Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

On Sinai

There are many ways of looking at the truth of Sinai.  What follows is some random thoughts of mine on the subject.  Please don't expect anything profound as I am simply typing as fast as I can between patients (as usual).
The first question is: is there a God?  Well of course there is.  Most atheists also don't realize it but they accept there is.  The minute you say that there was a Big Bang you admit there must have been a First Cause that created it.  Yes I know that important and otherwise clever scientists like Stephen Hawking refuse to admit that this is so and instead hypothesize about prior universes and the spontaneous generation of matter but - and this is an important bit - for people who really on science to provide actually facts (more on that later) their basing their denial of God's existence on unprovable hypothesis for which there is not a shred of evidence outside of the musings of theoretical physicists who have nothing better to do with their time is mere apologetics.
So there is a First Cause and if you look at the classic Jewish philosophical forces, that is the one fundamental definition of God.  If you believe in the Big Bang, you believe in God.  Done.
What's more, one can then look at the question: Did God stay involved in the formation of the universe once it was created?  There is an old argument which, despite its age, remains quite cogent at this point.  It is well known that life as we know it today is the results of a lot of coincidences, freak chances and planets being at just the right distance from the Sun that they have to be.  The chance of a spontaneously evolving universe developing life is so incredibly against the odds.  Yes, the counter argument is "Well here we are arguing about it so, as improbably as it might be, it obviously happened" and yes, one could sit back and enjoy a cold iced tea after saying it (or even not, iced tea is good no matter what's going on) but on whom is the burden of proof?  The person who points out an orderly, consistent universe and says it's part of an intelligent Deity's plan or the person who says it's the result of chance?  The latter, every time.
The next thing to consider is tradition.  Now, I realize that in academic circles and especially amongst scientists this means nothing.  As a physician I can appreciate that.  After all, in scholarly circles what matters is hard evidence.  Can a point be proven positively as opposed through assumptions and beliefs?
However, when it comes to religion this point does not apply in the same way.  The main reason is that religion, by definition, is based on faith and faith, in turn, is based on something which cannot be rationally proven.  As a result, any method which demands completely rationalization and hard evidence as criteria for acceptance cannot properly assess religion.
Having said this, one might wonder why science and religion clash since they deal with completely separate subjects?  The reason for this is not because of science but because of Scientism, a religious approach to science in which the "facts" as well as the approach become the new dogma.  Like any religion, there is an inherent bias when it comes to Scientism.  For example, science cannot tell us whether global warming is happening or not.  All it can do is measure data and present impressions on whether the world is getting hotter overall.  However, Scientism does presume to give us an answer to the question and it does so through a selective approach to the available information (An Inconvenient Truth) that highlights only supportive data while ignoring anything deviating from that combined with a "get the heretics" approach to scientific authorities that disagree with the predetermined conclusion that global warming is indeed happening (East Anglia scandal).
This approach also affects most scholarly activities whether the academics in question are prepared to admit it or not.  From the questions a PhD candidate chooses to address to the sources his supervisor considers credible, there is a bias which determines the eventual outcome.  Rare is the academic who will admit "I've already decided what the answer is so I'll massage my footnotes to reach that answer and make it look good" but the process is there.  In contrast to pure academic inquiry, this has reached pseudo-religious status as well.  We could call it Academism.
The other reason that science clashes with religion is due to an overly dogmatic approach to religion that has as its basis a lack of distinction between science and Scientism.  It is quite right, for example, for Jewish authorities to fight back against Scientism and Academism is very important.  The proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis are, in many cases, not so interested in finding an honest answer to the question of Who really wrote the Torah but in discrediting religion.  Arguments that demolish their positions or point out suitable counter-answers to their assertions are immediately dismissed as irrelevant because they have already decided that the DH theory is the only true answer (even though there are some dozen versions of this theory out there so which is it?).  It is therefore important for us to have answers to the Critical school's challenges as well as to make it obvious that their beliefs and process are flawed.
