Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What Do Orthodox People Really Believe?

XGH has claimed that several rabbis have admitted to him in private beliefs that they would never own up to in public. I wonder, if that's true, how many other rabbis are the same way? And how many of the rank-and-file Orthodox are as well?

There are several claims which are (in my opinion) transparently false but Orthodox Judaism depends on. For example:
  1. 600,000 Jews literally walked out of Egypt at one time, plus "a mixed multitude" who went with them, along with flocks and herds and "very much" cattle.
  2. There was a global flood that killed all living things except those which lived peacefully together on a man-made ark for forty days and forty nights.
  3. The five books of Moses were written primarily by Moses, plus or minus a few letters here and there and maybe the last eight sentences.
I know that a lot of Orthodox Jews simply assume that these claims are true. I'm sure that some others are convinced by apologetics that they are true. What of the rest, though? Are we to believe that your average, relatively intellectual Modern Orthodox Jew believes these things? Or do they disbelieve, but keep quiet?

I don't really want to call anyone out, but do people like Chana and Ezzie believe that those things are true? Or do they just not think about them? Or do they accept the apologetics without thinking about those? Or are they literally in psychological denial? What about the rabbis? Is it all a big lie to them, albeit with good intentions, like telling children that the ghost of Elijah drinks from the cup at the seder or that the tooth fairy gives you money for teeth?

I'd really love to know. It's a shame there's no way to find out, short of kidnapping a bunch of rabbis and other Orthodox Jews and submitting them to a carefully-constructed polygraph test.

44 comments:

"Rich Perkins" said...

Just a quick note regarding the Exodus . . .

If you take the 600,000 number of men between 20-60, most people say that translates to a population of 2.5 million total men, women & children. Now consider that the haggadah says that only 1/5 Jews (or less depending on the opinion) actually left Egypt. So following the opinion of 1/5, there were 12.5 million Jews in Egypt that either left or were killed.

That would be a huge number of people to be removed from any country and would certainly cripple segments of the economy. Yet, there is no mention of this in Egyptian history or the history of neighboring countries.

Also, add in the fact that Egyptologists estimate the population of Egypt in the 2-4 million range it is quite impossible that there was a hge exodus as detailed by the Torah.

Holy Hyrax said...

>There was a global flood that killed all living things except those which lived peacefully together on a man-made ark for forty days and forty night

Do you ENJOY paiting with a broad brush. I know plenty of OJ's and even rabbis that dont believe in a global flood. The rav in my shul makes it public that he sees nothing wrong with the whole story being a mashol

"Rich Perkins" said...

The rav in my shul makes it public that he sees nothing wrong with the whole story being a mashol

If the flood is just a parable, why are other things taken literally? I find it intellectually dishonest to take some things exactly as the torah states and others as a parable.

XGH said...

> I don't really want to call anyone out, but do people like Chana and Ezzie believe that those things are true?

LOL, why did you pick on those 2? Anyway, Ezzie is a kofer, he told me so himself, in secret of course.

But seriously, I think the real answer is that most people just don't think about these things very seriously (or honestly). I mean, look at me. Before I got into huge debates with skeptics I was convinced that TMS was true.

Nephtuli said...

If the flood is just a parable, why are other things taken literally? I find it intellectually dishonest to take some things exactly as the torah states and others as a parable.

Why?

Holy Hyrax said...

>If the flood is just a parable, why are other things taken literally? I find it intellectually dishonest to take some things exactly as the torah states and others as a parable

Thats something seperate right? My only issue is how JA phrases his posts and sticks all OJ's together as if we all believe in the same thing.

Ezzie said...

LOL, why did you pick on those 2? Anyway, Ezzie is a kofer, he told me so himself, in secret of course.

LOL.

Why?

Ditto.

I know plenty of OJ's and even rabbis that dont believe in a global flood.

Agreed.

why did you pick on those 2?

Probably because we're both clearly reading all this stuff but remain Orthodox. ;)

But seriously, I think the real answer is that most people just don't think about these things very seriously (or honestly).

Agreed.

Before I got into huge debates with skeptics

[snort] There are other ways of doing things.

"Rich Perkins" said...

nephtuli - are you asking why i think it is intellectually dishonest? How many times in the gemarah or halacha do we take an extra word here or there to mean something in practical halachah? If we are going to be so detail oriented, it seems to me that to just say something is a parable is just apologetics.

holy hyrax - Separate issue, but along the lines of the topic you mentioned. I was just pointing out the hypocrisy in OJ to push aside problems by just saying it shouldn't be taken literally while simultaneously saying we must follow everything precisely.

Holy Hyrax said...

