Thursday, October 03, 2013

Conversation with a believer, Part 2

A dialogue continues between me, who thinks that the Torah, like all other works of literature, is a product of human imagination, and another (indented text) who believes it is divinely inspired and inerrant.
First of all, Leslie, we should define what qualifies as divine and what isn't. I think it's safe to say that anything from a divine origin has to be free of errors and mistakes. "On September 11, 2001 three planes crashed into the Sears Tower in Des Moine, IA." Any intelligent person who picks up a book and reads that sentence will quickly put down the book and not continue reading it. For a holy book to be truly divine and not written by the hand of man, it must contain things that is only known by a higher power, and not by man. Now we can debate whether prophecies in holy books count because man can always reinterpret it to line up with the times, as you stated above. But what if a book contained information that is clear cut, not open to interpretation, and can only be known by divine origin. Would you agree that such a book is indeed divine? Do you know if such a book exists?
If a source contained knowledge "that is clear cut, not open to interpretation, and can only be known by divine origin", then yes, I would agree such a text was at least inspired by a deity.

I am not aware of any work that meets these criteria, and I have read the Torah, New Testament, Koran, Tao Te Ching, and Bhagavad Gita. All contain wisdom. All contain barbarity. All contain useful moral precepts; all describe abominable moral behaviour in glowing terms. All are riddled with factual errors about the physical world given our modern understanding (but are completely understandable given the very human context in which these books were written). Personally, I have found the works and poetry of Shakespeare to be more incisive, beautiful, eloquent, and accurate about human nature than any holy book.

That aside, let's assume there was a document that described an insight, technology, wisdom, or other information that is so far beyond our current capabilities that any reasonable person would agree that it could not have a terrestrial origin. There are many possibilities to exhaust before we could state with confidence that it the source was the Jewish God. Perhaps it was the result of a secret research program, years in the making, that produced a breakthrough far beyond anything known outside a small circle. Perhaps an alien civilization developed more advanced technology or simply developed along very different lines. Perhaps it is the result of one of the thousands of deities that humanity has worshipped over the ages - Zeus, Apollo, Ba'al, Ra, Shiva, Jesus, etc.

So to directly answer your question: yes, while in principle, such a book could exist, I do not think any such book does, or ever has.
“This may you eat of all that is in the waters: everything that has fins and scales, you may eat. But anything that has no fins and scales, you may not eat.” Deuteronomy 14:9-10.
All [fish] that have a scale(s) also have a fin(s) [and are thus kosher]; there are [fish] that have a fin(s) but do not have a scale(s) [and are thus not kosher]" Talmud, Niddah 51b
By using the word ALL, the talmud tells us that a fish that has scales but no fins does not exist in the world. Who could make such a brave statement even among today's scientists? Who, 2,000 years ago, could have travelled through all the depths of the sea (and we know it is miles deep), in all of the oceans in the world, all simultaneously as not to miss even one fish, in order to make such a declaration? It turns out that even though so many fish species have been discovered since the Talmud was written, a fish with scales and no fins has not been found.

Practically speaking, this means that for a fish to be kosher it has to have fins and scales. But if you catch remnants of a fish and you can't identify whether it has fins, but it has scales, know that it is kosher because a fish with scales but no fins does not exist.

If anyone finds such a fish, the Talmud (and Judaism) will be proven wrong. How did the Talmud know? Well, because its tradition that comes from the Creator of all.
If I understand correctly, you are saying that if a creature of the sea existed with scales but no fins, your belief in the Creator of all would dissipate. You would agree that the Torah/Tanach/Talmud was written by people and, though perceptive and insightful in places, is therefore fallible.

I am not aware of such a maritime animal, but the Torah is filled with other factual errors about the physical world. Why do these inaccurate assertions have no bearing on your belief, but instead this claim (so far validated by all our observations) is the one on which your faith rests?

