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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 3. Bible text and commentary

On Biblical commentaries

For example, Rashi

On the Biblical text


In conclusion

On Biblical commentaries. Looking at the commentaries of the Midrash or of different rabbinical personalities (Talmudic or later) relative to each passage of the Torah (or Chumash, i.e. the Five Books of Moses) or other parts of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible as a whole), it seems evident that each of them is imaginatively filling narrative gaps or proposing resolutions of apparent contradictions in the text.

Often, the language used in the Biblical text is sufficiently ambiguous that many interpretations are possible even of the primary story line, even before any fleshing out with additional details is attempted. This is called Haggadah, story-telling.

The different linguistic interpretations, story embellishments or explanations of inconsistencies or difficulties are not necessarily harmonious with each other, although each rabbi tries to form an internally consistent line of reasoning (called a shitah). Yet all are equally respected and included as true in the tradition; this mental gymnastic being justified by saying that “the Torah has seventy facets” (without considering the epistemological and ontological implications of such a proposition).

So long as they seem credible[1] in various ways (e.g. homiletically inspiring or psychologically revealing), they are traditionally accepted as possible truths, and thence as true in some way, i.e. as some facet of the whole truth. They must of course also be compatible with Jewish doctrine and values. Thus, for instance, the heroes must be depicted in a good light; even if they are shown as momentarily failing, there must be a moral to that failing.

However, from a neutral epistemological point of view, all such commentaries are simply speculations formed around a limited and static database, viz. the given written text. According to inductive logic, these commentaries, being all reasonably consistent with that given data and internally consistent, are all indeed equally conceivable hypotheses. But that does not make them necessarily true, however conceivable they seem. And it does not imply them to be necessarily mutually compatible.

If we limit our judgment to the written text, and suppose that the different speculations (or conjectures) were well formulated, there is no way for us to choose between them or validate or invalidate any of them. However, if we refer to logic, historical evidence, scientific developments and philosophical considerations, we may be able to challenge or eliminate some or all of them, and even indeed in some cases put in doubt or reject the database itself (i.e. the core claims in the written text).

Logic does not admit of relativity as a realistic principle. If the explanatory formulas proposed by different rabbis are in conflict, they may not be considered all strictly speaking true side by side. They may be considered equally or variously uncertain, but not equally true. Contradiction (if, of course, contradiction is indeed present in a given case) is logically unacceptable. This principle of the absoluteness of eventual truth is unfortunately not always clearly admitted in rabbinical epistemology.

Moreover, epistemology must ask the rabbis who or where they got their information from. Sometimes, the historical sources are evident and known. But in most cases, previously unknown information has suddenly appeared! If this information was never mentioned in writing by previous commentators for hundreds or even thousands of years, how did the later commentators get it? It is hinted that an oral transmission has preserved the information since Sinai. But there is no proof of such claims; they are therefore arbitrary assertions, just say-so. An unproven principle cannot be used as an incontrovertible proof of other unproven propositions.

Additionally, when a commentator interprets a Torah passage, his comments sometimes have little to do with the text itself. The text is in such cases (i.e. often, but not always) used more as a pretext or springboard for a digression. The connection between the text and the commentary is more one of association of ideas than one of causality. Yet, once made – even if this comment is not directly relevant or logically appropriate to the text, even if it is incoherent nonsense – the comment is dogmatically assumed to be essential and irrefutable. In this way, the text loses its original simplicity and clarity and becomes surrounded by an immovable crust of commentary.

Moreover, individual commentators bring their personal mind-set to their interpretations. They all of course have in common: love of God, the Torah, the Jews and Eretz Israel, and contempt for the enemies of these values. But, for instance, whereas Rashi tends to appeal to miracles more often than logically necessary, the Ramban (who admittedly wrote more than a century and a half later) is comparatively far more analytic and rationalistic in his explications of events.

For example, Rashi. Without doubt, the most prolific, influential and loved commentator of the Bible (and the Talmud) has been R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Most of his commentaries are indeed illuminating, but many (if taken literally) must be regarded as fantastical and antiquated. Consider, for instances, some of his assertions in relation to the first chapter of Genesis.

