Monday, January 22, 2007

PseudoSkepticism

Let me say this at the outset - I'm probably going to disappoint everyone with this post. Those on one side of the debate will think I've gone straight to outright kefirah, while those on the other side will say that I'm simply shutting off my brain. But, hey, it's my blog and a place for me to air my thoughts. So, let's begin.

Hi! My name is Wolf, and I'm a pseudoskeptic. ("Hi Wolf!")

I'd have to say that I've been a pseudoskeptic for about as long as I've been frum. Of course, the amount of it has wavered back and forth over the years - sometimes leaning more toward the "believer" side and sometimes more toward the "skeptic" side; but I've always been somewhere in the middle.

A true skeptic trusts nothing without facts - or at least a good preponderance of the evidence. A true skeptic would never take subjects such as the existence of a Divine Being, the creation of the world, Torah MiSinai or any of the myriad other things that many Orthodox Jews take for granted without some direct or indirect evidence to their factuality.

A true believer, on the other hand, has little use for proof. Who needs proof that the world was created by God? We have His word for it. Who needs proof that there is an unbroken mesorah from God, to Moshe at Sinai down to today? We simply know it's true.

Alas, I don't fall into either camp. There are certain things that I take on faith alone. I believe in the existence of God, despite a complete lack of evidence. I believe that Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai. I believe that He wants us to and commanded us to keep the mitzvos. And, yet, there are some things that I reject outright without some form of evidence to back it up. I reject the science of Chazal where it has been proven wrong. I reject many of the fantastic miracles and events described in some secondary Jewish texts when there is no evidence for them in the physical world or even in the primary Jewish texts. In many respects, I've become a miracle minimalist.

(Pause for some to yell "Kofer!" and for others to yell "Use your brain, you idiot!")

For example, take this week's Torah portion. It includes the last three of the Ten Plagues, the first Passover sacrifice, the Exodus and laws relating to various topics (Pidyon Haben, Tefillin, etc.) The second of the plagues mentioned in the parsha is that of darkness. The Torah very clearly states what happened - that for three days there was darkness and that the Egyptians were unable to move from their places. Fine and well.

Of course, we're all familiar with the famous Midrash that there were Jews that were deemed unworthy to leave Egypt and died during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians could not see the Jews suffering. Still, fine and well by me. There's nothing in the above statement that sounds like it's outside the realm of possibility or reason. However, it's at this point where the Mechilta departs from anything resembling believability. The Mechilta goes on to state that only one in five Jews departed Egypt - the rest having been killed and buried during the plague. Assuming the Torah's count of 600,000 (excluding women and children) to be true, it follows that the Jews would have been required to bury at least 2.4 million bodies (and possibly a hundred times more if R. Nehorai's version is to be believed) within the span of a few days (and, of course, that the Egyptians wouldn't notice that the vast majority of the Jews suddenly disappeared during that time). It's difficult to believe that the Egyptians would not notice all those Jews disappearing or all the mass graves that suddenly appeared. And, if the more exaggerated versions of the Mechilta are to be believed, it's difficult to believe that the Jews could have disposed of all the bodies or that that many people even existed in Egypt in the first place.

There are plenty of other examples of this that abound. The height of Og is a prime example. Was he large? Certainly - the Torah explicitly states that he was quite large. Was he 30 amos at the ankle? Sorry, I can't swallow that one. Just too fantastic. The fact that there is absolutely no external source for such a creature (who would certainly have been a world-famous legend and would have made Bashan a superpower in the region) raises the red flags in my head. The fact that there are other Judaic sources which indicate that the whole thing is simply exaggerated or homelitical further strengthens my convictions that the "mile-high" Og is much more myth than fact.

So, where does this leave me? Where do I draw the line between something that I'm willing to take on belief alone and that which I will require some evidence for? Well, to be honest, I don't have any hard-and-fast rules; but I do have some guidelines.

The Source - what is the source of the miracle or other supernatural fact? Some sources are simply more credible than others. For example, I'll give a statement in the Gemara more weight than I will a Midrash. I'll give a statement in Shemos more weight than I'll give a Gemara. Not all sources in Torah SheB'Al Peh are equal -- and each should be judged accordingly. If you take the position that it's all MiSinai and equally valid, then you have a hopeless jumble of contradictory information. In addition, you have to take into account that there are sources that state that some things can be taken allegorically or reinterpreted as a homelitic lesson rather than taken literally as fact.

