This letter picks up on a previous dialogue, discussing whether external corroboration of Torah histories are required to prove Torah. In my first entry, I am responding to a friend who suggested that with new artifact findings from alien cultures that corroborate Torah histories, we could feel more assured that Torah is true…
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Interesting artifact findings. But I wonder, is it not an internal contradiction to “support” historical credibility of Jewish texts, with another text? I mean, if a “single” historical document (Torah) or artifact is viewed as insufficient evidence, how can that same corrupt “singular” nature of another source add any credibility? That second source is equally deficient as the first...and so on, ad infinitum. Is it not truly the mass acceptance - even from a singular source - and universal transmission/acceptance of histories where masses were present, which truly convince the mind of a historical truth? If so, we need not look outside a nation’s documents, since mass transmission of witnessed events is 100% proof that no other history is true.
Friend: Intuitively, humans and things related to humanity don’t work like that. We aren’t 100% clear/honest/correct or 100% unclear/dishonest/correct, and this applies to almost anything related to humanity. Things are nuanced, complex, and they can’t be reduced to a binary system of “yes” or “no”. This applies just as equally to human writing and history as well.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Yet...you make this statement with 100% black and white certainty.
Friend: I will address a few issues…by topic.
“Demanding Logical Proof.”
Based on your assumptions, if we look at any document and we find a single detail that is not true, then the whole document is discredited and is unreliable as historical evidence. There are countless examples in Tanakh of internal contradictions (never mind contradictions with extra-Biblical texts). These contradictions can be found within each section of Tanakh (i.e. within Chumash, within Neveim, within Ketuvim), as well as between the different sections. By your tacit logic, then, we should conclude that the Bible is an unreliable historical document.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: I don’t accept contradictions in the Torah as fact. The Rabbis would have already addressed this openly, as they have with all other honest inquiries. I would like to take each one of your suggested contradictions, one-by-one, to determine if it is not actually a Torah lesson, as seen throughout Ecclesiastes’ numerous “contradictions”, which were ultimately shown to be intentionally designed that way.
Friend: ”Potential reconciliations of contradictions in Biblical texts.”
As I see it, a majority of these proposed solutions can only be taken seriously if we first take the proposition that “there are no contradictions in the Bible - everything is 100% true” and then go looking for solutions. This would be obviously circular logic because this discussion is partially dealing with the question of the Bible’s credibility and truth-reliability. In other words, the solutions are ad hoc and would be best left as difficult questions than with the unsatisfying solutions that they receive.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Same as above...please present your cases in question.
Friend: On an even larger methodological plane, the greater question here is where to start. I would argue that the onus is not upon me to present arguments against yours. If you are trying to prove something, which you certainly are in this case, then it is your responsibility to prove its validity and the assumptions it relies on. So, why do you think that an all-or-nothing approach to historical documents is most correct/valid/appropriate? What motivates such a position, and what makes it convincing for you?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Reason tells you and me, there are things 100% verifiable. Therefore, this is the true test of veracity. You just endorsed this position – contradicting yourself by saying, “why do you think that an all-or-nothing approach to historical documents is most correct”. You see, you too seek what is “most correct”. Your mind senses that “correct” can be in degrees, and the greater the degree, the more sure you are. Hence, that which is the greatest degree, i.e., 100% correct, you must admit is unsurpassed, and iron clad. You admit that we can attain 100% proof.
Friend: “Assuming the Binary Approach to History”
If we work with your tacit assumption that our investigation into history should be viewed as a binary choice, then our discussion will inevitably lead to the following question: how do we decide which historical documents receive a “yes-reliable” stamp of approval, and which ones receive a “no-unreliable” stamp of disapproval?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Sinai is the litmus test: factors are required; 1) mass witnesses, 2) easily apprehended historical accounts...this is based on Rabbi Chait’s essay, Torah from Sinai: http://www.mesora.org/torahfromsinai.html
Friend: ”Mass Acceptance”
What makes you believe that the Bible was “accepted by the masses”? As far as I know, there have always been people that have rejected the Bible, and there always will be. The more we learn about the history that surrounds the Bible, the more we learn that there have always been conflicting perspectives regarding the Bible, and that few things have ever been agreed upon. Just consider all the modern research with the Dead Sea Scrolls - there are versions of Biblical books that share many qualities with text of our traditional books, but they are also very different in crucial ways. Certainly this should point to a lack of mass acceptance! Just because history hasn’t recorded the dissent to the Bible earlier in history, this doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You talk about many rejecting parties. Does this render a historical account less credulous? If there arose millions of people doubting the Holocaust, Rome, etc., they could not rewrite historical truths. It would merely place weak-minded persons in doubt. Would you doubt your own history, if masses disagreed with where you were raised?