Commenting on the exclusive use of the Divine name ‘Elokim’ in this chapter (which name is traditionally associated with Justice – in contrast to the four-letter ineffable name ‘YKVK’, which is considered as standing for the attribute of Mercy, and which only appears as of the second chapter), Rashi says that God first created the world on the basis of strict justice, and then decided it could not endure on that basis alone, and so introduced mercy. This sounds like a neat explanation, until one asks the question: is it conceivable that an omniscient Creator would engage in trial and error? Surely, He would know in advance what was going to work and what wouldn’t! So such an explanation is logically untenable[2].

Further on, Rashi claims that the sun and moon were originally created of equal size, but then the moon complained that it was not bigger than the sun, so it was instead made smaller. This could be taken as an object lesson, to teach us humility. But as regards the actual history of these astronomical objects, while it might have been conjectured like that in Rashi’s day, it is known for sure to be false today. The moon was from its formation a very much smaller entity that the sun. But furthermore, are we to believe that the moon had a preference and a way to express it? Was the moon endowed with consciousness, choice and speech? In antiquity, people believed this and assigned godly status to the orbs; but if Rashi had been omniscient (as some effectively believe) he should have known better.

Next, Rashi claims that the stars were created as satellites to the moon, to console it for its loss of status due to its shrinking. Leaving aside the ascription, here again, of human emotions to inanimate matter – we must point out that the stars are today known to be enormously bigger (and much older) than the moon. Some stars are so enormous that our sun (a star itself) is a mere speck of dust in comparison; all the more so, the moon (which is itself a speck of dust compared to the sun). The reason the stars appear smaller is simply that they are much further away. Rashi evidently based his beliefs on mere naked eye observation of the sky; he had no special knowledge.

And so forth – we could go on and on, showing up the inaccuracies and absurdities in many of Rashi’s, and indeed other commentators’, comments on this passage of the Bible, and many others. A whole book of comments could be written on this; but I will not here pursue the matter, considering that every educated and honest reader is quite capable of doing the job without my help.

Note however that, although Judaism teaches us to ask questions, it does not appreciate overly insistent questioning. We may dig, but not too deeply. Faith and simplicity of spirit are recommended – that is, naivety is enjoined, so as to avoid embarrassing challenges or criticisms. If one does insist on credible answers, one is effectively suspected of moral failings. This is an argumentum ad hominem. A threat of Divine retribution hangs in the air, frightening the recalcitrant into submission. This is an argumentum ad baculum or ad metum.

On the Biblical text. Of course, one can go deeper than that in challenging Biblical narrative, and many dare to do so nowadays. Indeed, so much doubt concerning this document has been sown in the last couple of centuries that it would be dishonest not to examine the issue at all. Some of this doubt has ulterior motives and is clearly open to debate; but some of it seems hard to beat.

Looking at the work of commentators, one can view them as effective novelists, who enrich accepted facts with elaborate fictions. Just as today, writers of historical novels (or even academic historians, to some extent) use their imagination to concretize in narrative form their theories regarding historically more or less certain events, so with Bible commentators.

But moreover, the Bible itself may be a novel, a grand saga-type novel. Or perhaps rather, as many contend, a collection of novels, some of which have been merged together to make them seem more like one. This grand novel includes the story of a certain family (the family of the Patriarchs) and a certain nation (the Children of Israel, the Jews), as well as a collection of their beliefs (including, for instance, Monotheism and Creationism), practices (e.g. the Judaic legal system and sacrificial rites) and values (e.g. worship of God and love of tzeddaka).

Some of the stories and claims in this book are no doubt or very likely factual, but some are no doubt or very likely fictional. Some have been partly or fully confirmed by scientific, historical, archeological and other research; but some have been greatly put in doubt if not thoroughly debunked. Many, of course, are uncertain either way.

Of course, not all modern historians and critics are objective; some are motivated by an anti-religious agenda and cannot be considered authoritative. But on the whole, the trend is clear: there are serious experiential and rational grounds for doubt of the religious scenarios. Those who choose to ignore these grounds are not being objective or honest.

A possible scenario for the Torah’s production is that there were some core oral traditions in circulation, such as the ancestral origin of the Jewish people or the story of their time of slavery in Egypt. Some of those stories may have been mythical in whole or in part, but some were no doubt factual. Fiction is always based on some fact.

These stories were eventually written down by one or more religious or historical novelists, no doubt well-meaning people who sought to solidify collective memory. These novelists may have put down in writing the oral traditions verbatim, or from the start fleshed them out somewhat.

