Thursday, June 16, 2005

On The Validity Of Historical Events And Their Effect On Our Observances

Rachack, in a recent post, made the following statement:

At a certain point, an intellectually honest person arrives at the conclusion that no matter how many inconsistencies he sees in yiddishkeit or our community, it is, (as Winston Churchill said about democracy) 'the worst system except for any other'.

This statement is often made regarding the United States (in that, it may not be perfect, but it's the best system designed so far). However, there is a big difference between accepting Yiddishkeit because it's the "worst system than any other" and accepting a secular governmental system for the same reason.

A few years ago, I was discussing religion (in general) with a co-worker of mine. He posed the following question:

If it was found that the central event of a religion's founding or theology was found to have been false, does that invalidate the religion? His main concern was regarding the Crucifixion and Resurection of Jesus, but the same question could equally be applied to Mattan Torah. Hypothetically speaking, if Mattan Torah did not occur, does that invalidate Judaism as a religion?

Of course, it's hard to argue against not killing, not stealing and loving your neighbor regardless of whether or not certain historical events actually occured. But does keeping Shabbos or kashrus make sense if Mattan Torah is found to have never happened?

On the other hand, a governmental system isn't like that. If we find out that the American Revolution never happened; that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were just myths, etc., it still wouldn't be any reason to overturn the current system of government we have. In other words, our government (or the British one, to harken back to Churchill's quote) stands independent of the historical events that created them. You could pull those historical underpinnings away, and the edifice still stands.

That's not true, however, with regard to a religion. Judaism is predicated upon two major events - Creation and the Exodus/Mattan Torah. One could (theoretically) strip away the Patriarchs, the Flood, David, Samuel, Mordechai, the Prophets, etc. and the edifice of Judaism would still stand. But once you strip away Creation or the Exodus/Mattan Torah, it all crumbles. There really isn't a point to avoiding Shaatnez if God didn't command it at Sinai. Why fast on Yom Kippur if God didn't command it? As such, one cannot accept Judaism simply because it's the best system available. That may be fine for some secular governmental system; but the Torah needs more.

The Wolf


Chana said...

"One cannot accept Judaism simply because it's the best system available."

Right on!

That was one of the problems with my Rabbi's Machshava class. He attempted to integrate Pascal's Wager into our class, and stated that, "What is there to lose? So you'll miss out on some fun in this world. Either you meet up with God in the next world and garner some amazing rewards, or you are dead and don't know any better."

To which someone asked a compelling question- "But wouldn't it bother you if you found out your entire life had been a lie?"

And he replied, "But you'd be dead, so it wouldn't matter."

Hence it depends upon one's mindset. If it is important to know the truth above all else, and to accept religion/ the Torah/ whatever it may be as the truth, then one cannot simply "gamble" or "wager." If one is out to get the best odds, then perhaps one should gamble.

But the very essence of religion is supposed to be truth and truth-seeking. If we rely upon the Torah, we rely upon it as the truth. We speak and develop a connection with God, the God of our fathers- but also, and perhaps more effectively, our God. Can one truly be a believer if he is practicing on "the off chance that it is right/ because it's the best system possible?" I would argue not. For he could always be talking upwards into thin air...into a vacuum.

To accept anything important or life-changing (and I daresay a religion through/by which one lives one's life is one of the above) one must first have effectively understood it and made a choice. A solid choice, resting upon relatively solid ground, not a "maybe" or "perhaps" or an "oh well, but that's the best I have." And therefore, I wholeheartedly agre with your argument.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Depends what you mean by invalidated. Rambam found value in Christianity and Islam, and he was hardly an ecumenist. The value of the commandments in this hypothetical could be that it makes Judaism Judaism. And if there is value to be found in Judaism, even of limited value like Rambam found in the other religions, then why would it be invalidated any more than the discovery that there really isn't a natural law that all men are created equal?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Re Pascal's Wager

Someone ought to inform that rabbi that Pascal's Wager was formulated as an argument for Christianity. In Pascal's Wager one loses for believing incorrectly in God; Judaism does not accept, at least for a Jew, believing in Jesus. Conversely for a Christian being a believing Jew is not a safe bet.

