Humility, Skepticism, and Defining the Boundaries of Faith
Faith does not demand that believers close their eyes to reality, for faith is itself rooted in reality. Faith, of course, builds additional floors atop this foundation, but the sunrise is still the sunrise, the ground is still the ground, and a day is still a day. That is why, when faced with facts that do not correspond with their deepest beliefs, people are called upon to undertake a lengthy and complex process–sometimes examining the two assumptions that created this conflict and other times opting for a third path that involves a complete rethinking, encompassing both the person’s faith and the data.
So what are people to do when faced with the theories of biblical criticism that conflict with their belief in the Torah as the word of God, revealed to our teacher, Moses, on Mount Sinai? Such a person would benefit from pursuing all three paths simultaneously.
First, they shouldn’t get too flustered by biblical critical theories. The conceit at the core of the discipline, acting as if we now possess “scientific” tools enabling us to determine how the text of the Torah that appears before was written, should be moderated and reduced to its proper proportions. There are textual difficulties, phenomena, and tendencies that invite speculation, but purporting to make concrete determinations about a text that (even according to biblical critics) is thousands of years old, should not be sufficient to undermine a person’s faith. Not only this, but such an approach, but weaknesses abound in these theories which come to replace the individual’s realm of faith, and many of them are open to dispute.
Secondly, a person needs to examine whether faith requires the believer to assert that the entire Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Torah itself indicates that this is not the case (parts were given in the Tabernacle, parts in the wilderness of Moab, and so on). The Torah itself reveals that it many contain verses not uttered by our teacher, Moses (the Torah’s final verses; several additional verses that Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra alludes to; and see R. Judah the Hasid’s writings). These matters require a person to carefully examine where the boundaries of faith lie when exploring the ways that the Torah may have been composed.
Thirdly, the person must establish the core of his or her faith. Once a person believes the gates of heaven opened and that the Master of the World revealed Himself directly to Moses and uttered even a single letter out of the fire to him, the question regarding which part of the Torah is from Moses and which is not, loses some of its importance. (I emphasize, the question is simply of diminished importance, but it remains very important.)
The very bedrock of our faith is that divine revelation transpired and that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, passing it on to Joshua. This is the fundamental principle of faith upon which everything else is built. All the other issues may be left unresolved. This should allow a person to live life without the need for a split personality—the believer and the scholar—instead, the person can live as an integrated person that recognizes the insufficiency of our tools for determining what truly occurred there. Be that as it may, according to Jewish tradition from time immemorial, the faith of Israel must incorporate the belief in divine revelation in its simplest and most basic form.
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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Tel Aviv. A graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Cherlow was one of the founders of Tzohar, and serves as the chair of their ethics committee. Among his books are אחריך נרוצה, a commentary on the Song of Songs (2003) and יראה ללבב, on prophecy (2007), and In His Image (2014).
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