A Letter to a Friend
In memory of Bluma Shoshana bat Ephraim HaLevi z”l,
Barbara Berger Kessler, on her 18th yahrzeit
I appreciate your response to my Thoughts to Ponder 646, dated 6.6.2019, and titled “Is the Torah Divine? Thoughts for Shavuot on Combustibility.” (https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/is-the-torah-divine-thoughts-for-shavuot-on-combustibility/). In that essay I asked whether it is possible to answer this question by means of an academic approach to the text, which was initiated by Spinoza in the 17th century. My argument was that if the Torah is indeed divine it would probably not be receptive to academic scrutiny, because the academic approach would be unable to use its conventional methods to verify or deny its divinity, since it is not suited to answer that kind of question.
You called my response “self-serving at best”:
If we cannot use our rational faculties to try and understand the world then the entire project is not worth discussing. This is just hiding behind an artificial and childish fence. It is clear that the Torah makes many statements that can be empirically tested and found to be false. You can’t just sweep these contradictions under an ever-widening carpet of denial.
Your second argument seems to say that unless a person is of sufficient spiritual level they cannot perceive the true divinity of the document. To quote, “Their receptivity to the divinity of Torah is proportionate to the condition of their soul.” Thus, all of us who have made serious and long term attempts to find this divine origin and failed are excluded. Our efforts are dismissed not by some rational argument, but by simple fiat. Oh, if you don’t see the divinity there, that is because your spirit is too base. You are not a refined enough individual.
These kinds of dismissive and irrational arguments may be of comfort to those who are happy to wrap themselves in the four cubits of halachic Judaism and ignore the outside world, but I was very surprised to see them coming from you.
You then continue with the following observations:
I have always wondered how people could believe in what seems to outsiders to be such an absurd document as the Book of Mormon. If you read their testimonies, they say the document speaks to their souls and they don’t need any outside validation. This is your argument too. The Torah satisfies a deep spiritual need. I can respect the subjective reality of your perception of the divinity of the Torah. This subjective connection with the Torah is what has sustained Yiddishkeit over the centuries. Clearly for those that feel it, this connection is deeply important, even to the point where it becomes the single source of their identity.
A little later you write:
Subjective realities though are not a solid basis for a belief system. Without such a solid basis, Yiddishkeit (Judaism) is just one more man-made attempt to understand our mysterious existence. When I first became frum (religious) I had hoped to find such a solid basis. I never did.
So the reason for my disappointment is that I had hoped for more from you than the standard arguments that “only the wise can see it,” and the anger comes from a place of continually being dismissed and belittled by Orthodox establishment in which I invested so much of my life.
I am sorry that it took so long for me to reply, due to serious personal problems. I will now try to respond to your questions and observations. Due to time limitations, I’m unable to answer all your questions, but I hope I’ll make sense and I hope that it will be helpful. I’ll be able to deal with the other questions at a later stage, in several of my Thoughts to Ponder.
For now, let me deal with only one question: whether or not it is possible that a god actually spoke to human beings, as recorded in the Torah, and especially at Sinai to hundreds of thousands of people. After all, such a claim runs contrary to all our experiences and seems to be absurd and completely unscientific.
The second question that needs to be discussed is: Do the many biblical textual inconsistencies, contradictions, mistakes and differences in style — all clearly seen by any biblical scholar — prove that the Torah is the result of many authors throughout many different ages? For most people, the obvious answer would be that it couldn’t possibly be a text dictated by God, and surely not word by word, and definitely not at one specific moment in history such as at Sinai!
In other words, all empirical evidence seems to run contrary to the claim that it is (completely) divine.
It is important to realize that the second question is closely related to the first one, since we would have to admit that even if it were possible that God spoke at Mount Sinai, the many problems mentioned above concerning the actual text would disqualify the Torah from being an accurate account. As such, it could not have been dictated or conveyed by God, since God would certainly not have made these “textual mistakes.”
I will not deal with the second question now, nor will I discuss other questions such as what does “revelation” actually mean, what about archeology, the book of Mormons, the relationship between science and belief, and so many other issues, because it would result in a complete book (which I do hope to write one day). As I wrote above, I will deal with them later.
