Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Does Secular Knowledge Cause People To Lose Their Faith?

Well, the answer to that is, it depends.

There is a fascinating interview in the current issue of Biblical Archeology Review. Editor Herschel Shanks interviewed four people who have done extensive work in archeology and/or biblical scholarship:

  • Bart Ehrman, a popular BAS lecturer who lost his faith
  • James Strange, archaeologist and Baptist minister
  • Lawrence Shiffman, Dead Sea Scroll scholar, Orthodox Jew
  • William Dever, archaeologist, former evangelical preacher, lost his faith, became a Reform Jew and is now an athiest

In the course of the interview, it emerges that Ehrman and Dever had very strict, literal interpretations of the Bible. As Ehrman put it:

I have a fundamentalist background. I had a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God, no mistakes of any kind—geographical or historical. No contradictions. Inviolate.

My scholarship early on as a graduate student showed me that in fact these views about the Bible were wrong. I started finding contradictions and finding other discrepancies and started finding problems with the Bible. What that ended up doing for me was showing me that the basis of my faith, which at that time was the Bible, was problematic. So I shifted from being an evangelical Christian to becoming a fairly mainline liberal Protestant Christian.

In the end, when he was confronted with questions of theodicy, he lost his faith entirely.

Dever had a similar literalist background. He states (bolding mine):

I was ordained a minister at 17, put myself through undergraduate school and on through divinity school, through Harvard, then a congregation. I have 13 years’ experience as a parish minister and two theological degrees. For me, it was this typical Protestant conundrum: It’s all true or none of it is true. My sainted mother once said to me, If I can’t believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, I can’t believe any of it.

After his graduation, he moved to Israel and worked there for many years. When confronted with contradictions and contrary evidence, his faith was destroyed.

On the other hand, Strange and Schiffman don't hold to literalist views. Schiffman goes on to state relate an even which underscores his non-literalism:

A guy came to interview me recently for some TV program about Adam and Eve. So I said that the story of Adam and Eve is like a microcosm of human relations between a man and a woman, about people and God, and about good and evil. After about five minutes, the guy turns off the recorder and says “I don’t understand. Everybody else I interviewed is talking about—Where is Eden? Was there really one human being in the beginning?” I said that is not what this is about. There are major challenges to the Bible if you take it literally, but that is not what matters. That isn’t what it means to be a believing Jew.

Strange, too, doesn't take everything the Bible says literally, and he, too, kept his faith while studying.

I find this quite interesting, especially when it is applied to the Orthodox Jewish community. To those who believe that lice don't come from eggs, or that the moon landings were faked or that the sun goes behind a barrier every night, they are going to face a rude awakening when they discover that things are not as they've been told. Having accepted the premise that everything that Chazal say is infallible, and that Chazal had perfect knowledge of science, they may not be able to accept the fact that they can be proven wrong. And even if they close their eyes and refuse to see the evidence, their children or their grandchildren will. On the other hand, by willing to be flexible in your interpretation of ancient texts*, one can easily accommodate new challanges, ideas and evidence that arise without having to suffer the major shock that can cause one to lose their faith, as happened to Dever and Ehrman.

It's the attitude that "it's all true or none of it is true," which is prevalent among many fundamentalist Orthodox Jews, that causes all the problems. In a discussion regarding the Rambam and science, it was put to me this way: "If the Rambam could be found to be in error regarding his astronomy, then who is to say that he is not in error everywhere else in the Mishneh Torah. How would we have any authoritative basis for halacha at all?"

Of course, this is all very specious. One does not have to take an "all-or-nothing" approach to any ancient text. Why should the fact that the Rambam is wrong about the diameter of the sun affect anything he says regarding Hilchos Yibum? Obviously, they shouldn't - one area is halacha and the other is science. Just as we don't expect our engineers to be legal experts, and yet we still rely on them to build safe bridges, so too we should not hold Chazal to perfect scientific knowledge in order to arrive at a valid halachic decision.

In the end, I found this interview quite enlightening and it reinforced my belief that literalism is, in the end, an obstacle to maintaining one's faith, not a safeguard to it.

The Wolf

25 comments:

The Hedyot said...

I've written about this often. It was my experience too that fundamentalist literal interpretations lock one into a certain very fragile way of thinking that is easily broken when one is exposed to the real world.

