Friday, January 20, 2006

Pegs

I’ve been asked many times by my orthodox friends and family why I don’t believe in Torah M’shamayim (the divine origin of the bible). Sometimes the question is a challenge, sometimes it is negative and judgmental, and sometimes it is a sincere attempt to try to understand my decisions. I always feel that I would love to have some concise ‘zinger’ to offer – the ultimate ‘taiku’ - a problem so fundamental that it would convey with absolute certainty that my rejection of orthodoxy is firmly based on irrefutable logical and textual analysis.

As anyone who has studied Talmud will know, there can never be such an answer – or such a problem. We have created a mesorah that is so rich with explanations and analysis that every problem has at least one possible solution – and probably many more than one. Pointing out any one of the many issues which I have will immediately bring a rush or possible answers.

Instead, I usually explain to them that my problems with the Torah are the same as everyone else’s problems and questions. The only difference is that, to me, the world makes much more sense if you replace the many, many complicated answers with a single, simple thesis – that the Torah has problems because it was written by men, not by God.

Here is (yet) another excerpt from something that I wrote recently:

“There are many hundreds of problems and incongruities within the Torah. When you are thinking within the Orthodox system, all of these problems become points of departure for a deeper understanding of the Torah. All of them have solutions – some more elegant and some more forced. Many answers are quite difficult to reconcile – they are all square pegs in round holes - but each in itself can be rationalized.

It is only when you are ready to peak at the questions from a different perspective that you realize that with just a simple change in the fundamental assumptions, all of those pegs become round. All of a sudden, everything makes a lot more sense.

I can’t prove that men, not God, wrote the Torah. I am skeptical about the quality of the historical evidence which existed before the common era. And, I think that alternate arguments can be offered which reconcile these problems. But these are just more and more square pegs.”

10 Comments:

Blogger Tamara said...

I appreciate this perspective, because my own journey has been the inverse of yours.

I started out thinking the Torah was written by people. When I started studying Torah with a wonderful Rabbi, I couldn't reconcile my belief that it was authored by human beings with the mystery I was encountering in those pages.

The Torah remains for me that way -mysterious and divine.

January 20, 2006 11:54 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

tamara,

I think that there are so many factors which affect what will and will not resonate for each person. I was raised with a very intellectually focused perspective on Torah – with a premium placed on definition and clarity. Perhaps where you’re intellect ultimately leads you is (at least partly), dependent on what your heart was seeking. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering and observing the fascinating interplay of emotional and intellectual aspects of belief (and rejection of belief), and I hope to post some of my riffs soon. (Hopefully written more elegantly than my comment here.)

Thanks for writing.

January 21, 2006 1:16 AM  
Blogger Me & My Yetzer said...

Like Tamara, I also am coming from the opposite direction.

I attended a two-week outreach program while in college. I recall a transitional moment: I was listening to the Rabbi explain something; I forgot exactly what it was, but his rationale made sense, though it was foreign to my way of thinking then.

I recall hearing myself say to my mind: I don't believe him, but I have to admit that his way of thinking has its own internal logic.

I had thought Torah, or Orthodoxy, was irrational or purely belief-based: I can hear Tevyeh of Fiddler on the Roof singing: "Tradition! Tradition! Tradition!"

But, now, as the Rabbi spoke, the internal logic of the Torah perspective seemed to consistent to me; it was a self-consistent worldview with its own perspectives, even if they were not all familiar to me. I was still not committed to observance, and wouldn't be for another month or two, but this was a transitional moment.

Let me add that, to me, self-consistent is not necessarily the same as airtight. My liberal education exposed me to a lot of different ways of thinking; each had their advantages and disadvantages. None seemed air-tight to me. (The book: "Godel, Escher, Bach" played heavily on my thinking in that regard.) I didn't necessarily think the Torah perspective was airtight; I may not even think that today, but for the first time I realized it was self-consistent. That was my revelation.

And to this day I still think it is: Self-consistent, even if only from a self-contained perspective.

January 21, 2006 7:19 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

me,

I can well imagine how powerful is the experience of discovering that Judaism – assumed to be based on naïve and simplistic notions – is, in fact, a system of thought with virtually unlimited depth, breadth and sophistication. I should say, if it isn’t apparent, that I am not trying to convince anyone to change their beliefs (…a “chaas v’sholom seems in order).

