Sunday, August 11, 2013

Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim argues that the reason for sacrifices in the Torah, as opposed to say worshiping God exclusively through prayer, is that we were so accustomed to these practices that the Torah couldn't just take them away from us entirely. All the world had Temples and sacrifices to their gods, and so the Torah allowed us to worship via sacrifices as well, as a way of sublimating the drive to follow idolatrous practices.

What I want to do is take it a step further and say as follows: All the world had gods. It was unheard of not to believe in and worship a god. And so the Torah effectively sublimates the drive to believe in gods by packaging its own narratives and commands in God-language. Instead of going from many gods to none, which would be too big a jump, at least we can take it down to one mega-god, and a less corporeal one.

To be clear, I don't believe that this was the actual intent of the Torah. Just like I don't agree with the Rambam that the Torah viewed sacrifices as a concession, I don't think that the Torah viewed Hashem as a concession either. I think it's fairly clear that both God and sacrifices are taken for granted in the Torah as being the optimal belief and practice. However, just as the Rambam wants to make sense of the Torah in retrospect as being a step in the right direction, implying what the optimal state would be - a "clean" worship of God without sacrifices, I'd like to do that as well, and say that the Torah constitutes a stepping stone toward a more optimal state - where we act in accordance with the highest standards of personal/societal conduct, while "clean" of any god-worship whatsoever.

My apologies to the Rambam if he'd be upset at my appropriating his words, but since he already says something very close to what I want to say, I'd like to take part of Moreh Nevuchim 3:32 and "tweak" it to illustrate my point.

(The crossed out/greyed out text is the original wording, and the bold text is my emendation.)
When [a mammal] is born it is extremely tender, and cannot be fed with dry food. Therefore breasts were provided which yield milk, and the young can be fed with moist food which corresponds to the condition of the limbs of the animal, until the latter have gradually become dry and hard. Many precepts in our Torah pertaining to a supposed "God" are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being the Torah. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. ...

But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship belief in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in the worship of gods, for instance sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images gods, to bow down to those images gods, and to burn incense before them. Religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the so-called "divine" service in the temples erected to the stars to various gods, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God the Torah, as displayed in the whole Creation [as in the example above of mammals], that He it did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service belief; for to obey such a godless commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used. ...

For this reason God the Torah allowed these kinds of service beliefs to continue. He It transferred to His service "the one god" that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings many gods, and of things likewise imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him keep the Torah in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple." ...

By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry, i.e. god-worship in general, were on their way toward being blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith Torah, the Existence and Unity of God loving one's neighbor as oneself, was firmly established. This result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service beliefs to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that the Divine God-oriented commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake (i.e. out of the sincere belief in God and desire to worship Him), but only for the sake of some other thing (i.e. upright behavior and loving one's neighbor): as if they such beliefs were only the means which He the Torah employed for His its primary object? What prevented Him the Torah from making His its primary object a direct commandment to us, i.e. "You shall be a holy society, and without the false belief in a god", and to give us the capacity of obeying it? Those precepts and beliefs which in your opinion are only the means and not the object would then have been unnecessary.

Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Torah a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: "God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people reconsider when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea," etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here "God" (quotes added) is described as having led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object.

In the same manner God the Torah refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned God-oriented commandments and beliefs as a means of securing His its chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him the principles of justice for the oppressed, compassion to the stranger, and other laws which pertain to the betterment of the individual and society, and to cause them to in the hopes that they would eventually reject idolatry, i.e. any worship of a god or gods. It is contrary to man's nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs and beliefs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course. It would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God's the Torah's wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness of erroneous belief in a god till they acquired the courage to let go of that belief and abide by the principles of the Torah for their own sake. ...

In the same way, the all portions of the Torah under discussion whereby a "god" is referenced, either as Commander, as a character in the narrative, or as an object of worship, is the result of divine the Torah's wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship and belief to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith create a just and compassionate society, which is the chief object. 
(The original translation by M. Friedlander, Ph.D., 1904, can be found here.) 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why Biblical Scholarship Is Irrelevant

There's been quite a bit of discussion of late (see e.g. here, here, and here - update: and now here) regarding Rabbi Zev Farber and the TABS project (Torah and Biblical Scholarship). The idea of TABS is to explore how we can make two seemingly irreconcilable worlds fit together: that of belief in Torah mi-Sinai, i.e. the Divine authorship of the Five Books of Moses, and that of academic scholarship and research into the origins of the Five Books.

