Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Who are you really protecting when you insist the Torah is infallible?

Here's something I said in another forum that I'd like to preserve for the ages:
I am not trying to weaken anyone's faith in the Torah. I am trying to weaken their faith in untenable interpretations of the Torah
This came up in the same old way. We were on Facebook, discussing the famous flood, when someone reacted to a particular argument by suggesting I was out to destroy another participant's faith in the Torah.

Not so. At least not by my lights.

Here's how I look at it: The Torah doesn't say anything. Not really. Certainly not anymore. Instead, claims are made on the Torah's behalf by its interpreters. For instance, the Torah never says "The universe was created 5000 years ago"; rather this is a claim made by an interpreter who's looked at the text, made various assumptions, and arrived at a number. Likewise, the Torah never says, in so many words, that "Noah's flood covered the whole world." As with the other example, this is a claim made by a Torah interpreter.*  So, in almost all cases, when you puff yourself up and declare your loyalty to the Torah what you're actually doing is swearing allegiance to a particular interpretation of the Torah. 

Is there a difference? Yes. Because even if frumkeit demands that you consider the Torah infallible, there's no good reason to say the same thing about Torah's interpreters. And here are a few things to remember about the interpreters: (1) They often disagree with each other; (2) They have in the past made claims that have been proven false and, most importantly; (3) once upon a time it was possible and permissible, even by the standards of frumkeit, to defeat their interpretations with an appeal to facts. ** 

That no longer happens within Orthodox Judaism because our modern standards of frumkeit no longer allow it. Jews and Judaism are weaker for it.

Interpreter claims the earth is 5000 years old. This is the same as predicting that we will never find a tree that is more than 5000 years old, or evidence of a civilization that is more than 5000 years old, etc etc. Those things have been found. Now what? In ye Jewish days of old we'd toss out the claim (plenty of examples) or reinterpret the claim (plenty of examples) on reinterpret the verse upon which the claim was based (plenty of examples) Nowadays we double down on the claim instead. I think we need to stop falling down these kinds of intellectual black holes.

*I'm limiting the discussion here to claims made by the interpreters about history or about the nature of things. Of course, they also make about what God wants. For instance, they and not the Torah are the ones who says "God wants us to keep meat and dairy separate" However, unlike historical or ontological claims, claims about what God wants are not falsifiable, and therefore they are impossible to test or verify.

** and after the interpretation was defeated by an appeal to facts one of two things would usually happen: The interpretation itself would be reinterpreted, or the verse(s) in question would be reinterpreted.


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