BrooklynWolf said...

Of course, the *major* flaw with Pascal's wager is that it presupposes that *if* God exists, then He is of the nature that the arguer says He is. If a priest were to come at you with Pascal's Wager as a reason to accept Jesus, the simple rejoinder is "What if Judaism is right?" or "What if Islam (or pick any other religion) is right?" You'd anger God by believing in Jesus then.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


It would be invalidated because there would be no reason to keep the mitzvos.

As I said in my post, there is certainly value in some of the mitzvos. Not killing, not stealing, loving your neighbor, giving charity, etc. are all ideas that can stand independent of the factuality of Mattan Torah. But shaatnez, Shabbos, Yom Kippur, Taharas HaMishpacha and just about every other chok becomes meaningless.

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Not necessarily. I am making a subtle point and I guess I wasn't being so clear.

The mitzvos are what make Judaism Judaism. It is what makes Judaism a "works based" religion. One flaw in Christianity is that historically it has devalued works, that is, it has given Christians the impression that good deeds are not particularly desirable. That is a consequence of devaluing mitzvos. You can argue about the specific mitzvos, but there seems to be no question that it is the concept of divine commands regarding actions that makes Judaism a "works based" religion. Christianity also excepts Christians to be ethical, kind etc But without the idea of mitzvos it seems like the impression that what you do doesn't really matter is the logical conclusion for all too many people.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I don't think I was any more clear.

The reason to keep mitzvos (maybe not for you personally, but for a certain critical mass of people) would be to keep Judaism extant, since an extant Judaism would be the only way to preserve whatever value Judaism had.

I'm going to violate Godwin's Law now: the Nazis saw something about Judaism that they felt could only be eradicated by eradicating Judaism. Reverse that idea.

BrooklynWolf said...

I see your point, Fred, but the reasoning is circular. You're saying that for a certain "critical mass" number of people, the main reason for observing Judaism (keeping the mitzvos) is simply to keep Judaism alive. But is that, in and of itself, a worthwhile goal? If Mattan Torah didn't happen, why is it then a good thing to avoid wearing shaatnez? Because our ancestors did so in the past? So what?

Many of the mitzvos can stand independently because there is a reason that we can fathom for them. But for many others, Mattan Torah itself is the reason - we don't keep kashrus for health reasons; we keep it because we believe that God commanded us to. But without that commandment, what reason is there to observe? Just to preserve some cultural oddity?

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

It is a bit circular, yes.

But what I basically mean is that you wanted to know if a religion is "invalidated" if it isn't "true". I guess we have to define what you meant by invalidated. I took it to mean "lacking in value", but I guess that's not what you mean?

Jewish Atheist said...

This was exactly the situation I found myself in when I realized I no longer believed -- factually -- that the Torah was divine. Anyone who's read my blog knows how it turned out for me. :)

Reconstructionist Judaism is also exactly in the position you describe. Belief in God or the historical accuracy of Judaism is not necessary, but it holds that (some) of the rituals and traditions are worth preserving regardless. I suggest you read up on Mordechai Kaplan if you want to see what a deep thinker did with this very dilemna.

Orthoprax said...

If we can turn some of the best things of Judaism and find new and independent reasons for perpetuating them then we don't need Mattan Torah or God commanding them to be done.

You think people in America celebrate Christmas and Holloween because of religious reasons? Some do. But the rest?

A common custom of Shavuous is to eat milchik meals. You could go through three dozen people in shul and not come upon one who knew why.

There is value in Judaism. And many aspects of it can and will survive even when the original reasons fall. As Judaism is today very few rituals are carried on as they were originally meant. Reconstructionist Judaism is really just a movement along these same lines.

