Religion And Truth By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Religion cannot simply be allowed to shrug off the values of the Enlightenment. I believe that at this juncture in history nothing less may be at stake.
For a long time the word on the fashionable intellectual street has been that religion is on the decline. Society, it was assumed, would have to contend, for better or for worse, with the ever rising tide of securalization. But for some time now this assumption has become increasingly dubious. There are many signs that religion is moving back in from the margins to the centre; it refuses to be confined to the invisible domain of the private conscience where it had been thought by some that it could be stowed away harmlessly at a safe distance from public affairs. From many corners religion is now on the way back, making its emboldened bid for the political centre stage, the military centre stage, even, something unheard of since theology lost its dominance to the natural sciences at the rise of the modern era, the central intellectual stage. The very title of a book like The esecularization Of The World, edited by Peter Berger and containing a series of essays covering the corners of the world and sub-headed Resurgent Religion And World Politics makes the point forcefully.
In this turning tide I find myself in the strange position as a rabbi, whose allegiance should be clear, of asking myself who I’m more afraid of, the secularists or the proponents of the rising faiths.
The key issue is that of truth. But it should not therefore be thought that the subject is of interest only to the purist. There is nothing ephemeral or theoretical about this debate. If truth should lose out (and I will make bluntly clear what I mean by that) many of our most precious values are likely to sink with it, including freedom of inquiry, the empirical method of investigation, tolerance and the celebration of difference. The question of truth is not therefore just a Masorti issue; it is the Masorti issue. I have felt more and more since his death that, though enough may have been said about the
specific politics and personalities involved in the ‘affair’, Rabbi Jacobs was a prophet before his time and his concerns constitute the fulcrum about which our intellectual and political future now turns.
The core of the matter can be stated relatively simply. Again and again in his theological writings, from the first page of the introduction to We Have Reason To Believe until the close of Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the last full length work in which he stated his intellectual position and spelled out its implications, Rabbi Jacobs raised the question of truth. He did so as an avowed modernist, a person who believed in the empirical method, whose first adherents in the world of Jewish scholarship were the proponents of Wissenchaft des Judetums in nineteenth century Germany, figures like Graetz and Krochmal and their heirs and whose method was that of rigorous
investigation of the evidence available. As more such material became accessible to scholars through archeological and literary discoveries and enhanced applications of historical-critical methods of analysis to sacred text, the conclusion became inescapable that not only the Talmud, or the Mishnah, or the rest of the Bible, but even the Torah itself was a composite work and that the ancient doctrine of its Mosaic authorship at the divine behest had to be abandoned. This, as Jacobs argued time and again, did not mean that the Torah wasn’t ‘divine’, only that this couldn’t be taken literally in the form of direct revelation to Moses. The Torah itself had a history, a complex history spanning long periods of time and diverse legal and literary influences, which it is unlikely that
we will ever be able to fathom to the full. But that history remained sacred history nevertheless, the unceasing quest by the Jewish people to discover God, to declare God’s praises and to perform God’s will.
But, rather than revising their understanding of the origins of Torah, the vast majority of believing Jews have found it easier instead to abandon in this instance the scholarly method of investigation itself, that is, in my view, the rigorous pursuit of truth itself.
Why? This is a question which frustrated Rabbi Jacobs to the end of his days. But there was no chance that the recognition for which he craved from the very bastions of orthodoxy which had rejected him most sharply would ever be forthcoming – other than in the form of secretive private visits to the great Gaon to glean from his knowledge, while in public he remained the subject of contumely and condemnation..
Again, the reason is relatively simple. Truth, as Al Gore put it in a very different, and equally critical, context, is often inconvenient. But perhaps even that is not the heart of the issue. Perhaps the real ‘bottom line’ is that for many truth doesn’t matter all that much in the field of religion, truth, at least, as we mean it in the rigorous sense of faithfulness to the results of empirical investigation. Truth may, to be blunt, be rather low on the list of priorities of what people want from their religion. Who cares about it?
What many people are looking for is a context, a system, a narrative which works. To function effectively, I would argue, a religion has to answer certain basic questions.
