One of the distinctive aspects of Judaism is that its founding fathers1 lived several centuries2 before the laws governing the religion were promulgated.3 The existence of such a preliminary phase, in which religious beliefs and devotion thrived without an explicit legal framework, creates a confounding dilemma when one attempts to ponder the religious personalities and activities of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their children. On the one hand, a very significant portion of the Torah's laws were designed for a nation, and were thus meaningless or impossible to observe before such a nation existed. Yet, on the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments. On this backdrop, we can formulate the question bluntly: were the founders of Judaism Jewish?4 And, if so, what identified them as such,5 and did they practice its laws?
While Hashem speaks to the Patriarchs on numerous occasions in Sefer Bereshit, he gives them only one eternal6 commandment – that of circumcision.7 The singling out of this mitzvah may indicate that it was the only one which the Patriarchs were obligated to keep. Yet, there are two verses which speak in more general fashion about Patriarchal observance of mitzvot:
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה' עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו. (בראשית י"ח:י"ט)
עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי. (בראשית כ"ו:ה')
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Hashem may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him. (Bereshit 18:19)
Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, commandments, ceremonies, and laws. (Bereshit 26:5)
While these verses imply that both Avraham and his descendants adhered to some legal standard, they raise a host of questions. First, what do they include? Do the terms "דֶּרֶךְ ה'" and "צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט" in Bereshit 18:19 refer to a universal ethical standard or to specific Torah laws? What about "מִשְׁמַרְתִּי", "מִצְוֹתַי", "חֻקּוֹתַי", and "תוֹרֹתָי" in Bereshit 26:5? Does each term connote a distinct set of precepts or are they all one and the same? Were these ad hoc instructions or commandments intended also for future generations? Was there a distinction between Avraham's own level of observance and that of his descendants?
Any discussion of the status of the commandments before the revelation at Sinai must also take into account various actions of the Patriarchs and their family members that run counter to the Torah's legislation. The most glaring of these is Yaakov's marrying two sisters, Rachel and Leah, an act which is prohibited in Vayikra 18:18. Does this imply that Yaakov did not feel bound by the Torah's laws?8 Additionally, the Torah recounts numerous other problematic or questionable actions including: Avraham's marrying his half-sister, Yaakov's household possessing idols, Yaakov's sons taking Canaanite women as wives, and Amram's marriage to his aunt. Were these exceptions or the norm? Were there some special or extenuating circumstances which would explain these occurrences?
The question of whether the Torah and its mitzvot existed before Sinai has significant ramifications for the theological issue of whether God's law is immutable or changes with the circumstances. This issue lies at the core of the dispute between Judaism and it sister religions, Christianity and Islam. As such, it is hardly surprising that the consideration of the Torah's status before Sinai has been a hotly debated issue during many time periods in history, and that polemical motivations can be detected in many of the approaches taken regarding this question.