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.


Blogger Baal Habos said...

DBS, excellent. I loved that insight into the great amount of text in Vayikra (Priestly) but almost nothing on what Jews are expected to do today. It's a glaring light on the fallacy of Torah Shbaal Peh.

Another issue, that I've never seen anywhere, is if Talmud Torah is the heart & Soul of Judaism and is to be our main preoccupation, why is there no mention of it all in Neviim, not as an exhortation nor as a historical fact? As a historical point there is no mention of Shlomo, David, etc, doing ANY learning, like stopping by the Bais Medrash on the way to a war. Nothing at all like that. Hmmmmm. I wonder why.

The Talmud states the reason we worship foriegn idiologies is begins it grants license for arayos. So, the believer really has no choice but to see our disbelief as giving way to our desires.

So don't expect believers to see it differently.

October 17, 2006 11:25 AM  
Blogger jewish philosopher said...

If you want to see some real proof of Torah, just check out my blog.

October 17, 2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

well done !!

I always hold out some hope that there is room for people to change their ideologies. After all it was not so long ago, that I would have been offering arguments *against* skepticism !! So, you never know...

October 17, 2006 1:26 PM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

Ben Avuya, A believer might change beliefs. But one who actively believes cannot condone a non-believer. To condone skepticism would mean your belief is weak.

October 17, 2006 4:31 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Your point is well taken. There are plenty of exhortations about keeping those laws which are explicitly stated in the Torah, but none regarding any of the ba'al peh.

I really think that before the churban, there were two fairly seperate religions - the Kohanim, who emphasized the mikdash and shunned the Torah she baal peh, and the p'rushim who were creating the whole laymbrinth of halacha.

It wasn't until after the churban that 'learning' as we know it became a mainstream part of the tradition.

October 17, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I agree, people can change, but it will generally take more than proof.

October 17, 2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

I want to raise a fundamental point. According to the Quine -Duhem thesis in the philosophy of science you can always finagel the rest of your conceptual scheme to preserve some cherised hypothesis. There is never a crucial experiment that refutes an idea. So how do ideas change? The answer is over time people get tried dreing around. If there is a better idea the old idea falls away and a new paradigm gradually takes over. The same for metaphysical arguments.

If Torah is full-proof and nothing would ever count against it why are the Orthodox so dead set against disseminating ideas about Ugarithic and the mythologies of the ancient near east ? There are no knock down refutations of theological/philosophical positions, but they do change by a balance of considerations approach.That's what happened in evolution. A skull here, a tree there...it began to add up...suddenly Genesis never meant what is clearly says.

October 17, 2006 8:36 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Very interesting points. Religions tend to give ground very slowly to new ideas. Though, as you pointed out, the ideas with enough evidence eventually win out. But by buying the additional time, religions have time to tweek the dogma to fit the new facts of life.

I'm not sure, thought, that any amount of historical data will really infuluence orthodoxy. Just look at how well they have done in insulating themselves from evolution and cosmology.

And, as you said, one can protect an essential idea in the face of any evidence.

October 18, 2006 1:58 PM  
Blogger Billie Jean said...

Great post, DBS. I've often thought that if the Oral Law was so important, it would have been mentioned more clearly.

> I'm not sure, thought, that any amount of historical data will really infuluence orthodoxy. Just look at how well they have done in insulating themselves from evolution and cosmology.

Too true. Look what happened with Louis Jacobs.

October 19, 2006 5:40 AM  
Blogger jewish philosopher said...

DBS, perhaps I am being overly critical, however I have a feeling that whatever the Torah would say, you would reject it. Let's say the Torah had long sections about modern day mitzvos such as tefillin and very little about the sacrifices. You would probably critique it "Well, isn't this suspicious? If the Torah was really so old, why doesn't it have more about the sacrifices?"

Bottom line, the Torah just has too much of all that God stuff for your taste.

October 19, 2006 10:16 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


If I were one to stoop to interpersonal attacks I would call you a sophist and not a philosopher based on your last comment. But I won't ;)

Suffice it to say however, that by making this a personal statement against DBS, you had in no way addressed his points, which should stand on their own regardless of what you conjecture about the speaker.

You would have done well debating in the 18th century though.

October 19, 2006 11:52 AM  
Blogger jewish philosopher said...

I think I addressed DBS's point brilliantly. I pointed out that he does nothing to falsify the divine origin of the Torah. Rather he is writing a flimsy critique of the Torah's literary style, which he could just as easily have done in whatever style the Torah was written. I offered an explanation of why he might be doing this - because he dislikes religious texts in general.

October 19, 2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I think I addressed DBS's point brilliantly. I pointed out that he does nothing to falsify the divine origin of the Torah. Rather he is writing a flimsy critique of the Torah's literary style, which he could just as easily have done in whatever style the Torah was written.

I don't see where you addressed anything. Your only previous comment is "check my blog". Is it in this comment thread?

I also don't see where you see a critique of literary style. DBS seems to be talking about content in the meat of his post.

October 19, 2006 12:38 PM  

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