Torah's Progressive Truth
Truth vs. truth?
To assess whether the Torah is true, we first must confront the thorny problem of defining the word “truth” itself. In an unforgettable rabbinical school class discussion at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) with Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, we heatedly debated the difference between “Truth” and “truth.”
Spelled with a capital “T,” “Truth” meant there was one, singular, irrefutable truth that could never be changed or adapted despite whatever history might bring to bear. Lower case “truth,” on the other hand, represented truths that were malleable, transformed or reformed by time, location and experience, seen differently by those with varying outlooks. Was the Torah True or was it true?
When the Torah is not True
For me, the Torah was, is and will always be true, but it may not always be True. Torah contains many elements that seriously challenge the possibility of it being entirely and eternally True. A few (of many) examples of truth vs. Truth from our modern vantage point are:
- Commandments that require capital punishment in response to particular male homosexual practices (Leviticus 18 and 20), Sabbath violations (Exodus 31), or the actions of rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21);
- The inclusion of a narrative depiction of the Exodus when at least 600,000 individuals crossed a desert and wandered for forty years, which bears no resemblance to the extant archaeological record;
- The numerous doublets—stories and laws repeated with significant change—within the Torah (see e.g. the major changes in the laws of Passover between Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 or the very different repeated narratives of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6 and 7) which imply a definite diversity of authorship for the Torah itself.
These examples and many more prove that the Torah is not actually always “True.” Nevertheless, the Torah is still “true” in that its ideas and narratives remain the vital underpinnings of Jewish life, debate and thought.
Adjusting the Truth of Torah over Time
But the “truth” of Torah remains valid only as long as the Jewish understandings built upon it receive constant and thoughtful adjustment over time and space. In fact, the Torah’s truths shift radically from generation to generation, and even demand significant ongoing reinterpretation and adjustment to remain relevant as time passes.
It is deeply meaningful to witness the ongoing march of progress in the interpretation of Torah—now, instead of stoning homosexuals, we value them; instead of slaying one we consider a Sabbath violator, we welcome a far broader and more thoughtful array of creative Sabbath observances; and instead of putting rebellious children to death, we assist and treat them as the challenged human beings they are. To look back at the trajectory of such development from antiquity to today is inspiring, for it bespeaks human and Jewish progress, a world made more just over time, and the subtle and beautiful interplay between Torah values and learnings from the greater world around us.
Reform Jews have a term for this: Progressive Revelation, drawn originally from the neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). Cohen wrote in his magnum opus, The Religion of Reason, that Revelation is like Creation—it is a continuous, enduring process that began at Sinai but is “implanted in the heart” of every Jew who uses his (or her) divinely given facilities of reason in all times and places (p. 92). God did not reveal the Torah once, rather revelation happened then in a unique and vital communication between God and humanity that our ancestors recorded, and through the use of our God-given reason and interpretive abilities continues to happen now as we study, interpret and apply the words of our most sacred text in changing intellectual and religious contexts.
As The Centenary Perspective, the 1976 platform of the Reform movement, so eloquently stated it:
For millennia, the creation of Torah has not ceased and Jewish creativity in our time is adding to the chain of tradition.
It is not sufficient to see Torah as static, limited and completed—as True—for such Truth cannot always make the jump to new generations, and a True Torah must ultimately become outdated and irrelevant as ideas change and society advances. Rather, the beauty of a true Torah is in its reinterpretation and growth in every new time and place, based on prior Truths, yet continuous and ongoing in its pathbreaking brilliance and innovation. It is only through this careful balance that we ensure that the Torah is, was and will always be true.
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September 8, 2015
January 19, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l, was President of HUC-JIR, and taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature in the New York campus. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, and his ordination from HUC-JIR. Panken was a certified commercial pilot and sailor with a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and the author of The Rhetoric of Innovation.
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