Thursday, January 10, 2013
"Great Pillars of Fire!" Why I Don't Care if Not One Single Word of the Torah Is Factually True
Ok, now the longer answer... To understand where I'm coming from, we need to distinguish between two entirely distinct modes of language - assertive and declarative.
Assertive language is concerned with facts, claims, proofs, truth and falsity: Is it true or isn't it? Did it happen or didn't it happen? For instance, the statement "There's a grocery store on Main Street" is an assertion. "God gave the Torah to Moses" is another assertion. Clearly, some assertions are more easily provable/falsifiable than others.
Declarative language by contrast is a pronouncement on oneself or something else. "Let the games begin" is a declaration. "I do" and "Harei at mekudeshet li" are declarations. They're not facts. They're neither true nor false. Instead, they express one's will, intent, choice.
Sometimes the same statement can be either assertive or declarative, depending on the intent. For example, "I'm Jewish" can be an assertion, as in "I claim to be Jewish," and if asked for proof I'll tell you that my parents are Jewish, that I live a Jewish life, etc. But "I'm Jewish" can also be a declaration, as in "I (hereby) identify as a Jew." The first is concerned with the "facts" of the case. Am I in fact a Jew or am I not? The second is simply an expression of my will, choice, commitment, identity. It's factually independent. (Granted, my self-declaration as a Jew may be meaningless to the outside world if they don't recognize me as Jewish, but the statement per se is a declaration of intent, neither true nor false.)
We live in a world that's often dominated by assertive language. Especially in the religious and political arenas, the discussion often centers around asserting what "is" good and bad, right and wrong, arguing over who's got the "facts" right, proving what "really happened" or didn't, and what "really exists" and doesn't. And indeed that's an important part of life. But who says it's the most important part of life? And who says it's even the Torah's perspective?
Could it be that we're projecting our "assertive" mentality onto the ancient world, and more specifically onto the Torah? What if the entire Torah is a declarative statement about what this civilization believes, what it values, what it identifies with as its national story, its lore and narratives, and what standards and norms it's committed to?
Now, I don't want to go overboard either. I don't believe the Torah sees itself as being entirely devoid of "facts," or as not being tied to any historical events or persons whatsoever. But "Torah" after all means "instruction." If it manages to give over those instructions effectively, it's a success. If it doesn't, regardless of how many "facts" it contains, it has failed. So I'd argue that the Torah davka goes out of its way to present a fantastic, compelling, memorable story, one which is deliberately highly embellished, in order to more effectively give over its teachings, its instruction. It is not a book of facts, nor was it ever intended to be.
But really that argument is superfluous. All I need to say is that I don't need any of the Torah to be historically/factually true in order to live and identify as a Torah-observant Jew. Why? Because I declare the teachings of Torah, observance of the mitzvot, affiliation with Am Yisrael, and my own identity as a Jew, to be relevant to me.
In other words, I don't have to "assert" that the Torah is literally/historically true. I just need to declare that I identify with it. And I do so by living it, learning it, infusing my life with it.
Because there are other types of truth that are vastly more important than "historical truth" or "factual truth." There is moral truth. There is intellectual truth. There is being true-to-life, truly relevant, truly meaningful, truly something that has what to contribute to the world. If Torah has that, I couldn't care less about facts and history. Because Torah is self-justified. It's able to stand on its own without any historical justification. Yes, of course I'm curious as to what the "reality" is, what the true events of history were. I'm also curious whether there's sentient extraterrestrial life out there. But I don't base my life on that! (See my post on truth/emet for more on this topic.)
Stay tuned for Part II of this post - about morality, Midrash and more...