>Separate issue, but along the lines of the topic you mentioned. I was just pointing out the hypocrisy in OJ to push aside problems by just saying it shouldn't be taken literally while simultaneously saying we must follow everything precisely.

Its not a hypocricy and its nothing new. You have Rambam stating in the 12th century that you can take Eden as an allegory. And that is long before there was OJ.

Nephtuli said...

nephtuli - are you asking why i think it is intellectually dishonest? How many times in the gemarah or halacha do we take an extra word here or there to mean something in practical halachah? If we are going to be so detail oriented, it seems to me that to just say something is a parable is just apologetics.

I don't see how one cannot accept that each letter of the Torah is meaningful, but still believe that they aren't literal. Not literal does not mean worthless.

"Rich Perkins" said...

Nephtuli - I don't have a problem with the parable approach or the literal approach. I have a problem with people mixing the two approaches and using each one when it suits their needs.

Nephtuli said...

Nephtuli - I don't have a problem with the parable approach or the literal approach. I have a problem with people mixing the two approaches and using each one when it suits their needs.

And I agree that it's wrong to interpret the Torah for illegitimate reasons. But I don't see why allegorizing in some instances (especially when the need arises as a result of a conflict with another discipline) is intellectually dishonest.

Jewish Atheist said...

Holy Hyrax:

Do you ENJOY paiting with a broad brush. I know plenty of OJ's and even rabbis that dont believe in a global flood. The rav in my shul makes it public that he sees nothing wrong with the whole story being a mashol

Perhaps that's a bad example, then. Do you believe it's a mashol? Do you think most Orthodox people believe that? Why didn't you address 1 and 3?

Also, do you see the difference between "I see nothing wrong with it being a mashol" and "it's definitely/probably/likely a mashol?" The former is kind of dodgy. If you think it was a mashol, say so.


XGH:

But seriously, I think the real answer is that most people just don't think about these things very seriously (or honestly).

I think that's true. I'm wondering about those people (like Chana and Ezzie) who seem curious enough to have thought about it though and honest enough not to lie to themselves about it.


HH:

Thats something seperate right? My only issue is how JA phrases his posts and sticks all OJ's together as if we all believe in the same thing.

I know that all OJ's don't believe in the same thing. I tried to pick 3 things that are both clearly false AND almost all Orthodox Jews believe, at least publicly. Maybe I'm wrong about the flood. What about the other two?

Its not a hypocricy and its nothing new. You have Rambam stating in the 12th century that you can take Eden as an allegory. And that is long before there was OJ.

Again, why doesn't he just say that it is an allegory? Why the weasel words?


Nephtuli:

And I agree that it's wrong to interpret the Torah for illegitimate reasons. But I don't see why allegorizing in some instances (especially when the need arises as a result of a conflict with another discipline) is intellectually dishonest.

I think the question is: by what method do they decide what's allegory and what's literal? It seems dishonest when they decide that whatever has been disproven is allegory and whatever is still possible must be literal.

Nephtuli said...

I think the question is: by what method do they decide what's allegory and what's literal? It seems dishonest when they decide that whatever has been disproven is allegory and whatever is still possible must be literal.

Why is that dishonest? I don't get it. It might be dangerous from a religious perspective but why dishonest?

Jewish Atheist said...

Why is that dishonest? I don't get it. It might be dangerous from a religious perspective but why dishonest?

Because it's ad hoc reasoning.

Holy Hyrax said...

>Do you think most Orthodox people believe that?

I dont think most OJ think about it. But given the opportunity and explaining, I don't think they would have a problem. And yes, some might.

>Why didn't you address 1 and 3?

Thats cause it was irrelevant to what my point was about you bringing up a case with the flood having to be true and all OJ believe in it.

Do I think the 600,000 is a problem? Yes,

Do I think moses wrote all five books? I dont know, maybe he wrote parts of it and some stuff were added later. I have spoken to rabbis about this and they dont have a problem with saying that prophets later added stuff in. That fact that they don't believe in it is irrelevant. It stille exists within in the corpus of thought in Judaism.

>If you think it was a mashol, say so.

Again, its irrelevant to what he thinks, but he accepts it within the gamut of Jewish thought. Do you see a difference? He dident give an answer was because the shiur was not about that per say, so he did nto want to get into it.

>Again, why doesn't he just say that it is an allegory? Why the weasel words?

What weasel words? He is saying its not an issue.

Holy Hyrax said...

and for the record, I don't take anything as allegorical.

I think its all myth

Nephtuli said...

Because it's ad hoc reasoning.

What's ad hoc about it? It's a consistent methodolgy: whatever runs into conflict with something that is clearly proven via other sources of knowledge is probably allegory. Whatever has not been disproven can be taken literally.