It must tell me who I am, and who I’m not; what I must do, and what I must not do; who I’m for, and whom I’m against; to what structures and forms of behaviour I must adhere, and what contacts and conduct I must shun. It must answer these questions on very clear authority; ifs, buts and maybes can be tolerated in the detail (indeed Judaism has created a whole, wonderful and multi-coloured culture out of their finest details), but they cannot be born near the centre. (The strength of orthodoxy lies in the fact that behind its more complex formulations the simple formula remains intact, ‘God said it, therefore we must do it’. The weakness of Masorti Judaism lies in its inability to date to come up with an equally compelling sound bite.)
The greater the uncertainty of the times, the more important clear and categorical answers to those central questions about identity are, the more we need a simple, coherent, all-embracing narrative which tells us how to relate to the world. There are many grounds for insecurity today: the Jewish community still suffers from the trauma of the Shoah; anti-semitism is on the rise; perhaps most critical of all is the silent infiltration of assimilation. Beyond these specifically Jewish concerns lie the global horrors of terrorism, apocalyptic violence and the risk that the slow murder of all and every form of life through global warming will prove unstoppable. We desperately want narratives which work, which tell us how to answer the question which President Bush put in the crudest of terms after 9/11: Are you for us, or are you against us. The resurgence of orthodoxies and the rise of fundamentalism must be viewed against this existential background.
Nothing so complicates the issues, so magnifies the degree of insecurity as the posing of potentially undermining questions within the religious system itself. And no single question could possibly be more undermining than one which asks: ‘Did God really say it that way?’ in other words, ‘Is it actually, literally true?’ (One can explain ad nauseam that something may remain ‘true’ at the metaphorical level, even if it is manifestly not the case in a literal sense, and that such metaphorical truths remain profoundly important, but such protestations will cut no ice with a large sector of believers in all the
faiths.) One can cope with such challenging questions from unbelievers; indeed one expects them from such quarters. They are safe in the mouths of those in opposition to whom we define ourselves; many believers need their unbelievers in order to establish who they themselves are. But from within the system, from a learned, pious, indubitably sincere rabbi like Louis Jacobs, such questions are experienced as intolerable: the price of such truth is felt to be simply too high.
To restate the issue in anecdotal form, I was recently sitting at dinner next to a well known orthodox rabbi when he turned to me and said, ‘I told Rabbi Jacobs I couldn’t go along with him in his approach to the Torah, because once you start questioning that…’
What has stayed in my mind ever since is that the objection wasn’t that Rabbi Jacobs was wrong, that the weight of evidence was in opposition to his conclusions, but rather that the cost of asking such questions was too great.
I want to argue for my own part, and on behalf of Masorti Judaism as a whole, that the cost of failing to ask the questions is intolerably high. That is the price we really cannot afford to pay, neither as Jews, nor as adherents of any faith, nor even as a species on this planet.
Why then does the issue matter? Why risk drowning by insisting on swimming against the contemporary current? Why the importance of facing the facts about how the Torah came into being? Doesn’t it simply make life more difficult?
This is why it matters. It is important, first and foremost, as an issue of integrity. If we believe that, as the Talmud puts it, ‘Amiti Hu, God is the God of truth’, then to affirm something in God’s name which we can no longer believe to be the case is a travesty of religion. In matters of faith it is legitimate to experience doubt. Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves we cannot but feel uncertainty in relation to such central questions as what we mean by God, how God’s providence works, what the soul is and whether there may be life after death. But there is every difference between genuine uncertainty
concerning irresolvable questions of personal belief, and the affirmation in the name of faith of something we have sufficient evidence to assess to be untrue.
Secondly, the failure to recognise the history and context of sacred texts has far reaching and dangerous consequences. It is liable to mislead us into reading responses premised upon specific situations as if they were expressions of God’s supposed will for all time. That is why, as Rabbi Jacobs reiterated throughout his career, we cannot ignore
the human element in Torah. For example, I do not believe that God told us to root out Amalek and the seven nations who inhabited the land previous to the arrival of the Children of Israel there, a course of action which we call ethnic cleansing today. Rather, the authors of that section of the Torah understood God’s role in their history in that way at that time, or had reasons for wanting us to think of it in that manner. But that does not mean that this is how God wants us to behave always, or, indeed, even back then.