As you probably know, I am a former follower and great admirer of Spinoza, who laid the groundwork for all the different forms of critique, by which later philosophers denied the possibility that a god ever spoke to humankind. Spinoza was also the father of all Bible criticism, which proved that the Torah’s text is full of inconsistencies, contradictions and various literary styles. So I indeed came to a conclusion similar to yours: The Torah is a human invention and does not carry any divinity. As such, it made no sense to claim that God had ever spoken to a human being. In fact, the Torah seems to be a mediocre book compared to the great works of the Greeks and other philosophers.
But because of Spinoza’s strong condemnations of the Torah and general religious beliefs—as expressed mainly in his famous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus—which were not always too convincing, I wondered whether he was telling the whole story and didn’t overlook some crucial issues. So I started to consult many significant Jewish and non-Jewish works on the Torah and, even more importantly, tried to get a better grasp on issues of faith and belief in general. (At that time I was completely secular.)
Many of these books were not written by conventionally religious people. Some were clearly secular. To mention a few: Immanuel Kant, Blaise Pascal, Max Weber, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, George Steiner, Mary Midgley, Anthony “Tony” Tol, Walter Kaufmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rudolf Otto. And those who were religious were surely not (Jewish) Orthodox by any means. Still, their writings made me aware that Spinoza’s overall claims and conclusions needed to be sincerely questioned. In fact, they made me wonder whether Spinoza had become the victim of his own theories and had overlooked many issues.
Later on, I realized that the same could be said concerning many other Bible critics and anti-religious thinkers post Spinoza, until this very day.
Let me first of all discuss the question of what kind of revelation we are dealing with and then we can ask whether or not such a revelation is possible.
Surely it is not the “godliness” that we are used to speaking about that is at stake. When we normally discuss “godliness,” we often mean a kind of divinity that is established on the basis of the laws of nature and within our day-to-day experiences. For many of us, their consistency and beauty make us believe that we are encountering the divine.
But this is not what we mean. What we’re looking for is whether there was ever or could ever be a divine verbal revelation that violated the laws of nature or would violate these laws as we know them; in other words, one that lacks all natural consistency and historical explanation. One that took or will take place under totally miraculous circumstances, such as Mount Sinai, fuming with smoke like a furnace, and subsequently “quaking” (Shemot 19:18 ), accompanied by thunder and lightning, and causing people to tremble and fear for their lives (Ibid. 19:16). We also need to ask how it would be possible for this divine text to include empirical untruths.
Furthermore, we need to inquire whether this experience was indeed recorded in the text of the Torah as we know it today, which according to Jewish Tradition (or at least some of its classical sources) was dictated by God, although this is not entirely clear from the Torah text itself.
To my surprise, the first thing I learned when reading these books, was that scientific reasoning and logic, while tremendously important, were indeed not equipped to deal with that question. The reason was obvious: They would no longer be scientific and logical.
After all, scientific inquiry depends on laws that necessarily exclude the possibility of exceptions. Nature’s general constancy is what allows for scientific inquiry and why its results are so powerful. But revelation is revelation only insofar as it demonstrates an existence beyond the consistent order of things. For revelation to serve its purpose, which is to make a highly unusual impression on those who experience it, it must be exceedingly extraordinary.
This is also true about logic. Logic is a difficult concept to pin down (what’s logical about logic?), but what it means in most cases is: reasoning conducted or assessed by strict principles of validity. What the word “validity” means is open to interpretation, but we can state with certainty that the kind of revelation we’re speaking about is not logical.
In other words, authentic revelation lacks resemblance to other kinds of experience and to logic.
What is important to remember is that we are trained to think in terms of categories and sameness, something we inherited from the Western world view. And anything extraordinary, in the full sense of the word, is automatically excluded and considered impossible.
What this really means is that revelation is not so much rejected because of any proper a-priori reason, but rather because our minds have been indoctrinated to believe that whatever cannot be replicated should not be taken seriously.
But this is clearly a fallacy. Just because something cannot happen again does not give us a reason to claim that it could not have happened.
In fact, we know this to be true. For example, there will never be another person like you in the world, with the exact genetic makeup and life experiences. Yet you exist. You, and every other human being you see, are walking and talking proof that one-time-only events can and do happen.
This is not an argument that therefore revelation definitely took place. Perhaps it did not and will never take place. But what it does mean is that on the basis of the foundations of science and logic such a claim cannot be verified or denied. Science and logic cannot, by definition, decide this matter.