Ezzie said...

I agree with Nephtuli and HH.

Plus, the point is that answers (such as the Rambam's) which say "can" are giving people options. In some cases, that may be choosing between a miracle or - if you'd like - a less miracle-oriented approach. Absolute answers are rarely a wise way to approach things, particularly in terms of religion.

Steven Wu said...

There is an excelent book out called the Critique of Religions and Philosophy by Prof Walter Kaufman, which addresses two points relevant to this post: do all theists believe in literal absolute truth of religious dogmas, and whether liberal religious interpretations (like Liberal Protestantism) are intellectually honest.
There are many religionists whose view of God and truth is paradoxically closer to agnosticism than to theism, many of those with mystical bent of mind.
As for the second question, there are reaons to say that liberal interpretations of the scriptures are tainted with hypocrisy. One needs to look at the fact that religion is authoritarian and demands obedience to all of its dogma. If it were allegorical there would be no sense of urgency in its demand for the individual's loyalty. There is less dogma in Judaism than in Christianity but it's still there. Halacha is rooted in aggada. One can see in the Talmud that the Rabbis went to great lengths to harmonize different aggadic views when they could have instead interpreted them allegorically. This points to the literal and definitive nature of many texts.

Ezzie said...

(Note on above: I'm saying one could reasonably and rationally choose either approach.)

Steven Wu said...

Ezzie, the same Rambam was the one who tried to formulate precise beliefs which one needs to follow in their literal sense. He was one of the most anti-ambiguity authorities in Judaism

Ezzie said...

One can see in the Talmud that the Rabbis went to great lengths to harmonize different aggadic views when they could have instead interpreted them allegorically. This points to the literal and definitive nature of many texts.

...or to the notion that the Rabbis felt a certain set of laws were good to have, and used allegories to prove it. Or to the idea that scholars in law tend to view even stories in a legal sense. Or to the idea that people will turn every action into law to avoid allowing those who take advantage of others from saying "well, there's no law against it". Or...

Ezzie said...

Ezzie, the same Rambam was the one who tried to formulate precise beliefs which one needs to follow in their literal sense. He was one of the most anti-ambiguity authorities in Judaism

On very specific matters. The others he was absolutely not.

Anonymous said...

"If you take the 600,000 number of men between 20-60, most people say that translates to a population of 2.5 million total men, women & children. Now consider that the haggadah says that only 1/5 Jews (or less depending on the opinion) actually left Egypt. So following the opinion of 1/5, there were 12.5 million Jews in Egypt that either left or were killed.

That would be a huge number of people to be removed from any country and would certainly cripple segments of the economy. Yet, there is no mention of this in Egyptian history or the history of neighboring countries.

Also, add in the fact that Egyptologists estimate the population of Egypt in the 2-4 million range it is quite impossible that there was a hge exodus as detailed by the Torah."

there is no reason to think economic downturn didnt happen - youd have no way of knowing if it did or not. The psukim say that the jews are "rav veatzum mimenu" Some skeptics get so used to ignoring what the torah says that they take agadah literally and not the torah.

Holy Hyrax said...

anon

What is even the POINT of taking this midrash literally? (ala the about chamushim being interpreted as being 1/5th)

steven wu said...

Ezzie, when you say "On very specific matters. The others he was absolutely not.", I have to add that Rambam made his own statements in such a way that they became canonical interpretations which themselves are not subject to allegorization. I agree that within the matrix of orthodox judaism some things are open to creativity and chidushim but one can safely say that no major historical event in the torah falls into that category. This is obvious because allegories don't have the same authoritative force as literal text. So once you lower the level of authoritarianism the system starts to crumble. The fact that some things definitely cannot be allowed to be allegorized and the fact that one finds no prescriptions regarding what may be allegorized means that the Rabbis don't normaly use this procedure consciously. It's not noramtive. Sometimes not normative things become normative in Judaism but this is a rare and slow process. And there will always be a vocal opposition to any attempt to allegorize the beloved stories with which the jewish people identify. That's the problem, they are part of us. It's not so easy to part with them.

Holy Hyrax said...

Steven,

What ever his "canonical" statements you think Rambam made, what does that have to do with his view that you can allegorize Eden. You can check up on this, but doesn't Rambam have a totally different tone in his Moreh? Also, I don't understand what you mean by major events in the torah cant be allegorized? Where do you get this from?

Nephtuli said...

This is obvious because allegories don't have the same authoritative force as literal text. So once you lower the level of authoritarianism the system starts to crumble.

