Monday, June 7, 2010

Is the Historical Truth of Torah Important?

Our worldview influences what questions we ask and what categories we place things in. For many Jews, the debate over whether the traditional account of the historical origins of the Torah is accurate is determinative of their religious beliefs. If the traditional account is correct, they are Orthodox. If not, they are not religious at all. I think this entire approach is wrong.

This emphasis on historical truth is misplaced. Take (as an odd but illustrative example) the story of the Three Little Pigs, an obvious myth with a simple but important lesson: take the time to do things right. The lesson is good and quite valuable, and the story is fun and playful. Suppose someone heard the story and then argued that it was false because wolves do not have the lung capacity to blow down houses, even houses made out of straw or sticks. Moreover, pigs lack opposable thumbs and cannot construct even the most rudimentary structures. I think most of us would think that the person missed the point of the story.

But then suppose someone else replied that the story was in fact true and offered a detailed explanation of how pigs could construct a very rudimentary house and how a wolf could blow it down given the right wind conditions. The first person disagreed, and they started arguing about the wind force that wolf lung could exert

I think most of us would respond to the debate by noting that it is simply absurd. If we had to, we would side with the first person and concede that the story is not an account of an actual event, but we probably would not want to go there. The purpose of the story is to teach a valuable lesson, not to recount a historical event. That is, given our worldview, we place the story in a certain category, and this determines what questions we ask about it. And its historical truth is not a question we ask.

So why do we typically not take this approach with the Torah? I think the answer is largely historical

In Talmudic times people were much more playful with the text. They created midrashim with clever life lessons. These are clearly false (that is, they do not describe historical events) but they make quite valuable points. And frankly, they are fun. Chazal never offered proofs of God's existence or systematic theology. Instead, they simply offered a way of life: love God, do mitzvot. They certainly believed in the historical accuracy of the text, but there was no other credible option. And in the ultimate sense, it is not clear how central this was to their entire worldview.

When the medieval period rolled around, the quest for certainty was in full swing. We got detailed proofs, and ikkarim, and systematic theology. And since this was a pre-scientific age, these claims had wide scope; they covered scientific assertions and facts.

Then when the Enlightenment and real science rolled around, we started asking scientific questions about the contents of the text. Is the account of Creation correct? Is the account of the Flood correct? Did the Exodus occur? And then we started asking scientific questions about the text itself: who wrote it? when? On all of these account, the traditional explanations took a beating. Without jumping into the merits of these debates, for these purposes, it is sufficient to note that the traditional explanations became more and more untenable and most Jews rejected them.

But some did not, and they defended the traditional accounts. In doing so, many painted themselves into a corner. They adopted a scientific worldview, staked their entire religious belief system on the accuracy of some scientific questions, and then resorted to strained arguments (to put it mildly) to defend their positions. So we have all sorts of absurdities, like rabbis with no scientific training arguing the details of evolution against scientists. Not just one scientist at the other podium, but the entire scientific establishment.

One effect of this debate is to keep the issue of the historical truth of the traditional account of the text in the foreground. And this presents an unattractive choice: take Judaism or modern science, but not both.

This problem can be seen in XGH's latest post (and many other posts, for that matter). XGH is caught squarely in this dilemma. He has (another) interesting discussion entitled "A Non Fundamentalist Conception of TMS." One key sentence caught my attention: I do believe that religious language and mythology has value, whether the myth is true or not.

This sentence reflects the importance of the historical truth of the account in his worldview. Note that one could say, "Myths have value, whether or X" and plug in a lot of Xs: (e.g., whether or not the protagonist is left-handed, whether or not the story teller is standing or sitting when he tells the myth, etc.) We would consider most of these to be absurd statements --- what does being left-handed have to do with the value of the story? They are technically true, but we never would think of characterizing the issue this way.

I think the same is true here. The value of the Torah lies in its value, not in its historical truth. And (for lots of reasons explained elsewhere in this blog), I think the Torah is quite valuable.