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

I did not write that article. It was from "Future of Orthodox Internet Jews"
see the link:

ADDeRabbi said...

I disagree with your distinction between Halakha and Governments.
If the Torah was accepted as constitutionally binding at any point (Sinai or the time of Ezra), it would be no different from any constitution, and the HISTORICAL origin of the document isn't as important as the narrative under which the constitution was accepted.

The difficulty that the Torah encounters is when it's stripped of the context in which is manifests as a fully articulated legal system (i.e., 'golus', especially as Eliezer Berkovits describes it), and is reduced to being mere religion.

In its true form, Torah is a system which, by including the 'elastic clause' of 'al pi ha-Torah asher yorucha' acknowledges its own inadequacy as a completely comprehensive document and leaves it to later generations to interpret authoritatively - much like the Supreme Court vis-a-vis the U.S. Constitution.

BrooklynWolf said...

If the Torah was accepted as constitutionally binding at any point (Sinai or the time of Ezra), it would be no different from any constitution, and the HISTORICAL origin of the document isn't as important as the narrative under which the constitution was accepted.

In a legal sense, perhaps. But not in a moral sense.

For example, the U.S. Constitution states that there are two houses of Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state's representation in the House is decided based upon it's population, while each state's Senate representation is equal.

There are historical reasons for this - specifically the conflict between the larger states and the smaller states - and this compromise was necessary to get the Constitution ratified by the states. But in the two centuries since, this particular configuration of the legislative branch of the government has become very useful. If we were to discover tomorrow that the Constitutional Conventions in 1787 were a fraud, we would still have valid reason to keep the structure of Congress as we have it.

You can't say the same thing about Shaatnez. Or Para Aduma. Or any of the other chokim that are in the Torah. We can't go back and say "there is still a good reason to keep this on the books" as there might be with many of the mitzvos (murder, theft, etc.). It just doesn't hold. The only reason we keep those mitzvos to begin with is because we *were* commanded to do so at Sinai. Take that away, and all you have left are a bunch of cute, quaint customs.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

On what basis can one claim that Judaism is "the best system out there"? (Or however he phrased it, that was his intent, right?) I think that's a very tenuous claim.

BrooklynWolf said...

The claim was actually made about democracy, not about Judaism. Rachack (or whomever he was copying the article from) extrapolated it to Judaism.

I suppose, however, that if you don't posit Torah Min-Shamayim, that a Jew would have to posit that Judaism is the best religion out there - otherwise, why not become whatever is better?

The Wolf

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

I copied it from Future of the Internet for Orthodox Jews

Anonymous said...

> ...a Jew would have to posit that Judaism is the best religion out there - otherwise, why not become whatever is better?

Not that I think the logic is sound, but according to that thinking, the fact that thousands of people choose other than Judaism kind of makes the point that it isn't the best religion out there, no?

The fact of the matter is that what a group of people choose has no bearing whtasoever on the objective superiority of any religion.

BrooklynWolf said...

Agreed, Hedyot. What I meant to say is that a Jew would have to posit that *he believes* Judaism...

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

here is "proof" of G-d and Torah m'Sinai. Is this "More Bad Reasoning and Bad Proofs" or does it hold water in your opinion?

Orthoprax said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Orthoprax said...


If it's just "proof" then it's not proof.

"Had the event at Sinai not actually occurred anyone fabricating it at any point in time would have met with the stiff refutation of the people, “had a mass event of that proportion ever occurred we surely would have heard of it.” Fabrication of an event of public proportion is not within the realm of credibility."

Typical Kuzari argument. False dilemma. Either it's true or a mass conspiracy. What happened to myth?

Anonymous said...

That is the Kuzari argument. So how do you refute it? I have some ideas but I want to see what other people out there think.

Rebecca said...

