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Is Torah True? Part 1

truthDavid’s Skepticism: What about the Big Bang?

I still remember a study session that I led a year ago on the first two chapters of Genesis. Following an uplifting Shabbat service, pumped up with coffee and dessert, a group gathered to discuss the Torah’s account of the creation of the world and humanity. It was a lively discussion.

During the discussion, I noticed one man, David, sitting there quietly but seeming agitated. When the study session ended, I approached him privately to see how he was doing. He turned away, saying, “You won’t like what I have to say.” I smiled, inviting him to speak his mind.

David said, “I am so frustrated with Torah study. All I come away with is the sense that Torah is all interpretation, that its meaning is relative, depending upon what this rabbi or that rabbi decides Torah says.” Then he looked me in the eye and confessed what was really bothering him: “How could anyone really believe that Torah was true?”

David’s skepticism continued. “Hadn’t scientists put to rest questions of the origins of the universe? Isn’t the Hubble telescope up there providing ample proof of the Big Bang? Are we really to take seriously the Torah’s Creation story as an explanation of the beginning of the universe? Don’t get me wrong,” David said, “the Torah has some interesting stories – Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the Exodus – but, like Greek mythology, they are just stories. How can you take them literally? And if you can’t, why bother with them?”

He confided that this whole “truth of Torah” question was really impeding his connection with Judaism. He looked me in the eye and asked again, “Rabbi, is Torah true?”

Is Torah true? There they were, three simple words that embody a question that plagues our generation of Jews. Since becoming a rabbi, I have been asked one version or another of this question hundreds of times. Now David needed to know the answer. We all do too.

I told David that I had been there before, that I had wrestled with those same issues before I discovered how to read Torah in a different way. To be honest, I am not sure I got through to him. How could one conversation during one Oneg Shabbat adequately address the skepticism built up over the years?

Our evening ended soon afterward. But not for me. Though I was tired, David’s questions had gotten under my skin, and I knew I would not be going to sleep anytime soon. I needed to articulate a better answer to his question. So later that night, with a glass of Merlot in hand, I booted up my laptop and like a proverbial Carrie Bradshaw, began writing about the questions at the heart of our existence. And it would be a long night.

Is Torah True?

The renowned Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on Genesis, validates questions about the scientific truth of the Biblical story of creation. Plaut writes,

Ancient people considered the earth the center of the universe and natural law not as unalterable but as subservient to the will of God. … Why – others ask – should we [today] concern ourselves …with stories of the six days of creation, with Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden? [After all, these stories] are unscientific, antiquated myths, and therefore appear irrelevant.

To this question, Plaut responds,

…many defenders of the Bible agree that while the book has indeed little to tell about the scientific origins of the world and its inhabitants it does have a great deal to tell about God’s relationship to God’s world and about human beings and their destiny.

In short, Plaut recognized that which most non-literalist moderns agree upon today, that the Torah – cannot and does not compete intellectually with modern scientific theories.

“Since the Bible’s scientific comprehension … is limited to the world view of the ancients, just as ours is to that of our own time, it would be futile to look to the Bible for references to evolution or to suggest as some have that “one day” in the Biblical creation story may correspond to a million years in scientific reckoning.” While our interpretations of Torah can make room within the narrative for the broad outlines of the “Big Bang,” evolution or modern string theory, Torah itself makes no claims to explain how of any of this occurred.

In reviewing the creation story, we should not seek to read the Torah’s account as a scientific textbook. I think David made that mistake. For some reason, he was left believing that the six days of creation were Judaism’s rejoinder to modern science. Sure, there are still some people who do believe that, but those Biblical literalists sit on the fringes of Judaism and Christianity. Many of the rest of us are just confused. And so these days I find myself in conversation with scores of Jewish adults who are trying to find meaning beyond the “all or nothing” syndrome: That either all the Torah had to be absolutely factual, understood literally, or none of it was true, that Torah was complete fiction no more useful than Greek mythology.

Plaut offers a refreshing way to understand Torah. He writes,

It would be better, therefore, to come to the biblical text with full respect for its intellectual convictions and to understand that these are often expressed in metaphors and always in the vocabulary and framework of antiquity. Contemporary readers thus should restrain their inclination to do battle with or look for modern comparisons to ancient notions of creation. They should read the Bible for what it suggests about the nature of human history, the meaning of existence, and the Presence of God.

Or as the late scholar Stanley Gevirtz explained:

To the question of the ‘truth’ of Genesis, Torah is true in the way that great poetry is always true: to the imagination of the human heart and the orderliness of the human mind.

The Why of Creation, not the How

So while Torah does not answer the scientific questions of “how” the world was created, Torah instead is ultimately interested in the “what” and the “why” of life. What is the purpose of existence? What is the nature of humanity? Why did God create us? Therein lies its truth. Through Torah, we discover who we are, why we were put on this earth, where we can find God.

Reread Genesis, chapter one. Six days of creation and Shabbat. Each the result of a benevolent Creator who willed the world into existence. From tohu vavohu, from chaos, came order. From anarchy, harmony grew. Late on the sixth day, God said, Let us create the human creature, in our image. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth… And God created the human creature in God’s image, in the image of God was it created; male and female God created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and master it…

This is not a biology text book. It does not read like one because it is not meant to be one. This is a book of spirituality that plumbs the depth of the human experience. The Hebrew word for the earth creature is Adam. Not Adam the man’s name, but Adam from Adama, meaning earth. Central to this creation story is the notion that this creature, formed from the dust of the earth, was created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. What does it mean to say that humanity was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God?

