Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Shemitah Proof Reproof

A well-known argument in favour of the Pentateuch's divine authorship is that advanced (according to Artscroll's Stone Edition of the Pentateuch) by the Chatam Sofer, who says that the section of Leviticus dealing with the shemitah year "proves" (Artscroll's word) that God wrote the Torah, because a mere human would have to be a fool to promise what the text actually predicts: three years' worth of crop in the sixth year of the shemitah cycle. Since only God could make good on such a commitment, it must have been God who made it. While I agree with the Chatam Sofer's conclusion - that the Torah was divinely authored - I think that at least in our age, his argument suffers from major flaws. To wit:

1. Suppose Moses (not God) made the prediction. Suppose Moses knew he was going to die before the shemitah laws were to go into effect - in other words, before the Jews entered Israel - either because he was near death, or, quite possibly, because he simply had no intention of leading the Jews there. He could then promise whatever he wanted with impunity, knowing he would never have to answer for any promise's lack of fulfillment: that would be his successor's headache. Why would he make such a grandiose promise? Possibly to impress the people, as, indeed, the Chatam Sofer was impressed; possibly he had announced the shemitah year without duly considering what the nation would eat, and came up with the three-year-yield promise in response to challenges from the community. No doubt one could conceive of other reasons.

2. The argument assumes that the prediction was made by someone who believed that the Jews would keep the shemitah laws. If the prediction's originator thought otherwise, he could have made the promise confident that he would never be called to task for its non-fulfillment, since no one (or relatively few) would care even if the prediction did not come true. (Indeed, Rashi (Leviticus 26:35) indicates that the Jews observed shemitah less than half of the time between their entrance into Israel and the destruction of the First Temple.) The predictor could also argue, quite legitimately, that only when the nation was observing shemitah properly could it expect extra produce in the sixth year.

3. The argument assumes the predictor had not planned how to explain the lack of fulfillment of the prediction, even if the Jews did observe shemitah. He could always have resorted to the old stand-by that the Jews weren't righteous enough on the whole, observance of one specific commandment aside. A general indictment of a nation is very difficult to refute.

Why would the author of this portion of the Pentateuch have made the promise in the first place? Why would he have created a problem for himself, even if he had a strategy calculated to surmount it? See (1).

4. The argument assumes that the Pentateuchal passage in question was composed for the Jewish nation before or at the beginning of its tenure in Israel. Suppose (as many today might argue) that it was composed later. Let us discuss two cases:

Case 1: It is composed in Israel, but after the Jews have already been living there for some time, without the mitzvah of shemitah. The author invents the idea of the sabbatical year and the three-year-yield pledge, and claims that it had existed since the time of Moses. The people are not well-educated, and no one is the wiser. There is little or no risk to him: the entire nation is in violation, and has been so for a long time. Their practice will probably be very slow to change.

Why would he invent this commandment and associated promise? See (1); also, perhaps, to explain sufferings that have befallen his people ("None of you have been observing this law! No wonder there's a famine!") He could claim to have "found" it, as per the discovery of the Torah scroll in the Temple in the time of King Josiah (II Kings 22:8 ff).

Case 2: It is composed and presented to Jews in exile outside of Israel. The author need not worry; his composition is entirely theoretical (for his purposes), since he and his listeners are not in the land in which his prediction applies. The nation's non-observance while in Israel (which no one, of course, would contest) could be used to explain their exile.

In short, though I believe, for other reasons, that the Torah was divinely authored, it seems to me that many theories aside from divine authorship can account for the inclusion of the three-year-yield shemitah promise in the Pentateuch, and hence the existence of that promise sheds little or no light on the identity of its originator.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

More on Missionaries

To my previous post on the topic, I would like to add the following thoughts:

Many, probably most, missionaries advocate many values that Jews believe in strongly. Judaism's morality isn't identical to that of the "Christian Right," but there are a lot of similarities. Overall, if Christians have success proselytizing to other non-Jews, most of whom are probably not very religious at all to begin with, I think that's terrific, because they are thereby increasing the average level of morality in our society. Therefore, unless they are targeting Jews, I hope that they meet with success.

If they're targeting secular Jews, I really don't know what to think. Is it better for a Jew to be an atheistic secular humanist or a devout Southern Baptist? I'm inclined to think the latter, but I'm not sure whether there are other considerations I'm missing.

