Thursday, September 01, 2011

Torah and Truth

(UPATE: In response to feedback from a reader, I decided that this post probably deserves a disclaimer. The topic it addresses is always a difficult topic to approach. It seems to border on a grey area which for many, may tread on ground thought of as Reform. First, let me say that the main problems with Reform Judaism are its antinomianism and its willingness to reject the giving of Torah by God directly to Moshe at Mt Sinai. I certainly deny both these stances: First, the Laws of the Torah (and the Oral Law and Rabbinic Traditions) are in force and every Jew is religiously obligated to follow them. Second, the Jewish people's collective experience at Mt Sinai is a crucial article of faith that I have no intention of denying or discussing in this present post.

Finally, allow me to draw a comparison to the present essay's discussion of the stories of the book of Genesis and parts of Exodus, and the midrashic discussion of the book of Job. There is ample support for the notion that the entire book of Job is an allegory; it does not purport to present a historical discussion of the life of a man named Job; rather, it tells a story with moral and ethical lessons. Additionally, keep in mind that the Rambam is willing to take various stories of the forefathers as prophecies rather than literal occurences (for example, the three angels appearing to Avraham after his circumcision). It is in the above light and the above vein that the following discussion of Genesis and Exodus should be taken.)

As science and the studies of history and archeology continue to progress, the Torah seems under attack from many different directions. Was the world created in six days? Is it really only 5,767 years old? Was there a global flood? These questions and many others like them have caused many to doubt the authenticity of the Torah. They have spawned countless apologetic re-interpretations and explanations, trying to resolve the apparent problems in our tradition1.

Some quite sophisticated mathematic acrobatics have been produced reconciling the six days of creation with different time-lines proposed by theoretical scientists. Heated debate raises questions on these types of work. While it is sometimes exciting to observe the ingenuity of such interpretations, they are unnecessary2.

As Rashi makes clear in his commentary on the first verse in B'reshit, the Torah is not a book of history. The purpose of God's word is not to tell us what was, but what shall be in our realm of thought and action. Torah is a book of ethical instruction. It is to teach us how to act, and how to live. And so, Rashi states that the purpose of the story of creation is to impress upon us the absolute dominion God has over creation, and explain that Jewish rights to the land of Israel are divine. The question of exactly how the world was created, while of possible esoteric value, is not the thrust of the creation story.

Indeed, the concept that the Torah existed before the creation of the world, and served as its blueprint, is certainly not to be taken literally. A basic tenant of Judaism is that God imbued Man with free will. The Torah could not have 'destined' our nation to the stories of the spies or the golden calf written within it. Even the concept of Adam's sin being predetermined would raise problems.

A Rabbi (זצ"ל) who taught me during my semicha studies agrees and quotes midrashim to the effect that the Torah is a unified, pure ray of light. It is the kernel and essence of truth in this world. It is in this regard that, 'אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוא'. When exposed to the physical world God created, this light is refracted, much as sulight is broken up by a prism. The more complex the world, the more refraction occurs. In the world of Eden, the essence of truth was broken into one positive and one negative commandment. After the flood and the sins of humanity, it was broken into seven commands. Finally, it settled in our present situation of 613 commandments. The important point here is that the practical form of the divine Torah, in a different reality, could conceivably be different.

My teacher mentions in his writings the possibility that the book of B'reshit and parts of Sh'mot was written by the forefathers (he bases this on Psikta Rabati Chapter 3). It was the material studied by the Jews in Egypt. When the nation gathered at Mt. Sinai, God canonized the teachings of the forefathers and made it part of the divine Torah he imparted to Moshe3. It is certainly clear that our forefathers were not historians or scientists. Just as the people around them, they took for granted certain versions of the history of the world, and used them to teach moral lessons to their children. They even took laws from surrounding cultures (such as yibbum and certain civil and criminal laws) and, with certain changes, made them part of their teachings. These teachings and rules were canonized at Mt. Sinai for the ethical and legal lessons they contained. This was a natural way to teach these truths to a nation that was used to being taught lessons based on stories from the past.

Thus, the questions of historicity or science and Torah really are non-issues. The Torah's purpose is not to teach history or science. One might even say that the Canonical genre transcends the concepts of truth and falsehood. God utililzed the universal stories, the world's wisdom and the common idioms to convey to the Jews the eternal essence of truth that is that unadulterated ray of Torah. It is a generalized version of Rabbi Yishmael's "דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם", that the Torah is written in the lyric of the time in which it was given. (If one thinks about it, it is impossible to imagine otherwise; how, then, would the people receiving it understand it?!)

In the first book of his Guide, Rambam states that the Torah does, in fact, say things that are not true, in order to allow the people who received it to more readily understand it. He brings as an example the phrase 'the hand of God'. This anthropomorphic statement, implies the Rambam, was not naturally understood by most Jews to be an allegory. On the contrary, the majority took it literally! And although it is false that God has a hand, says Rambam, it is written in the Torah in order to make it easily understood.

In the same way, we may say that the Torah contains stories that may not have literally, historically, happened. There is not even a need (nor desire) to allegorize a story if it is proven to be unfounded. Although our forefathers may have believed in their literal truth, we do not have to in order to gain the true point that they are meant to teach. They are there to teach lessons in an approachable way to the Jewish nation that received it from God. The actual facts are simply vehicles to drive home the main thrust, which is the moral lesson and divine command. (This is not to say that we must or even should deny the literal historical occurence of these stories. Rather, what it means is that if they are ever somehow proven to have not historically have occurred in the way the Torah describes, this would not shake one iota of their import, lessons and ultimate truth value. The truth value of these stories lies not in their historical accuracy but in the lessons and molding of Jewish and global values. This remains in effect whether or not the stories in their literal form occurred. With this in mind, the goal of the stories shifts from literal historicity to moral teaching; this is perhaps a deeper understanding of Rashi's statement that Torah is not a history book. In addition, it causes the stories to transcend the binary dichotomy of truth and falsehood; the truth value of these stories no longer rests on their literal historical accuracy. They are transcendentally true (and valuable) even if they did not occur, by virtue of the noble and ennobling lessons they plant in the spirit of their audience.)

This view creates a theological foundation that is more flexible and thus more powerful than others. Science and history may lay claim to evidence that contradicts parts of our tradition. However, with our thesis in mind, these questions from fact become non-questions, ones that attack the outer garments of our faith as if these attacks are aimed at the beating heart. However, the heart continues to beat, and the stories themselves maintain their vitality, for their purpose is not historical accuracy but moral education.

While I cannot ensure that this essay will not be misinterpreted anyway, allow me to point out one caveat immediately. This post in no way denies the divinity of the Torah; on the contrary, it strengthens it. The practical laws of the Torah are certainly not under discussion here. They are the commands of God to His world. Also, the authority of the Oral Law is certainly not attacked. This discussion is limited to a study of how God chose to couch His teachings to the world at the time He revealed them.

This approach obviates the need to harmonize the literal word of the Torah with the latest scientific or archeological find. The Torah's lessons are ethical and theological, not scientific or historical. The more we internalize this, the faster we will find peace of faith in our modern world.

1 Many thanks to
S. His input was invaluable for this post.

2 Dr Wolowelsky's note at Tradition Online has recently come to my attention (after writing this essay). See footnote 9 at the end of his article at Tradition Online for expansion on this point, and the article in general, which agrees in large part with my essay here.

3 Also post-publication of this essay, see an explanation of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman's Bibilical theology, here. Also, see אגרות ראיה חלק א אגרת קל"ד which agrees with the thrust of this essay.