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Torah: True or False?

In the spirit of our times this internal theological debate is presented in the form of a trial between two contending advocates, F. Lee Bailey, presenting the conventional, more fundamentalist position and Marsha Clark, the modernist tradition. The issue before us: Is the Torah true? I will serve as the presiding judge and as such I would admonish the jury not to discuss the case during the presentation of the arguments. I would also inform the jury that they will be sequestered for approximately 30-40 minutes depending upon the length of the examination and cross-examination. No cameras will be allowed in the sanctuary. The Bailiffs, called M'kablei panim, will exercise order throughout the proceedings.

JUDGE:

Mr. Bailey, you may proceed with your opening statement.

BAILEY:

Thank you, your honor. Let me cut to the chase. Let us not deceive ourselves. The whole issue is simply this. Is the status and God spoke unto Moses, "Vayomer Adonai el Moshe" -- with which all the laws of the Bible commences true or false? Did God the Omnipotent and Holy One speak these words to Moses or not? Do we speak the truth when in front of our congregation we lay our hand on the scroll and recite the benediction, “God has given us this Torah, the Torah of truth and with it eternal life is planted in our midst.”? Your Honor, members of the jury, that blessing refers to the holy text which you have in your lecterns and which I offer as exhibit A. Please remove the Bible from your lectern and turn to page 2.

JUDGE:

Ms. Clark?

CLARK:

A word of clarification. Mr. Bailey, are you telling us that this text, Exhibit A, as we have it is the textus receptus, the received Torah and is it this which we have received from God by Moses?

BAILEY:

Yes I am. This is the Masoretic text. This is the text established and preserved carefully by the rabbis.

CLARK:

Would you open the text to any page at random? Where did the "vowels" come from? That's not in the Sefer Torah is it?

BAILEY:

No, that's not in the Torah text we read from when we are called to the Torah. But that is part of the Jewish tradition.

CLARK:

May I point out to the jury that these "vowels" are post-Talmudic. They come after the Talmud, normally dated the 5th & 6th century. They come from the 9th and 10th centuries. Look at the chapter divisions. Turn to page 2 and you will see on top chapter 1 and then on page 6, chapter 2. Where did those chapter divisions come from? And take a look at the numbers on the side, 1,2,3,4,5,6 all the way down. Where do those verses come from? Are they in the Sefer Torah we are discussing?

BAILEY:

No, the verse and chapters are not in the Torah but they are part of the Jewish Masoretic tradition.

CLARK:

Mr. Bailey, I'm afraid I have to disagree here. The truth of the matter is that the chapters and verse divisions are first found in the Vulgate not in the Hebrew text. These are Christian divisions of chapters and verses. Those chapter divisions were not found in the Hebrew text until the 14th century. And the Biblical verses were not found until the 16th century.

JUDGE:

Ms. Clark, do you mean to tell me that these arrangements are Christian arrangements? Why in the world would Jews allow that to take place?

CLARK:

The purpose of the divisions and verses which were church inventions were used by Jews during the disputations when they needed to have a common reference. The point I'm making, your Honor, is that however this text has been transmitted, it was subject to human organization and interpretation. The human element in the revelation can't be denied. Human beings placed the vowels in the text of consonants, human beings, not God structured the textus receptus.

BAILEY:

I object, your honor. This is all beside the point. This is Ms. Clark's rhetorical sleight-of-hand. When I speak of the Torah, I am speaking of the texts on the parchment, on the scroll. This Torah which we raise above the congregation and sing together Vizoth ha-Torah. This is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel through the word of God and the hand of Moses. Let us remember what the issue is, namely the holy Torah before which we rise and which we kiss with the fringes of the tallit.

JUDGE:

Objection sustained.

CLARK:

It is I who arise to object. It's not I who am indulging sleight-of-hand. Mr. Bailey is resorting to an argumentum ad verecundiam, an appeal based upon reverence, an appeal to the prestige of great names or established institutions. I am referring to the facts of the case Judge without the prejudice of sentiment.

JUDGE:

Objection overruled. Continue, Mr. Bailey.

BAILEY:

Your Honor, this Bible is not a secular or human book. This is not Shakespeare or Goethe. This is Torah min hashamayim. This is the Torah which was dictated by God. The tradition holds that Moses was the stenographer, if you will, the amanuensis, the copyist. This is Torat Moshe, the Bible of Moses.

