Torat Emet: Empirical Truth vs. Religious Truth
Both “Torah” and “truth” are words with multiple meanings. Here I shall use “Torah” in the sense of “Written Torah,” i.e., the Pentateuch, the biblical books of Moses.
All knowledge belonging to the realm of the empirical is obtainable – if at all – only through scientific inquiry. Thus, if the term “truth” is used to refer to the historicity of events recounted, only historical scholarship can determine what may or may not be “true” in the Torah. Moreover, even in cases in which the facts are irretrievable, because scholarship is either indecisive or incapable of reconstructing them with certainty, this does not transform the question of an event’s historicity into a matter of religious belief.
Similarly, if “truth” is used to refer to the authentic, historically valid, contextual meaning (the peshat) of the Torah text or any part thereof, only literary scholarship and historical, philological exegesis can claim to have a say in determining this. Here too, even when critics and exegetes are completely baffled by a text or in hopeless disagreement about it, this cannot justify claiming that the matter may therefore be left to religious belief.
In like manner, if “truth” is used to refer to the accurate description of the physical world, science is the only source of this as well. And if on some issue science simply cannot arrive at the facts, for lack either of data or of a convincing way of interpreting them, the question does not revert to religious belief. (For example, even if science never determines if there is life on Mars, that doesn’t allow the believer to substitute religious teaching for empirical knowledge and say: my religion teaches that there is no life on Mars, and science hasn’t come up with conclusive evidence one way or the other; therefore, there isn’t. Wishing does not make it so).
Religious “truth” pertains exclusively to what is outside the realm of the empirical. It consists of the teachings accepted as normative by the community of believers with regard to God and what God expects of them. For Jews, these normative teachings, including the teaching that on some issues there is no single, binding “truth,” are conveyed by the totality of the tradition— halachic, aggadic, philosophical and theological — according to its systemic logic and rules.
These teachings are often also expressed in the peshat of the Torah; in such cases one would say that the Torah contains religious “truth.” Just as often, they are read into the Torah, by a process of selective reading or reinterpretation; in such cases, one would say that the Torah as construed by post-biblical Jewish interpretation expresses religious “truth.”
On the other hand, norms – both ideas and commands – clearly expressed in the peshat of the Torah but rejected by authoritative Jewish tradition are not religious “truth.” The literary, historical fact that the Torah contains them is empirically true but religiously irrelevant. Just as religious belief has no role whatsoever in determining facts, so too science has no role in determining norms.
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September 6, 2015
June 17, 2020
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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