Fundamentals of Torah for Non-Jews

Doug Taylor


It’s important that you understand that I have a bias. I’m interested in the truth.

There are those who will say that there is no truth, or that there is no reality, or that everyone makes up their own reality, or that we can’t know the truth, and so forth.

The problem with this is that we live in a practical world. We can spout theoretical platitudes all day, and maybe even sound intelligent to some (including ourselves), until the day the doctor says, “You have a brain tumor.” Suddenly, all of our wonderful theory goes out the window. All of those flowery-sounding statements about not being able to know the truth don’t cut it. We want answers from the doctor. How dangerous is it? What can be done? Are treatments available? Has medical science figured out a cure?

And of course, the main underlying question that we don’t want to verbalize is: “Am I going to die?”

Should the doctor at that point say, “Well, there really is no truth in the neurosciences. It’s whatever you think it is,” our formerly pseudo-philosophical self will likely have an apoplectic fit. Posturing is great until you find yourself in a real firefight with real bullets.

There is truth. And in many cases, it can be known. Not always, perhaps, but more than we sometimes think. We all deal with it every day. Someone can argue that we can’t really know if we’re real or not, but the truth is that we all know what the result will be if you stand on the freeway in front of a Mack truck going 70 miles per hour, or if you’re at an amusement park and the bungee cord breaks.

Much of my life has been expended on the search for truth. I do not claim to have all of the answers or necessarily even a significant fraction of them. At the same time, I know what I think (at least today) and why I think it. I reserve the right to change that tomorrow if someone can show me a more sound approach.

A great Jewish sage once said that a person should always think that he is right (for after all, who else are we each going to rely on), and – and this is a very important and – be willing to retract if someone can show us that we’re wrong.

I hope to always hold to both of these principles in equal measure.

Chapter 1 – Setting the Foundation

While it would be easy to jump into a study of Torah for Non-Jews, we need to tackle some foundation basics first. In our society, we tend to start well past the beginning. If you’ve ever been involved in a so-called religious discussion, you know that these can turn into emotional snowball fights very easily.

Years ago in my town, a pastor of a church wrote an article in the local newspaper expressing his concern about the spread of homosexuality and his concerns about what this might mean for his children growing up in society. From his religious viewpoint, homosexuality was wrong, and he made that point clear in his article. As you might imagine, there was a firestorm of letters to the editor in protest. Sadly, the letters were little more than emotional venting. They raked the pastor over the coals, they called him names, and in general they just stirred up a lot of dust. In only one case did a writer raise a potentially legitimate argument against the pastor’s position, and even that writer still included some emotional name-calling in his letter.

Finally, after this went on for a while, I wrote a letter pointing out the uselessness of the discussion. Why was it useless? Because in general, there two kinds of people; those who think that there is a Creator of the universe who gave us rules to live by, and those who don’t. The ones who do think that there is a Creator of the universe generally (I know there are exceptions, but bear with me) believe that the rules set down by that Creator forbid homosexuality. For those who don’t think there is a Creator of the universe, they will likely find no problem with homosexuality.

So to argue the issue of homosexuality is a pointless venture, because each side of the argument is starting from different premises.

No discussion about homosexuality will ever go anywhere if the people involved in the discussion are arguing from different foundational assumptions. It’s the differences in those assumptions that they must tackle first. Only then does the discussion of homosexuality have any hope of proceeding constructively.

When you study geometry in school, one of the axioms that you begin with is the idea that two parallel lines in a plane never intersect. This can’t be proven, but it is accepted as a given in Euclidean geometry. From that axiom, you can derive all kinds of other things. But there is also non-Euclidean geometry that doesn’t necessarily accept the axiom that two parallel lines in a plane never intersect. You can derive a number of things in that system as well.

If someone were to argue a “downstream” conclusion from one system against a corresponding idea from the other system, the argument would be pointless. Why? Again, the two sides would be arguing from different premises. They are starting from a different place. What is needed is to back way up and discuss the differences in the underlying assumptions first. Then, once those differences in assumptions are dealt with, a person is in a position to discuss the downstream conclusion.

So, before we launch into the details about Torah for non-Jews, let’s back way up and discuss some foundational questions, the first of which is: How do we know what is true?

In my experience, this question is almost universally overlooked in our society. Yet knowing the answer to this question is fundamental to our knowledge of virtually anything.

Think about it for a moment. Just how do you know what’s true?

Is something true because you read it in a book? Because someone older than you said so? Because it’s posted on the Internet? Because a so-called religious leader said so?

This is a question that is worth chewing on for a while. I’m going to offer an answer, but before I do, if you want to get the most out of this material, I invite you to think seriously about this. It’s just about the most fundamental question that one can ask.

My answer is on the next paragraph.

Did you take the time to think about the question? Do you have a clear answer? One that makes sense to you?

Maimonides, one of the great Jewish scholars, suggested that there are three ways to know what is true:

(1) Direct observation or experience

(2) Reasoning, such as a logical deduction or proof, or a preponderance of evidence

(3) Prophecy from a known prophet

Let’s look at each of these in detail.

Direct Observation or Experience

Direct observation or experience is exactly that. We use our five senses to learn and understand what is true. (1) I saw it. (2) I heard it. (3) I tasted it. (4) I touched it. (5) I smelled it.

Almost any knowledge of the physical world starts with these. Someone, somewhere, experienced something directly.

Note that there are some limitations here. First, we can’t directly observe or experience everything. For example, I wasn’t alive during World War II, yet I hold that it occurred. We’ll talk about that in a moment.