The MindBoggling Factor - Is it reasonable to assume that some Jews didn't merit redemption from Egypt? Certainly. Is it reasonable to assume that only 20% of them did? That strains the credulity of the story (especially when one considers that such "paragons" as Dathan, Aviram, Korach, etc. were among those who did merit redemption). Is it reasonable that 80% of the Jews suddenly "vanished" and that the Egyptians didn't notice (and, if you say they did, then that defeats the whole purpose of it happening during the plague of darkness)? What if you say that the surviving percentage wasn't 20%, but 2% (1 in 50)? It is reasonable that there were really *that* many Jews in Egypt at one time? It is reasonable that they were able to bury all those bodies in such a short span?

Another example of this is the combination of the Midrashim that the Pharaoh of Moshe's time was the same Pharaoh of Abraham's time; and that the Pharaoh of Moshe's time was the same person as the King of Nineveh in Yonah's time (during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash). Each Midrash alone is a stretch to believe (especially considering that not once, but *twice* the Chumash tells us that Pharoah died), but to put them together (as some do) and give him a lifespan of over a thousand years is just beyond the realm of believability -- especially in light of the other factors.

The "Necessary to the Story" Factor - Is the miracle necessary for the story to happen? Take the plague of frogs for example. We all know the famous Midrash based on the fact that the verse says "VaTa'al HaTzefardea" ("the frog rose up," in the singular) to indicate that a single frog rose up from the Nile and exploded into many frogs each time the Egyptians hit it. OK, it's a nice Midrash and certainly has value in teaching us life lessons. But does that mean it has to be believed as literal? Ask yourself this question: if the Midrash never existed and the plague proceeded as a simple reading of the verses would have you believe (that many frogs rose up from the river [the fact that the verse uses the singular is not necessarily an obstacle -- many times the Torah uses a singular term for plurals]) does the story make sense? Of course. On the other hand, if you remove the frogs altogether, then the story no longer makes sense. So, the more necessary the miracle is to the point that the Torah narrative is trying to make, the more credit I'm willing to give it. (This doesn't mean that I don't believe this particular Midrash was literal -- it's just an example of *one* of the factors that go into the decision).

The long-lived Pharaoh as King-of-Nineveh Midrash is another example that doesn't stand up well here. Does the story in Yonah sound perfectly logical even without the Midrash? Certainly - there's more than one example of non-Jews throughout history who recognized God as the Prime Mover throughout history and as a Being capable of destroying entire cities due to wickedness. The story makes just as much sense without the Midrash. Again, that alone doesn't mean that the Midrash is not literally true - but rather it is a factor to take into consideration.

The "Would Normal People Think Like This" Factor - The Rivka-as-toddler-bride story fails this test. Go back to the Chumash and read the story again - would a three year old (even one as undoubtedly advanced as Rivka) be capable of watering camels? Would she really be capable of consenting to a marriage? It is certainly true that there were child marriages at various times throughout history, even with children as young as three, but the other facts of the story, when read by someone who didn't have a preconceived notion of Rivka's age, would seem to be contrary to the Midrash. If someone were reading the Torah narrative without having heard of the three-year-old Rivka story even have the slightest inkling that she was three years old? No, because normal people don't think that a three year old would be capable of watering camels to satiety or be capable of deciding on her on whether or not she should marry a total stranger. And if you apply the very logical idea that Avraham was simply hearing of Rivka's existence for the first time after the Akeida (rather than positing that she was actually born then), then the need for the mental gymnastics involved with a toddler bride go away and a teenager or later bride becomes much more logical.

So, those are some of the factors that I take into account when evaluating a statement in a Midrash or a Ma'amar Chazal. And yes, there are certain things that I take simply as a given. As I stated above, God's existence is taken as a given. So, I'm not a full skeptic -- sorry to disappoint some of you out there. Yeah, I know it's probably not 100% intellectually honest, but that's the way it is. That's why I'm a pseudoskeptic.

The Wolf

28 comments:

Ezzie said...

I could say a lot on this post, but I think it's easier to sum it up quickly: Based on these definitions, a lot more people are "pseudoskeptic" than you think... even those who talk about a mile-high Og don't seem to really believe it to be 'fact' - they'll note that it's a medrash, and very easily could be exaggerated.

Quick note on Tzefardea: I love the Rashi there, which basically says the One Frog bit and says "zehu medrasho... u'pshuto..." is that it's just a terminology.

happywithhislot said...

see
http://extremegh.blogspot.com/2007/01/are-talking-donkeys-silly.html

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i feel like i'm fairly close to you on this. although sometimes i'm more agnostic on God. i "feel" that God exists; i *trust* that God exists; but do i know 100%, like 1+1=2? of course not.

LT said...

You could call yourself pseudoskeptic...

But to be honest, your viewpoint is very similar to those who fall on the more traditional sides of Conservative Judaism. There are strains of Conservative thought in which TMS is accepted, but there is a greater skepticism of our rabbinic tradition and a strong prevalence to look at Tanach metaphorically when it makes you go "wha?!"

