Rabbi, Is Torah True?
Rabbi: That depends on the definition of “truth”
We sat at lunch, breaking bread, getting to know each other, and exploring the vast similarities between our fields of interest and our mutual interest in Judaism. And then the question came. I was expecting it. It arises in so many encounters with other Jews, whenever the discussion turns to Jewish belief and practice. My lunch partner asked, “What about the Torah? Is it really true?”
An innocuous question, or is it? So much hinges on it. Depending upon how you answer the question, complex issues of identity, practice, and communal affiliation are either clarified or rejected out of hand for years to come. If Torah is true, then all of the traditions and rituals, ethics and insights that are derived from Torah can make claims on our lives. But if Torah is not true, then why do we should we bother recounting the stories (which then become “fantasies”), or following the traditions (which become “nonsense”), or upholding the values (which become the “ideals of a lost generation”)?
Is Torah true? It really depends on your definition of the word “true.” I am not parsing words here. The truth of Torah truly depends on what we mean by truth.
Is Torah historically true?
If by truth, we are asking whether the events described therein are historical facts, then it is possible that some (or much) of the Torah’s take on our beginnings is questionable. We may never fully know whether the events written in the Torah actually happened. Consider this, the Israeli government devotes significant amounts of time, energy and resources to supporting archeological digs. Our own Rabbinical seminary Hebrew Union College proudly runs an archeological department which has uncovered incredible evidence of an Israeli presence during Biblical times in the northern area of Dan (I dug there myself during my stay in Israel). Hundreds of books have been written; thousands of scholarly papers have been given. Few can provide incontrovertible proof of early events in the Torah: that the world actually was destroyed in Noah’s day, that Abraham and Sarah actually walked on the earth, or that our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai (scholars cannot even agree which mountain in the Middle East is Mount Sinai).
Among the huge archeological finds in Egypt or Israel today we find scant evidence for our central story, that 603,550 adult male Israelites (plus thousands of women, children and seniors) actually left Egypt enmasse in the twelfth century B.C.E. We do see reports of the escape of the ‘Habiru, bands of slave workers, and perhaps these ‘Habiru are the Hebrews. And of course, since the Pharaoh’s royal court wrote these ancient histories, we would not expect to read about so devastating a defeat as the escape of such a large number of slaves. Nevertheless, it is near impossible to provide unquestionable proof of even this central event in our story. So is it historically true? Perhaps not.
Seek religious truth, not historical facts
Yet the significance of the Torah, and its claim to truth, transcends the historical/archeological realm. TORAH IS TRUE, because it contains religious (or spiritual) truth. I believe that with all my heart and soul. The Torah reflects our communal belief in a mytho-historical past (more on that later), in a unique relationship between the Jewish people and God, and in a system of values and traditions laid out therein. It lays out a special mission for the Jewish people based upon our collective memory of once being slaves and then, by means of Divine intervention, going free.
In recounting the central myth of the Jewish people – that we were once slaves and because of God’s benevolence and intercession, we became a free people of God – the Torah truthfully describes our understanding (even our communal recollection) of who and what we are. [I choose the term myth, which is often used in common parlance to mean untrue, as understood by anthropologists and sociologists: a myth actually describes stories that are held to be fundamental expressions of certain properties of the human mind. A myth a story with culturally formative power that functions to direct the life and thought of individuals and societies. (See Irving Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion, first published by InterVarsity Press, Carol Stream, USA, 1994, second edition, Regent College Press, Vancouver, 1999.).]
With all my heart and soul, I believe there is truth in these lessons from Torah and therefore, Torah lays claim upon the way I live my life and view my place in the world.
Yes, Torah contains spiritual truth
This understanding of its truth must lead us to approach the book looking for a different set of answers. When Torah recounts the creation of the world, it does not describe the scientific process (most of us adhere to the scientific theory of the Big Bang). Rather, Torah relates the truism of why the world was created: because a benevolent force – the force of goodness, or God-ness – meant for there to be order in the universe and for humanity to play a role in this ordered world. When Torah recounts the myth of Adam and Eve, we should not be diverted by the interesting questions whether they actually lived. Rather we should understand the spiritual truth Torah is teaching – that humanity is a mixture of Adam (from the Hebrew word Adama, meaning earth or chemicals) and Eve (from the Hebrew word Chava, meaning existence). As such, humanity is understood as the earth come to life. It teaches us that we share our origin with the earth as creations of a Benevolent Force (read, God).
Torah views the world through a unique prism
So if Torah tells the mytho-history (the religiously true accounting of our understanding of our past) of the Jewish people – if it is religiously true but not historically true – how then do we understand its contents? We will want to remember that Torah represents the Jewish people’s encounter with God when we were younger. Just as a child or infant understands her parents to be all-powerful and all-knowing, so too did the writers of the Torah, writing in our people’s infancy, understand their relationship with God in similar terms. Back in Biblical times, God did everything for Israel in its infancy. Then God seemed to have almost supernatural powers.
Just as a young person might write the story of his relationship with their parent differently from how he might have written it as a child, so too might we write the story of our people’s encounter with God differently if we were to write it today. We would probably take out many of the anthropomorphisms (words which attribute to God human characteristics like “the hand of God” and “God’s anger”). We might write about our experience not with God as a Being, but with God as the Force of Goodness, or the Source of Meaning and Connection between people and things. We would be writing about the same entity – God – but we would be using language, which reflects a different way of experiencing that same entity.
Dive into Torah study
But the Torah was written in an earlier time and its words were codified back then. So it becomes our task to mine its contents for lessons in life and living. The Torah is true. It is your story and my story. It has a claim upon our life. Yet we can only understand its multiple layers of meaning if we dive into it with the help of interpreters and teachers.
May the light of Torah’s truth can shine brightly if in the eyes and minds of those who strive to share its warmth.
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