Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sefer Bamidbar and a Post-Shavuos Hangover

One might think that after staying up all night on Shavuos enough Torah would have been learned that would provide for enough material to keep on a back burner for future blogs/Divrei Torah. [Or, for an excuse for as to why one wasn’t written before Yom Tov, said excuse being that there would be more to say afterward.]

Indeed, the two shiurim I attended—one on due process within halacha and the other regarding the Avoda Zara status of the Trinity vis-à-vis bnei noach—should make cameo appearances on these pages sometime in the future.

Yet, while walking up Amsterdam Avenue from one shiur to another at 4AM [our wandering in the UWS “midbar”?], it was part of an ongoing argument I’ve had with a friend who claims to have lost her faith and will tell everyone and anyone who is willing to listen [or not] that highlighted the need for some intellectual consistency in these debates.

The crux of the debate came down to two counter-propositions which will always run parallel: on one side the notion of a Torah MiSinai, in this case employing the Maimonidean formulation that insists upon a letter-perfect Torah dictated directly from G-d to Moses [yes, there are salient halachic allowances for deviation, but bear with this theoretically draconian formulation for arguments’ sake: there are times where its actually useful]; on the other side, the assertion that the “Bible” [in this case, the Pentateuch], HAD to have been written by man/men, specifically 5 different ones.

Two interesting propositions came out of this. The first was that, when a bystander asked me what the “argument” was really about, I said that basically my counterpart insisted that Torah MiSinai in any form [but especially the Maimonidean notion] was “bullshit”, and I claimed that I from my end, the Documentary Hypothesis was at least equally “bullshit”. This engendered at first recriminations about scientific proof [not from me; I think the “Codes” are unnecessary at best, counterproductive at worst], counter recriminations that my counterpart knew about as much about Torah MiSinai as I knew about the Documentary Hypothesis, which engendered a note from my sparring partner that I was enagaing in unfair ad hominem tactics and that she expected better of me.

[When she reads this she’ll found out just how ad hominem I can get without losing the true subtext of an argument.]

The note was stuck inside a copy of Richard Elliot Friedman’s “The Bible With Sources Revealed”, a text that may be a—if not the—contemporary paradigmatic Documentary Hypothesian Ikkarei Emunah. [To be fair, asked her for the book; I wanted to at least see where she was coming from.]

Which, along with her note and rather forceful assertions about the scientific certainty of the Wellhausen explanation, seemed to me to be precisely the point, and one that I could not get across to her: Documentary Hypothesians are as fundamentalist, inflexible, and intolerant in their [dis]belief and want others, if not to accept their belief system as the right one, to allow them to promulgate their [dis]beliefs among others in the community who do not hold as they do, or at least try to get them into discussions to make them at least seem equally intolerant for professing admittedly anachronistic beliefs and not having the ability or willingness to defend or justify them.

In other words, aside from arrogating to themselves a self-righteousness normally reserved for Chareidi and other circles, fundamentalist Documentary Hypothesians are especially annoying for this reason: they want to make you think. And, as that famous thinker once said, if you get people to think their thinking, they’ll love you; but if you actually make them think, they’ll want to kill you. Which is why the real professional kiruv people actually have one up on fundamentalist Documentary Hypothesians: they manage to get you think that you thought of what they tell [or, ikka d’amri, sell] you. [There is some credibility to accusations that such an approach is intellectually vacuous, if not dishonest; but that’s another discussion.]

So, with my counterpart in her own midbar, where did that leave me? During the course of our discussion, I had to defend two propositions [which I never got to completely finish defending before the pre-emptive dismissal of “bullshit”]: one, how I would give credence to the Maimonidean formulation as opposed to the Doc Hyp; and two, why.

The first was simple: the Doc Hyp assumes that the Torah, or “Bible” is a written record that is constrained by certain textual boundaries which dictate that it had to be written by multiple authors. Fine, if that assumption holds. However, if you simply state that what was dictated to Moses by G-d as Torah she-biktav was a text with no punctuation and or vowelization, and therefore much more akin to a code than a historical or literary record, while that might not prove divine origin, it allows such a proposition to make as much sense—at least—as assertions of multiple authorship. [Loud thumping assertions, as blustering as anything from right-wing pulpits.]

Which brings me to explain as to why I would rather believe in a Torah she-biktav as a Divine Code even in its Maimonidean formulation as opposed to fundamentalist Doc Hyp. Because, my dear, I wouldn’t care two wits about a Bible that wasn’t Divine. That’s not Torah. If a man came up with the “stuff” in there, I wouldn’t even bother to argue for its importance as a cultural artifact; it wouldn’t be worth defending. Certainly not as a legal constitution today. I would almost tell you: if you think this system of belief is especially “bullshit”, why do you even bother studying it? You’d be better off [and more intellectually honest] taking Bill Maher’s approach of deconstructing all belief. And, as far as the “scientific certainty” of Doc Hypism, Friedman’s assertion that “the most compelling argument for the hypothesis is that this hypothesis best accounts for the fact that all this evidence of so many kinds comes together so consistently” hardly qualifies as beyond a reasonable doubt.

To conclude vis-à-vis this writer’s own motivation toward belief and possible intellectual inconsistency or dishonesty, I would almost take a converse [or is it inverse?] version of Pascal’s wager: if G-d exists, that existence is independent upon my belief in Him or lack thereof; He isn’t going away. Similarly with the Torah: if He did write it, no “proof” to the contrary will change the fact. Such a belief is hardly the stuff of high-level spirituality; fine. That’s MY midbar.