When it comes to approach real science and academics, however, these same Jewish authorities need to differentiate and appreciate that modern scientific and academic methods have some merit when properly utilized and their data assessed.  It is this wholesale rejection of science and academia raised to the level of the 13 ikkarim that form the basis for the whole rationalist/anti-rationalist conflict today.
So back to tradition.  Tradition forms the backbone of all classical religions as well it should.  Again, if faith is the belief in something that cannot be objectively proven by scholarly inquiry then it must be part of the definition of religion.
That's not to say they're limits to faith.  Something which can definitively be disproven by dispassionate scholarly inquiry is no longer an article of faith.  It's one thing to believe the sky is green after living one's entire life in a cave, for instance, quite another to go outside, look up and still maintain that it's not blue (assuming it's a clear day, mind you).  Proponents of scientism and academism hold that religious folk are still in the cave while they have been outside and looked up.  If all we were to do was to walk outside the cave and do so, we would quickly agree the sky is indeed blue.
But is it that simple?  Imagine a slight adjustment to the science.  One of the assumptions I noted was that it was a clear day outside the cave.  What if it's cloudy?
At one point tradition was all a religion needed to get by.  The words of our fathers, received from their fathers and so on, was enough.  With the birth of archeology and the development of the modern scientific method all this changed.  Beliefs we had always accepted as "fact" could now be tested.  Religion X holds that there was a battle that killed millions of people on a certain site.  Is there any evidence in the ground of such a battle?  Science and archeology have become weapons in the hands of proponents of Scientism and Academism in their ongoing battle against classical religion mostly because classical religion, Judaism in the case of this post, have either not chosen to understand how to use them to prove their own points or decided to lump pure science and academia together with Scientism and Academism and reject them wholesale.
Consider the archeological perspective.  The default position of the academic community is that there is no evidence for many of the events detailed in the Tanach, especially those in the Torah.  They base this on the absence of archeological findings to date that correlate with the Biblical narrative.
If one is approaching the subject from a strictly academic perspective then their position has merit.  However, as I noted earlier, when it comes to religion tradition plays a tremendous role.  For example, tradition tells us that David HaMelech, a"h, was king in Yerushalayim over all twelve tribes of Israel as well as ruler of a mini-empire that covered much of modern day Israel, Jordan and Syria.  For a long time academics dismissed this based on a lack of any mention of David in archeological findings from the time Tanach says he ruled.  The problem with their stand is that there is now evidence of David's existence.  In addition his mini-empire flourished at exactly the same time multiple other mini-empires sprung up in the region, something that was unique to that time period and not later when massive empires predominated.
The same thing happened with Avraham Avinu.  The Torah tells us he used camels.  Ah ha! said the scholars. Camels weren't used as transport in the MiddleEast until centuries later, clear proof that the story had been written a long time after Avraham Avinu lived, assuming he existed at all.  Except that then archeology discovered that camels were used during Avraham Avinu's time period.  Oops.
In short, there is an emerging wealth of information being dug up in the MiddleEast about eras gone past.  None of it to date has contradicted the Tanach's account of history and many findings have actually gone on to corroborate nicely with it.  Thus tradition has, in the face of scholarly hostility, been proven correct whenever objective evidence has presented itself.  If that's the case, on what basis would I reject tradition?
This brings me to the final point.  Having discussed God's existence, His continued involvement in running the universe and how tradition has been supported by modern scholarship, we come to the most important question: Did Sinai happen?
One can approach this from a logical perspective.  We have a candidate pharaoh (Amonhotep II) who started his reign with a strong military approach around the time of the Exodus according to our dating and then, for unknown reasons, stopped it.  A short time after we have a population explosion in Biblical Canaan along with the introduction of pottery and other remnants showing a decidedly non-Caananite origin.  Thus there is support for an event which military damaged Egypt, something the Torah tells us the Exodus did, and a sudden arrival in Canaan of a foreign population from over the Jordan River, again as detailed in Yehoshua.  There is no evidence that Matan Torah did not happen and our tradition tells us that just as we left Egypt and entered Canaan so too along the way we picked up the Torah.  On what rational basis (not emotion, not so-called intellectual) would I have to reject this part of the record?