Part of my point, (though not my main one), is that orthodoxy is inherently impervious to inconsistency. The tools of fixing problems are too well embedded into the system. A larger point is that the system may be coherent from within but absurd from a more “objective” standpoint. (That is to say – contradictory to history, science and nature.)

More to say about this in the future, but it is really not possible to completely separate sentiment from belief. Something in your life sent you to the outreach course – that part of the epiphany was happening long before the intellectual part. And so it was for me… in reverse.

January 21, 2006 9:36 PM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

DBS: I found your blog thru responding to jblogs, and I am glad I found it. Your writing style is quite good, and your struggle and humanity are well represented. Mostly, I am excited to have found a kindred spirit. I too, have left orthodoxy in middle age and have experienced all that comes along with that. I have found that the orthodox community hates nothing more (and has no greater fear) than a mature individual with a very strong Jewish and secular education going "off the path". Usually people become more religious and "spiritual" as they get older, and suddenly find great meaning and comfort in Orthodox Judaism. The orthodox community really loves to nurture these people, but I just see them as searching for false security and paying for it with their ability to reason. I find though, that I am much happier since making the change, although it is certainly not for everyone. I am raising my children orthodox (or at least my version of it) because of the benefits that I have reaped from my own orthodox background, and also not to confuse them too badly. Please continue to write, as you have a very interested reader.

Regarding this particular post, one of the insights that I had that cleared up a lot of confusion in the bible for me was once I started to view certain stories as explanations after the fact rather than as a real-time narrative. This becomes quite obvious once you change your perspective.

To me and my yetzer: I agree that orthodoxy has a wonderful self-consistency that I really do appreciate, however, you must first accept some very difficult premises in order to access that wonderful self-consistency.

January 22, 2006 10:26 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

freak (if I may call you that),

Its quite a feeling to read a comment which is so close to home. I have much the same perception about the reaction of the community – I’m not sure how much I should say on the blog about it, but I’ll probably get around to relating some experiences and thoughts. Also, the children issue is one of endless complexity and difficulty – on many levels. I'm looking forward to more exchanges (who knows, there may be one or two others like us out there). Thank you.

January 23, 2006 12:20 AM  
Blogger Me & My Yetzer said...

Let me state that I too struggle within the self-consistent system of Torah observant Judaism.

The objectivity that you, dbs, find in history and science lost their objectivity to me as I studied them in pursuit of advanced degrees; I began to see that they, despite their claims, are ultimately self-contained system, just starting from different assumptions. (A great secular book on the subject is "Godel, Escher, Bach.")

From my perspective, then, it became choosing between different self-consistent systems, neither of which was necessarily "objectively" provable.

And, freak, everyone accepts premises; read the above book to find out why. Perhaps the most dangerous premise to accept is that one doesn't have any premises.

Nevertheless, as I said, I still very much have my struggles within this lifestyle.

January 24, 2006 5:35 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Me,

The objectivity that you, dbs, find in history and science lost their objectivity to me as I studied them in pursuit of advanced degrees; I began to see that they, despite their claims, are ultimately self-contained system, just starting from different assumptions.

I basically agree that things which we accept as truth requires some “subjective” assumptions, which is why I used quotes for “objective”. That said, I still think that the acceptance of the orthodox system requires a huge amount of ongoing suspension of disbelief. If one person believes that water does not flow from rocks, and another believes that God performed a miracle which made that happen, they both are making assumptions, but I think that the first requires less mental gymnastics to rationalize. Again, you can pick any system, I just like the one which is more consistent with the rest of my experiences in life.

January 25, 2006 4:23 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

So it seems like there are two groups of people here, and each one is gravitating towards something that they were lacking, while the other group is moving away from the same thing.

Fascinating.

February 01, 2006 1:01 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

The Jewish Freak said:
I am raising my children orthodox (or at least my version of it) because of the benefits that I have reaped from my own orthodox background, and also not to confuse them too badly.

I'm very curious to learn about what you mean by this. Are you saying that you have secretly left orthodoxy, but are going through the motions for the sake of the kids? Are you openly "off the derech" but tell your kids they should be orthodox nonetheless? Or are you sending your kids through the system but explicitly telling them that they do not need to believe the tenets of Orthodoxy that they are learning?

February 01, 2006 4:55 PM  

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