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LOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL REFLECTIONS

© Avi Sion, 1996-2009 All rights reserved.

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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 2. Torah and faith

The Torah Account

Poetic transmissions of wisdom

The practice of faith

The Torah account. The accounts of God and Creation given in the Torah (Jewish Bible), or other religious documents, are not guaranteed by the previously indicated philosophical arguments and acts of faith. Belief in these religious accounts requires additional acts of faith, because they involve additional descriptive details not included in the barebones account proposed by mere theology.

Thus, it is rationally quite possible to believe in God and Creation, without necessarily disbelieving in the Big Bang time line, or in Evolution of Species, and other such more modern scientific theories that go against the literal interpretation of the Biblical story of the world and humanity. Similarly, there is bound to be some divergence between the moral, social and spiritual laws promulgated in holy books, and those that reason might find convincing.

Everything must be considered on a case-by-case basis, without prejudice and with an open mind. This does not mean that reason will invariably disagree with faith. Our holy books, transmitted to us by our forefathers, are full of wisdom and good, and have it in them to continue to inspire us for all generations. The spiritual poverty of the secular, their profound materialism and the hopeless narrowness of their life perspectives, is evident. But reason must still be allowed to assess the situation and have its say, and even on occasion disagree. It is then up to individual to make his or her choices and take the implied risks, one way or the other.

The traditional argument that Divine revelation is guaranteed by the fact that it was witnessed by Moses and prophets, or by the people of Israel assembled at the foot of Sinai and in other times and locations, or by later Sages – this is of course a circular argument. We (common folk today) are still required to take on faith something someone else claims (or is claimed) to have experienced; this is second-hand evidence, not first-hand for each one of us. Of course, too, it remains possible that if we do not believe (on faith), we will be made to pay the dire consequences (either during this life or in the thereafter); hence, each person has to decide what to believe.

Torah is of course in its entirety essential to Judaism. To put the Torah even partially in doubt as here done is understandably regarded by many as heresy. No one likes to be branded a heretic, but to ignore (disregard, discard) evident facts and logical arguments is not an acceptable posture. It is acceptable to have faith in something unproven (i.e. not proven to be), but faith in things disproven (i.e. proven not to be) by experience and/or reason is difficult to justify. One has to retain objectivity and good judgment at all times; that is our dignity and honor as human beings. God surely respects and does not resent love of truth and intellectual integrity.

Perhaps the solution to the modern problem of a widening gap between the Torah account of nature and that of secular science is to adopt a Platonic Idealist posture, and say that the concrete earthly Torah is an imperfect but still valuable reflection of an ideal “heavenly Torah”. This would imply that the prophets, and particularly Moses, perceived the heavenly Torah all right, but when they tried to put it in writing here below, they tended to mix in some of the cultural beliefs of their time and place. No conscious attempt to add to the Torah was involved, but simply a natural disposition of all human beings to discourse in terms of the sensibilities and categories of their milieu and historical period.

This perspective already exists to some extent in Judaism, but it may need to be taken more radically if we are to both frankly and gracefully acknowledge scientific discoveries and advances, and yet retain the moral and spiritual – and even ritual – essentials of Judaism. The same approach can be used to explain and transcend Talmudic errors of fact. Other religions can similarly argue, and likewise adapt to humanity’s changing knowledge context.

It is not enough to say, as some do[1], that religion and science are two separate domains, one dealing with moral and spiritual issues and the other with experienced events and natural laws, for this approach does not sufficiently focus on the psychological difficulties involved. A believer in the literal Torah has a hard time separating the claims regarding nature and history in it from its moral and spiritual message. A deeper rationale is required to permit critical thought with a good conscience.

Moreover, I very much doubt that we can consistently keep the realms of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ so far apart, or that it is wise to try to. The fact of the matter is that our ethical beliefs are strongly dependent on our alethic beliefs. What we think we ought to do depends considerably on how we perceive and conceive ourselves and the world around us. These two domains of human interest are related and the study of their precise relationships exists and is called deontic logic or deontology.

For this reason, seemingly purely moral, spiritual or ritual matters may to a more modern mind seem unconvincing. The practice of animal sacrifices is a case in point. Maimonides rightly expressed doubt as to the value of their resumption in the future. If we examine the history of religions, we find such practices to be commonplace in many different cultures, such as India or South America. This sort of individual or collective worship using animals was probably inherited from our common prehistoric ancestors. Various superstitious beliefs are no doubt at least subconsciously involved in it.

Another practice within Biblical Judaism that seems to have shamanistic roots deep down in history is the set of rites (described in Leviticus, tazria-metsora) used to clear the “plague of leprosy” in people or in clothes and homes. Such ancient and obviously outdated practices can surely be questioned in a scientific perspective, even if they are religious in content rather than naturalistic. Were we to encounter such an affliction, we would simply identify it as a fungus (or whatever), and find a material antidote for it. Thus, it is not accurate to depict the problem as a simple is-ought dichotomy.

Poetic transmissions of wisdom. Some parts of the Torah can seemingly be read literally, but not all. In view of the serious discrepancies between stories like those of Creation and of the Flood and corresponding scientific and historic accounts, we must learn not to read such passages of the Torah literally. The Rabbis insist on such literal interpretation, and build their whole system of conception of the world on this assumption. But we are logically forced to view them henceforth as poetic inventions. They were freely composed, at some time(s), by some human being(s), with the intent to give concrete form to some abstract belief and to teach some lesson.