Take a look around. We all were created in the image of God but few of us look the same. Some are tall, some short. Some are wide, some are less wide. Some have brown eyes, some blue. Some have a full head of hair; some of us have less. When a human king strikes coins in his image, every coin is identical. But God creates every person in the Divine image, and miraculously each one is unique. At our core, we all share qualities that come from God.

Later in Genesis in chapter two, we read that God breathed into us Nishmat Chayim, the breath of life.
Purposefully, God endowed us with a living soul, an imitation of the Divine, that thing which differentiates us from the trees and stones and chairs and tables. This essence is godliness. Because of it, because we are in part like God, we have the ability to approach incredible levels of goodness and morality. That is Torah’s truth.

From Genesis about the purpose of human existence

Our role is imitatio dei, to be imitators of God. Our reason for living, beyond tilling the earth and populating it, is to continue the work of creation, acting as we would expect God – in God’s goodness – to act within the world. As partners with God, we have special responsibility to be shomrei adama, guardians of the earth and all its creatures. We are called to Tikun Olam, to fix the world, redeeming it from chaos and returning it to harmony. That is Torah’s truth.

Moreover, the Torah’s account of the creation of humanity also goads us to action. Since each and every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, then every person we encounter – whether we like him or not – is valued and worthy. That requires that we treat them with a measure of kindness and compassion. Ethical behavior must be our way in the world. That too is the truth of Torah.

And there’s more. Where can we find God? Remember the Nishmat Chayim, the breath of life, our soul? That gift links us with God. Just like our DNA connects us biologically with our parents, so too does our soul connect us spiritually to our Creator. It reminds us that God is not only out there, but in here. Our search for God can begin by coming to terms with our essential goodness or godliness, and then by connecting to the same essence within others. Again, these Torah truths are unambiguous, and transcend doubts about the historicity or scientific validity of the document. That is the truth of Torah.

Whether Adam and Eve ever lived as differentiated human beings, or whether the entire earth was actually destroyed by flood, or whether there was even a man named Moses who led almost two million people out of Egypt, are beside the point. The truth of Torah derives from its ability to illuminate the essence of and guide the future directions of the human species with respect to each other and in our relationship with God.

So do we believe in Torah literally?

We embrace the truth of Torah, but that does not mean we read its words literally. Think poetry. Think metaphor. Think love.

Love is intangible. When we feel it, when it ignites our hearts and burns with intense passion; it transcends simple definition. It takes poets, not scientists, to describe that powerful emotion we call love. It takes poets, not scientists, to describe the passion that binds humanity – Jews – to God. Torah, to me, contains the words of a young Israel, passionately in love with God, trying poetically to describe the incredible sensation of being one with God.

Torah expresses the complexity and wonder of our relationship with God. In love, sealed not with a ring, but with the gift of Torah, we become one. Torah sometimes illuminates aspects of a relationship with God that we may have forgotten, that we never experienced, or that make us uncomfortable. This means only that we need to read more deeply, and to engage the teachings of generations of rabbis and commentators.

PaRDes: a four leveled interpretation

Jews explore Torah on multiple levels through PaRDeS, a four leveled interpretation hermeneutic: Pshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod. Pshat: the simple, factual, storytelling level.

When first encountering a Torah text, we try to learn who is who and what they did. Remez: hints of meaning. We ask, what personal insights, allegorically or emotionally, does the Torah portion call forth? What hidden meaning does this hint at? Drash, interpretative mode. Read the collections of Rabbinic Midrash or interpretations. Mine them for connections to larger sources of meaning. Ask: what does this text teach about the great questions of life? Finally, look into the Sod, the secret mystical level, the mysterious point of connection to the Holy One. Ask yourself: how does this piece of Torah connect me to God and to the world outside of me? How does it touch my very soul? Then invite into your study the insights of literary criticism and structural analysis, important lessons from feminist theology and anthropological studies. And of course, struggle with Torah in your heart, soul and mind. Thus we seek the truth of Torah.

Look, developing a relationship with Torah is like maintaining a relationship with a spouse or partner, a friend or co-worker. Those take tremendous effort. People change, and as we grow, we redefine ourselves and our relationship with each other. Why should we expect our relationship with Torah to require anything less? Torah is an organic experience. So our relationship with Torah must grow also.

Find your truth in Torah

I promise you it will be worthwhile. The words of Torah are like water and wine, honey and milk. Just as water quenches thirst, so Torah quenches our spiritual thirst. Even as wine gets better with age, so too do the words of Torah become more satisfying as we ourselves age, for the wisdom of life confirms the wisdom of Torah. Just as honey sweetens even the most bitter of drinks, so too does Torah sweeten even the most bitter times in which we live. And even as milk nourishes the human being, so too does Torah nourish our souls from the moment of our birth until the moment we depart this earth.

So there you have it, David. Torah as life giving nourishment for our souls. Torah is not about scientific or historic truth; but Torah touches on the meaning of our existence, our essence and our relationship to God. And yes, in that sense, David, Torah is absolutely true.

Let the words of Torah wash over you, touching your soul, engaging your mind. Eitz chayim hee, Torah is our tree of life to all who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths lead to peace. Let Torah bring you back to yourself, to your people, to God. Torah can do that. That’s the truth.


Still interested in exploring “Is Torah True?” Please read:

Is Torah True, Part 2
Torah Tidbits: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

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