My perspective is that the Talmud made several sweeping claims that exceeded the knowledge of the day; some turned out to be accurate, many did not. I do not find your argument that a few have withstood the test of time to be persuasive when doing so requires discounting or ignoring those that have not.
The Torah was written by the hand of G-d and as such, you or anyone else will never find any inaccuracies in it. Simply for the reason I mentioned above regarding the definition of a divine book. The Nach (Nevi'im - prophets / Ketuvim - writings), on the other hand, were written by people. The Nevi'im was written by people who had prophecy and the Ketuvim was written by people who had divine inspiration. Likewise, the Talmud was written by people as well. The Talmud is a commentary on the Mishna, which is a recording of the Oral Law handed down to Moses on Sinai, both were written through divine inspiration.

Just as an aside, consider this; the Talmud has nearly 6,000 pages and considering that there were no word processors or computers back then, all of it was written by hand. The Talmud was written over a very long time span and in all 6,000 pages of the Talmud you will not find a single point of contradiction. Meaning, the people who wrote it had to basically memorize every single fact, name place, date, etc, so that years later, and thousands of pages later they did not contradict themselves. Not solid proof of divine inspiration, but makes you think...

Back to our story. If you are not satisfied with my fish example from the Talmud, because the Talmud (you claim) is filled with factual errors, then here is one from the Torah, which we do claim to be Divine. (By the way, please point out some of the factual errors in the Talmud that you are referring to).

In Leviticus 11:3-7 it says; “Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat. But these you shall not eat among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you. And the hyrax, because it brings up its cud, but will not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you; And the hare, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you; And the pig, because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud; it is unclean for you.”

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 6-8 it says; “And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat. But you shall not eat of those that chew the cud, or of those that have the split hooves: the cloven one, the camel, the hyrax, and the hare, for they chew the cud, but do not have split hooves; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You shall neither eat of their flesh nor touch their carcass.”

It clearly delineates and cautions us about three animals that can “trick” us in thinking it is kosher; the camel, hyrax, and hare chew it’s cud but doesn’t have a split hoof. Tell me Leslie, which man 3,325 years ago, could have traveled through all of the discovered and undiscovered lands, through the entire Amazon and Serengeti, to the depths of every cave and the peaks of every mountain, so as not to miss inspecting a single animal, in order to make such a brave declaration, and to know that a fourth species that chews its cud and doesn’t have a split hoof will never be found through history ? Again, it turns out that even though so many animal species have been discovered since the Torah was received, a fourth animal that chews its cud, but doesn’t have a split hoof was never found.

If anyone finds such an animal, the Torah (and Judaism) will be proven wrong. How did the writer of the Torah know? Well, because its came from the Creator of all.

One other point. Don’t you think if a man wanted to create a religion and generate a following, shouldn’t he at least make it easy? Eat what you want, do what you want, just be nice to each other. See me every week so I can forgive your sins and give you blessing, etc, etc… (sounds like many other religions). But no, the Torah has 613 Commandments and some required the men and women of the day to get divorced because the Torah all of a sudden came and said you can’t marry your sister, cousin aunt, etc.. Then it comes up with, honestly, the weirdest rituals and laws. Mix a red cows ashes with water and sprinkle it on yourself; give me all your gold so I can build a tabernacle; visit me 3 times a year (even though travelling took up to a month and was dangerous) to offer sacrifices in the Temple, see me every time you make a sin (again travel for up to a month in dangerous conditions) and offer a sin offering; it goes on and on.

Why would anyone in their right mind follow such a person, with the most complicated laws, that separated families…unless the people knew it was the word of G-d and not man!
[Ed note: At this point, another individual interjected stating that the Torah is meant to be interpreted, not taken literally. My conversation partner (whom I refer as [A] below) added that "2/3 of the Tanach and the entire Talmud were written by man, but the Torah is Divine."]

The point is not that I am a scholar of the Torah, but that [A] claims it is divine truth. If one word of it is proven false, he says, then his faith in the Jewish God would be misplaced. I find this a truly astonishing claim. And since this directly overlaps with a deep philosophical principle of mine (truth), I wish to engage on that level.