The poets concerned expressed what, to their minds, at the time when they told or wrote down the stories, seemed like a likely scenario, or at least one that (though perhaps partly fictional) served to illustrate the teachings they wished to transmit. There was no doubt an accumulation of beliefs over time, i.e. a handing down from generation to generation of parts of the story, which were then echoed and fleshed out, until the story acquired the shape we know. In fact, the process of elaboration did not end with the writing down of the Torah (whenever that happened) but continued with more developments and embellishments in the Midrash, in the Zohar, and so forth.

This is mythical discourse, found in every culture. It does not have to be taken as literally true, but as indicative of some more abstract truths. Thus, the important point in the story of the Creation is not the precise narrative given in the text, but the claim that God created the universe as a whole and mankind in particular. The scientific discoveries of the Big Bang, of the 13.7 billion years’ existence and evolution of the world since then, of the 4.5 billion years age of the Earth, of all the species of life that have arisen on it in the last 4 billion years, of the very recent evolution of man-like species, perhaps some 2 million years ago – none of these scientific discoveries and theories logically displaces the claim to God and Creation.

Similarly, the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, and many more – all contain timeless and universal moral lessons, about humility (not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge), about murder (‘am I my Brother’s keeper?’), about sin and its punishment (the generation of the Flood), and so forth. They remain essentially true, even if not literally true. Compare for instance the Biblical idea of the primordial taboo Tree of Knowledge to the Buddhist doctrine that at the root of Man’s plight is a delusional grabbing at a superficial sort of knowledge that is in fact the essence of ignorance.

Concrete narratives are usually more emotionally touching and inspiring than dry abstract exposés. Even after years of reading and rereading some of the stories in the Torah and the Nakh, I still find myself often deeply touched and moved. Tears of sadness and joy come to my eyes as the Shunammite lady who has just lost her young son comes to the prophet Elisha for help (2 Kings 4:8-37). Again and again, every Purim, the story of Esther fires the full range of my emotions. Such stories depict for us what beautiful human beings are and how they behave. How would we know the spiritual possibilities open to us, otherwise? We rarely if ever meet such inspiring people in real life.

So long as we fear to abandon literal readings of the Torah (or Christian Bible, or Koran, etc.) when science makes it logically necessary, we are stuck in a ‘fundamentalist’ universe that is bound to cause conflict and pain. With a more open mind, we can read our holy book as poetry and learn from it the wisdom it is really meant to transmit.

The practice of faith. The term ‘faith’ is understood as referring primarily to belief – generally, to a belief that goes beyond the recommendations of reason, and in some cases against those recommendations.

Faith that merely goes over and above reason, or dares to fill gaps in knowledge that reason leaves behind, is reasonable – i.e. still within the bounds of rationality in a larger sense. For example, to have faith in God and Creation is not antithetical to reason; for though reason does not prove these beliefs, it does not disprove them either.

But faith contrary to reason is in a more feeble epistemological position. Of course, reason can err, and so it is not entirely unthinkable to adopt anti-rational postures. But, though it is empirically true that reason does occasionally err, it does not follow that reason is very likely to be erring in the particular case at hand. For example, disbelieving that our planet has a history of some 4.5 billion year, and that animal species have evolved during that time, is stretching faith a bit too far.

Faith is generally considered a virtue, in religion; it earns one spiritual credit. That is because, like any virtue, like any source of spiritual gain or advance, it draws one (or is believed to draw one) closer to God (however conceived by that faith). To have faith is comparable to sacrifice – it is sacrificing one’s intellectual carefulness or incredulity to some extent. It is also an act of humility and modesty.

Religious faith signifies a set or system of beliefs, i.e. a voluntary posture of the cognitive faculty in various regards. But it implies more than that. It also implies a set of attitudes and intentions, i.e. a positioning and orientation of the faculty of volition; and moreover, it implies a complex of emotional ties. And of course, specific thoughts and actions emerge from these preconditions.

That is to say, to have faith (e.g. in God[2]) is not merely to engage one’s cognitive faculty in a certain direction, but also more broadly involves one’s volitional and emotional faculties. All three aspects of the human psyche are enlisted – cognition, will and valuation. To take on a faith is to subject oneself to practical demands on all these fronts.

Within Judaism, for instance, this is perhaps implicit in the statement[3]: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) – if we interpret “your heart” (Heb. levavcha) as referring to valuations, “your soul” (Heb. nafshecha) as referring to cognitions, and “your might” (Heb. meodecha) as referring to volitions. “All” (of your heart, soul and might) is meant to stress the need for consistency in all one’s pursuits.

Taking this declaration of faith upon himself, the Jew (and similarly for the Jewess, of course) resolves that his heart will throb with Jewish values and concerns; that his soul’s attention will turn towards observations and intellectual studies compatible with and relevant to love of God; and that he will use his physical, mental, and spiritual powers in efforts appropriate to those ends.

But this should not be viewed as a call to lie to oneself or to others – or to God. Or to twist the truth, or ignore facts and arguments that are obviously (or just apparently, even) relevant and credible. Honesty surely remains a must. Faith is comparable to a leap into empty space – such a leap can be courageous, but it can also be foolish. One should find the golden mean, in this as in all other things.

Note in any case that it is possible to doggedly practice mitzvot (religious prescriptions) even while not really believing in their Divine source. It is not my purpose here to turn Jews away from practice of any of the mitzvot. Every man or woman is responsible for his or her own choices. Don’t blame your choices on me.



[1] For instance, Gould in Rocks of Ages.

[2] To give another example: for Buddhists, the basic act of faith would relate to the possibility of liberation from the wheel of karma.

[3] Which is, of course, part of the crucial Shema Israel prayer. Other interpretations than those proposed here are also found in the tradition.

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2016-08-23T09:51:43+00:00