Good post, btw.

Amishav said...

Hey- nice to see you at my blog- thought I'd leave you a comment here- What you are describing is more of a Conservative position- never doubting the TRUTH of the Torah, but often doubting the details- Believing that SOMETHING amazing happened out there in the desert that resulted in the Torah, but not being certain of exactly what. This is modernity and we're all in it- we can't go back to leading a midieval life- even if we really want to.

The Answer said...

Wolf:

Great post. You should really read the Movo Hatalmud of the Maharitz Chiyos. In the tradition of the Maharal, he does not take wild Midrash or Talmud stories literally. Rather they teach a lesson through allegory.

I would hope most would agree with your view point on this because it is very sensible. Unfortunately most continue to take literally the fantastic stories they learned in elementary school. The higher-level schools are to blame for giving students a more sophisticated way to understand these aggadic writings.

BTW: I have had the same questions on the midrashim you cite for the same reasons.

Mike S said...

The Rambam in his introduction to Cheilek writes disparagingly of both those who take unbelievable Midrashim literally, and those who assume Chazal were fools for saying such things. Rather, one must strive to understand the lesson Chazal were teaching by way of the Midrash.

It is a good thing you don't seem to have heard the variant of the Midrash that only 1 in 300,000 Jews left Egypt.

Orthoprax said...

Wolf,

As far as I can tell, your perspective on things puts you solidly in the MO camp and not in Conservative-ville. The key differences are the approach to Halacha and whether the Torah is actually the literal word of God than anything else.

Though personally I find it very telling that one actually has to explain why the most crazy stories are things which one has trouble believing. I'm convinced that the holy-rollers follow the well-known adage that you can't die from a non-kashya.

XGH said...

I don't think you are even a psedo-skeptic, just MO. I think that you are not willing to take the leap to true rational thinking at all, when it conflicts with the ikkarim or other key principles. so you're 'skeptical' of a few wacky midrashim?! Feh! Midrashim, Science of Chazal and those types of things don't have to be taken literally even according to genuine good frum sources (unless you are deep Chareidi), therefore its perfectly 'safe' to reject them. I protest at this misuse of the word 'skeptical', you give skeptics a bad name ;)

BrooklynWolf said...

XGH,

You're a bright fellow. You know what "pseudo-" means. :)

The Wolf

David Guttmann said...

There is a Tshuvat Rashba (Icannot remeber the number but it deals with Ma'amad har sinai and the Rambam) where he says that after every Makka the Jews were impressed but after thinking about it became skeptical and decided that Moshe was just very smart. Rashba says that our forefathers taught us not to accept anything until proven 100% that it is true.

Sounds like a Pseudo Skeptic to me (according to your definition).:-)

The Answer said...

David:

I don't believe the Rashba said that :).

Seriously, 100% is a high threshold which most things won't surpass. For example: existence of God, Torah mi-Sinai, testimony of witnesses etc.

Are you sure it said 100%?

Big-S Skeptic said...

I think the reason that Orthodox Jews are so prone to taking midrashim literally (even when this requires throwing the brain out the window) is that they detect a slippery slope. Some of the stories in the Bible are as outrageous as the most fanciful midrashim. If we can say about a midrash "this is too ridiculous to be taken seriously" then can we not say the same thing about some of the ridiculous tales in Tanach? People don't want to open that door, and so they feel compelled to swear allegiance to every midrashic fantasy. It's too bad, but there is a certain logic to it. Unless a person is prepared to take a naturalistic or critical view of the Bible itself, there will be a reluctance to take a critical view of midrashim.

BrooklynWolf said...

Big-S,

I'm not so sure that that's the case. After all, as I wrote, one of the factors that goes into my decision is the Source of the statement - a pasuk in Chumash gets much more credit than a midrash.

Unless, of course, you subscribe to the idea that Moshe got all the midrashim on Sinai too...

The Wolf

Rare Find said...

Excellent post. Personally, I liked this the best:

"Not all sources in Torah SheB'Al Peh are equal -- and each should be judged accordingly. If you take the position that it's all MiSinai and equally valid, then you have a hopeless jumble of contradictory information."

Not only do some people believe that all T"SbP sources are equal, but they believe that they are equal to Biblical sources. To recognize the difference isn't kefirah: it's intelligence.

queeniesmom said...

I agree w/you,so are we both psuedoskeptics or are we both just skeptical and disbelieving NYers?

This is the problem that I have with virtually all of the midrashim. Logically what could be taught at the "yeshiva (?)" of shem v'aver? How long do you need to learn 7 laws?

