Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Great Pillars of Fire!" Why I Don't Care if Not One Single Word of the Torah Is Factually True

Short answer: Because Torah is not an assertion of "facts" - it's a declaration of how we choose to identify and act as a people.

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...


  1. I don't want to speak to your larger thesis, but I do have a quibble with what you call a declarative stmt. In philosophy these are called performative utterances and associated with the ideas of J.L.Austin. Talmudist speak of uttereances under the right conditions can create a chalos as in kidushin. But to say the Torah, all 26 books or the chmash is a performative is not true. If sentence x is a stmt of fact and y a command and z a poem ...the collective sentences don't create a chalos of anything. It might be what u r trying to get at is similar to the distinction between believing that God exists and believing in God, but you can't say the torah itself is a performative. At most under certain special conditions reciting parts or all of the Torah is indicative of one's affirmation of some larger identity. ej

    1. ej,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I am familiar with Austin (though I've never actually read him "inside"). And I recognize that performative utterances per se have a technical and limited definition which you correctly point out, in the Torah context, would relate to chalosin (legal statuses) generated by words. And while there is some of that in the Chumash itself (e.g. the Sota's saying "Amen amen") that's of course a tiny fraction of the text.

      When I talk about the Chumash being "declarative" I'm not referring to the language of individual psukim. I mean in the following way: The statement "Dick spoke to Jane" is assertive language. However if I'm reading Dick and Jane I know the author is not asserting that Dick actually spoke to Jane, nor that there even is a Dick or a Jane. Rather, "Dick spoke to Jane" is a statement designed to impart content. It's part of a declaration on the part of the author regarding a set of ideas/values being communicated. I'm essentially saying the same thing about "Vaydaber Hashem el Moshe leimor". Yes, it's worded like an assertion, but we don't necessarily have to take it as "asserting" anything. Instead, it's a narrative vehicle for giving over the content of the mitzvot. That's what I mean by the Torah potentially being declarative. It's a declaration B'nei Yisrael makes on itself as to what teachings, narratives, values, laws it's chosen to identify with as a people.

      My main point here was just to introduce the idea that there might be another entry into Torah besides asserting "existences". I don't think it's such a radical idea actually, but the assertive mode of thinking has been so hammered into us that for many people it's hard to even imagine there being any other possibility.

      And yes, belief in the existence of God vs. belief in God is a good example. Suffice it to say, if people could learn to speak about God using non-assertive language, we'd be living in a different world!

      Regards, AJ

  2. It's an interesting idea but there's a third category I'd suggestive: you have assertive statements that aren't simply assertions of an existing fact but create the fact itself. For example, "Naaseh v'nishma" may have been an assertion but it created a fact of obligation on our ancestor's part.
    The other problem is that the Torah is a complex mix of historical and legal parts. Yes there are assertions and declarations but there is also narrative and much of that narrative has legal implications. If the Exodus didn't happen then why do I put up with 8 days of constipation each spring? If we didn't receive the Torah at Sinai why am I forgoing the new Tassimo coffee machine my secretaries got for the holidays?

    1. What's the actual problem with the coffee machine?

    2. I've been traveling, so apologies for the delayed response.

      Your question gets into the philosophical nature of "facts" which is complex and which I'm no expert on. But let me put it the following way.

      To say "naaseh v'nishma" theoretically creates a legal status of obligation, like entering into a contract. Just like saying "harei at" creates a legal status of kiddushin. But a legal status (including any associated obligations) is not a "fact" in the same sense of an event or a physical existence. It's simply an agreed upon convention, and in that sense is closer to a declaration (made by the society). Yes, one could have a piece of physical evidence associated with the legal status - e.g. a ketuba or a video of the chuppah which would help one "assert" that there was "in fact" a speech event of "harei at". Being married itself (i.e. living together as a frum married couple) is also fairly good evidence of that event.

      So yes, the Torah is written evidence of "something". Am Yisrael doing the mitzvot is evidence of "something". But to assert that it's evidence of a supernatural event as literally described in the Torah is certainly far from a slam dunk!

      I'll respond to your second question separately...

    3. Why keep the mitzvot if none of the Torah is historical "fact" is of course one of the big questions/kashyas on this blog and really merits multiple posts. (Though to reiterate, I'm not claiming that none of it is historical - just that I don't need it to be.) To try to be ultra-concise, I'd say keeping the mitzvot "anyway" involves a combination of factors, such as:

      - Desire to identify as a Jew
      - Identifying with the principles/ideals of Torah
      - Inherent value/benefit of the mitzvot
      - Value of ritual
      - Cultural value
      - Aesthetic/experiential enjoyment
      - Communal benefits
      - Family cohesiveness
      - Continuity as a people
      - The "weirdness" factor, which I argue is critical for our survival (and which is why derech eretz, even though it's the most important thing, isn't enough)
      - To tie us into the fantastic intellectual heritage of Limud Torah which shapes our consciousness as a people and has helped us to excel, lead, pioneer advancements in just about every field (again another big topic because Limud Torah + observance is in effect an incubator that produces secular greatness from people who reject the tradition!)
      - The whole gestalt of observant life (i.e. even if you don't love every last thing about it) "works" for a person, and they'd rather be in it than out.
      - Looking at secular life and deciding that the frum world, for all its faults, is the lesser of evils.

      Again, great questions!

      Best, AJ

  3. Hi,

    Actually with most of your essay, except I do believe in G-d.
    On the other hand I can't seem to believe the "electricity" equals "fire" thing/ interpretation, so although I am trying to become more observant, I probably would never be classified by an Orthodox person as Orthodox.

    1. Hi Dave,

      About electricity = fire, I'm assuming you're referring to Shabbos. I'll tell you from experience that it's a tricky business basing your observance on whether or not the theory is "believable". The problem is that you can potentially find yourself not believing in lots of stuff - such as how meat "taste" could possibly be embedded in the walls of a stainless steel pot, etc.

      Really, the more important issue is whether you enjoy/resonate with the community and its observances. If you do, one way to take the intellectual pressure off is to simply look at those observances as "customs", which don't depend on an air-tight rationale for everything. After taking on the customs, you can then peruse the intellectual side of things at your leisure without having to constantly question your practices - which will save you a lot of mental energy and make observant life more livable, more enjoyable. Again, that's my experience, for what it's worth!

      Best, AJ

  4. Hi AJ,

    Thanks very much. I most appreciate your comments and advice.
    I shall try to act on it.
    By the way, have you checked out ?
    He used to study in a regular yeshiva. Then he decided to become Karaite. His interpretation of shabbat observance is more frum than Conservative, but I guess less strict than Orthodox, or maybe I should say it's "alternatively frum" to Orthodox.