> Why should the fact that the Rambam is wrong about the diameter of the sun affect anything he says regarding Hilchos Yibum? Obviously, they shouldn't.

And why should the fact that the Rambam is wrong in Hilchos Yibum affect what he says about Hilchos Shabbos? Thinking that all his (or anyone's) halachic knowledge is infallible is just another problematic expression of "all or nothing" thinking.

Mike S. said...

Before finding blogs, I always assumed that Biblical literalism was a Protestant problem, not a Jewish one. After all, we normally learn that we are to understand the Bible in light of Torah she B'al peh, not literally (unless we are Saduccees or Karaites, none of whom I have met in centuries.) Do we not celebrate Shavuot on the 50th day after Pesach, rather than on a Sunday? Does Rashi not point out that the Jews were not in Egypt for 400 years? Nor is there a long tradition of making Biblical literalism a central point of dogma. That is, believing in Torah misinai is an ikkar; believing that it is to be interpreted literally is not, indeed, I was taught that it is the heresy of the Karaites.

And I agree that literalism on all kinds of texts is a fragile basis for any belief. Anyone who thinks the Gemarrah is free of parable and metaphor is (to us the Rambam's phrase) doing so from the smallness of his understanding.

Anonymous said...

If you knew what a kofer Lawrence Schiffman is, you wouldn't be so quick to prescribe secular knowledge as a geder for faith. He may have a beard and keep halachah, but he's very far from Orthodox in belief. (I say that with the utmost respect for Professor Schiffman.)

BrooklynWolf said...

Anon,

It doesn't make a difference (for the sake of the point that I was making) whether Dr. Schiffman is a kofer or not. After all, the same thing applies to Dr. Strange, and he is a Christian.

The point is that by being willing to accommodate a non-literal view on certain matters, he is able to adapt to new ideas and evidence that arise over time.

If one is completely inflexible, then one will break when new ideas and concepts are proven.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

But it DOES matter. The point of your post is not explicitly stated in the subject, but it should be, "Does Secular Knowledge Cause People To Lose Their Orthodox Faith?" I.e. what's the point of your post if the question is can a Conservative know what's out there? You said as much yourself:
"I find this quite interesting, especially when it is applied to the Orthodox Jewish community."

But Prof. Schiffman is poison to your case, because he's not a man of Orthodox faith! If anything, he's evidence that knowledge is antithetical to Orthodox belief. For example, it's safe to say that if you know as much as Schiffman does about his specialty, you're not likely to believe the (or any) Orthodox stand on the origins of Torah she baal peh.. After all, Prof Schiffman doesn't--and that's the least of his "hereies."

If you're looking to Prof. Schiffman as an example to support the idea that the what you (arguably mislabeled) "secular knowledge" doesn't cause loss of faith, you're looking in vain. He's actually a good example of the opposite (and his books are well worth reading).

Anonymous said...

Wolf, not necessarily. It just means that fundamentalist or literalists should not be going into fields like biblical archeology.

Mike S said...

I should add that it is quite easy to understand how the Rambam could be authoritative in halacha and worthless in astronomy. His sources for the former are his mesorah from his father and Rebbeim and his study of talmud, which is authoritative for halacha. His sources for for astronomy were the Greeks and Arabs of his time, whose knowledge has long since been superceded.

triLcat said...

I got into this bizarre discussion with my husband (who studied in Charedi yeshivas) last night. I said that as a Leah who is married to a yaakov, I should have a handmaiden. My husband responded that I would need to have a little sister since Bilha and Zilpa were little sisters of Leah and Rachel.

I looked at him and said "that's not pshat." To which he responded that he always learned chumash with midrash. I then looked at him and said "but the midrash isn't a history book," to which he responded "are you saying the midrash isn't true?"

Well, truth has more than one meaning in Judaism. Is the midrash a lie? Absolutely not. Is it an accurate history?

There's a certain paradox to Judaism. Certain things that seem diametrically opposed have to exist at the same time. This means that if we accept "all literal" and "all or nothing," we're left with something which will fry our brains. When we instead choose to see the truth in the stories rather than use them as "facts," we can learn so much from the Torah, the midrash, etc.

I am still waiting for my father to give me a handmaiden, though.

Yitzi said...

