Torah from Heaven: A Question of Evidence or Loyalty?
Some may believe that God composed the Torah because that belief has been enforced by sanctions against those who profess doubt. Others may believe in Torah from heaven whole-heartedly and without a second thought. I too believe in Torah from heaven; but, under the pressure of honest inquiry, I want to know why I believe in Torah from heaven. I also want to know what follows from asserting that Torah comes from heaven. With that in mind, allow me to speculate a bit about why people like me believe in the divine origin of the Torah. Why should someone take the position that Torah is from Heaven?
No evidence could determine this conclusion. Nothing could conceivably happen that would lead to the inexorable conclusion “only God could have composed this book.” Perhaps one could decide that God composed this book because “Jews have lived holy lives trying to follow its precepts,” or “for Jews have survived against all odds.” That line of reasoning, at best, could generate the conclusion that the book has wisdom, or that it effectively teaches holiness, even that it likely has supernatural wisdom, but not quite certainty about its authorship. That kind of evidence does not get to “I believe with perfect faith that God revealed the Torah.”
Perhaps one could decide that God composed this book because we trust the rabbis and teachers of each generation over the millennia who have said so. Indeed we do, and that may explain why we maintain that the Torah comes from God. We do not usually ask how they discovered that God wrote the Torah. What evidence convinced them?
Medieval Jewish writers maintain that the unbroken tradition of remembering the events at Sinai, passed from generation to generation, serves as a logical demonstration of the divine authorship of the Torah. However, we do not actually experience the unbroken tradition all the way back to Sinai, but only the most recent couple of generations of teachers who assert the divine authorship of Torah. To say that we have faith in the unbroken tradition means that we do not have proof.
Since I know of no coherent “rational” way of explaining why some of us believe in Torah from heaven, then perhaps we have that belief out of conformity to the expectations of a lovely community. Perhaps we gain the approval of people we know, sincere, good people who belong our community, and also the imagined approval of our ancestors, who risked their lives to transmit the Torah to their future generations, us. Maintaining the proposition gets approval in traditional Jewish circles. Maintaining this proposition makes halakhah intelligible. We who love observant Jews, traditional Judaism and Halakhah, feel rewarded maintaining this proposition. Failing to maintain this proposition gets disapproval in traditional Jewish circles. Many good results follow from knowing, or believing, or claiming to believe, that God revealed the Torah, such as having our food accepted as kosher, getting invited to lead services, to write a Torah scroll, and so to become part of a living, vibrant community.
Maybe while living in a vibrant Jewish community, we become convinced that we know that the Torah is of divine authorship and that it is something “more” than just a faith claim.
My Own View of Faith
In my view as it stands now, believing that Torah is the revelation of God is a function of loyalty, not evidence. In fact, as I parse the current debate, when rabbis say, “if you claim that the Torah is an evolved text with multiple authors, you are not Orthodox,” they are not arguing about the evidence for or against the hypothesis. They are arguing that their loyalty prevents them from entertaining the possibility. Other rabbis argue that one can maintain that the Torah is an evolved text with multiple authors while remaining loyal to Torah. It seems a question of loyalty, not of evidence.
Some arguments center on evidence, and others center on loyalty. Some speculation on Torah from heaven and the theory that the Torah is an evolving and redacted document gets the response “that’s not Orthodox,” which challenges loyalty. The speculation rarely gets the response “that’s not consistent with the evidence,” which would challenge its accuracy.
If this seems like an obscure suggestion, let offer some analogies. A member of the Heritage Society who decides the evidence supports a more regulated and managed economy could be challenged on the accuracy of his or her evidence, but would certainly be booted out of the Heritage Society. A member of the Socialist League who decides that Milton Friedman understands economics better than any of the socialists might be challenged on the accuracy of his or her evidence, but would certainly be booted out of the Socialist league. A fan of the Boston Red Sox can believe almost anything, but cannot root for the Yankees in a game against the Red Sox.
We should not be embarrassed by having commitments born of loyalty, rather than evidence. We have others besides the commitment to Torah Min Ha-Shamayim. News of the birth of a healthy baby fills me with joy, for example, although I have no evidence of what this child will become. Ecologists might reason that lower population numbers would benefit the overburdened world. Kohelet might warn that no one knows whether the child will grow up good or evil. I have no answer to the objections, but I have loyalty to human existence, and the birth of a healthy baby fills me with joy.
I seem to remember that in one of his stories, Isaac Asimov anticipates a time when there will be no more Jews. When I first read that line, the idea saddened me, even though it refers to some future date in a science fiction universe. This was because I felt then a loyalty to the Jewish enterprise, which loyalty I still feel. I enjoy knowing that some orchestra, somewhere, plans to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, even though I will not hear the music. I just feel glad that people play it, and that other people hear it. My gladness comes from loyalty, not from evidence..
When I was a teenager, seeking to find my way in the world, I came to the conclusion that the Torah comes from Heaven. Many humble, sweet and intelligent people — among them my grandparents and the generous scholars who taught me — shared that thought with me. The thought formed part of their Jewish world-view, and it eventually part of mine. I doubt that any of them presented me with an irrefutable syllogism to prove the point.
So an Orthodox Jew who feels the evidence supports an evolving Torah with multiple authors gets challenged, not that he or she has the evidence wrong, but that, “you no longer belong to our team.” And yet, many of these same people believe in Torah from heaven and feel like they are part of the team. Aren’t they?
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October 30, 2013
January 30, 2024
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Dr. Rabbi Eliezer (Louis) Finkelman received semikhah at R.I.E.T.S. of Yeshiva University and earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at City University of New York, writing on the theme of Cain and Abel in the Romantic Period. He served as Hillel Director at Wayne State University and synagogue Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel (Berkeley). He currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University.
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