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Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

It all falls on what counts as evidence. In my Western way of thinking, evidence cannot be accepted on faith alone. In fact, faith and what counts as evidence are contradictions. In my approach, evidence must be both reliable and verifiable; it must originate in fact and it must be replicable in multiple contexts. Faith, on the other hand, accepts as fact that which is often absurdly beyond the knowledge, what is knowable, and what is verifiable outside of the limitations of faith itself. Faith, then, presents fundamental problems to rationality. Here is where I am struggling to break from the mold of the Greeks and integrate Jerusalem into my thought process. I am finding it more difficult that I had imagined because much of what I am reading and learning relies on faith based evidence and not on reliable and verifiable evidence.

Let me cite a simple example. Yesterday I was reading a commentary on the current parsha (weekly Torah portion open for study for the week and read in synagogue on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings) that, among other teachings focuses on the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) by God. In the Torah there is a single line that reads as follows: “And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea and the sea returned to its strength.” (Exodus 14:27)  The commentary I read focused only on the four words (one Hebrew word) in the English translation, “returned to its strength.” The first part of the commentary focused on the vocalization of the Hebrew word that could have two pronunciations depending on which vowels are used in vocalizing the word (Hebrew is a language written with no vowels; vowels are added as an afterthought in more modern times in order to simplify correct pronunciation but the Torah is written with no vowels at all). In one vocalization the word means “returned to its strength” while another vocalization of the same letter combination means “returned to normal.” So with no vowels to guide a translator, a choice was made to translate using the phrase, “returned to its strength.” In recent translations made within the past 50 years, the English translation reads “returned to normal” or “returned to its normal state” while leaving the Hebrew of the Tanakh (the Bible) unchanged.

Using the older translation, “returned to its strength” posed a problem for sages of the Talmud and for commentators on the Torah itself. The phrase as translated makes no sense. Pronouncing the Hebrew  in the accepted manner makes no sense. But since every word in Torah is transmitted to Moses by God, and the pronunciation itself must have been, therefore, taught to the Jewish people by Moses himself, the pronunciation must be accepted as the correct pronunciation as well. Occam’s Razor posits that the simplest solution to a problem is generally regarded as the best solution. In this case, accepting a pronunciation that makes little sense over a pronunciation and vocalization that makes clear the language being used doesn’t comply with the principle of Occam’s Razor. Newer translations correct this problem yet there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pages of commentary stretching over 3,000 years that have to deal with the problem of what appears to be a mispronunciation of the Hebrew of the Torah; a Hebrew that is sans vowels.

To this commentary, the Lubavitcher Rebbe complicates the problem even more. While admitting to the vocalization problem, the Rebbe focuses on the accepted version and tries to explain it. In order to do this, he must jump through at least three hoops and still can only sound convincing to those who accept the Torah as sacrosanct, as infallible, as the word of God transmitted to Moses, through Joshua, to the Judges, Prophets, Sages of the Mishnah, the Sages of the Gemara, to the rabbis and then to the people. The first hoop the Rebbe must traverse is why God would choose such a word to convey a simple idea that once a miracle is over the natural world could return to some kind of normalcy. To this the Rebbe goes through a complex argument that boils down to the fact that the parting of the Sea of Reeds took two miracles, the first was the parting of the sea and the second was the restoration of the sea to normal. The second miracle was made necessary to confirm the fact that the Sea of Reeds was created with the potential for the first miracle and once the condition of that miracle was met and the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land, that without the second miracle the sea would have ceased to exist for ever and all times. God, therefore, needed to restore the sea with miracle number two. This is one reason that the language seems awkward, to make this very point.

Then the Rebbe admits that this is not a completely satisfactory answer to the problem posed by two vocalizations; by two possible meanings. Rather than look for the simplest solution, the Rebbe argues that in order to understand God one must give up the idea that time for God is the same as time for human beings. For us, time is linear but for God time doesn’t exist as God can travel backwards in time, forwards in time and simply be in the present simultaneously. Therefore, one must think of miracles as coming in two varieties. One form of miracle disrupts the flow of the natural world while the other restores the natural world from the discord of the first variety of miracles. This is likened to a conditional contract where the contract would be null and void if the condition for executing the contract is never met. Once the condition is met, the contract is fulfilled (a miracle occurs) but unless the miracle to restore is undertaken the world will be forever altered by the scar left by the first miracle.

There is more but I think you get my point. The evidence the Rebbe relies on is based in the faith that the Torah was given to Moses by God and transmitted across a long line of prophets and sages to the rabbis and then to the people. I find this form of evidence failing to meet either the standard of reliability or validity. The evidence used here requires one to create complex scenarios in order to explain that which cannot be verified and is, therefore, unreliable and cannot be repeated except as a story and is therefore not valid. In order to make sense of this faith based evidence, complicated arguments must trump the simpler answer. None of this analysis, none of this exegesis would be necessary if the vocalization of the Hebrew word itself made sense in the context of the sentence. Occam’s Razor pushes one toward the solution the the sea was returned to its normal state, a state in which the world is restored. Of course, that still leaves us with the problem of the existence of miracles in the first place but that, too, is a function of reliable and valid evidence and will be saved for a different post perhaps.