Rather the authors of both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were influenced by the social, scientific, legal and, even to a degree, moral context of their times. Although the extraordinary and visionary idea of ethical monotheism transformed how key values and concerns were perceived, and led to the transformation of ancient narratives (compare the ancient precedents with the Torah’s account of The Flood), outlawing human
sacrifice, idolatry and numerous forms of immorality and requiring the pursuit of justice and loving kindness, nevertheless the authors of this great work which we call Judaism were limited by the contexts of their times. Indeed, it is the very struggle with those contexts, from the transformation of the pagan myths which predate the Torah’s wonderful opening narrative of creation, to how the rights of women were perceived by Jewish jurists under Islamic and Christian influence in the Middle Ages, which has made Judaism bold, engaging, radical and dynamic from the start. But to read our sacred texts as if they had no contexts is to render them inflexible to a degree the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud themselves did not accept. Worse, it is, despite the careful filter with which the rabbis excluded, reinterpreted or modified so many of them, to invite some of the greatest injustices and prejudices of the ancient world back into our modern Judaism.
Thirdly, refusal to accept historical truths in our own faith puts us in no position to demand of other religions that they should do so. We cannot then critique Christian fundamentalists if they take literally the worst which the Gospels have to say about the Jews, or Islamists if they read those portions of the Q’uran which speak negatively of Jews without seeing them through the transformative prism of their social and political backgrounds. It is precisely this failure to read historically, to understand religion within the dynamic of its own development, which lies at the intellectual centre of the resurgent militancy which is so quick to curse those who are not part of the same mentality, which has in many parts of the world and in many faiths taken to arms, and which threatens to destroy us all. I’m not suggesting in any way that all who read their faiths in a non-historical, fundamentalist manner are militant. That would be a gross lie. But what I do maintain is that the link remains there in potential, a connection waiting to be made between what amounts to intellectual totalitarianism and its political counterpart. Sooner or later, when religion and power meet, there will be those who are ready to make it – unless we critique and contextualise our own sacred texts and do so courageously and publicly. For, in the wrong mouths, such texts are as dangerous as entire arsenals of explosives.
These, then, are the reasons why in a world of resurgent religion, my sympathies are so often with the secularists. But they are by no means always there. I have only to remember that the two greatest slaughters of the twentieth century, the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet Gulags, were brought about by godless regimes. Hugo Gryn made the point with great force in describing how the Nazis inverted each of the Ten Commandments: ‘I. God was replaced by a Fuehrer and his minions who claimed for
themselves the power of life and death… VI. Murder was at the heart of that culture, and killers were promoted and honoured.’ So the secular state is not necessarily a refuge either. Secularism is not all it’s sometimes made out to be; it may be far from that purported idyllic ‘level playing field’ on which, and only upon which, the different religions can meet on equal terms. Without the moral grounding, itself derived precisely from the religions so many of its members claim to reject, secular society may be as brutal and intolerant as the very worst of God-abusing zealotry.
Furthermore, I reject secularism as an ipso facto solution not simply because of the excesses of which it too is capable, but because I’m not a secular person. I’m a believing Jew, a deeply committed Masorti Jew, a Jew who treasures and follows the faith and values I’ve inherited from our ancestors, a lover of Jewish tradition down to every (or almost every) melody of the familiar liturgy and (much of) the fine detail of the Shulchan Aruch. But, for all the reasons stated above, I’m a non-fundamentalist
believing Jew. Were there no existing place for Jews like me, I would feel compelled to go out and create one. But there is indeed such a place, the Masorti movement, and I want to do all I can to make its message heard and to find fellow thinkers not only within my own faith, but among Christians and Muslims as well. For this is the kind of religion we urgently need in today’s world, faithful to tradition, committed, oriented around the values of justice and compassion, dialectically engaged with modern society, aware of its own development, self critical, open to truth from every source. And the
task of Masorti Judaism is to respond to the existential questions on which people need guidance with as much knowledge and passion and as deep a commitment, but with a greater openness, than those forms of orthodoxy which can only maintain their ideology by hiding from facts.