Baruch Pelta said...

Goodness me, there's a lot to disagree with here...I'll stick to a few points.

The first question is: is there a God? Well of course there is. Most atheists also don't realize it but they accept there is. The minute you say that there was a Big Bang you admit there must have been a First Cause that created it.
Nope, for a gazillion reasons:

It is well known that life as we know it today is the results of a lot of coincidences, freak chances and planets being at just the right distance from the Sun that they have to be.
Well, actually, the sun's eventually going to become so hot that everything's going to die.

There's also a new book on this topic which I haven't accessed yet, but I'm dying to read:

None of it to date has contradicted the Tanach's account
Sure, lots has. Easy examples: No global flood. No ever-turning swords to be found. I guess you can just interpret verses as "non-literal" or "non-natural" and then say nothing's been contradicted, but then you're the one cherry-picking evidence.

A short time after we have a population explosion in Biblical Canaan along with the introduction of pottery and other remnants showing a decidedly non-Caananite origin.
You've mentioned this before. Cite?

Anyways, I seem to have a problem googling claims made about the historicity of various local people and events the Bible refers to, so I've decided to ask some people about some of the claims you made here (along with one someone else made to me).

Boxed Whine said...

Okay, so that all went way over my head- Back to picking out tomorrow's shade of pink lipgloss.....duh, duh, derp.....

But seriously, are you a shrink? You really sounded like you know your stuff in my entry.

Nishma said...

The core question is: how does one know the truth? The world of science and rationalism states that this is through the sensory collection of data and the application of logic (with, perhaps, a basic acceptance of some limited a prioris). What the world of religion introduces is the possibility of other means by which to ascertain the truth or, perhaps more correctly, other elements in this process of determining truth. The most well known of these is what we may term faith -- really an argument that there is an additional intuitive feature within the human being that also can play a role in finding truth. Applying the word l'havdel to clearly distinguish Torah theory from that of the general religious world, we find such a concept in the words of the Kuzari who maintains that there was something in the soul of Avraham Avinu that led him to recognize God. A metaphysical sensory element, an inner intuition, the point is that there was and is, in many people, another perceptive faculty which can be and should be a factor in a search for truth, aside from what we can learn about truth from the rationalism of our senses and logic.

But here is where the issue becomes interesting. The Kuzari also maintains that this additional faculty cannot violate logic -- and here is where Torah Judaism makes its unique mark. Religions in general, in arguing for faith, declare it to supplant rationalism and logic. Faith is perceived to be a different category. It is even expected that faith will contradict rationalism and that the sign of a true adherent of the Faith is the negation of the rational. Kuzari argues the opposite. This faculty of the soul to perceive certain aspects of truth must still join with logic and rationalism to find the truth. It is not an independent faculty to supplant thought as so many generic religious contend. It is another faculty that is to employed in the process, the complex process, of discovering the truth.

This is really what Garnel is arguing. How do we know truth? Through the employment of various factors and elements that must intertwine and integrate within this objective of finding the truth. The Torah critique of the secularist is that he/she employs only a subset of the available factors and elements. What Garnel terms Scientism is really when the secularist takes this position as an a priori in itself, rejecting almost as a principle of faith that there is no other factors or elements that play a role in the search for truth. The secularist critique of the religious individual is specifically that he/she employs false elements and factors, even to the extent -- as evidenced by the articulation of such phrases as credo qui absurdum est, I believe because it is absurd -- of denying the very role of the real elements and factors of logic and rationalism. The Torah position is clearly against such a religious view but it does still run into conflict with the secularist because it does project other elements and factors. But the secularist is confused because, at the same time, the Torah declares the value of rationalism and logic. And this is precisely the complexity of Torah -- for it sees a multi-dimensional process in the acquisition of truth that clearly still greatly respects thought. This is why people can't make us out.

Rabbi Ben Hecht