Affirming the Torah as Authoritative and Authentic
When most people say that something is true, they mean that it conforms to real events that happened in the past or present, or that it conforms to scientific fact. But that definition is problematic because both historiography (the representation of past events) and scientific knowledge are moving targets.
Historiography is never objective; it is shaded to convey a message or point of view (just consider recent discussions about history textbooks for high schools in the United States). The historian must always decide what to include and what to omit, and how to tell the story. To be sure, we can speak of historical facts; we can agree that certain things actually happened. But even these objective facts are sometimes revised in light of newer data or of rethinking the old data.
Science may be more objective than historiography, but scientific facts also change over time, as our knowledge of the world expands and is refined. The world is no longer thought to be flat or at the center of the universe. New hypotheses, many nowadays relating to sub-atomic particles or the behavior of genes and cells, are conceived in order to explain things that cannot be otherwise explained. Some of these hypotheses will be proven, some modified, and some abandoned.
While history and science are different disciplines, dependent on different types of data and employing different methods and criteria for arriving at conclusions, their conclusions are not static. So I find it of limited value to measure the Torah (or Bible) against current knowledge of history or science, because current knowledge is never conclusive. Historical or scientific accuracy is not where I find the Torah’s claim to truth. The truth of the Torah lies elsewhere.
The Academic Realm: Encountering Authentic Ancient Traditions
The Hebrew word emet, generally translated as “truth,” means “authentic, valid, trustworthy.” The Torah is true in the sense that it is the authentic tradition of Israel, the way ancient Israel understood itself and wished to present itself. It tells the story that defines the people of Israel and sets out the principles that govern its relationship with God, with members of its community, and with other peoples.
The historian and philosopher, R. G. Collingwood, observed that “the important question about any statement contained in a source is not whether it is true or false but what it means.” When we read statements in the Torah as scholars, we seek to uncover their meaning for ancient readers or listeners, to glimpse how ancient Israel understood the world and its place in it. For that purpose, it matters little whether the facts are accurate. Indeed, inaccuracies (by our current standards) may be even more revealing about the ancient mindset. What are its values, its hopes and fears, its understanding of the past?
The Religious Realm: What Torah Means to Jews
But what about when we read the Torah as observant Jews? What does it mean then? In what sense is it true? Here we enter a different realm, the realm of what the Torah has meant, and means, to Jews. The Torah’s authoritative status, considered a divine revelation, is what has made it a source of ongoing meaningfulness. Its values, its hopes and fears, and its understanding of the world—indeed its every word—are not frozen in the past but continue to shape the present. This is made possible through the art of interpretation.
As we see from the long history of Jewish interpretation, the meaning of Torah verses is elastic and the Torah is adaptable to all situations. Thus it has been throughout the generations, beginning in biblical times when the Torah became authoritative. The Torah takes on a life of its own, and, through their engagement with it, it gives eternal life to the people of Israel. That, to me, is the significance of the blessing that I opened with: “who has given us the Torah of truth (= the true Torah) and planted eternal life in our midst.” By reciting the blessing we affirm that the Torah (part of which has just been recited) is true—authoritative or divine and ever-meaningful—and that it will preserve the Jewish people forever.
So whether we read it as scholars or as observant Jews, the Torah is true, either as an authentic and valid self-presentation of Israel’s origins and early history, or as a primary (ostensibly the primary) and most authoritative source of Jewish thought, practice, and continuity.
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September 6, 2015
October 24, 2023
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Prof. Adele Berlin is the Robert H. Smith Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. She taught at Maryland since 1979 in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department.
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