The point is as Mike said that of course we don't believe the bible is completely literal because there is Torah sh'bal peh. However it has to be interpreted through torah sh'baal peh. You can't just make up stuff as you go along to conform with science.

Different Anonymous said...

>I happen to believe there was some kind of Exodus.

Yeah, real Orthodox.

Different Anonymous said...

That was Schiffman, by the way.

Dever

>I worked [in Israel] for 49 years and let me tell you something: Seeing Judaism and Christianity and, God help us, Islam up close and personal does not help.

Yitzi said...

A key qoute from schiffman which I would apply to your view of taking the bible not to be literal whenever you have a kashya from science. "Maybe I’m being apologetic."

The Answer said...

trilcat:

All you need to do is read a little Maharal to see stories in the Gm, and certaily Medrash, are not literal in many/most cases. The Maharitz Chiyas has a long piece about this in Movo Hatalmud. His basic point is most stories are not literal, but some are. He struggles with where to draw the line. But it would seem clear to me that if a story contradicts scientific fact, it can not be true unless we assume there was a great miracle from God involved. But God does not do miracles often.

Now when it comes to Tanach, I agree with Yitzi that we need to consult the Torah she-baal-peh to see how Chazal interpret the stories. Orthodox Jews certainly do NOT take the Torah literally in thousands of places and that includes the stories.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Why are we so obsessed with Hhazal's interpretations here in this comment thread? The medieval mefarshim didn't care whether what they said matched the midrashim, and admitted it, explicitly. Even Rashi, who many times says "here is this midrashic answer.... and here is the peshat answer.... and the peshat answer makes more sense."

Defender of the Faithful said...

Schiffman only isn't Orthodox if you use a Charedi definition. He's certainly MO.

Mis-nagid said...

The article is bullsh*t. It should be subtitled "Four who did." Did you not notice that the two allegedly still faithful DON'T ACTUALLY BELIEVE ANYMORE?! James Strange, the supposed Christian, doesn't believe in Jesus's resurrection or any onto-religious claim at all. He's left with some mystical feelings for dirt that he calls Christianity. See:
Shanks: What historical claims?
Ehrman: For example, that he was raised from the dead. That's a historical claim. I mean either he was raised from the dead or he rotted in his grave. The kind of Christianity I was in believed in an active physical resurrection of Jesus. That was part of what it meant to be Christian. You had to believe that.
Shanks: Do you believe it, Jim?
Strange: I don't believe that, but, yeah, I believe in something that means that Christ is alive, and our explanation of that is that there was a resurrection.


If that's Christianity, then nothing is Christianity and Christianity is nothing. And then there's Schiffman. Like Strange, he still CLAIMS the label of what he once was, but doesn't actually believe what the label means. Not do, believe--remember, belief is what the article is about. There's no way Schiffman was raised to believe that "there was some kind of Exodus," so what changed? Hell, that's the same belief about the Exodus that Dever, the atheist, has! Answer: exactly what the article is claiming didn't happen to Schiffman: scholarship destroyed his faith.

Close readings of Schiffman's replies are full of insight into how carefully he slices his words. Check out this gem:
"But in order to be a Jew, you have to have some concept that you believe in Judaism. You have a received tradition from other people—-at least they believed they received the revelation."

You have to believe that they believed?! Well wowzers, WHO DOESN'T?!! And does this sound like a man who believes in TMS to you?:
"You've got to decide: Do I believe there is a God? Do I believe that God communicated some kind of way of life to someone that became Judaism?"

Again, do you think he was raised to believe in "some kind of revelation of a WAY OF LIFE that "became" Judaism" or in chamisha chumshei Torah misinai? And, if the latter--as is almost certain--why does he not believe it anymore? Answer: BECAUSE OF HIS SCHOLARSHIP.

More from Schiffman:
"An Orthodox Jew can believe whatever he wants and be part of the community"

Sure, so long as keeps his mouth shut! But notice how his sweet bit of wishful thinking is phrased in way that allows the reader to assume that you can be open with your Schiffman-esque beliefs and be part of the Orthodox community. We all know that's completely false.

The article, read properly, is proof positive that Bible scholarship kills religious belief dead. The only thing that can be expected to be believed by by the knowledgable is an empty bag with the old label on, because all the traditional beliefs have been removed. "How does scholarship affect scholars?" "Losing faith?" Here indeed in the article is your answer: four who did.

