Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

On Denying

Three years ago I wrote about what I thought was one of my better ideas - that once upon a time 3500 years ago it would have been absurd for a Jew to deny Matan Torah at Sinai but over time such denials became much more plausible since eye witnesses to the event were long dead and buried and all people had to go on was tradition and the Torah saying that the event happened.  I then extrapolated this to the Holocaust, pointing out that in the future, probably sooner than we think after the last survivors have passed on, people will do the same thing.  In fact, I think that in an age of photo-shoping and increasingly sophisticated technology people will find it all that much easier to deny the existing evidence of the Holocaust and come up with "reasonable" alternative explanations for our claims that the tragedy happened.
And then out of nowhere a comment appears from someone monikered "FQ":
Sorry I'm a couple years too late. I think this is an interesting comparison and a good point. The issue I have with it is when I take your argument and turn it around. Let's say I start making up proofs that aliens landed in my neighborhood and I spread it around and tell my kids and friends, and they play along. If someone is skeptical 100 years later because he's not convinced by the "proofs", is that the same as a future holocaust denyer?And if it is different, then how does sinai denial resemble holocaust denial more than alien denial.
Now let's approach this piece by piece.  This is not the first time such a question has been asked and, in one of its more absurd manifestations, it has morphed into a pseudo-movement whose whole purpose is simply to mock God's existence.  As FQ might have implied, all major religions start with a claim of some kind of interaction with or manifestation of the supernatural.  The story must inevitably be taken on faith.  Why should I believe my religion's story is any more legitimate that any others?  Why must I believe any of them?
The first  part of the answer derives from the Kuzari proof which is quite a good argument for the truth of Torah when applied against the two rival monotheistic religions which claim to have supplanted Judaism as God's chosen revelation.  This is not what I think FQ was getting at so I won't pursue it.
So let's look at the example he brings (if FQ is a she, I apologize for using the male gender to identify her).  Let's say alien's landed in my neighbourhood one afternoon and subsequently departed without leaving a trace of evidence behind.  There are now two possiblities.  One is that they appeared, looked around, maybe enjoyed a Big Mac, and then departed.  The other is that they interacted with the local populace, gave them information or told them about life on other worlds, and then departed.
If it's the former, then really, who cares?  Yes, aliens were here.  No, they weren't.  Yes, there's advanced life out there but so what?  We can't even get a man to the moon any more and any advanced enough life form will be able to wipe us out from space so again, who cares?  How does my life change on a daily basis?  Other than knowing that we are not alone in the universe my day-to-day existence is unaltered.
On the other hand, let's say the aliens leave something behind, like rules to live by.  I ask again: why should I care?  Why should I do anything they say?
And this is something I think people don't realize when they dismiss the Kuzari proof, mostly because it's not part of that original argument.  The Jewish claim is not that God revealed Himself once at Har Sinai, gave us the Torah and then went back to Heaven but that He continued to reveal Himself on a regular basis afterwards to ensure we remembered His presence in our lives.  Ours is not a revelation on the road to Damascus or in some dark Arabian desert but rather an ongoing revelation.  
Unlike Chrisianity which started by promising a monotheistic-sympathetic Roman culture that they could have all the reward of Judaism (Heaven, blintzes, etc) without any of the obligations, and unlike Islam which was supported by the military prowess of its military leader, Judaism had to overcome the opposite of both. Remember that the Bible, unique amongst ancient documents, narrates our stumbling as avidly as it does our successes.  We learn that early on, right after conquering part of Israel that our ancestors were invaded and oppressed on a repeated basis by their neighbours.  We learn that the various mitzvos were not happily accepted by our ancestors.  It was only through crying out to God and seeing His miracles in rescuing us that we continued to exist.
Remember what the Torah tells us - the Shechinah, the physical manifestation of God's presence, accompanied our ancestors for forty years in the desert.  It was present for much of the First Temple's existence.  It was this ongoing revelation that cemented the loyalty in Torah in our ancestors despite all their documented backsliding.  
So yes, on one hand if aliens landed and looked around my neighbourhood then denying they did in a few years would be no different on a superficial  level than Holocaust denial.  If you want to keep things simple than Sinai denial, Holocaust denial and alien denial are all the same thing: a denial about an event that happened.
And that was my point, not trying to prove the truth of Sinai which I've done in other posts.  My point was simply that those folks who get into a hot lather about Holocaust denies but then turn around and say "Yeah, but Matan Torah didn't happen the way the Torah says it did, of course" are engaging in a denial that's no different.

