A Fascinating Discussion

I observed a fascinating discussion unfold the other day. It triggered anger in me the way that few others have, and may have provided the key to helping me make sense of the religious mentality I’ve been immersing myself in.

The discussion took place in the “Jewish Thought” course held several afternoons a week as a part of the introductory Judaic Studies Program at the Jerusalem yeshiva, Mayanot. It consisted mostly of a back-and-forth between “B,” one of the students, and “R,” the Rabbi who taught the course. I’m paraphrasing, as I lacked the foresight to record the conversation.

The theme was the origin of the Torah, the Jewish holy book. B kicked off the discussion by posing one of the most persistent, uncomfortable questions in Orthodox Judaism:

“How do I know that Moses didn’t just have an epiphany and write the entire Torah himself? Why can’t we imagine Moses as a peerless, but mundane, genius who in an incredible historical feat was able to conceive of and pen the entire Five Books himself, thereby freeing us from the need to believe in an unfalsifiable theory of divine authorship? Isn’t is possible that our religion was created single-handedly by a human being? How can we know?”

I was impressed at the question. After having studied at Mayanot for nearly a month by that point, I had come to understand the entirety of the religion as hinging on the issue of divine authorship of the Torah. For the uninitiated among us, the Jewish story is that God gave the Torah to the Israelites shortly following their exodus from Egypt, circa 1400 BCE, in a sort of consummation of the covenant formed with Abraham, Judaism’s alpha-patriarch. The Torah was given as follows: the Israelites made their way from Egypt to the base of Mount Sinai, where God revealed itself to the Israelites and summoned Moses to the top of the mountain. Moses remained on the mountaintop for 40 days, out of sight of the Israelites. He descended, Commandments in hand, to find the Israelites worshipping the golden calf. Moses smashed the tablets in rage, and then in a curious biblical episode, had another pair hammered out to replace the first. Thus, the Five aptly named Books of Moses are given to the Israelites.

Much hinges on this story. The divine authorship of the Torah is the source of almost all of its legitimacy and authority as a guiding document for the Jewish faithful. Everything–everything–in the Torah is taken as purposeful and divinely commanded. To accept the divinity of the Torah is to implicitly accept the imperatives included therein, and to exclude any possibility of revision or reinterpretation. To reject the story, however, is to define the Torah as a product of mortal hands. This would dissolve the authority of the text and turn it into a historical documentation of the values and beliefs of a particular group of people during a particular period of history. The Torah would thus become a sort of historical self-help book, only as relevant or meaningful as the individual or group interpreting it, and there would be no consequences for violating any of its instructions. You realize why this question was so good.

I turned to R, waiting to hear his response. I was very curious how he would handle this. His response took me by surprise:

“B, do you know what kind of question you’re asking? You’re asking how we can know this for certain? People spend their entire lives trying to discover the truth–in physics, math, history–and after years and years they’ve made only the slightest progress towards it. Most normal people eventually realize that they’ll never apprehend the truth and settle for what society and their authority figures tell them. Do you really understand the ‘Truth’ behind Newtonian mechanics? Behind the laws of trigonometry even?”

I was caught off-guard. I had expected R to deliver a stock answer, part of the Rabbinic training of fielding difficult questions. Instead, he had performed some interlocutory kung-fu and turned the interrogation back on B:

“If what you’re looking for is certainty, truth,” he continued, “be prepared to put aside everything else in your life–friends, career, family–and devote yourself single-mindedly towards finding it.”

I could see that B was off-balance. He shifted into a defense posture and started trying to re-establish the perimeter of his original inquiry:

“I don’t see why this is so important. I just want to know how we (religious jews) can be so sure that the Torah wasn’t just a product of human ingenuity?”

R refused to let up. He realized that he had jarred B, and doubled down on his efforts to shake B from his original question:

“Let’s be clear about what you’re really asking. You’re asking how we can know truth, and I’m telling you that if you want truth you need to be ready to cast everything aside and devote your life to its pursuit. Are you ready to do that?”

At this point I felt compelled to intervene. I thought that B’s original question was pressing and profound, and I didn’t like how R had fabricated a distracting conversation around B’s supposed epistemological naiveté. I’m the kind of guy who waits to be called on, but I made an exception:

“R, you’re being unfair. B asked a good question, and you’ve turned the answer into an enormous life project.”

At this point, R’s eyes had started to flash (perhaps mine had as well), and he turned to me:

“No I haven’t. His question isn’t about what he thinks it is. Ask yourself: why does this question matter to him? It’s because this question will influence his life. The reason why we don’t all lock ourselves in our rooms to personally decode the laws of physics is that ultimately, those answers won’t matter to us. A question has no intrinsic value, other than the impact it will have on one’s life. This one will, which is why he’s interested in it–you can’t play this as a search for knowledge.  This isn’t a question about authorship. This is about life itself. And it’s not my place to be making those kinds of decisions for him.”

R turns from me and begins speaking to no one in particular:

“He’s asking a question that I won’t answer, because the question is about how to live life, and he has to answer that question on his own.”

Something clicked then. I realized what R was really saying, although he wasn’t allowed to put it into words:

“There is no way that we can answer your question in secular terms. There is no rigorous academic argument that can be made to answer your question in the affirmative. The question you’re really asking is not ‘how can I know who wrote these books?’ but rather ‘do I want to be Jewish?’ And I can’t answer that question for him.”

Up until that moment I had been holding out a hope, in my heart of hearts, that I would be able to find a thread linking the wisdom of the Torah to my broadly cultivated personal understanding of how the world works. I had badly wanted to find a way to fit what I perceived as the rich moral and intellectual heritage of the Jewish religious tradition into my secular framework for analyzing and filtering my experiences. I was wondering if it could be possible to practice Judaism as a sort of cultural anthropologist, extracting the wisdom and discarding the accumulated dogma? I realized then that such a thing would be impossible.

All my while in the yeshiva, I had been searching–through the sacred texts, the commentaries, the later treatises–trying to find my way progressively deeper into the intellectual castle of the Jewish religious tradition. I wanted to see how it was structured, to understand which ideas formed the foundation, and how later ideas have been built on them. I wanted to dig into the heart of the religion and see what lay at the core. I won’t pretend that I found that answer–there are depths of the faith that I was far from being able to access–but it seemed to me that this binary belief/disbelief in the authorship of the Torah was pretty close to central. You either believed it, and everything else would inevitably click into place; or you denied it, and everything else would slowly rust away. R was right–the question was a fallacy. The question has no meaning, as the real question is that of “what does the asker want the answer to be?” There’s no answer that permits agreement/disagreement, only acceptance/rejection.

The class ended, and the students filtered out, R giving B some followup advice about how to go about solving his unstated underlying question of belief. My feelings had been left very mixed. I felt for the first time the clear presence of the slim gap that divides the secular world from the religious one, and it was surprisingly both bigger and smaller than I had imagined.

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