In the broad picture, I think that groups that promote religion are almost always good to have around. Our society is predominantly secular, and although that's generally a pretty comfortable setting for orthodox Jews, it's not really what we believe. I figure the more people there are who publicly declare that God exists and that there are absolute standards of morality, the closer society as a whole will be to the real truth, and the closer non-religious Jews will be to Judaism. I also think there's less danger of losing Jews to Catholicism, or Mormonism, or Islam, etc., than there is of losing them to secularism. Thus I don't mind if the Pope gains influence on society; I do mind if atheism becomes more entrenched.

On a different but related point: I don't have all that much sympathy for the outrage some orthodox Jews feel toward proselytizers. This is mainly for the reason I described in my last post. I'll just add to it that what missionaries do is really just their form of kiruv, which we support when it's done by Jews. It's not an inherently objectionable or offensive act. We happen to know that it's wrong when the kiruv is to an incorrect religion, but the motivation is clearly noble and admirable.

On Missionaries

I recently posted the following in the comments on this post of Rabbi Gil Student, which is about how to (or not to) interact with missionaries. As is my wont, I'm reposting it here. I have other thoughts on this matter, but I'll make them into a separate post at some point.

I once had a very pleasant conversation (mostly about animals; not at all about religion) with a Utahan lady at Yellowstone who had lent me her family's binoculars so I could look at some mountain goats. At the end of the conversation she rather apologetically (and, I might add, nervously) explained that she knew (from my kippah) that I was a Jew; she was a Mormon, and asked me whether I would accept her pamphlet. I took it - quite graciously, I think - and she thanked me with obvious relief and genuine appreciation, shaking my hand. (I later threw the pamphlet away, several states' distance out of her sight.) I believe (hope) my actions were a kiddush hashem. (Maybe I shouldn't have shaken her hand.)

My point: many (probably most) missionaries have undertaken an often unpleasant, thankless task in order to convince people of something that they themselves honestly believe, in an effort to save those others from a terrible fate and/or to serve and glorify God (all values we hold). We obviously don't agree with their understanding of theological fact, but given their beliefs, they're doing a noble thing, and for that I can't help but respect them. One can treat them with respect without implying that one agrees with their religious views. I think that's the way to go.

Who knows? Some missionary may be so impressed by how Jews treat him that he's won over to our beliefs.

Monday, May 01, 2006

On Bereishit

The Talmud and midrash state that the (approximately) 70 rabbis who were forced to translate the Pentateuch into Greek (producing the Septuagint) all (miraculously), independently of each other, altered the verse "Bereishit bara elohim" to read, in their translations, [the Greek equivalent of] "Elohim bara bereishit." This statement is generally understood to mean that the rabbis switched around the words of the verse in their translation, so that one could not erroneously conclude from the verse that some entity named "Bereishit" had created ("bara") "Elohim" (God) - a mistake one could make when reading the words "Bereishit bara elohim" in the verse's original order.

Dr. Moshe Bernstein, a professor of mine at Yeshiva University, was bothered by the following question: ancient Greek was an inflected language (I'm taking his word for that), meaning that the subject and object of a sentence were gramatically identified. I'll explain inflection with an example from English. If I want to express the first person plural as a subject, I say "we", whereas if I want it to be an object, I say "us". This means that English inflects the first person plural to indicate whether it is acting as a subject or as an object. The distinct usages of "I" and "me", "he" and "him", "she" and "her", and "they" and "them" represent similar inflections. These examples notwithstanding, English does not, generally speaking, inflect nouns to indicate their role in a sentence; anglophones identify which words in a sentence play which role based on the sentence's word order. Hence, if I say "The dog bit the cat," you know that the dog did the biting, and the cat was what was bitten - not because of any grammatical modification to the word "dog" or "cat", but because "dog" came before the verb, and "cat" came after. "The cat bit the dog" has an entirely different meaning, while "The dog the cat bit," as a sentence by itself, is ambiguous: who bit whom?

However, when we use inflections, the word order can be changed around without altering the meaning. Thus, "I bit him," "Him I bit," "Him bit I," "Bit I him," etc., all mean the same thing (though some sound awkward). Now, imagine that English inflected all subjects by adding an "o" prefix, and all objects by adding an "i" suffix. Then, "The odog bit the cati" would mean the same thing as "The cati bit the odog," "The cati the odog bit," and "Bit the odog the cati." They would all mean that the dog bit the cat. According to Dr. Bernstein, ancient Greek inflected all subjects and objects, meaning that regardless of word order, the subject in a sentence was always unmistakably the subject, the object clearly the object, etc. If so, Dr. Bernstein asked, what does it mean that the rabbis translated "Bereishit bara elohim" as "Elohim bara bereishit?" In inflected Greek, the word order wouldn't make any difference!