So, from where comes the belief that revelation may be possible? If science and logic can’t help us out, what makes us even consider the possibility? What other faculty is available to us to contemplate the prospect of revelation? Believe it or not, this depends on our openness and capacity to wonder, to be perplexed and stand in amazement, which happens when we have no other way of dealing with something extraordinary.
This is difficult for us to swallow, educated as we are in the Western way of thinking. After all, it runs contrary to all that we stand for. Aren’t wonder, perplexity and amazement all emotional expressions that are somewhat laughable because they’re the result of our lack of scientific knowledge, or they are what we feel when we encounter the laws of nature?
But we have to be honest: Is that really true? Or, are we hiding behind a shield so as not to be confronted by the question: Do our emotional expressions of wonder and perplexity really come from a lack of knowledge, or do they present something that we don’t want to admit to because it undermines our certainty that with science and logic everything can be explained?
In other words, the question that we need to ask ourselves is: Are we prepared to realize that there may be more to this world than science and logic?
Immanuel Kant, in his introduction to his famous Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, responds to this as follows: It is the nature of human beings, because of their reasoning, to be tormented by questions that reason can neither deny nor answer because the questions completely surpass the capacity of cogent reasoning and scientific investigation.
It is this ambiguity that is inherent in all human beings. It is the ambivalence that drives people beyond themselves and despite themselves. We’re not speaking here about questions that will one day be answered through scientific inquiry, but about issues that deal with meaning, and questions about human significance. It has to do with weltanschauung, the way we see ourselves and the world. And while science may be able to give us more information about such matters, to help us with these questions and formulate them better, it will not be able to answer them, and for very good reason. They surpass science and logic.
It is here that religion comes in. The attempts to express the ineffable and to deal with that which cannot be expressed are the basics of ritual in every religion. It’s not the description of a reality but a way of speech. This is all very complicated, and there are many opinions among the philosophers on how to deal with it all, but that is beyond the purview of this essay. The fact itself, however, cannot be denied.
This means that the a-priori deduced rejection of revelation, based on the fact that it cannot be proven via scientific means, is not a sign of progressive thinking but rather of an intellectual and spiritual stagnancy. It is too easy to be lulled into a sense that the well-defined laws and ordered progression of events constitute all that reality has to offer. After all, we know that this is not true! The tragedy is that, due to indoctrination, we’ve become mentally shut off from what can happen suddenly and without precedent.
Because our forefathers were still open to the prospect of unexpected occurrences, they had little reason to doubt the possibility of revelation on a grand scale. It was not their intellectual primitivism but their open-mindedness, their willingness to see what in fact happened or could happen rather than what they expected or understood. This gave them the capacity to wonder and therefore to trust their belief in the possibility of revelation.
This, I believe, is what Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in his HaKetav Veha-Kabbalah, had in mind. Rabbi Mecklenburg was a deep and unusual thinker, as proven by this remarkable work, which I quoted in my earlier essay, Thoughts to Ponder 646.
While standing at Mount Sinai, a person who was less prepared—which really meant less open to wonder—experienced only a minimal level of revelation. Those who were more open to the unexpected, and possessed the faculty of profound amazement, experienced more revelation and “heard” more.
That people today, including me, are even less equipped with the art of profound wonder means that we are confronted with a huge problem. We’re not even open to the possibility of revelation, because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that only science and logic can determine such a matter.
Again, this doesn’t mean that therefore revelation took place. It does, however, mean that even if it did take place, we moderns would not have been able to detect it. This is not “self-serving at best”; this is a spiritual tragedy.
To my regret, I must stop here. Many more very serious issues, several of which you mention, are at stake. But time and space forces me to leave them for future essays. The topics of science, logic and religious belief have been discussed by some of the greatest minds. Many different approaches have been suggested. The topics that we are discussing here, including your observations and criticism, are all related to these very approaches.
Hopefully, we will get to them in the near future. I pray that you are aware of the fact that writing an essay such as this one takes much research, many hours of labor and a great amount of concentration. It may therefore take some time before I am able to expand on these matters, especially so because many other people have been asking me difficult questions, which I must respond to as well. So I ask you to bear with me. Thanks!
Nathan Lopes Cardozo