You mentioned a lack of mass acceptance. But this rejection is not based on reasoning, so it is dismissed.
You mentioned lack of records of dissenters. But this too is
meaningless, as their dissention is baseless.
Friend: Additionally, the more we learn about texts and writing in the ancient world, the more it seems that it was a small group of elites that had knowledge of writing and reading, and that it was these cultural elites who were responsible for the composition, editing, redacting, and transmission of these texts. To this you might claim that the writing of the Torah is different than other kinds of ancient writing and that it would be misleading to use a comparative model in viewing the Torah. This potential objection needs justification: why should we view the Torah as a fundamentally different kind of literature? Why isn’t it susceptible to critical analysis just as other literature is?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Suggesting that the elite of the Jews wrote the Torah, is a denial of known history, of Moses and the Jews at Sinai. Further, our Torah leaders, whom at every turn support truth, to the point of teaching us that we would not follow a command if it was against reason, never suggested this your elitist scenario. The converse is true: they unanimously agreed to the Torah’s Divine origin. Does it not startle you that your suggestion was never entertained by minds more advanced than ours…by Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rashi, Sforno, Ibn Ezra, et al?
Friend: This touches on another basic question: what do you mean by “the bible”? Do you believe that the bible that we have in our hands today is identical to the one that the Israelites received thousands of years ago? Modern research suggests that the Bible (Chumash) was composed over a very long period of time, say between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Again, the Rabbis never disputed what the Torah is.
Friend: I think this assumption of “mass acceptance” needs much more proof. And to respond, “Well, the Bible itself recounts mass acceptance”, is just to beg the question even further - we would then have to distinguish between a “narrative about mass acceptance” and “actual mass acceptance”. Surely, because a narrative tells of its own acceptance by the masses doesn’t prove anything. Anyone can write such a narrative, and this wouldn’t prove anything. If, then, the proof is in the mass acceptance of the text, then we go back to that basic question: What makes you think that the Bible was ever accepted by the masses?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Mass “transmission” is also required to validate the Torah as truth...not simply the text. You are correct: simply recording an event in a book is no proof, since lie can be written in this way. But that the entire world should accept and transmit the Biblical miracles, let alone Jewish history, is a testament to its truth. Had those accounts been false, no man or group could convince a people that they were at a mountain with miracles with 2.5 million others, in Egypt enduring 10 wondrous plagues, or any history. Generations could not rewrite Jewish history, so that others would accept it. But the fact that these stories have been transmitted for 1000s of years is the 100% proof of their truth.
Friend: One last point on mass-acceptance. Why does mass-acceptance help your case? If an individual were determined to interpret phenomenon in life subjectively, based on his/her experiences and education and context, then why would we expect anything different from a larger group of people?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: we are not discussing subjective experiences or feelings, but overtly performed actions, understood equally and accurately by all. All people distinguish between day and night, between rain and sunshine, between men and women. They easily identified a mountain, fire, intelligent voices, Egyptians, plagues, and unnatural phenomena. This line of reasoning refutes nothing, and actually confirms Sinai.
Friend: Methodologically, I would suggest a more nuanced approach to humanity and history. Binary-choice systems seem to work for certain things (math, for example), but not in discipline related to human creativity and production, especially those with ideological/religious/political significance. A nuanced system would ask many different questions about a historical document and the details it includes. Such as, “When was the document written? Was it composed at one time, or did it evolve through time? Why was it written? What possible psychological/political/philosophical motivations/beliefs might be underlying the document? Who wrote the document, and who was the intended audience of the document? How did those people (author(s) and audience) understand life? How did they relate to the concepts that they refer to? How did they understand the words and concepts that they actually use? Who transmitted the document through time? Has it changed through time, or has it remained the same?”
Just as an example. Parah Adumah, which is almost always translated as “red heifer” or “red cow”, wasn’t actually intended to be “red” by the biblical writer(s). By looking at ancient Semitic languages that are directly related to Hebrew (i.e. they share many linguistic properties) we can be sure that the root a-d-m didn’t mean the “red” that we consider “red” today, but that it referred to a phase of the color spectrum that included red as well as reddish-brown as well. This would solve many of the problems that post-biblical generations incurred in understanding this phrase. And it is a good example how elements of texts need to be understood in the context (i.e. in this case linguistic context) in which they were created.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Exposing specific nuances in language, whether true or false, does not discount the clear facts of our discussion; locations, times, people, types of miracles, and so on. We don’t claim Sinai is subject to refutation because some nuances in language can change the location, dates, people involved, or events. Your suggestion has never been made, precisely because it cannot affect the proof of Sinai which is built on irrefutably clear facts.