The only answer I can think of is that the Talmud is distinguishing not between word orders but between meanings. In Hebrew, "Bereishit bara elohim" can mean "Bereishit created God," whereas "Elohim bara bereishit" means "God created in the beginning" (or "God created Bereishit"). Perhaps the Talmud is saying that all of the rabbinic translators, via the proper inflections, assigned Genesis 1:1 the meaning "God created in the beginning..." as opposed to "Bereishit created God." The problem with this explanation is, however, obvious: why would any of the rabbis have translated Genesis 1:1 otherwise? Isn't "God created in the beginning..." the interpretation they all actually held to be the correct one? Why is their agreement on this verse's translation noteworthy, and how did they change its meaning?

Again, I have only one suggestion: perhaps the Talmud is saying that in truth, the simple "peshat" of Genesis 1:1 is "Bereishit created God," and that our accepted interpretation of it - "God created in the beginning" - is actually a more awkward way to read the verse; not the "peshat". This seems like an absurd explanation, but I don't know how else to answer the question. Any ideas?

Yeshivish Mind Experiment

Consider the following list of people:

1. Moshe Rabbeinu
2. David Hamelech
3. Eliyahu Hanavi
4. Ezra Hasofer
5. Shammai Hazaken
6. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
7. Rabbi Akiva
8. Rabbi Yochanan
9. Abayei
10. Rav Saadia Gaon
11. Rashi
12. Rabbeinu Tam
13. Rambam
14. Ramban
15. Rav Yosef Karo
16. The Maharal
17. The Arizal
18. The Gra
19. The Chofetz Chaim
20. Rav Kook
21. The Chazon Ish
22. Rav Moshe Feinstein
23. Rav Aharon Kotler
24. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
25. The Satmar Rebbe
26. Rav Shach

Now perform the following mind experiment. Suppose, in conversation with your average, say, 19-year-old "yeshivish" yeshiva student, I argue that one of these people committed a particular grave error. Assume the student has never heard anybody make this allegation before, although I do have considerable historical evidence to back myself up. Concerning which people do you think I would encounter the most resistance in making my claim? List these personalities in order of least to most resistance. If there are too many people for you, you can leave some out, or make several different lists with different combinations of people.

Intelligent Design

I just posted the following comment to http://hirhurim.blogspot.com. Since it doesn't really require context in order to be understood, I figure I may as well post it here too. It could have been better written, but I wanted to get it up quickly.

Intelligent design is a big deal among Christians in the United States because many religious Christians want it taught in the state-funded, nominally secular public school system, in order that Christian children not be atheistically brainwashed (as they see it). By contrast, orthodox Jews, almost without exception, send their children to schools where they get lots of religious instruction. There is relatively little risk that they will graduate high school believing, as a result of their educational curricula, that Judaism is a bunch of hooey. Since the practical implications of the debate are relatively small, the discussion is not nearly as important within orthodox circles as it is among the American populace as a whole.

I do not mean to imply that the origins of life should not be important to orthodox Jews. It's just that in such circles, the impact of such a discussion is, relatively speaking, more in the realm of philosophy, theology and intellectualism than it is a pressing practical matter.

Bible Criticism: Follow-Up

The following post is taken directly from a comment I just posted here in response to an earlier comment to the same post. I feel the topic is sufficiently interesting and important (and that I have enough to say about it) for it to deserve a post of its own.

Please be aware that the site to which I link below (daatemet.org) is, unless I am mistaken, a site dedicated to convincing orthodox Jews to abandon orthodoxy (or maybe Judaism entirely; I'm not sure).

I read the article (in English - the translation is at times a bit clumsy) by Naftali Zeligman to which I believe Mr. Holloway was referring (it can be found here). Most of it is, I think, correct, and in fact I was taught much of the information it contains in my Intro to Bible course at Y.U. (which was a superb course; I will again express my appreciation for it to my professor, Dr. Moshe Bernstein). I think that most of its contents are worthwhile knowledge for people who aren't yet familiar with the material it contains. I object to a few of its assertions, however. To wit:

1. See the paragraphs beginning "Go and see" and "Understand: Reish Lakish", in which Mr. Zeligman cites the record in Tractate Soferim of the discrepancy found in three Torah scrolls - two scrolls had one reading, one had another - resulting in the authorities' deciding in favour of the reading of the two (the majority). Mr. Zeligman comments, "Perhaps it was the two books that were in error." If one believes that the Torah's origins are divine, then it is not unreasonable to posit that God "fixed," so to speak, the outcome, so that the "proper reading" (whatever that means) would prevail. The process might not have been as prone to error as Mr. Zeligman implies.

