Thursday, June 26, 2014

"The Revelation At Sinai Was Real" - A Response

I came upon a blog post entitled "The Revelation At Sinai Was Real," by Rabbi Adam Jacobs. The blog is called "Shaken Faithless" and was created earlier this month with the purpose of providing answers to those whose faith in the historical/factual/supernatural veracity of the Torah has been "shaken." The blog owners at least claim to be taking a respectful and thoughtful approach. In their words, they deem: "The inconsistencies in classical Biblical texts described by academic Biblical Criticism," "The challenge posed by science to traditional religious narrative," and "Fundamental questions about the existence and nature of God" to be "important challenges" worthy of addressing. If indeed they take people's sincere questions seriously, that is something which would certainly earn my respect. I have many such questions, some of which I enumerate below, so we will see if they are ready and willing to meet the challenge.

The following is my response to the blog post linked above.

Rabbi Jacobs,

Just a quick introduction - I'm a Jew in the Orthodox community, involved in Torah learning and observance, but who has come to a place of non-belief in the supernatural "backstory" of the Torah. It was my intellectual journey that brought me to these conclusions - nothing to do with negativity or discontent with frumkyte. I just happen to take the "pursuit of truth" - and consequently, the eschewing of falsity - seriously.

If I may, I'd like to address what I identify to be the "weak points" of your argument, which is to say the argument that is often made to prove the factual/historical truth of the Revelation narrative. First, I'd like to start with your analogy to Washington and the Revolutionary War.
"Nonetheless, what’s one facet of the general disagreement that the Colonists and their former patrons across the pond could readily agree on? That the war occurred, the generals led, the battles raged and that the United States was born as a result. No sane person ever suggested that it was all just an elaborate hoax, or a myth."
True, but there are two key chilukim (distinctions) which render this analogy ineffective:

1) Historians of the Revolutionary War do not claim there to have been overt miraculous or supernatural events associated with the war. Therefore, there is no reason to question the veracity of the event, any more so than any other historical account. Whereas, to claim that the Creator of the Universe Himself, God, spoke to the Israelite nation and issued commandments, is an extraordinary - that is to say "well outside the ordinary" - claim, and therefore one which people ought to be skeptical about.

If I were to tell you the story of Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World, but with a horde of angels, celestial superbeings, guiding the way, that would be an entirely different claim than if I told the story the way it is typically presented in history classes. Yes, the history may be mistaken in various respects, and we can debate that, but there is nothing in the story that is inherently suspect - that is, until I introduce the "angels."

Why does that render it "suspect"? For common-sense reasons. The vast majority of us don't see angels around us. I have never seen an angel, and people I know and speak with every day haven't either. Yes, I understand that there are probably tens of thousands of people alive today who do claim just that - that they have "seen" angels. But a reasonable person will say that there is certainly another, more likely explanation for this phenomenon - e.g. that the person was hallucinating, that the human mind is highly vulnerable to imagination, self-suggestion, etc. After all, people claim to see ghosts, Jesus, demons, all kinds of supernatural entities - but that doesn't mean these claims are true in the "objective reality" sense. Reasonable, thinking people should be skeptical when they hear such claims - even (and this is the difficult part) when they come out of their own traditions.

I'm not proposing though that the Revelation was some sort of "mass-hallucination" event. I would argue something different, which brings me to my second point:

2) The Revelation at Sinai is a narrative that harkens back to a very, very different time in human history than the one we live in today, including the time of the Revolutionary War. In fact the entire concept of "history," and the telling of histories, was different. Aside from the dry retelling of "events," just about every culture told legends about its past, often ones involving gods and supernatural intervention.

Doing so imparted a people with kavod (honor). If you were a people of standing, honor, a force to be reckoned with in the world, then you were created and guided by the gods. Or put it the opposite way: To live in the ancient world and not have gods involved in the story of your people, not an integral part of your life and society, would be like saying you have zero worth. It would be completely "unseemly," undignified, an insult to the people. That is how the world worked - everyone had their god(s), served their god(s), told stories about their god(s), received their morality/teachings from their god(s), and were given a sense of self-worth and value through attachment to their god(s).

So yes, history - that is, real events - were deliberately mixed with legend. And people likely believed these legends, since they also believed in gods and in general possessed a mentality entirely foreign - perhaps inconceivably foreign - to the modern mind, the latter of which is utterly consumed with the need for "proofs," "facts" and "logic". Like I say, it was a very different world. And using the modern mind to make sense of it causes us to mistakenly assume that they would not - and could not - have told or written a story if it wasn't "factually" true.

Try to think objectively for a moment. What is the simpler, more plausible scenario: a) That every people had gods, told stories about gods and supernatural happenings, but that only our story actually happened literally/historically as written, whereas theirs were entirely made up, or b) that we are scrambling desperately to find ways to show that our God-narratives are different, "historically true," when in fact our stories were simply a product of the world in which they were told, like everyone else's?

At the very least, can't you see how it would be "reasonable" for someone to choose (b) above? If so, there should be no reason for Orthodox tradition - or its adherents, frum Jews - to look disparagingly upon skeptics as "heretics." We are simply people committed to trying to be objective and truthful about reality, and therefore true to our ideals. We see that as a ma'alah, a positive trait, and we also see it as a ma'alah to follow the path of truth even when others deride us for it.