Later, the earliest commentators may have integrated their further embellishments directly into the text, expanding it to some extent. However, at some stage such modifications of the core text became unacceptable, because by then the text was already sufficiently widely known that changes would lack credibility.

Commentary thus passed over to another field of tradition – first, orally again, then again in writing (as the Talmud, etc.). This was eventually claimed as authoritative as the original text. A good and quite late example of this stage is the Zohar. In this context, the argument of hidden transmission is often typically invoked.

Throughout this process of growing and therefore changing tradition, the passage of time plays a leading role. The further back in time events are, the more credible they seem, because the more difficult it becomes to question them. They cannot readily be proved, but they cannot readily be disproved either. Or so it seems, although in some cases ancient beliefs have indeed been convincingly refuted in modern times (e.g. the belief in a less than 6,000 year old world). Just as ageing wine becomes tastier, so religious documents become more firmly rooted and kosher as time passes.

But even a quite new doctrine or document can suddenly appear in history, and be considered binding, provided it is claimed to be old. In 2 Kings 22:8-13 (and in 2 Chronicles 34:14-21), we are told that during king Josiah’s reign the High Priest Hilkiah “found the book of Torah (sefer haTorah)” in the Temple. This is traditionally identified as the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim).

An obvious question arises, if this story is true: was that the rediscovery of a preexisting but temporarily lost document, or was it the introduction of a newly written document under the guise of rediscovery? For how is it conceivable that such a crucial scroll of Torah would have been destroyed everywhere, and even forgotten by most people, save one copy that Hilkiah had hidden for a while or simply found by chance?

That the scenario was accepted at the time does not prove it. The people concerned might have been sufficiently credulous to believe whatever they were told. They had just gone through difficult times, remember. Many were perhaps ignorant, and could not have thought about such issues. Some, perhaps Josiah among them, knew the truth, but found it politically or otherwise convenient to let the sleight-of-hand pass without objecting.

So, in this story from Judaism’s own history books, we may have an example of how new primary material might have been be injected into the stream of tradition. (For all that, I respect the fifth book of the Torah as a genuine continuation of the first four, which do not as clearly end the narrative as it does. My intent here is only to illustrate a process, not make any specific claims.)

This whole process of evolving tradition applies equally well, and in many respects more obviously, to the later offshoots of Judaism, notably the Christian Bible and the Moslem Koran[3]. The same turn of events is found in other religions too, like the Hindu and Buddhist. It is the way religious documents and traditions naturally develop in human history.

Apologetics. It is important for those who wish to defend religion not to get involved in foolish apologetics. This term refers to a last ditch stand to save past literal interpretations of some part of the text from the doubt produced by recent scientific discoveries or arguments. A commonly given example is the insistence on literally six days of Creation some 6,000 years ago, and the order of Creation given in Genesis, contrary to now well-established scientific belief in an at least 13.7 billion year-old material universe with a very different proposed ordering of subsequent events.

The apologetic commentator resists change by projecting scenarios that are only superficially credible. If we look at them a bit more deeply, we can easily spot the interpretative error(s) involved. For example: given the empirical confirmations of the theory of evolution (which do not perhaps definitely prove the theory, but which certainly make it inductively superior to any other hypothesis advanced so far), it is difficult to see how the Adam and Eve story can be taken at face value.

The apologist might now concede prehistory and admit that there were other human-like beings on Earth before Adam and Eve, and this for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, but he suggests that one family of such humans was Divinely selected some 6’000 years ago and received a special soul which henceforth distinguished it. This may seem at first sight like a harmless and conceivable reconciliation, but upon reflection it cannot be reasonably upheld.

For the empirical truth of the matter is that genetic studies have clearly shown that currently existing humans do not all descend from a single couple (viz. Adam and Eve, or whoever) some 6,000 years ago. Their genetic forebears, though evidently genetically related, are far more geographically scattered and variously ancient. It follows that the proposed scenario to ‘save’ the literal Genesis story is not successful in fact.

A particular type of apologetics consists in anachronistically claiming that the writer(s) and past commentators of the Torah knew all along that this or that historical or scientific claim was only intended metaphorically, allegorically, or mystically, and not literally. This is a convenient ex post facto argument used by later rabbis when all other apologetics fail, in order to maintain the credibility of the written and oral Torah.

