Blogs > Cliopatria > Truth, Witness, Record, Faith, Jew

Jul 13, 2004 9:23 am

Truth, Witness, Record, Faith, Jew

I recently read One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them by Ammiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman [at Amazon]. It's an e-mail exchange that, over the course of a year and a half, extends to three hundred pages and covers a variety of topics. It was an interesting chance for me, living where there are few Jews and little Jewish life (the nearest congregation, which meets monthly, is two hours drive), to meditate a bit on my life and my practice as a Jew.

At the core of the debate, running through the whole book, was a very interesting theological/historical argument about the Torah, both the Written Law (the books of Moses, etc) and the Oral Law (Mishnah, Talmud, etc). Most of it was pretty conventional. The Orthodox position is that the Written Law was dictated at Sinai and the Oral Law was also given at Sinai but only written down in the later age when there was danger of corruption, but that both have the weight of being the Word of God. The Reform position was that these are inspired, but human, texts which need to be read and understood in their context and with the understanding that our context is different. Contradictions, for the Reform, are evidence that we need to apply our own intelligence and values to make up our own minds; for the Orthodox, contradictions are encoded messages, which our god-given intelligence may allow us to unravel to grasp at deeper truths. Whenever the Reform Rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch, quoted Talmud, the Orthodox participant, Yosef Reinman came back with clarifications and justifications; Reinman actually argued that Hirsch had no right to cite Talmud, as he had not studied it in an Orthodox fashion.

The most interesting argument which I had not encountered before was from R. Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, and though there is an element of circularity to it, it was still intriguing. The argument goes something like this: the Torah is true, and we know that it is true because it was written when the main events recounted in it were still relatively fresh in the memories of the Jewish people. Events like the liberation from Egypt and the Sinai revelation were witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people, most, if not all, of whom would tell their children about the experience. If the Torah did not jibe with those experiences, there would have been protest, countervailing stories, and a call for correction; since there were none until the situation degraded to the point of political fragmentation, then the text must be a reliable reflection of the experience. That the Jewish people are portrayed in both positive and negative lights is also read as confirming the reality of the narrative, as who would construct a story portraying ones ancestors in such a contradictory and conflicted manner? Moreover, since the Sinai experience involved the revelation of the entire text of the Torah, then the entire text must be reliable in its details as well as its broad strokes. The Oral Law has the same justification: it was known from the time of Moses, but only written down in the Talmudic Age because of fear of the loss of knowledge.

This argument is often used, I have come to realize, to contrast the public, national Jewish revelation with the more private, individual revelations of other traditions. As I said, there's an element of circularity to it: it assumes, for example, that the recounting of events in the text is basically sound, and then uses the internal evidence of the narrative as evidence of its soundness; it assumes that contradictory stories would have managed to find their way into print or evidenced themselves some other way, when writing was rare and a priestly class held a stranglehold on ritual. But there's something compelling about it, as well. We know that oral histories, in societies with strong oral traditions, can be functionally accurate over hundreds of years, and provide powerful historical evidence. We know how hard it is to keep a single, recent, well-documented event from developing multiple versions, or counter-narratives, or outright deniers (Reinman uses the example of the Holocaust, with devastating effect). It is true that no other religious tradition involves the witness of miraculous events by more than a handful of founding members.

The argument weakens when applied to the Oral Law, and the subsequent centuries of Rabbinic rulings and customs. Even Reinman admits that the text is the ideas of the Oral Law in the words of the sages which, though he won't admit it, opens the possibility of misstatement, misinterpretation, colloquialism, elision and other forms of human error in communication. Not to mention the fact that the Talmud, etc, is students' (often more than a generation removed) recollections and quotations, and even applying a generous (this is the oral-written transition era for the Mediterranean, so high quality oral transmission is still possible) oral history standard, the potential for distortion and error is still high. The idea that the Talmud is based on deep-rooted principles is fine, but the historical fact is that the Talmud was written in response to dramatic changes in Jewish life and political status and religious practice, and the Sages were making it up as they went along. They did pretty well, considering.