I'm very dubious about Torah min-ha-Shamayim, but I still see worth in following the mitzvot. One of the commenters is correct that one can believe that the Torah is true NOT in the literal sense but in the mythic sense - and that (as Arthur Waskow would say) it's the record of Jewish wrestling with God. One can see it more from the human side and less from the divine side - as our ancestors' perceptions of what a covenant with God means. I also believe that it's not just true from the human side - that there is something of the divine in it as well. But then I also believe that other religions have some truth in them as other peoples' wrestling with God (or with Absolute Reality, if one is speaking of Buddhism or some branches of Hinduism).

BrooklynWolf said...

The problems with the Kuzari proof are as follows:

The proof pre-supposes that the Jewish nation consisted of one unified nation since it's creation. If, however, the Jews were several tribes of nomads who settled in the area (and did not come from Egypt via an Exodus) then it is certainly possible that the myths of one group may have eventually been accepted by all the other groups as well.

Secondly, the idea that a foreign idea would be rejected by the group is taken as a given without any proof on it's own. Why is this a given? Certainly, if this were really true, then there would be no machlokes at all in any historical fact or halacha. One person would say to the other: How can you say that the mabul started in Tishrei? My father told me it started in Nissan, and his father before him, and his father before him, etc. By the fact that both views exist and neither has been disproven, this proves that false ideas *can* gain a foothold and not be rejected outright (the Mabul cannot have started in both Nissan and Tishrei -- only one of them can be correct).

Thirdly, it does not take into account the fact that an item can be introduced as myth in one generation and evolve to "fact" in a later generation. One man may tell a story about a Biblical event, never intending it to be taken seriously. His son tells it over as a quaint myth. His son tells it over as a homelitic lesson. And his son accepts it as fact. (Note: "Son" doesn't have to literally mean son here, it could just as well be a number of generations).

This list is not meant to be exhaustive. There can certainly be other arguments against it as well.

The Wolf

Orthoprax said...


"That is the Kuzari argument. So how do you refute it?"

Like I said, I refute it by the fact of it being a false dilemma. That means it is a falacious argument.

Myths arise and lots of people believe them, no matter how huge the fictional event was supposed to be. It doesn't have to be a case of malicious conspiracy.

Orthoprax said...


"...(the Mabul cannot have started in both Nissan and Tishrei -- only one of them can be correct)."

Or neither.

BrooklynWolf said...

True, of course, Orthoprax, but I didn't want to make matters any more complicated than they had to be.

The Wolf

Orthoprax said...


Have you read Shapiro, "The Limits of Orthodox Theology"?

Even Rambam himself didn't fit exactly with those 13 supposed needed beliefs.

BrooklynWolf said...


I debated on whether or not to include Creation when I first wrote my post. In the end I decided to include it for two reasons:

1. One of the central observences of Judaism, Shabbos, is based on Creation, not on the Exodus.

2. Because, as you mention, a belief in God is central to Judaism. But the primary way that we define God is as the Creator. As such, I decided to include that as well.

The Wolf

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The Samaritans refute the Kuzari argument.

They too believe that their ancestors were at Sinai, where they heard God tell them to build a makom ha-mikdash on Har Gerizim.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"Judaism has nothing to do with Creation. I am confused why you would mention that. Rambam said he could have lived with an eternal universe. The main thing is Mattan Torah, and of course G-d."

I just have to remind you that the Rambam could have been wrong about that too. The Rambam may provide a model we like in many ways but if the Rambam's ikkarim aren't settled facts then neither are his other assertions such as the one you mention.

Ben Avuyah said...

The Kuzari proof, as I understand it and as Rabbi Chai appears to unoriginally restate it, is that all of our ancestors saw and heard Matan Torah. And after this in an unbroken chain passed the information of Gods revelation down the line. And that is supposed to equal proof.

Now I am familiar with the fact that orthodoxy prickles at basic academic knowledge outside of Judaism, but surely, it’s ethnocentricity should provide for the ability to recall it’s own history.