I don't understand what literalism has to do with authority. Sure, people might perceive literal events to have more authority, but the authority of the law does not hinge on the historical accuracy of the event underpinning it.

The Hedyot said...

>> It seems dishonest when they decide that whatever has been disproven is allegory and whatever is still possible must be literal.
> Why is that dishonest?


Are you serious?! You’re basically saying “Everything is true...except when it’s not! Then it’s something else.” That’s honest to you?!

How does this sound to you?
Parent to Child: Everything I ever say to you is absolutely true!
Child: But you just said the moon is made of green cheese!
Parent: That’s also true, just not literally.
Child: Oh, I see...but what about when you told me I’d get $100 if I clean my room?
Parent: Yes, that’s also true. But I didn’t mean right away. You’ll get it one day.

You really think that’s honest?

The Hedyot said...

Oh. My. God. I just watched tonight’s South Park and it made the point brilliantly:

Kyle: Leprechaun's aren't real! They’re imaginary!
Weird Fat Guy: But of course they are! But just because they’re imaginary, doesn’t mean they aren’t real!

Sorry for writing so much. Wu. said...

H H "What ever his "canonical" statements you think Rambam made, what does that have to do with his view that you can allegorize Eden."
I was talking about the non-halachic parts regarding which Rambam makes unequivocal definitive statements. You might be able to allegorize Eden according to Rambam, but you can't, for example, allegorize Avraham once Rambam takes him literally in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim. You can't allegorize Rambam's interpretation once he made it in an unambiguous philosophic-like manner.

Anyway, once you allegorize something you kill it. It stops being what it was. It loses its richness and timelessness. Rambam killed those parts of the Torah he allegorized. They are just uninteresting. They don't move the heart like religion is meant to do. You're left with true Pharisaism. Timelessness is an integral part of Torah. Otherwise you'll discard it altogether because it wont serve it's purpose of bringing you in touch with Godliness. (Not that I hold of it.)

When I say that events can't be allegorized I mean that you're making a break with orthodox Judaism. You're creating something different. It might be good or bad but it's no longer orthodox Judaism that claims an uninterrupted chain. Try passing it on to your children and you'll see they'll sense the forgery. Ask your mother if it's the Judaism she brought you up with and she'll say no.

Nephtuli , once you mold your Torah to fit a nice allegory you've changed it's texture. Who are you (anyone) to change what Rabbi Akiva took literally? It's not that allegories have no place in religion, but that you are replacing links in an intricate, tightly designed system with the foreign material of apologetics.

Imagine if instructions in a technical documentations would be written in a poetic allegorical manner. Would you take that document seriously? There are parts of Torah that are documentations to it's messages and ideals. They explain where the Torah is "coming from", where it's going, and why you should take it seriously. When you allegorize them, you're left with one ass-whacked document, which is better off forgotten or used as toilet paper.

G said...

Oh please, nobody really thinks that Elijah drinks from the cup at the seder. You can clearly see that nothing happens to the wine.

Now what's this about the tooth fairy, 'cause I left teeth under my pillow and the next morning was payday. If that's not proof I don't know what is.

"Rich Perkins" said...

Nephtuli -

Well, Hedyot took the words out of my mouth when he said "Are you serious?! You’re basically saying “Everything is true...except when it’s not! Then it’s something else."

I happen to have a background in mechanical engineering and have taken some courses that dealt with ship building. I personally don't believe that the dimensions stated for Noach's tayvah would produce a sea worthy ship.

So would you say it is honest to now take the dimensions to be allegorical and just imply a "large ship" simply because I have an engineering background that disproves something stated explicitly in the torah?

If you wan to be honest about it, you could attack my engineering analysis because it is quite obvious that the dimensions given are not just a suggested design, but that Hashem wanted Noach to build it a specific way.

G said...

Many people do not think about the big ticket items that you mention due to the fact that they do not impact their lives in a meaningful way on a day to day basis.

Snark said...

Some people know that the question exists but believe there are answers out there that somebody has. Maybe some old Rabbi in Yerushalaim; maybe some young Rabbi in Ohr Someach. And even if not, we just need to wait till science discovers the answers to all troubling questions.

jewish philosopher said...

It's very hard to know what people REALLY believe.

I'm certain there are many "secular" Jews and gentiles who actually believe in Torah, but are afraid to do anything about it because of repercussions from family, friends, employers, etc.

Comrade Kevin said...

The desire to believe the impossible and improbable is the foundation upon many wars, many closed minds, and much tragedy.

I think I understand why institutions and organizations depend on belief in such things. I am not always so clear on the reasons why the followers cling to such things so tenaciously.

jewish philosopher said...