? said...

"To those who believe that lice don't come from eggs, or that the moon landings were faked or that the sun goes behind a barrier every night, they are going to face a rude awakening when they discover that things are not as they've been told."

The weak point in the argument is the assumption that they will find out. The masses of Lakewood yiddin aren't Bible scholars. If there's anything out muslim brothers teach us it's that one can quite easily be a lunatic fundamentalist in the modern world.

Anonymous said...

Everyone's focused on his line about Exodus, but this line is far more telling:
"Do I believe that God communicated some kind of way of life to someone that became Judaism?"

Pay attention to his words.

First there's "some kind of." He also used this dodge to in his "some kind of Exodus" answer. It allows him to use the more maximal word and cut it down to believable size less obviously.

Second there's "way of life." Notice that it's not a text that was the revelation! He's not even pulling the typical M"O" academic's slippery shtick of saying what was given was Torah--without the word THE preceding it. No, he's clear: way of life.

Third there's "to someone." Notice how he's not naming names! In particular the name "Moses." He believes there was a revelation "to someone."

Finally there's "that became Judaism." Notice the explicit repudiation of Torah she baal peh miSinai. The contents of the revelation BECAME Judaism--meaning Judaism was not the revelation. The way of life that was revealed changed into Judaism over time.

In summary, Schiffman believes that God communicated: "some kind of " "way of life" "to someone" "that became Judaism." If he's Orthodox, I'll eat his big fluffy black yarmulke.

Anonymous said...

"In summary, Schiffman believes that God communicated: "some kind of " "way of life" "to someone" "that became Judaism." If he's Orthodox, I'll eat his big fluffy black yarmulke."

After you are done with his Yarmulka, make sure you eat the remnents of his recent Siyumim on Mishneh Torah (learned bein gavra l'gavra in shul) and Yerushalmi (learned yomi).

I am sure your opinion of what is "orthodox" is certainly more "educated" than his. Not.

PsychoToddler said...

There's a difference between faith in a higher being and belief in a literalist view of religion.

Knowledge of how the real world works threatens the latter. But in my personal experience, the more I have learned about how fragile and sophisticated life is, the more I learn of how many things can go wrong, the more I come to believe in the role of divinity in our day to day lives.

If you're blissfully ignorant it's easy to believe that everything works because of science and physics. But all of the answers cannot be found there.

Anonymous said...

How does making a siyum mean he's Orthodox? If that's the best you can come up with you have no case at all.

HBL said...

I think some of you have lost sight of the issue and have resorted to personal attacks. A professor of nine once said, whenever someone accuses me of heresy, I show him a "rishon" who says the same thing I just did. Maybe we should be a little more open minded... and more importantly, less judgemental.

Anonymous said...

Anon (four posts up) and others (when they are not yelling) do seem to have a point. It is a bit of a stretch to say that what Dr. Shiffman is proclaiming as his faith is concruent with Orthodox Judaism. It does seem to reject both Torah sheBeksav and Torah SheBaal peh. It DOES agree with some basic Ikarim of the Rambam (e.g. God exists, and that he communicates with man and that he rewards and punishes.) But that our particular Mesorah is mostly made up - but based on some vague unknown events in the past (God communicated some way of life, to someone and this became Torah eventually..)

That said, this might be a bigger "Kasha" on Orthodox Judaism than it is on Dr. Schiffman.

aaron from L.A. said...

My interpretation of rabbinic literature leads me to believe that when you die,your soul goes to a garage in Cleveland.If you were good on earth,you get reincarnated in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale.If you've been bad,you get reincarnated in Cleveland.If you've been really bad,you get reincarnated in Buffalo.On a less serious note,of course the Torah is 100% true.The question really is, what is the truth the Torah is trying to convey to our grossly deficient minds.Perhaps that is why we are called Israel;we are constantly struggling with God.

aaron from L.A. said...

My interpretation of rabbinic literature leads me to believe that when you die,your soul goes to a garage in Cleveland.If you were good on earth,you get reincarnated in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale.If you've been bad,you get reincarnated in Cleveland.If you've been really bad,you get reincarnated in Buffalo.On a less serious note,of course the Torah is 100% true.The question really is, what is the truth the Torah is trying to convey to our grossly deficient minds.Perhaps that is why we are called Israel;we are constantly struggling with God.