My final admonition vis-à-vis Doc Hypists: I wouldn’t necessarily suggest advertising such raving disbelief in an Orthodox community, and lets face it, when you assert the primacy of Doc Hyp in an Orthodox community, you’re raving; you’ve graduated from voicing doubts to actively asserting an contrary position. If you feel like you’re on the receiving end of disproportionate opprobrium as a result, while certain levels of said opprobrium may be less than justified, you can’t say that it would be completely unexpected.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Behar-Bechukosai: Warning Signs

There are two “tochachos” in the Torah; one here, in Bechukosai, and another in Ki Savo. Parallels and contrasts are evident: while Bechukosai’s tochacha lists 49 “curses”, Ki Savo’s list 98. Sforno hints that the Bechukosai tochacha is representative of the Churban Bayis Rishon and the Babylonian exile, while the Ki Savo tochacha is representative of Churban Bayis Sheni and the Roman exile.

One interesting contrast is the fact that in this week’s tochacha, the curses are punctuated with seven repeated Divine warnings of backsliding, usually referred to as “halichas keri”, acting as if the aforementioned “corrections” were to attributed to a source other than Divine, or as to have been “happenstance” and not related to Israel’s relationship with G-d. There is almost no such reference to gradation in Ki Savo: there is the initial warning “And if you will not listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d” in Devarim 28:15, and in the middle of all of the catastrophes, the only other reason given: “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with happiness and a good heart while you yet had all things” [Devarim 28:47]. It’s almost as if, unlike here, there is no opportunity given for correction of wayward behavior.

Also unlike the Ki Savo tochacha, this weeks parsha seems to provide the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, with G-d reiterating his commitment to the eternity of the Jewish people; even to the point that the last curse—that “the land will desolate itself from them and recoup its [lost] Sabbaths [acc. to Rashi, the violated Shemittos] [27:43]”—indicates that there is an end to the payback. What happens at the end of the Ki Savo tochacha is more harrowing: the last curse is that G-d will return the Jews to Egypt in boats, almost as if a reverse engineering yitizias mitzrayim; and, to add injury to insult, when the Jews try have themselves sold into slavery, Rashi says that the Torah’s proclamation that “no one will buy” is indicative of the likelihood that they will be massacred instead.

If one takes Sforno’s hint as to the relationship between the tochachos and the churbanos, and one remembers the various sins that were supposed to have caused each of the churbanos, the contrast between the two tochachos start to make more sense. The ostensible proximate causes of the first churban are generally listed as the three cardinal sins—avoda zara, gilui arayos, and shefichas damim—and, additionally, there are strong hints in this weeks’ parshah that shemitta was almost never kept during the entire first temple period. Whereas, in the case of bayis sheni, the classic reason given for that curban is sinas chinam, but also one hears that the entire justice system was adjudicated l’shuras hadin [strict letter of the law] as opposed to lifnim mishuras hadin, and that the populace no longer made the blessings on the Torah.

In addition to the difference in kind of the sinning that brought about the churbanos, the Talmudic dictum that “hasra’ah [warnings] do not need to be given to talmidei chachamim” might further illustrate why there is no light at the end of the tunnel in the second tochacha. The society of the bayis rishon/first tochacha was almost perpetually adolescent, in a way, and this reflected in the rather anarchic behavior of not only the populace, but the ruling classes, as detailed in much of Sefer Melachim. However, it was almost this very self-imposed ignorance—according to many midrashim, when Yoshiyahu began his successful campaign of national teshuva at age 26, he hadn’t even SEEN a Sefer Torah for the first 18 years of his reign until Chilkiyahu found one hidden in the heichal—which mitigated the Jews heinous behavior, to the point that there was enough Divine “tolerance” to give warning signs, like the seven in the parsha. Adolescent anarchy is correctable, even if the corrective measures are draconian.

Such mitigating circumstances were no longer applicable in the case of Bayis Sheni. That populace was purported to be learned, which in and of itself raises the level of responsibility further; however, one might see the two other “averos”—regarding birchos haTorah and shuras hadin—as something other than ancillary, as they underpin the entire prosecution. To wit: a populace that was clearly supposed to know better has instead taken upon themselves to use a system of Divine law as a power grab, which more likely than not led them to justify the occurrences of sinas chinam and adjudication solely l’shuras hadin [which might hint at an inability to see the “human” factor in law, or a lack of judicial restraint, but more likely is the confusion of having judicial power with having judicial infallibility]. One then can actually see a deeper meaning in the neglect of birchos haTorah: almost as if those applying the law were acting as if they were the fount of all law and morality, forgetting the actual Source.

In that case, it isn’t enough to just punish a wayward, almost adolescent anarchy with a cleansing exile and a chance to rebuild; its as if the whole project has to be scrapped and re-engineered from the beginning, even unto pre-Torah: going back to Egypt. The Bayis Rishon generation couldn’t—or wouldn’t—follow the Torah; the Bayis Sheni generation took the Torah in a direction it was not supposed to go.

In theory, these characterizations are so open-ended that they can applied by any one side to an antagonist in any socio-politico-religious debate [and not only those]. So those applications will be left to the readers to make, because they will be made anyway.

With one exception: those who are ostensibly “versed in the law” [or look and act like they are, in any case], and then engage in behaviors that transcend depravities prevalent in bayis rishon—and then are defended from prosecution from other people “versed” in Torah who use the Torah to justify said protection, thereby transcending the sins of bayis sheni. They know who they are.