Sunday, October 22, 2006

Truth, Honesty, Belief!

Today two bloggers who I respect very much published posts about ‘Truth’. Orthoprax discusses a midrash which describes God’s need to “throw truth to the ground” in order to create man. While he does not give a conclusive theory about the meaning of this midrash, he suggests a number of themes, the gist of which is that Truth is of lesser value than other attributes – kindness and justice.

GH discusses the uneasy relationship between Truth and belief, where the more one adheres to Truth, the less likely it is that they can maintain belief. He too does not present a conclusion, but asks whether the emphasis on Truth is worth risking the benefits of Orthodoxy.

To many people, truth – or honesty – are not absolute standards. Many situations present themselves where saying an untruth seems far better than being honest. There are an endless number of highly worthy reasons to lie. People often lie to shelter others from hurt. They sometimes lie for the greater good. They sometimes see lying as a legitimate tactic in an adversarial situation. And, of course, they lie because of the great expediency which it provides.

What is a lie? It is, in one way or another, the imposition of a false reality. Reality says X, but we will say Y. In doing so, we have placed that person in an un-real situation. We have distorted their world.

Chazal refer to deception as “g’naivat daat” theft of knowledge. But in my opinion, what is being robbed is not merely knowledge, but free will. Our right to self-determination provides each of us with the right to develop our own priorities, values and goals. And we can make decisions which are in keeping with those ideals. But when our reality is intentionally warped, we are now making our choices based on a false premise. Lying is, as such, the most devastating form of manipulation, and is at the very cornerstone of immorality.

Many people fear the truth. In his post, GH poses the argument of lying for the greater good.

"The masses can't be expected to be told the cold hard truth, and yet still be passionate about Torah & Mitzvos. Once people realize what's true and what's not, they will lose their faith, and descend into the nihilistic hedonism common in popular culture (quite possibly)."

But, as I think this quote demonstrates, lying is the most disrespectful of human behaviors. We are presuming that we know better than the other person. We claim the prerogative to offer an untruth because we are more competent at making a decision for the other. We are guiding their choices because we know best.

As GH and Orthoprax convey, within Orthodoxy truth is sometimes not the highest standard. We are sometimes willing to ignore or distort truth in order to conform to the dogmatic belief. We are sometimes willing to tell our children fantastic myths to steer their beliefs in the direction we desire. We are willing to omit the teaching of science if it may interfere with those beliefs. In short, we are willing to construct a carefully tailored reality within which our children may live.

In relationships, a similar dynamic is played out endlessly. We say “Yes, I do love you!” although we do not feel love. We are protecting the other person – or buying time to sort out where we stand. But we are also depriving the other of making a sound decision based on truthful information.

We could have said “I have loved you for a long time, but right now, with all of the friction between us, I do not feel that love. I hope that it will return.”

That statement would likely have caused pain, but what would you have preferred if you were asking the question? A cozy lie, or the uncomfortable truth? With truth, you would know what reality is, and you could base your choice on the real facts of the situation, rather than an idealized fantasy. Don’t your loved ones deserve that same respect?

And what is the effect on ourselves? If we feel that we should tailor the truthfulness of our statements to fit the situation, we have opened the door to an endless amount of stress and complication. Now, answering even the simplest questions become an exercise in advanced mathematics. What should we say? What will happen if we tell the truth? Is there a more optimal lie? If there is, how should we construct it? Etc..

Telling the truth does not cleanse a bad deed. If you hurt someone, just being honest about does not make it okay. And, just because we are telling the truth does not absolve us from being sensitive and empathic. But without honesty, there is no basis for a true relationship, there is just the myth of what is real.

The truth has no agenda. It does not feel. It does not favor. It can be good, it can be bad. The truth does not like you or dislike you, it simply is.

If there has been one overarching theme for the vast changes in my life over the past years, it has been this:

“Enough lies! Enough myths! Enough fairy tails! I am entitled to reality! I am entitled to honesty!

I will tell no lies to others, and I will accept lies from no one. Enough!”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Last month, Godol Hador asked his readers the following question:

A rational, OBJECTIVE (as much as is humanly possible) assessment of ALL CURRENTLY AVAILABLE evidence will show that the Orthodox Jewish claim of Torah Min Hashamayim is:

1. Definitely true (as much as anything is ‘definite’)
2. Probably true
3. Possibly true
4. Could be true or false, the evidence is inconclusive
5. Possibly false
6. Probably false
7. Definitely false (as much as anything is ‘definite’)

As GH goes on to discuss, ‘proof’ can be subjective. But I wonder if he understands just exactly how subjective.

In one of my first posts, I discussed the impossibility of ‘disproving’ Judaism from within - the system of interpretation is simply to agile. Some skeptics prefer to point to the historical and scientific evidence which is contradictory to the Torah. But, while these ideas stem from outside of the Torah, they still end up – more or less - in the same category within the mind of believers.

