Monday, July 14, 2008

Three Challenges to the TMH / DH Project

The TMH/DH Project proposes to weigh the evidence supporting two competing theories:

TMH: "[T]he Torah was written by God, physically written by Moses (with the possible exception of the last few lines of Deuteronomy), is instructions for living, and contains important insights (some explicit, so[me] esoteric and hidden) about all sorts of important things."

DH: Bruce proposes "to use Richard Elliot Friedman's book 'The Torah With Sources Revealed'," but does not summarize the DH as presented in that book. I will go with the following: The five books of Moses are a series of different books, written by various human authors (well after the time of Moses), that were ultimately combined and redacted into one form by yet another human author(s).

Bruce goes on to observe that "[t]his issue is central for many people's religious beliefs and practices." He then makes the following claim: "If the evidence shows that TMH is much more likely than DH, one should be Orthodox or something very close. And if the evidence shows the opposite, one should probably not be Orthodox."

Without in any way discouraging my friend Bruce, or any of our readers or commentators, I want to present three challenges to what I see as underlying assumptions of the enterprise:

1. The TMH/DH Issue is Not Central for the Religious (or Non-Religious) Beliefs and Practices of Most Jews

I certainly agree with Bruce that this issue is central (or at least very important) for many Jews, but I do not think it is at the crux of the religious beliefs or practices (or the rejection of these) of most Jews. My view is that the fundamental beliefs and practices of Jews and their co-religionists have a great deal more to do with childhood upbringing, social milieu, psychology, faith, and other "non-rational" factors. (One could argue that some of these are "rational," but I'll leave that alone in the hopes that my meaning here is clear.)

The interaction of non-rationalism and rationalism on a personal level is far too complex for me to grasp, yet alone set out here, but I believe that predispositions, surroundings, non-verifiable beliefs, and emotions are the driver for most religious people, and positions on factual assertions (especially non-verifiable factual assertions, for those who don't believe that the very term is oxymoronic) come, if you'll forgive the pun, "after the fact."

These factual theories about the origin of the Torah (especially the non-verifiable ones!) are usually adopted as a result of the religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and not the other way around. Put in Bayes' Theorem terms, as Bruce has noted, the initial probability assigned to the competing theories is often the determinative factor. (Moreover, it is in my opinion usually the end of the analysis -- or, more accurately, there is no analysis, because most people who have ever considered the subject at all have an opinion (whether for TMH or DH) that was formed without any serious exploration of the "facts").

As the foregoing discussion highlights, there is a fundamental asymmetry between the two theories. TMH is in my view necessarily based in part on faith -- we cannot believe that God authored the Torah unless we believe in God. DH, on the other hand, is not necessarily based on any view about the existence of God or any other non-verifiable matter.

That being said, many people reject TMH because they are atheists, agnostics, etc. For them, DH is simply the "scientific" or "rational" alternative -- it may have flaws, fundamental or otherwise, but this will always reflect nothing more than flawed historical study which will presumably be corrected over time (unless some critical evidence is lost to history). But flaws in DH would not likely lead such a person in the direction of TMH.

Many other comments have made a similar point, arguing that most people are not likely to "change their mind" based on this project. Of course, the TMH/DH debate is central for some, and I trust they will find the endeavor interesting and meaningful.

2. For Religious Jews, the TMH and DH Theories Are in Important Respects Not "Competing"

The premise that the Torah is divine is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish that the Torah is "instructions for living" or "contains important insights . . . about all sorts of important things." Perhaps even more obviously, the premise that the Torah was written and compiled from a variety of human sources is not sufficient to establish that it is not "instructions for living" or does not "contain important insights."

Thus, I do not see these views in such stark opposition with respect to the "appropriate" level of Jewish practice or Jewish belief.

By presenting the TMH/HD debate as so dichotomous, the enterprise assumes or at the very least is concordant with the conventional Orthodox view that the Torah must be divine, absolute, and immutable in order to be binding on people or meaningful at all. I reject the logic of this position. It does not so simply follow that the Torah is "binding" because it is divine -- there are several unstated (and unprovable) assumptions required to complete this argument. Nor does it follow that the Torah is rendered meaningless if it is a living, evolving document. As Diane, Bruce and I have all argued elsewhere to varying extents, it is not so terribly important (or perhaps even possible) to "prove" that the ethical precepts of the Torah are correct or "true." From my point of view, the Orthodox position introduces a problem that does not need solving, and then proposes a solution that does not solve the problem in any event. (I have promised a future post taking up this line of thought in greater detail.)

3. Orthodoxy Posits the Divinity of Both Torah and Oral Law

One final, simple point. As presented, this TMH/DH Project ignores the broader (and, in my view, far more implausible) claim that the Oral Law is also divine and was also given to Moses at Sinai. This approach makes sense given the contours of the DH. But if Bruce is correct that the decision about whether to be Orthodox might well rest on this debate -- and I've already made clear that I don't believe that it does -- one would have to evaluate this broader view of TMH.

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