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.