2. In the paragraph beginning "One who wants to expand", Mr. Zeligman quotes Dr. Menachem Cohen, who, for all I know, may be entirely correct. I disagree, however, with Mr. Zeligman's summary of his words. Mr. Zeligman interprets Dr. Cohen as saying that "the sanctity of the text [of the Torah] is only a human convention ... for it is clear ... that the Torah text has indeed greatly changed in the course of the centuries." I do not believe that this is what Dr. Cohen writes (nor, more importantly, do I believe that it is the truth). The correct principle, I think, is that the Torah text's sanctity does not derive from any precise sequence of letters and words, but from the fact that a (non-heretical) group of Jews has decided, using the proper halachic process, to accept a particular version of the text as valid. In other words, God (not just the Jewish people) assigns sanctity to our text of the Torah because we, following the procedure God wants us to follow, have adopted this text. God similarly would have assigned sanctity to variant texts when they were in use as a result of the correctly applied halachic method. The sanctity of the text is not a "human convention," as Mr. Zeligman would have us believe. It's very divine; it just doesn't work as simplistically as we might have been taught it did in elementary school (or yeshiva gedolah!).

3. Mr. Zeligman, in the paragraphs beginning "Then the high", "The great lights", "Thus wrote the", "Even the Cuzari" and "And though the", discusses the report in the book of Kings of the discovery of a Torah scroll in the Temple. He quotes largely from mainstream orthodox sources, but at the very end attacks the Kuzari's assertion that the Torah was forgotten by most, but not all, of the nation: Mr. Zeligman says that it was entirely forgotten by all, and that the Kuzari, in claiming that a small number of Jews had preserved their religious tradition, was just hypothesizing wildly and desperately to make excuses for his own belief. I would first point out that this issue seems not to be directly related to the accuracy of our written Torah. More importantly, however, I find it quite difficult to believe - all religious convictions aside - that over the course of, let's say, 60 years, there was such a complete and utter destruction of the Jewish religious traditions (which the same book of Kings records were firmly entrenched under King Hezekiah, King Manasseh's immediate predecessor) that no one - not one single person - was familiar with the old ways and beliefs. Is there any record of such a thing ever happening - of a long-held national belief system being completely supplanted, vanishing without a trace, in little more than half a century? I can't think of any such instance, but I know of many counter-examples. Thus, I find the Kuzari's supposition far more plausible than Mr. Zeligman's.

(Additionally, if, again, we assume that the Torah was given initially by divine revelation and that God was "behind" it, one would assume that God would have ensured that his instructions would not have been totally forgotten. But I think the Kuzari's argument stands firmly even if one leaves this consideration aside.)

Addendum: The correct parts of Mr. Zeligman's article, while challenging to various beliefs held by many orthodox Jews, do not undermine the validity of Judaism. To me this is obvious; if anyone wants elaboration, ask a question in the comments and I'll respond (or change my position, if need be!).

A Page Out of the Vatican's Playbook?

This site contains the account - from the back of Lawrence Kelemen's Permission to Receive - of Rabbi Kelemen's correspondence with the Roman Catholic Church about several apparent inconsistencies within the New Testament. The Church referred Rabbi Kelemen to two books by Dr. Raymond E. Brown, both bearing the Vatican's stamp of approval. The site quotes a few different ideas from Dr. Brown's books, including the assumption that Jesus' birth was not virginal (contrary to popular Christian belief). Dr. Brown cautions, however, that "we should not underestimate the adverse pedagogical impact on the understanding of divine sonship if the virginal conception is denied." And the site reports that

"Brown also considers the possibility that Christianity's founders intended to create the impression that an actual virginal conception took place. Early Christians needed just such a myth, Brown notes, since Mary was widely known to have delivered Jesus too early: 'Unfortunately, the historical alternative to the virginal conception has not been a conception in wedlock; it has been illegitimacy.' Brown writes that:

"Some sophisticated Christians could live with the alternative of illegitimacy; they would see this as the ultimate stage in Jesus' emptying himself and taking on the form of a servant, and would insist, quite rightly, that an irregular begetting involves no sin by Jesus himself. But illegitimacy would destroy the images of sanctity and purity with which Matthew and Luke surround Jesus' origins and would negate the theology that Jesus came from the pious Anawim of Israel. For many less sophisticated believers, illegitimacy would be an offense that would challenge the plausibility of the Christian mystery." [emphasis added]

I quote this because of recent events in orthodox Jewish circles. The devoutly Catholic sentiments of Dr. Brown - his fears of the consequences of revealing the unromanticised facts about Christian doctrine to the public - make me think of the banning of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's books (and of Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky's The Making of a Godol), which it seems likely was for almost exactly the same reasons.