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8 thoughts on “Thinking In Jewish Is Harder than I Thought: Thinking In Jewish VII

  1. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. This definition of course comes from the Bible. So I think what I hear from your post today is that this is just purely unacceptable. This in itself is not enough evidence for you.
    My hope for you as you continue to work on thinking in Jewish that possibly something will resonate for you in the teachings. I actually found your illustration of the partings of the water amazing. I had never thought of it as two miracles. This was astounding to me.
    I am a gentile with no formal classes of Hebrew or Latin etc , but have sat under the teaching of some of the most respected men of the Bible and have been deeply touched by their interpretations enough that I accepted this faith or if you do not mind me changing it up a bit –I accepted this Grace that I believe the Creator has given to mankind. It is beyond our comprehension.
    One of the reasons I began expanding on themes on my blog was to grapple with this very subject of faith and miracles and so forth. I still as you can not understand why bad things happen to good people. Here is what I wrote a long time ago about someone that died that I knew. I had the same disease she did and I lived, but she died. Why? You know why? Here is my first post I ever wrote. Her death still haunts me.

    Anyway as usual Roger you are an inspiration to me and you assist me to delve deeper in myself to understand the world around me.

  2. Alesia
    I must begin by acknowledging the fact that I am truly enjoying our give and take here. I clearly disagree with your position on the very notion of faith, well not so much on the notion of faith because I understand the rationale, but on the very idea that one relies on faith to answer the unanswerable, even unknowable, questions. In my own case I prefer to label that which you might call faith as the Absolute Other, the infinity that bookends this existential life. Since I cannot know the Absolute Other in an existential way, I am moved to create a simulacrum of the Other in my own face-to-face ethical encounters with the other [human being] and, in doing so, embrace the absolute uniqueness of the other. To live an ethical existential life, to take responsibility for the other, is, I suppose, entirely based on the teachings of Torah.
    There is a powerful Talmudic aggadah (story) illustrating this very point. A Gentile wished to convert in the days of the Amoraim (the sages of the Talmud). He went Rabbi Schammai and asked that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Schammai turned him away. He next went to Rabbi Hillel and repeated his question. Hillel responded, “Treat others the way you wish to be treated. That is the entire Torah; the rest is merely commentary. Go and study.” The ethical encounter with the other is precisely based on that bit of Talmudic logic.
    If one views the scriptures as the revealed word of God, taking each word as fact, then one has any number of problems that must be solved. The inconsistencies that arise across the entire Torah, the difference in styles of writing, the contradictions, the different names for God in the Hebrew Torah all point, not to divine authorship but to human authorship. In the last 150 years or so, perhaps even longer if one begins with Spinoza, biblical critics have studied the stylistic aspects of the text along side older Fertile Crescent mythology and find some extraordinary parallels. Recently, literary critics have analyzed the text of the Torah and Tanakh only to posit a single redactor of extant mythology into what now is considered by many to be the revealed word of God.
    I am a scholar by training and predilection. I understand the critiques, the scholarship that seeks to create a clear understanding of the authorship of and reasons for the Torah. I cannot accept at face value a book filled with the inconsistencies that must be explained away by biblical exegesis; but I cannot simply dismiss that line of scholarship lightly; it is, after all, part of a long tradition of trying to make sense of that which one is unlikely to make sense of in any other way. That is precisely why I have taken up the very idea of Thinking in Jewish; to learn from a rabbi steeped in the belief system that is Torah exegesis. I am trying to understand the logic, the reasoning behind the writing. In doing so, I broaden my own understanding of the existential life I live on this earth. I am not learning to become deeply engaged in the idea of faith, which, by the way, is a concept that is not paramount in Jewish thinking anyway (when the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai they responded that first we will act [follow the law] and then we will understand; clearly not the acceptance registered in the very notion of faith, rather it focuses on ethical action and not belief), rather it is far more practical than that. I am studying to understand the process of thinking that flattens out time and space by reducing authorship of the many to a voice of one.
    All that being said, I do not begrudge anyone their faith because I am obligated to embrace their uniqueness. Without that embrace conversations such as ours could not happen because neither of us could see beyond our own point of view, thereby demanding that the other adopt that point of view or else…
    I am going to go read the post you linked to right now. Thanks again for your open and thoughtful comments.

  3. your so very welcome. If only I had half the knowledge you have, but then again that could be scary for me. I read your latest post. I hope Zero Dark Thirty was a good film. I want to go see that one next week! Let me know.

  4. Zero Dark Thirty was a fine film that raises more questions than it answers. Even with foreknowledge of the results the suspense is riveting.

  5. I look forward to seeing it. I own The Hurt Locker. I really like the style of the director. If you have not seen that film of hers, I would highly recommend it.

  6. Pingback: Drawing Conclusions: Thinking in Jewish VIII « Surviving In This Very Moment…

  7. Pingback: Assimilation or Acculturation, One Lesson from the Talmud: Thinking in Jewish IX « Surviving In This Very Moment…

  8. Pingback: Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI « Surviving In This Very Moment…

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