Bible critics often refer to the explanations which are presented by believers as ‘apologies’ – defenses against the attacks of outside critics. Perhaps this term is appropriate in academic debate, but, in fact, it misses the point of the Orthodox experience. When we study Torah, we do not ask ourselves “How do we defend this idea as being God given?” Quite the contrary. We say “We know that God wrote this, now what can we learn from these difficulties?” And this is the same process which believers go through when they study science. They say, for example, “We know that God created the universe. Now, what can the science of evolution tell us about God’s design?”

So ‘proof’, such as it is, is a rather personal issue. In my early post, I tried to describe the sense of having thousands of square pegs forced into round holes – all of which would fit perfectly with just one small adjustment – that the Torah, spectacular as it may be, was written by men, not by God.

But it seemed that to elaborate was pointless. After all, I’m certainly not going to convince anyone. And, frankly, I don’t want to convince anyone. The world has enough preachers.

One thing which I wish that I could do was to open the door to a more respectful disagreement. It is difficult for life-long non-believers to appreciate the Orthodox perspective. While atheists imagine that there is an inability by believers to question assumptions and think critically, that is what Torah study is all about. While they imagine a lack of logical thought, Orthodox scholarship thrives in logical analysis.

And likewise, it is difficult for those who have been steeped in the Orthodox world to understand the rationality of not believing. Their experience is of the perfect, unchanging, beauty of the Torah. They see all of the discourses in logic and hashkafa as being part of a huge, harmonious tapestry of God’s design – bestowed to man and interwoven with our capacity to understand. And, they see the moral and ethical messages of the Torah as having a special power to elevate mankind. How can one who truly strives to understand not believe? There is a strong instinct to dismiss non-belief as resulting from passion, from laziness, from rebelliousness, or just from wrongheaded thinking.

They can not imagine what it is that we experience so powerfully; that we can not believe this because it is - for us - simply, completely, unconditionally, impossible to believe. They cannot grasp the experience of seeing the Torah as a work of mankind, and then appreciating how impossible it is to go back and look at it as divine. It is, in effect, finding out that there is no Santa and then being expected to continue to believe.

So here, in the hope that it may lead some believers to gain a more realistic understanding of us skeptics, is a more detailed elaboration of my personal ‘proofs’. In presenting this, I am taking for granted certain things which I believe most rational people would consider impossible; that God gave specific instruction to prophetic individuals, that supernatural occurrences happened as reported in the Torah, that there is a spiritual consequence to ritual practices, etc..

I am limiting (for this post, at least) my observations to the Pentateuch itself. And, I am asking myself one simple question; can I fully consider that this was written by men, and then rationally conclude that it was written by God? For brevity (though this will be long for a post) I am consolidating many of the individual issues into four broad categories of anomalies:

1. Extraneous Text
2. Influence of Contemporaneous Morality
3. Residue of Ancient Lore
4. The Sacraficial Religion

1. Extraneous Text:

By definition, the Torah may not contain one single extra letter. However, vast amounts of text are spent on items which seem to have no relevance to any future legal or moral lessons. As many of my teachers emphasized, the Torah is not a history book, but the author often seem to forget that fact.

Examples? They are truly endless: The numerous recitations of the names of the tribal leaders, the detailed census data for the tribes and Levite families, the multiple genealogies in Genesis, the order of breaking camp in the desert, the lists of long lost geographic locations, of the spoils of the war, of ancient kings, of lost peoples etc., etc., not to mention most of the first half of Deuteronomy.

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples is the space devoted to the dedication of the Tabernacle. The description of the Tabernacle and it’s vessels takes a stunning 304 sentences in Exodus, spanning eleven chapters (including two completely redundant descriptions of each fixture, and a detailed accounting of the materials donated and used). But the clincher is the dedication of the Tabernacle – a 156 verse narrative of the initiation of the alter, toped by an additional 88 verses in Numbers 7 in which recount the initial sacrifices offered by each tribe. The verses name each tribal leader, along with a detailed list of the sacrifices which they offered – all of which are identical.

Even within the vast literature of Midrash, Talmud and Agadatah which has been collected, the lessons learned from all of this verbosity is pretty thin. Did God, for some unfathomable reason, include all of these trivial and obsolete elements in the one written transmission of His Will on Earth? Even though they do not convey (virtually) anything which man – the target audience – could utilize?

On the other hand, these were exactly the things which were written down at that time by humans; censuses, tax information, mechanical drawings, genealogies, records of gifts, names of people and places, etc.. Just as today, an inordinate amount of data is preserved on those exact same things.