That the Torah is intended to be interpreted is quite at odds with [A's] position, and reduces to what I said before - "We make advances using purely secular techniques (though many contributors are deeply religious), but then holy books are reinterpreted to line up with new discoveries." I am not arguing that the Torah (and other religious texts) are without merit, but that they should be viewed as written by people in a particular place and time - studied and appreciated as literature (as is, for example, Socrates and Shakespeare). This is a very different perspective on the five books of Moses than [A's].

[A] earlier used the example of astronomy to claim a divine origin of the Torah. While I find the degree of precision impressive given the tools of the time, we are talking about the largest, most prominent, and variable sight in the night sky. Of course it will be of intense interest to anyone with a tiny dollop of curiosity. I would be far more likely to ascribe divine origins if ancient civilizations accurately transcribed the process of nuclear fusion at the heart of every star, for example, or quasars, or black holes. But no - we have instead a description of an celestial body easily observed with the naked eye.

As for the various references to animals that chew their cud - there were traders, conquerors, various kingdoms and empires that spanned over time all of Eurasia and Africa. Oral traditions, written records, and animal specimens were imported from all these areas during the height of the spice trail, in the time of Alexander, during the Roman Empire, and so on. That scholars looked at the incorporated evidence from all these sources and found the exceptions to a general rule is not all that surprising. (There could have been divergent evolution in the Americas or Australia, and I will take your word that this hasn't happened. I wouldn't know - this is beyond my area of expertise and I choose not to research the point solely for the sake of this discussion.) Again, impressive scholarship - but I attribute this to human thoroughness and diligence, not divine provenance.

The best example I know of that demonstrates an almost unbelievable inspiration in a field of human endeavour is an Indian mathematician named Ramanujan. He was born in a rural village to illiterate parents that could barely afford to send him to school. He read a basic level textbook on Algebra and spent years devising theories that stunned the world when they were published (his notebooks, even today, are producing results that no one has come up with nearly a century after his death). If ever there was a God that whispered to human ears, I know of no more compelling an example.

All of this is an aside - an attempt to demonstrate that I am not immune to awe and wonder. But I am humbled by the abilities and accomplishments of my fellow humans, and do not ascribe their talents and discipline to any sort of deity (though Ramanujan himself did).

[A] says I will "never find any inaccuracies in" the Torah. I disagree. I will start at the beginning - Genesis 1. I will not nitpick and detail every error I find - just the ones that completely contradict the facts of the origins of life on Earth. Other examples abound in other chapters, and other books.

1:11 - The first living thing is grass, herbs, and fruit trees. False. Life first evolved in the seas. Plant and animal life existed for millions of years in the seas before any of it migrated to land.

1:16 - God made two great lights, and the stars. False. There is only one great light - the sun. The moon is not a light - it reflects the sun.

1:20 - Sea creatures are created here. These should have preceded 1:11. Also, fish and fowl did not evolve at the same time. Continuity error.

1:30 - "every beast of the earth [is given ...] green herb for food." False. Many beasts (tigers, for example) are strictly carnivorous. They would starve eating green herbs of any kind.

There is more, of course - much more. But just the first chapter of the first book of the Torah contains at least four major inaccuracies about the physical world we live in. This, for me, trumps claims about observant astronomers and diligent taxonomists.

For your "one other point": it's an interesting quirk of human psychology, but no, if you want to create a religion you shouldn't make it easy for your followers. That's why there are hazing rituals at fraternities, and why people still want to join despite them. Having suffered so much to get in, people believe it has to be good for them or else they wouldn't have done it. Similarly, they want to ensure that future recruits go through at least as many hoops as they themselves did. Anything easy to join is easy to leave. It isn't intuitive, but it is human nature. The restrictions form an in-group and a sense of identity. We are social creatures, and find this appealing, despite (or because of!) the sometimes onerous costs involved. An alternative explanation to consider to divinity.

Another falsehood to consider, which I mention only because you brought it up: hares do not chew their cud; Deuteronomy says they do. The Torah is wrong.

This does not invalidate much that is good in the Torah; only the claim that it is divine and inerrant.

It is, like all the varied deities humanity has worshipped over the ages, a product of human observation and imagination.

No comments:

Post a Comment