Now, when I say Biblical scholarship is "irrelevant", let me immediately qualify that. I don't mean irrelevant in the sense that it has no merit, nothing truthful or insightful to say. That would be absurd - it certainly does. I mean irrelevant specifically with regard to the following:

1. Divinity of the Torah

Even if all academic research and theories such as the Documentary Hypothesis were to be conclusively refuted, and we had proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Torah was authored by one man, and that it was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu, this still says nothing about the Divinity of the text! In other words, the leap required to say that Moshe was the author of the entire Torah is infinitesimal compared to the leap you have to make to say that Moshe communicated with a Transcendent, All-Powerful Being and dictated the conversation word-for-word. The first is at least conceivable. The second however is a contention which requires a quantum leap into the realm of "other-worldliness".

To say that God authored the Torah rests on the assumption of supernatural existences of which we have zero evidence. It requires that we assume that the reason the Torah mentions miracles and encounters with God is not that it accords with beliefs which were common in the Ancient Near East, not that every people of course wove their gods into their narratives. Rather, we have to assume that there was something special about Bronze/Iron Age times and people which called for God to reveal Himself, and now - well, the show's over.

The reason God's miracles and open communication with humans are conspicuously and entirely absent today? We're less worthy, and so God has gone into hiding. And in fact God's hiddenness is a test for us, to see if we still believe it all happened. But really God's still here (in our hearts, if we call out to Him, look for Him, etc.) - just that our free will would be robbed of us if God were to show His face, and that would ruin the whole test. That's the reason we don't see God nowadays. The possibility that the God narratives themselves were simply a product of their time, and that is the real reason there's not a single shred of any God-appearances today - no mass revelations, no pillars of fire, no seas splitting (or even puddles), no sun standing still, etc.? Why that's heresy!

Suffice it to say, you don't need the Documentary Hypothesis or any Biblical scholarship to take the Divinity out of the Torah. All you need is a little common sense - call it the "Common Sense Hypothesis".

2. Observance of Mitzvot

Whether the Torah was written in bits and pieces over time and later woven together, or whether it emerged into the world as a single, holistic document, what does this have to do with the observance of mitzvot? To the traditional believer, certainly the Divine/not-Divine question should be more pressing. Meaning, if there was a Divine revelation at Sinai, what does it matter whether that revelation was recorded at different times by different people? The Torah is still "commanded" by God. And if there was no revelation, what does it matter if the Torah was written by the single author Moshe? There's still no "Divine command".

But from where I'm coming from, taking as an obvious given that the Torah is a purely human document, the question of Mosaic authorship vs. multiple authors or later authorship is totally irrelevant where it comes to Torah observance. There was no mega-supernatural-event which gave us the Torah. The commandments have no transcendent "Commander". Despite what the tradition would have us believe, the Torah has always been a covenant with ourselves. Which means we keep the Torah to the extent that we deem it as having inherent value, because we see it as being a net-positive for us, a good thing - personally, communally, and nationally. And that is a concept of Torah that no academic theory or scholarly hypothesis can touch.

So as much as I enjoy reading up on Biblical scholarship, as much as it interests me where the Torah "came from" - that's just an extracurricular curiosity. It has no nafka mina, no practical consequence for Torah and mitzvot. What interests me much, much more is the question of what the Torah is and what kind of impact its teachings and observances have on our lives. Is it making us better people? Wiser? Does it enhance our enjoyment of life? Is it helping us to survive as a people? Is it adding something positive to the world?

To me, questions like these are where the rubber really meets the road. All the back-and-forth about trying to "reconcile" Divine authorship and Biblical scholarship? Eh. To be honest, I get a bit impatient with it - both from the intellectual contortions people like R. Farber have to go through to try to make it work, and also from traditional believers who simply dismiss all Biblical scholarship out of hand due to their a priori conclusions of what the Truth has to be. I'm much happier being where I am - 100% open to and interested to hear whatever findings/theories the academic Biblical scholarship world wants to dish out, and choosing to engage in Torah and mitzvot regardless.