the perplexed by Moses Maimonides: Translated from the original Arabic text. Lomdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Hamblin, C. L. (1971). Instants and intervals. Studium Generale, 24, 127–134.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Heschel, A. J. (2005). Heavenly Torah as refracted though the Generations (G. Tucker, Trans.), Continuum

  9. Howard-Snyder, D. (2013). Propositional faith: What it is and what it is not. American Philosophical Quarterly, 50(4), 357–372.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Lebens, S. (2013a). True successors and counterfactual approval. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2(10), 26–31.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Lebens, S. (2013b). Counterfactual approval and idiosyncratic counterfactual approval. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2(11), 65–69.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Lebens, S. (2013c). The epistemology of religiosity: And Orthodox Jewish approach. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 74(3), 315–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Lebens, S. (2015). Would this paper exist if I hadn’t written it? Philosophical Studies, 172(11), 3059–3080.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Levinson, J. (1990). Music, art and metaphysics. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Lewis, H. S. (1905). Maimonides on superstition. The Jewish Quarterly Review, 17(3), 475–488.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lichtenstein, A. (2003). The conceptual approach to torah learning: The method and its prospects. In A. Lichtenstein (Ed.), Leaves of faith: The world of Jewish learning (Vol. I). Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Neusner, J. (1985). Torah. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Payton, J. (2013). Ruben’s account of traditions and true successors: Two modifications and an extension. Social Epistemology, 2(11), 40–46.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Plantinga, A. (1980). Does god have a nature?. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Rosenblatt, S. (1948). Saadia Gaon: The book of beliefs and opinion. London: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Ruben, D. H. (2013a). Traditions and true successors. Social Epistemology, 27(1), 32–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ruben, D. H. (2013b). Reply to Williams. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2(8), 8–9.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Runia, D. (1989). Polis and Megalopolis: Philo and the founding of Alexandria. Mnemosyne, 42, 398–412.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Soloveichik, A. (1991). Logic of the heart, logic of the mind: Wisdom and Reflections on topics of our times. Jerusalem: Genesis Jerusalem Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Stump, E. (2016). The god of the Bible and the god of the philosophers. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Stump, E., & Kretzmann, N. (1981). Eternity. The Journal of Philosophy, 78, 429–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Stump, E., & Kretzmann, N. (1987). Atemporal duration: A reply to Fitzgerald. The Journal of Philosophy, 84, 214–221.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Stump, E., & Kretzmann, N. (1992). Eternity, awareness, and action. Faith and Philosophy, 9(4), 463–482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Swinburne, R. (1993). God and time. In E. Stump (Ed.), Reasoned faith: essays in philosophical theology in honour of Norman Kretzmann. London: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Thomasson, A. (2004). The ontology of art. In P. Kivy (Ed.), Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Urbach, E. (1975) The Sages: their concepts and beliefs (I. Abrahams, Trans.). Jerusalem: Magnes Press.

  32. Wiles, M. (1976). Working papers in doctrine. London: SCM Press Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Williams, J. (2013). David-Hillel Ruben’s ‘traditions and true successors’: A critical reply. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 2(7), 40–45.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Winston, D. (1985). Logos and mystical theology in Philo of Alexandria. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Uninon College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Yadin, A. (2003). as Hypostatis in the Hebrew Bible. Journal of Biblical Literature, 122(4), 601–626.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Yadin, A. (2004). Scripture as logos. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Zimmerman, D. (2002). God inside time and before creation. In G. E. Ganssle & D. M Woodruff (Eds.), God and time: Essays on the divine nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Download references


This paper was first presented to the reading group for the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. It was later presented to the reading group for the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University. I'm grateful to all who particpated in those discussions

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samuel Lebens.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lebens, S. Is there a primordial Torah?. Int J Philos Relig 82, 219–239 (2017).

Download citation


  • Ontology of literature
  • Revelation
  • Primordial Torah
  • Jewish Philosophy