One more thing - I'd just like to respond to the claim that mass-revelation is unique, and that it proves the "historical truth" of the event.
"[W]hen large groups of people experience an event together ... it becomes part of the collective conscious of that people, or groups of people and is passed on as what we later call 'history'."
Let me cite another alleged "group experience" and see how you respond. Here's an excerpt from an article entitled "Jesus Feeds the 5000 - Bible Story Summary: The Miracle of Jesus Feeding the 5000 Proves He is the Messiah."
Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down in groups of fifty. He took the five loaves, looked up to heaven, gave thanks to God his Father, and passed them to his disciples to be distributed. He did the same with the two fish.

Everyone—men, women and children—ate as much as they wanted! Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes so there was more than enough. Then he told his disciples to gather the leftovers so nothing was wasted. They collected enough to fill 12 baskets.

The crowd was so overwhelmed by this miracle that they understood Jesus was the prophet who had been promised. Knowing they would want to force him to become their king, Jesus fled from them.

Points of Interest from the Story of Jesus Feeding the 5000:

• This miracle when Jesus feeds 5000 is recorded in all four Gospels, with only slight differences in details. It is a separate incident from the feeding of the 4,000.

• Only the men were counted in this story. When the women and children were added, the crowd probably numbered 10,000 to 20,000.
Jesus performing miracles in front of thousands is indeed part of the "collective consciousness" of Christians throughout the world, and for believers it is taken as "historical truth." The author of this article in fact presents it as a "proof" that Jesus is the messiah. After all, how could that many people have witnessed this event and the story simply be "fabricated"? How could the gospels, written just a few decades after the death of Jesus, have all told a story that no one had ever heard of before? Clearly the story was well known. When then was it "made up"? How could it have been made up?

Now, as a reasonable, discerning person (or at least one striving to be), I would say that the very fact that the story includes such an extraordinary, outlandish claim is itself enough to tell us that there must be a simpler, more down-to-earth explanation for how this story developed. In other words, before I even begin to offer an alternative, I am already skeptical - and for good reason: You can't make fish and bread appear out of thin air!

So notwithstanding all the "proofs" offered, there must be another explanation. It must indeed be possible for these kinds of stories to develop and spread organically over time, such that large masses of people believe them - and yes, even when thousands of people are alleged to have "been there" when it happened. It could be that there was a real event which was subsequently embellished over time with supernatural "trimmings," or maybe not. It's an interesting question to ponder, but it doesn't have any bearing on whether I, as a rational thinking person, actually "believe" the story as it's told.

Now let me ask you again, which is more plausible: a) That the story of the Revelation at Sinai, which is alleged to have occurred some 1300 years prior to the story of Jesus, has details to it that offer so much greater "proof" than the Jesus story, proofs so strong that they "trump" what reasonable people (including you) otherwise dismiss out of hand as myth, so powerful that we're willing to put aside everything we know and experience about how the world works, that we're ready to violate the rules we apply in all other cases for distinguishing fantasy and myth from reality, or b) that in truth, we are all very much susceptible to being nogea b'davar, being so attached to certain beliefs (as our whole lives have been constructed around them) that we cannot see that we are simply rationalizing the irrational, and that our beliefs are not so significantly more "reasonable," more of a "proof", than those of our Christian brothers and sisters, that in fact we are all simply choosing to overlook the obvious in order to justify our beliefs?

And again, even if you think you are being completely objective, that everybody else is falling victim to being nogea b'davar whereas you alone are immune to that, can you not see how a skeptic like myself might be a bit... skeptical? Can you see how my line of thinking - far from constituting blasphemy or rabble-rousing - is in fact reasonable, or dare I say, even commendable?

At the end of the day, one has to decide whether to be a "committed theist" (as you identify yourselves on the blog) or a "committed truthist," and by the latter I mean someone who is committed to the search for truth wherever it brings them. If you wish to be a committed theist, you may live a fine and even exemplary life, but know that your search for truth will necessarily be skewed, tainted. Why? Because you have already decided that your "search" must lead you to a predetermined destination. Which makes it not so much a search for truth as a search for rationalizations and justifications. You cannot be in the "truth" business when at the outset you are forced to conclude X and not Y, which is what the idea of "core beliefs" is really saying. And if you call it "truth-seeking," not only does that mock the idea of truth, but you run the risk of turning many earnestly truth-seeking individuals away from Judaism.

Looking forward to your response,

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Why my wife lit candles early last Friday night

In reaction to the recent kidnappings in Israel, a call was made for Jewish women around the world to light Shabbat candles in the merit of the missing boys. In already-observant circles, the suggestion was made to light extra candles or to light earlier than usual. My wife did the latter.

Did she light early because she sees the act as a segula, a sort of "charm" or "technique" for aligning spiritual forces in our favor? Certainly not. Did she do it, as most people spoke about, "in the merit" of the boys, meaning that if we accrue enough favor with Hashem, He will change His decree and grant the boys' release? No, that was not her intent either.

Why did she participate then? Because 1) it was a "symbolic" act, an act of caring, of keeping the fate of the boys, and the anguish of their families, in our minds and hearts, and 2) it was something undertaken by the community, an expression of solidarity and compassion ("compassion" literally meaning to be together with someone in their suffering), and that is something she wished to take part in as well.

It's the same for all the extra prayers and Tehillim being said. Even if one doesn't believe either in word magic or in "storming the heavens" with prayer in hopes of acquiring merit, there is a place - along with any direct, concrete help one can provide - for doing something additional in order to keep the suffering of others in mind, so as not to forget them as we go about our daily lives.

Yes, certainly there are millions of other people suffering throughout the world - at the hands of human cruelty, neglect, and simply very bad luck - and our hearts should be with them too.