8 comments:

Adam Zur said...

what is important about Torah is the inner reality it presents--not how it was written

SJ said...

Come to think of it was the number really 6,000,000? or just rounded off? O.o

Sparrow said...

If I remember correctly, R' Soloveitchik talks about this as a process that recurs each generation. I'm working on a post about this, actually.

Meir Goldberg said...

Hi Garnel, I don't know how to contact you so I figure I'll leave this in the comments section.

I have been working on approaches to answer many attacks on the divinity of Torah from Naftali Zeligman's somewhat infamous "Letter to my Rabbi." I now started a blog, truetorah.blogspot.com for those of you who may be interested in it,. The blog is only 20% done. I hope to complete it soon.

Anonymous said...

Start with a James Kugel, whose book How to Read the Bible is good primer on the subject (and has many footnotes for further exploration.) Then maybe David Carr (a Catholic) at Union Theological Seminary. The last one hundred and fifty years, the case for Torah written over hundreds of years and anthologized grows more stronger. There are contributions from six or more areas of study to Modern Biblical Criticism, and from academics (some who are frum) from universities all over the world (and a hundred and fifty years of arguing, refining, discarding and evolving.)

Anyway, that’s where it begins if you are interested in seeing for yourself. Kugel mentions on or just before I believe p. 240 in his book that the idea of national revelation could have been given life by King David, who unified the tribes. He may have taken a story that one group maintained, and beefed it up to apply to all the tribes. He was a divinely-inspired king, and therefore if he said all the tribes were at Mt. Sinai together then, so be it.

From the academic view, King David was very early in the slow trip that ultimately lead to what we call the Torah hundreds and hundreds of years later.

He likens it to the way in school textbooks across the U.S. we now read that the original colonists came to America in search of religious freedom. While some colonists up north had this among their reasons, this was not true for southern colonists. However, we are now taught as children that this was a reason the colonists voyaged to the U.S. The particular story has become part of our foundational story – Americans are the descendents of forefathers seeking religious freedom. Not a sentence that describes it as it was, but as we see and transmit it now.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Prof Kugel may be a fine scholar but, to paraphrase Spock from Star Trek II, he proceeds from a false assumption which means all his fine work is built on nothing. Or more specifically: on theories that have nothing to support them except that they sound nice and deny the truth of the Sinaitic revelation. But at least he admits to the existence of King David. Proper academics didn't even do that until a couple of decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Once you dispense with the Aish Discovery proofs, and read even frum authors on how the masorah is built to sustain emunah, not emmes (and not historical accuracy – see Marc Shapiro for work on this), you might as well spend a few years comparing the traditional understanding to the voluminous work of academics. Not just Kugel – there is more out there of course (though his book and footnotes are a good beginning.)

If you do look at it from both sides – it is at least reasonable to find the traditional view of Torah wanting, and the academic view compelling.

(This says NOTHING about the experiential part of Judaism. I think even Kugel the frum Jew – whose children and grandchildren are frum and who lives in Israel – understands this.)

Judaism has in the last hundred years or so sort of painted itself into a corner – no dinosaurs, or young earth, or no evolution, or Chazal knew everything about science so “nature changed,” and their medical treatments were sound prior to this happening.

I’m not an expert. I just took hard looks from both ends. If you feel up to rational inquiry most religions have shoddy cases for their truth claims. It’s not something frum Jews are really interested in.

However, I understand that, after taking a good look, some are inspired to become more observant. Maybe this will encourage frum Jews to not fear the academic world. The information is out there – we should all get into it, it’s really about our human search for the emmes.

Tuvia
(anonymous who started with Kugel in earlier comment)

Joebug said...

Garnel -

You think its one of your better ideas?

The thousand of direct eyewitness statements, the millions of families who directly lost relatives, the Nuremberg trials, yaad vashem, the drum made of a tall it in the Budapest Jewish museum, the mountains of documentation, books, the state of Israel itself...you could as well deny in 1000 years that ww1 or ww2 or the black death or the Roman empire were delusions..that's the true comparison not an uncorroborated holy book of one nation, your comparison is an ugly and frankly stupid affront to the six million who died, and you should be ashamed.