"The desire to believe the impossible "
Like evolution.

"Rich Perkins" said...

JP - "The desire to believe the impossible "
Like evolution.


I don't claim to be an expert on evolution, but it is not like there is mounds of evidence supporting the fact that God just made the earth out of nothing.

Evolution takes the best available scientific evidence and has come up with a theory based on the facts. It may not be 100% correct, but at least they are open to letting the facts lead them to an answer and to have that answer change if they are proven wrong.

OJ demands faith for things that there is no factual or scientific evidence.

I'm not saying faith is bad, but don't knock the other theories when you have a theory of your own that can't be backed up by experimental science.

Nephtuli said...

Are you serious?! You’re basically saying “Everything is true...except when it’s not! Then it’s something else.” That’s honest to you?!

Here's the way I see it. The Torah is imparting statements of truth, but despite being eternal it was given to a group of ancient people with very different expectations and world-views than we modern people have today. The Rambam in the Moreh talks about how the Torah speaks of G-d in physical sense as a pedagogic tool to wean the Jews off of the concept of polytheistic religions (first we get them to accept one G-d and then go from there).

However, other sources of knowledge (science, philosophy, etc.) also teach us truths about existence and reality. Sometimes there is a conflict. For the Rambam the idea that G-d could have a hand was philosophically untenable and he therefore allegorized it. Today the idea that the universe is young is similarly improbable and therefore some people tend to allegorize the Creation story.

I simply don't see how that is dishonest. When two sources clash, it is only natural to try to find a reconciliation. Legal scholars do not just reject cases because, on their face, they disagree. They look to discover the underlying principles and limit or expand the holdings of the cases as necessary.

once you mold your Torah to fit a nice allegory you've changed it's texture. Who are you (anyone) to change what Rabbi Akiva took literally? It's not that allegories have no place in religion, but that you are replacing links in an intricate, tightly designed system with the foreign material of apologetics.

Rabbi Akiva simply did not have access to the information that the average child today can easily find in a matter of seconds online. As we learn more and more about the world, we are forced to deal with conflicts that were not problematic to our ancestors.

Imagine if instructions in a technical documentations would be written in a poetic allegorical manner. Would you take that document seriously? There are parts of Torah that are documentations to it's messages and ideals. They explain where the Torah is "coming from", where it's going, and why you should take it seriously. When you allegorize them, you're left with one ass-whacked document, which is better off forgotten or used as toilet paper.

This argument contains a number of problems:

1) I might not take a poetic instruction manual seriously because I hate poetry. My wife, who was an English major, might take it seriously.
2) Even if our society might not take it seriously, that does not mean an ancient society would not as well. JA had a guest post (IIRC) earlier about how pre modern societies were not fundamentalists and did not suppose every statement was literal.
3) I'm still not following how allegorizing something diminishes its value or certainly its authority. Authority can be derived by many means: the sources (in this case G-d), acceptance by the subjects, or by the content of the rules. I can't imagine how the form of the command would relate to its authoritativeness.

So would you say it is honest to now take the dimensions to be allegorical and just imply a "large ship" simply because I have an engineering background that disproves something stated explicitly in the torah?

No, because I have no idea who you are, and at best you are one person. If the global consensus of experts in your field would agree that the Ark was no sea-worthy, then allegorizing might be proper.

The Hedyot said...

> I simply don't see how that is dishonest. When two sources clash, it is only natural to try to find a reconciliation. Legal scholars do not just reject cases because, on their face, they disagree. They look to discover the underlying principles and limit or expand the holdings of the cases as necessary.

You’re mixing up different areas of thought. Legal laws are prescriptive ideas. They are modalities which prescribe how society should function. If there are two ideas which conflict then a reconciliation makes sense because we need to work something out which can be prescribed for all cases that are of concern. But they are not describing any fundamental reality. Science and the questionable areas of Torah thought are descriptive ideas. They describe reality, facts, prior events, and unchanging laws of the universe. When two established scientific ideas which describe reality conflict we DO NOT look at how to reconcile them. We acknowledge that one of them is true and one is false and we attempt to discern which one is which, and then we DISCARD the false one.

AFAIK, there is no concept of trying to be “yotzei lechol hadeios” in Science.

The Hedyot said...

> "...and then scientists DISCARD the false one."

And to prove that you believe that Science does this, just remind yourself of the standard frum response as to why not to follow what Scientists say about Torah inaccuracies:
"Why should we listen to the scientists when they say something about the Torah isn't true?! Scientists change their minds all the time! Maybe 50 years from now they'll finally be realizing what we've known for the last 3000 years!"

Half Sigma said...

It's just like believing in global warming.