I mean, a meager few hundred years after delivery of this divine document we were immersed in sin, How convincing could it have been ??
A couple of hundred years later and someone pops up with sefer Divorim. Guess What? Not one of the assembled peoples knows what the hell it is.
Unbroken chain ????.
How do we know the uninformed public wasn’t handed Devarim and several other things that they didn’t know better than to call Devarim. And if that is how discriminatory they were in adding to the torah, how could anyone trust them.

The greatest downfall of the Kuzari is revealed by the very heritage, which he is struggling to uphold.

Take a moment to bask in the irony.

I am truly mystified at the effort of modern Rabbi’s to write long and onerous essays to bolster this miserably failed attempt.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I don't think the Kuzari should be called a miserably failed attempt. It was a work of apologetics for rabbinic Judaism aimed at 11th century (?) Jews. On the contrary, the fact that its been kicking around for a thousand years or so tells you something of its potency.

I won't claim that R. Yehuda Ha-levi himself saw holes in his argument, but that's irrelevent. The greatest of philosophers make arguments with holes in them. But as a work aimed at Jews who had to confront the argments of Karaite Jews, Muslims and Christians the Kuzari was very successful.

Does it work in the 21st century? Not really. It works for those who want it to work, most of whom are already convinced that it does. The argument itself is flawed as most pairs of 21st century eyes will see. But that doesn't mean this 11th century work is a failure.

Ben Avuyah said...

mississippi fred,
His failure occurred when he began to envision that Judaism was more than pure faith. He fooled himself into believing that you could prove it based on evidence. But to the contrary, all religions should hide under the bed sheets of faith, for evidence brings only the kiss of death.
The fact that he convinced people of the eleventh century does not bring great praise to his achievement; rather it is a sobering testament to the state of free thought and acceptable conjecture at that time.

Conservative Apikoris said...

That was one of the problems with my Rabbi's Machshava class.

What does Pascal's Wager have to do with computers? And why do you have a rabbi teaching a computer class? And anyaway, Pascal was a goy, why was your rabbi teaching goyish philosophy?

He attempted to integrate Pascal's Wager into our class, and stated that, "What is there to lose? So you'll miss out on some fun in this world. Either you meet up with God in the next world and garner some amazing rewards, or you are dead and don't know any better."

Pascl's wager is bullshit, because it doesn't consider all the possiblities. You might meet up with God in the next word and find out that he gives rewards only if you do exactly theopposite of what the Torah commands. Or he punishes you for not having "fun" when you were alive.

If there is a next world and if God punishes me beause of my transgressions of the Torah, then so what? Either God really wants me to obey the Torah and is upset that I've trangressed, or He is some sort of Divine Sociopath and is actually pleased that he has another sinner to torment. If He's upset at me, then, even as I suffer, I will have the staisfaction of knowing that I made God upset by putting a monkey wrench in His plan for the world. If He's the Divine Sociopath, I can endure my suffering becuase I know I'm OK, and it's God who is evil.

Either way, I will be at peace becuase I will know that I have delayed the onset of moshoach, and the human race will remain in golus for a little bit longer.

[The above makes about as much sense as doing mitzvos in order to receive a divine reward after death.]

Conservative Apikoris said...

I mean, a meager few hundred years after delivery of this divine document we were immersed in sin, How convincing could it have been ??

"A few hundred years?" Ever heard of the "sin of the Golden Calf?" According the story, the Israelites were immersed in sin while they were recieving the damn thing!

It must have had something to do with the mountain that God held over the peoples' head like a beer keg, as He threatened them with Torah or death.

Ben Avuyah said...

>I mean, a meager few hundred years after delivery of this divine document we were immersed in sin, How convincing could it have been ??

>"A few hundred years?" Ever heard of the "sin of the Golden Calf?" According the story, the Israelites were immersed in sin while they were recieving the damn thing!

Apologetics would say they hadn't had a chance to read it yet, or some such nonesense.

Of course, your right, it's the hundreth misshapen piece in a puzzle where nothing connects.