2. Influence of Contemporaneous Morality

As we all know, there are many laws in the Torah which are at odds with our modern sense of morality. This list is long; killing the seven nations, revenge on Midyan and Amalek, the treatment of an accidental killer, Slavery, capital punishment for spiritual crimes, the beautiful captive, the rebellious son, etc., etc..

I am not arguing, as some do, that the existence of these laws in the Torah proves that the Torah is an immoral book of brutal law. In fact, I believe that the Torah was a huge step forward in the advancement of morality – at the time that it was written. Theses great leaps forward are evident throughout the Torah – the emphasis on justice and honesty, on social responsibility, on equality before the law, on having the punishment fit the crime – all of this and more are spectacular advances in human moral development.

But can the flawed laws be elevated to be a reflection of God’s Ultimate Eternal Morality? Or are they, rather, a reflection of the state of society at the time that Torah was written.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence fell short of abolishing slavery – their society was simply not ready. In the same way, the Torah could not eliminate things which were embedded in society – but it did try to provide some basic protections. Thus, a person could own a slave, but that slave went free upon sustaining injuries. Rape of an unwed woman was not punished as a violent crime, but the rapist had to compensate the victim with the protection of marriage, etc.. And, the laws of war reflected the brutal, winner-take-all reality of those times.

3. The Residue of Ancient Lore

I am not an ancient text expert, and I won’t beat this to death. Let me just point out a few of the more startling points:

Nephilim: In perhaps the most bizarre set of passages in the Torah, the writer (Genesis 6:1-4) describes creatures called “Nephilim”, who were the product of the union of the “sons of God” and mortal women. “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The Nephilim make another appearance in Numbers 13:33 when he spies report of seeing them in Canaan.

Quoting the source book: In Numbers 21:14-16 it says; “That is why the Book of the Wars of the LORD says: Waheb in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon. And the slopes of the ravines that lead to the site of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.” Rashi changes the tense to future, but this seems to my untutored eye to be quoting a contemporary human source – not something that God would likely do.

The Song of Sichon: In Numbers 21:27-30 it continues; “That is why the poets say: Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon's city be restored. Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon's heights. Woe to you, O Moab! You are destroyed, O people of Chemosh! He has given up his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives to Sihon king of the Amorites. But we have overthrown them; Heshbon is destroyed all the way to Dibon. We have demolished them as far as Nophah, which extends to Medeba.” Again, in this poem, which is all but meaningless for later generations, the writer seems to be quoting a contemporary poem, rather than transmitting a divine message from God.

The Genealogy of Cain: In Genesis 4:19-22; “Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain's sister was Naamah.” In this unusual group of passages, the Torah deems it necessary to identify the pre-flood originators of these skills. The Rambam, writes that the verse ‘Tubal-Cain's sister was Naamah.’ Has no less importance that ‘I am your god.’ (I’m tempted to write “how true!”) He is identifying this as a troubling verse with no imaginable importance, but one which is strikingly similar to other ancient writings.

4. The Sacraficial Religion

The Torah spends virtually no space at all on the details of such critical rituals as Tefillin, Shabbos and shechitah. On the other hand, every aspect of the now defunct sacrificial and Kohanic practices are written out in painstaking detail. The priestly garments take two full chapters in Exodus. The various sacrifices take (conservatively speaking) over 500 verses to detail. No nuance is too small for the Torah to describe – how the offering is to be spiced, how its parts are to be burned, how the blood is to be sprinkled, where and when should it be eaten, etc., etc.. And the sacrifices are only a small part of the Kohanic rituals. There are endless gifts, clothing, cities, initiation rights, family structures, etc.. There are the complementary laws of ritual purity and leprosy, and the laws of Soteh and Nazir.

This is, from a human perspective, very logical. After all, sacrificial worship – with all of its trappings – were a fundamental part of all religions of the ancient world. The economy was agricultural in nature, and rites focused on planting, harvesting and raising livestock. And the worship which resonated with that society – and the one which had long been practiced – centered around the gifting these products to God.

Judaism had a hard enough time vying with the other local pagan religions – just look at how much space is dedicated to admonitions about Molech – not really the biggest threat to Orthodoxy today. It would have been unthinkable to develop a religion without a strong ritual practice of sacrifice. But to believe that this is God’s mandate seems to me, personally, to be impossible.

I could go on and on. But the thing to understand is that, for us non-belivers, the process of rumaging through the Medrash Rabbah to find some far-fetched explinations does not change the overall experiance. Not any more than pointing out some contradictory text in the Torah changes the experiance for the believer. Our disbelief - our conviction that this is the work of men - is fundamental to our sense of rational reality. You may as well try to bring proofs for the existance of Santa - you can explain why you believe, but you can't expect us to deny our own reality.

So, tommorow, if you see some skeptic, perhaps you'll be able to find something other than their yetzer to explain their lack of faith.