Second, our senses can be fooled. Movie-makers and magicians do it all the time. The art of special effects has become an amazingly complex discipline. Photographs are so easily modified today that any given photograph cannot necessarily be taken as real. We need to be on the lookout for these types of things.

Reasoning, such as a logical deduction or proof, or a preponderance of evidence

Let’s start with logical deductions or proofs. These, of course, require a knowledge of logic.

(Ironically, in the days of the ancients, logic was considered a prerequisite to the study of any other subject matter. For how could one know whether he is reaching a proper conclusion without a knowledge of logic and deduction? Yet today, logic is an elective course. Consider how you would feel being diagnosed with a serious disease or medical condition by a doctor who had never been taught how to reach a proper conclusion.)

As an example, logic dictates that a statement cannot be simultaneously true and not true. If A equals B, then it is not true that A is not equal to B. If I’m in Los Angeles at a given moment in time, then I cannot be in Venice at the same moment.

Then there is preponderance of evidence. Consider this. Suppose that a stranger approaches me on the street and explains that he was abducted by aliens earlier that day, they took him up in their space ship, and he had a nice lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches with Elvis Presley. Would we believe him? After all, we weren’t there, so we have no direct experience. It could be true, but then again...

Now consider World War II. Many of us didn’t experience that event directly either. Yet we believe that it happened. Why?

This is where the important concept of the preponderance of evidence comes into play. Thousands upon thousands of people experienced the Second World War. Hundreds of books have been written about it. Movies have been made about it. There is so much direct observational evidence by those who experienced it that we can reasonably rely on their observations and direct experience.

It is possible – and certainly happens – that one or two people make something up or lie about it. But the larger the group that is “in the know”, the harder it becomes to keep a lie a secret. Conspiracies become more difficult – and at some point virtually impossible – the more people are involved. For example, if one person tells me that a bank was robbed in my town earlier today, I may or may not believe him, depending on the person and perhaps other factors. But if 1,000 people report that there was a bank robbery in my town earlier today because they personally watched it happen from their office buildings (not because they read it on the Internet), then I can be fairly certain that something resembling a bank robbery occurred.

We learn most of history this way. When there is a preponderance of evidence, we can be fairly certain that an event happened. In other historical situations, where we may have the account of only one or a small handful of people, the veracity of the account becomes more open to question.

In fact, much of the knowledge we have comes from a preponderance of evidence based on the direct observations of others. If a doctor gives us a certain medication, we generally trust that it will work, not because we observed the clinical trials, but because there is a preponderance of evidence that the trials were conducted and that they yielded positive results.

Prophecy from a known prophet

A third way we can know something is true is if the information is provided through prophecy by a known prophet. Now, this would require that we establish that prophecy exists, and the criteria by which we can know that someone is a bona fide prophet. We’re not going to go into that in this series, but I want to include it just so our list is complete. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the first two: direct observation or experience, and reasoning.

But what about belief?

Ah yes, then there is belief. So let’s ask the question, what is belief? I submit that “Belief is a conviction that I have concerning something about which I am ignorant.”

Read that again. “Belief is a conviction that I have concerning something about which I am ignorant.”

Why am I ignorant about it? Because if I knew – through direct observation or experience, or through reasoning – then I wouldn’t need to “believe”.

Think about this. Have you ever heard anyone ask, “Do you believe in yogurt?”

Of course not. “Yogurt?” you might say. “You mean that creamy white stuff that comes in small containers at the store? Usually in a variety of fruit flavors? Sure, I’m familiar with it. In fact, I had some this morning.”

It wouldn’t mean anything to say that you “believe” in yogurt. By contrast, you “know” about yogurt. The only reason you might need to believe in yogurt is if you had no knowledge of it, in which case you’d be ignorant about it.

But, you might ask, that’s great for something I can see and touch, but what about something that I can’t see or touch?

Ok, how about electricity. Electricity is a flow of electrons. Which of us has actually seen the flow of electrons through a wire? Yet do we say that we “believe” in electricity? No, because we’ve worked with the effects of electricity long enough and studied it long enough to know that it actually exists. The only reason I would need belief around this would be if I were ignorant about it; that is, I had no knowledge of it.

I submit to you that belief, in and of itself, means nothing. There are people who believe all kinds of things. Does that make them true? Does it make them not true?

Actually, neither. A belief doesn’t tell us anything, and it virtually ends productive discussion.

This point was brought home to me years ago when, as a consulting actuary, I was working on behalf of an organization that was considering giving a cost-of-living adjustment to the pension benefits that the company’s plan was paying to retired employees. The company was under no legal obligation to do this. They asked me and others to look into the question of whether they should grant this increase. (The retired employees were on fixed dollar pensions, so that any increase in the cost of goods and services in that society made it more difficult for them because their pension benefits were fixed at a certain level – determined at the time of retirement – for life.)

After studying the issue, we determined that there was no business reason to grant a cost-of- living increase, but that it was a judgment call on the part of senior management of the company. The decision went all the way to the Board of Directors. All of the Directors agreed not to give the increase, except one. His position was, “Yes, I hear all of the facts. But I believe we have an obligation to these people.”

In telling me this later, my manager sagely said, “As soon as someone says, ‘Yes, I hear all of the facts, but I believe such and such,’ all debate stops. Why? Because you cannot debate a belief.”

This is a critical point. It is virtually impossible to debate a belief. If six people are standing around an all-white car, and five of them agree that the car is white, but the sixth person says, “Yes, I see that the car is white and that you all agree, but I believe the car is red,” what can you say? How can you argue with such a position? At that point, all discussion stops, because there is no way to continue. n

To be continued.