I suppose this is heresy but if you look at the chumash from a literary point the "voice" changes as does the recounting of events. Hence the need for these different voices to be reconciled. Also Va'yekra (sp, sorry) is just dumped in the middle with limited connection to the "story".Why put the Kohanim's training manual in the middle of everything if it was all dictacted at Har Sinai?

It's discussion like these that I think the right is paranoid of. So instead of welcoming thinking and creative thought, problem solving, we're looking backwards and breeding a generation of sheep, which you so aptly described in your other post. (sorry I haven't had time to read much of late).

Thanks for your great thought provoking blogs. i always enjoy them.

Big-S Skeptic said...

After all, as I wrote, one of the factors that goes into my decision is the Source of the statement - a pasuk in Chumash gets much more credit than a midrash.

Hmmm, but why? If we allow that the midrashic authors take a certain amount literary license in composing their tales, then why cannot we allow that the Biblical author(s) takes the same license as well? If we regard the midrashim as intended to convey a message and not "the Truth", then why not regard the Bible also as conveying a message and not "the Truth"? This would lead to a reading of the Bible that focuses not on "what actually happened" but rather on "what does the story mean for us, or for its intended audience." Sarna's approach, basically.

David Guttmann said...

Big S - I agree with you and think that Midrashim are doing exactly that, trying to decipher the meaning behind the text which BTW is the Truth.

>Logically what could be taught at the "yeshiva (?)" of shem v'aver? How long do you need to learn 7 laws?

I think you have the wrong concept of what a yeshiva is. It is not necessarily a place one discusses Abaye and Rava but rather the theology of finding God. That includes all sciences, philkosophy etc... the seven mitzvot being a tool just like the 613 are to help in that quest.

>Seriously, 100% is a high threshold which most things won't surpass. For example: existence of God, Torah mi-Sinai, testimony of witnesses etc.

See my post yesterday on Rashba.

Existence of God is to me empirically provable (First Cause)

TMS is more a matter of acceptance than proof for us. It might have beeen and probably was as understood by Rambam and Rashba to those who participated in the event.(Intersetingly enough it is more so for the two I quoted than Kuzari- just had an idea for a post) To us it is accepted.

Testimony of witness is a halachik rule and has nothing to do with fact. See Yesodei Hatorah 7:7.

The Answer said...

David:

Sounds like you are backing away from your statement "Rashba says that our forefathers taught us not to accept anything until proven 100% that it is true"

After all, you just accepted these three without 100% proof although you claim the Rashba said not to "accept anything" without 100% proof.

Might I say that "anything" is a misquote? Or it is limited in scope as in "anything not in the realm of religios belief or doctrine."

LT said...

Not only do some people believe that all T"SbP sources are equal, but they believe that they are equal to Biblical sources. To recognize the difference isn't kefirah: it's intelligence.

Well said, Rare Find.

David Guttmann said...

The answer, you misunderstand. Accept does not mean as truth but as commitment whether it is provable or not. Rashba is referring to beliefs such as that Moshe is a prophet. That is only provable if experienced. We accept it as our forefather's commitment and bond with HKBH not necessarily because it is provable.

andy said...

One does not have to be "MO" to doubt much of the historical veracity of ancient Jewish sources, unless you define "MO" as precisely that.

Max Power said...

I think the worldview you described is intellectually acceptable. You stated two axioms at the outset and tried to build on them in a cogent fashion (i.e. rejecting that King of Nineveh was the same guy as Pharoah during L'Tziat Mitzrayim).

But, when I think of a real skeptic I think of Elisha Ben Avuya as portrayed in "As a Driven Leaf." Of course, things didn't exactly work out for him - so perhaps you are better off as a "pseudo-skeptic."

Anonymous said...

how many died during darkness

Anonymous said...

The Magic Multiplying Frog

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Nice post. You might want to check out my similar thoughts on the matter at
http://frumstershoppers.blogspot.com/2006/10/ani-maamin.html

I'm not sure if these thoughts and views make you a "pseudoskeptic" so much as a "reluctant believer"- admittedly a subtle distinction. I find myself in your predicament quite often lately myself, and once you've looked down over the edge of midrashic and rabbinic skepticism, it's easy to go tumbling down the slippery slope of objectivity and start questioning things like basar b'cholov (as we practice it today), etc.

Good post.

The Answer said...

Wolf:

I keep mentioning the Maharitz Chayos and his Movo Hatalmud as a good guide along the lines of your thinking. It looks like Yashar books has just published a translation of it.

Take a look at the Hirhurim blog which is promoting it now.

jadedmom said...

Juat discovered your blog and I am catching up. I read this article a while back and it has helped me look at Chazal in a less skeptical way. http://www.lookstein.org/articles/vashti.htm