But it is evident from any honest scrutiny of past rabbinical pronouncements that the earlier authorities, under no external pressure to recant, certainly considered all claims made as literally true. And indeed, many still do today. And indeed, most authorities would if pushed to the wall agree with the principle that the pshat (or simple, literal) reading is always true, even if additional figurative or esoteric meanings are proposed.

This insight is important, because if we follow its logic we must admit that if many past authorities were in error with regard to many historical and scientific claims, then their more religious, legal and ritual claims are also to some extent open to doubt. The fact that a more recent authority has admitted a claim not to be literally true does not change the fact that the past authorities believed it literally. The psycho-epistemology of the earlier proponents remains doubtful, even if later ones apologetically qualify their statements.

Considering, for instance, that many of the writers of fanciful midrashim (stories written in Talmudic times) were at the same time halakhic authorities (Jewish law makers), we may well wonder whether such people (who evidently could not clearly distinguish between their imagination and reality) can be trusted to run our lives (by claiming all their rulings to be of ultimately Divine origin).

Had they said explicitly: “this is of course a metaphor, don’t take what I say literally”, their credibility would have been intact; but they usually made no such disclaimer. And indeed, most if not all people took their sayings literally for centuries thereafter, and many still do.

Moreover, the later disclaimers are formulated in such a way that the religious consequences are made to seem localized and insignificant. The modern rabbis who admit past factual errors by authorities do not draw any systematic and radical conclusions from their admissions. Seeing the epistemological limitations of their predecessors, they do not reassess the whole range of doctrines and beliefs received from them.

One notable artifice used by the rabbinical commentators in such contexts is the “Nature has changed” (nishtaneh hateva) argument. Faced with a serious disagreement between some Torah statement or the assumptions of past deciders of the law concerning some aspect of nature, and present scientific knowledge about it, later deciders occasionally reinterpret the Torah statement or revise the law, claiming it is no longer applicable because “Nature has changed” – i.e. the facts or laws of nature involved have literally become different.

They do not provide some proof that Nature has changed – but to them it seems obvious that “it must have”, because in their minds the Torah or past deciders could not have made a mistake. This posture, that Nature is more subject to change than the halakhah, is pretty much inevitable if we start with the assumption that once the law has been decided it is settled once and for all. The deciders are then effectively regarded as infallible and their decisions as irreversible. The only way then to get round them is to regard the terms involved as different or the conditions as changed somehow.

Rabbinical commentators are masters in the art of weaving tortuous arguments that give the impression that all apparent difficulties of this sort are satisfactorily resolved and dealt with. But if we look more closely, and with a wider context in mind, we may at times find their reasoning disappointingly shallow if not dishonest. Religion is, due to its inherent rigidity, unfortunately often based on manipulation of opinion.

In conclusion, one should not base one’s faith in God, Creation and Torah values on too literal an interpretation of the Torah text and its subsequent commentaries. One should remain open-minded and flexible; open to reason and experience, and willing to adapt one’s belief accordingly. Stick to essentials and act in a mature manner.

We should, in other words, enlarge our faith, and make it less rigidly attached to some particular scenario. We may, and I daresay should, remain inspired and guided by the Torah, by all means; but we can no longer credibly insist on literal truth everywhere in it. Similarly, we may remain grateful to the enlightenment of the text that commentators have brought us, but must at the same time remain critical at some level and be prepared to exercise independent judgment.

The same attitude applies to the Christian Bible, the Moslem Koran and other religious texts and commentaries thereto. Fundamentalists, who refuse to adapt to changing knowledge context, do religion a disservice, making it seem wholly instead of only partly implausible.

[1] Credibility is of course very relative to one’s context of knowledge and understanding. There are Midrashic commentaries that I find hilariously fanciful, though I well imagine that to some people they seem or have seemed (especially in earlier times) quite credible.

[2] An alternative explanation is offered by Sforno (Italy, c. 1475 – 1550), who associates the Tetragrammaton with eternity.

[3] As regards the Koran, it was allegedly compiled from notes left behind by the “prophet” Mohammed, in the twenty or so years after his death. But the editing, by scribes under the direction of the Calif Uthman (Mohammed’s son-in-law), was selective. Many notes were reportedly deliberately excluded from the compilation, and erased, burnt or hidden away. Some people, it is said, were repressed for objecting to such slanted editing. (See Bar-Zeev, pp. 24-26.) We see in this example how a document may be shaped by the deliberate intentions (spiritual, political or personal) of one or more individuals.

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