Where does this leave us? Pretty much right where we started: the Torah and Talmud are historical texts of great importance and with strong claims to historicity, but as an historian I have to take with a grain of salt any unconfirmed text. Perhaps my grain of salt is a bit smaller now. But there is too much evidence of syncretism and editing, too much hindsight (the accuracy of Biblical prophecy is also adduced, by Reinman, as evidence of the accuracy of the text: talk about circular arguments!) too many human elements for me to accept it as Word of God, or even as a truly primary source for most of the events it describes.

But where does it leave me? Well, I come from a Reconstructionist perspective (here's the synagogue my parents belong to, and at which we were married), which is even more"liberal" than the Reform (and strongly Zionist) position represented by Ammiel Hirsch in the book, though, like many contemporary Reconstructionists, I think there is more of a place for faith and spirituality in Judaism than the" civilization" model posed by founder Mordechai Kaplan. Reform and Reconstructionism have, in the last two decades or so, shifted back towards a more traditional approach in some ways, while retaining the idea that Judaism must be relevant and adaptive.

Reading the book, I found myself wishing that the intensity and depth of the Orthodox writer were matched with the flexibility and balanced perspective of Reconstructionism. There is great power in tradition, ritual, custom: they can bring us joy and meaning; they are a form of bondage. It is in the discussion of women in the book that the Orthodox position is weakest: the inability to envision meaningful faith and practice outside of the social habits of the past and present is a real failing of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, to grow and change there must be some letting go, and that is something that Orthodoxy does very poorly. Knowing what to hold onto, though, is no piece of cake, either, and the Reform/Reconstructionist experimentation of the last two centuries has produced some truly awful results at times, liturgically, theologically, culturally. But that experimentation is necessary, and I think ultimately will produce something stronger and better for the future.

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More Comments:

E. Simon - 7/14/2004

Agreed. If religion is a personal matter or communal on a smaller scale than that which is socially pervasive or intrinsic, then the concept of superiority makes no sense. If it works for you, and most people in free societies believe that's really all that matters, then being superior to one's own self is nonsensical.

Interesting discussion, guys.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/14/2004

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that the less superiority claims of all sorts are made the more convincing they are.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004

(Sorry about the last one, but the screen reader got in my way)

I see.

You do realize, of course, that the prophetic and tikkun olam (Repairing the World) traditions arise directly out of the Jewish identity as a nation in a unique covenant with God. They aren't as easy to separate as you (or I) might like. Perhaps it is the last gasp of the tribal religion pattern; perhaps it is a way of creating a self-reinforcing community of justice and growth; perhaps it is just the way God works.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting historiographical note. As I noted in the original post, it is used to assert superiority over other traditions (My belief in the superiority of Judaism has very little to do with the truth-claims of the scriptures and a great deal to do with its historical and cultural legacies and present Liberal forms). I didn't intend that it be taken that way, whatever you think of my tone, but it does raise questions about historicity and oral and written history that are, clearly, to be grappled with.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004


Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004

My point is that there is a tone of self-celebration (self in the sense of extended community self, not in the sense of individual self) in much of this that is not Judaism at its best. The "we are the only religious tradition whose revelatory events and redemptive acts were witnessed by hundred of thousands of people" thing may not stand up to critical inquiry any better than other traditions' claims. Judaism at its best is prophetic and seeks social justice, not jingoistic and self-celebratory.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004

I honestly don't understand the point you're trying to make.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004

Noth's reading of evidence about the settling of Israel is too complex for me to reproduce it with attention to its nuances here. You can assert that it is only the Jews who "have a positive obligation to possess and remember" the exodus, but that is only an assertion which acknowledges (and incidentally denigrates) the obligation others have assumed and maintained throughout their own histories.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/13/2004

Not being as coversant in these matters (and not understanding fully the controversy), I would just add that the Exodus could well be as much a symbol of out-migration over centuries, culminating in an event. Egypt seems to have been particularly liable to such migrations, and even the arrival of groups closer to the center of political events in Egypt, like the Hyksos, are underdocumented. I'm not convinced that later allegorical tellings would be refuted by countervailing narratives. There seem innumerable ways of rationalizing inconsistencies. Exodus 1:7 says " ... the land was filled with them". Just a few lines away, at 1:15, the narrative has it that there were just two midwives. Go figure. The point about the conquest of Canaan provides a fulcrum point, but tells us little about how and over what period such an apparently large body came to Canaan.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004

I wasn't aware I was "bristling." I just didn't find Noth's math all that exciting absent any other context or argument. The rather facile nature of the numbers, as you presented them, had the feel of a dismissive, rather than substantive, point. Feel free to enlighten us on the rest of his argument. Or not.