Friend: I would like it if things could be reduced to a definitive and certain “yes” or “no”. I just don’t have any reason to trust in that kind of assumption, and all that I’ve seen thus far has shown me that as much as we naturally feel like we need that kind of certitude in life, as much as we might feel like that kind of certainty must exist for our lives to be worth anything, we don’t need it.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: But in many areas of your life, you DO live by 100% verification...like responding to ME...you are convinced I exist. You demonstrate with all these words of yours your agreement that reason DOES surpass guessing. You are 100% certain of many things.
“Conclusion: Humanity = Subjectivity”
In conclusion, I think my basic position is this: anything having to do with humanity and human perception resists objectivity. You need not look further than everyday life: obvious miscommunications between people; the way that different individuals from different backgrounds and mindsets interpret the exact same phenomenon in different ways; and the general inability of language to construct a world of concrete and objective meaning. Based on this idea, the only way that I think your argument can work as tightly as you would like it to, is if we say that the Bible is purely and wholly from God without any human involvement. I don’t think you are trying to claim that.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: I am.
Friend: Even in your narrative, humans hear the Bible from God, humans help in some way to put the text together (Moses is still human), humans transmit the text, humans write it down and copy it, etc. Still, Human subjectivity doesn’t mean that nothing is believable.
Even though I think that anything having to do with humanity is inherently subjective to some degree, just because we can’t know anything with absolute certainty doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It just means that we can’t know it with the certitude that we might like.
I’ll take an often cited example about American History. There are narratives about George Washington. I believe that George Washington lived and that he was the first president of the United States of America. I believe this even though no one will ever be able to offer me completely logical proof. I believe it because when I weigh all the different questions that I have (sources, possible motives, etc), it seems reasonable that he did live and that he was, in fact, the first president of our celebrated republic.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim:: If you study human nature, you will arrive at very true rules. One rule is that motive differs in everyone, and based on this, one motivation to lie about history cannot apply to 2.5 million people, let alone the world at large. Thus, mass transmission of the Torah teaches that since no common motive exists to fabricate the stories in the Torah, then, they are all true…just as George Washington’s existence and status is a truth.
Friend: “Random Ruminations”
“What Gives God Moral Authority Over People and the World?”
Unless we assume it, which doesn’t seem to me to be very convincing, why do we think God is right about all of the things that He supposedly says? Sure, we can tell ourselves that God is omnipotent and morally perfect and omniscient, etc - but why would we believe that this indeed the case? Ok, so it’s in our definition of God, but that just begs the question - why are we convinced about that definition of God? Maybe God writes books and doesn’t really know what He’s talking about. Maybe God is just the being that created the world, and the whole moral rampage He went on in the Bible was just His subjective ideas about what morality is all about. Why should we trust Him anymore than anyone else? Maybe there is no such thing as objective morality?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim:: My friend and I discussed this recently. He asked, “How do we know God is ‘perfect’ – perfect in His knowledge, abilities, etc.?”
Let’s define our terms to start: how do we define “perfect”? We said it means that which lacks nothing…it is “independent” and has no needs. For example, a human is not perfect, since it depends on food for its very existence. Therefore, a human is not “perfect”. More primarily, a human cannot create itself, so its very existence, its primary feature that it “exists” is dependent on something else creating it. This dependency applies for all things that exist, except for the First Cause…, which did not require creation, but is exclusively responsible for all creation. We cannot say that matter goes back in time indefinitely. For if this were so, then we are actually saying “there is no first Creator”. And if there is no creator, then nothing can exist. So we arrive at the conclusion that God is independent, with no needs, and therefore, He is perfect. His knowledge is also perfect, so He knows all, and cannot err. He created all laws, so nothing can overpower Him.
Now that we have proved God’s existence, He alone is the cause for all things, including “morality”. And since He alone created morally, He alone defines its truths. He also created knowledge, so He knows what He is talking about.
In conclusion, we realize that 100% proof does exist. And utilizing proof, we realize the Torah is true, and it could not have been fabricated. Third, the Torah came from God. Fourth, God is perfect.
Torah must then be perfect.