You're the one who raised the possibility that the number refered to those who had heard the oral tradition over time; I was suggesting that the Passover liturgy was a variation of that, but not my main point. The Exodus narrative and experience is not the exclusive possession of the Jews (what fun would that be?), but we are the ones who have a positive obligation to possess and remember it.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004

Your record is clear, as far as I know, which is why I found your bristling about other historians' interrogating Torah documents troubling. Such questions are not necessarily of a piece with oppression or anti-semitism and, thus, the whole trope about each generation needing to experience the exodus anew need not even be cited. I would not be bothered by that citation, if it were not ethnic exclusive. For the record, there is a sense in which we all need to experience exodus anew in each generation.
Noth's skepticism about the 600,000 figure, by the way, leads to quite a different reading of the way in which the followers of Moses settled in Israel.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004

Noth's "critical question" can be answered any number of ways, which I elucidated. Sorry if you found the tone hostile, but it's a pretty basic question which I've dealt with time and time again (we read these stories on an annual basis; Exodus twice, as the Torah portion doesn't fall on Passover), and I'm not a religious literalist who is going to be terribly impressed or troubled by a little geometric progression. As I said, a critical reading, which I've given it a number of times, suggests to me that the final figure is more likely to be sound (i.e., ballpark correct, within an order of magnitude or two, which is pretty standard error range for documents of this sort and era) than the other assumptions in the equation.

As for your other questions, my record on the open nature of critical historical inquiry is pretty clear.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004

I suppressed my initial reaction to this. Noth asked a critical question about the narrative. As a historian, you don't mean to claim that it is immune to critical inquiry. In fact, you engage in such inquiry. Is it that non-Jewish historians are not allowed? I don't think that you mean to suggest that. But if you do, I'd like to know how you justify asking critical questions about Japanese history.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/13/2004

That question contains so many unfounded assumptions as to be unanswerable, plus a logical flaw: If the revelation at Sinai were witnessed by a few thousand people, it would still be a few thousand more than witnessed any other revelation.

I could fall back on a traditional Jewish trope, familiar to any who have attended a Passover Seder: "In every generation, each Jew is required to consider as if he himself were freed from slavery in Egypt." But I won't

Noth's math assumes that everything else about the story is accurate except the final figure. But it's more likely, given a reasonable reading of the documents, that the final figure is the most reliable quantitative point in the story. The amount of time in Egypt could be wrong: Egyptologists have been unable to provide any substantial corroboration or plausible dating. The original migration of Jacob and co. is more likely to be mythical, or to have been part of a larger tribal migration, or part of a large inmigration of disparate peoples who became an underclass in Egyptian society.

Remember, only forty years after the Exodus, the Israelites conquered Canaan and enter a proto-historical period about which we know a fair bit: a few thousand, even hardened warriors, would not have sufficed. Yeah, three million (which is what the six hundred thousand translates to in traditional recountings) is probably inflated. But it's still probably a lot of people, unless we're tossing out the document entirely.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/13/2004

If the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai occurred, haven't you vastly overstated the numbers of people who experienced them? Some translations of Exodus 12:37 claim there were 600,000 men. But Martin Noth has argued that given the small number who were said to have gone down to Egypt, every Jewish woman would have had to bear 40 sons and 40 daughters to reach such numbers by the time of the exodus. I should have thought that one would likely be talking about perhaps some few thousand. "Hundreds of thousands," if one were talking about them and their children and their children's children until the oral tradition was recorded. That would also affect the claim that "no other religious tradition involves the witness of miraculous events by more than a handful of founding members."

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