CLARK:

Your Honor, as usual Mr. Bailey overstates the case. The great commentator Ibn Ezra in the 11th century, and before him the Talmud itself, raised doubts about the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. I introduce Exhibit B from the Bible. Specifically the last verses of the Bible that you will find on pages 916. Let me call your attention to verses 5, 6, 7 and 8. Did Moses write this posthumously? And what could verse 6 mean, "And no man knows of his sepulcher unto this day." That surely must mean that considerable time must have elapsed since this event was written.

BAILEY:

Your Honor, the Talmud has an answer to that question. I cite the Talmud Babba Bathra 14b. The rabbis ask "Who wrote these last twelve lines?

Is it possible that Moses, being dead, could have written these words?" The rabbis answer: "Moses wrote these words with tears."

JUDGE:

The jury is getting restless. I can't tolerate another jurors’ strike. Would you move on to the more substantial concerns relating to the truth or falsity of the Torah?

CLARK:

Thank you, Your Honor. Mr. Bailey, you put it to us that the issue is whether or not the Torah is true or false.

BAILEY:

Yes indeed.

CLARK:

Are all matters subject to the test of true or false?

BAILEY:

Yes indeed. I think that's a fairly elementary piece of logic. It flows from the law of the excluded middle. Everything is either "A" or not "A.” Things are either true or they're not true. Either the prophet is telling the truth or he's lying.

CLARK:

Is that the only alternative, Mr. Bailey? The prophet could be mistaken and a mistake is not a lie or his words could be misunderstood by us. That doesn't mean that he is lying. In short, there are alternatives to your forced option of either true or false. The opposite of black can be white or yellow or green. In the same sense the opposite of true does not have to be false.

BAILEY:

This is pure obfuscation. I don't get the drift of your argument, Ms. Clark.

CLARK:

Let me put it this way. Mr. Bailey, do you think a painting by Picasso is true or false? Do you think it is truer than a painting by Rembrandt? Do you think that “Beethoven's 9th” is true or false? Is it truer than Mozart's? Do you think that Shakespeare's sonnet is true or false? Is it truer than Wordsworth's sonnet?

BAILEY:

I object. Your Honor, this line of argument is totally irrelevant to our argument. We are asking whether or not a written document, the Torah, is true or false.

JUDGE:

Overruled. Get to the point, Ms. Clark.

CLARK:

My point is that I don't think that art, music or poetry can be spoken of as true or false. Analogously, I don't think the Bible can be spoken of as true of false.

BAILEY:

Ms. Clark, don't equivocate. Is the Bible fact or fiction?

CLARK:

Which part of the Bible, Mr. Bailey?

BAILEY:

Every part of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy and back.

CLARK:

You mean that everything in the Bible verbatim is literally true.

BAILEY:

I think that's exactly what the Jewish tradition means.

CLARK:

Once again, you ignore the sophistication of the tradition, Mr. Bailey. I want you to consider the statement by a great Orthodox rabbi, Netziv,  Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah of Berlin. He insists that the entire Bible "possesses the nature and the character of poetry. And as such must be understood in terms of the illusions and figurative expressions of poetry so as to appreciate the depth of the meaning of the Bible." Moreover, there is also the Zohar, the great book of Jewish mysticism in which we find the following statement: "Perdition take anyone who maintains that any narration in the Torah comes merely to tell us a piece of history and nothing more. Were the Bible a mere book of tales and everyday matters we would compose a text of even greater excellence. The Bible has clothed itself in the outer garments of the world and woe to the person who looks at the garment as being the Torah."

JUDGE:

Mr. Bailey, do you want to respond?

BAILEY:

I certainly do. Ms. Clark is once again confusing the issue and cleverly diverting attention from our major concern. The question is fact or fiction. Is the Torah fact or fiction? I offer Webster's unabridged dictionary. It says clearly "fiction is something invented by the imagination or feigned: an invented story.” Is Ms. Clark suggesting that the narrative in the Bible is an invented story, a matter of imagination? In short, something false.

CLARK:

Not at all your honor. I maintain that the Bible is Torat emeth, a Book of truth. But the Bible is not a history book. The Bible is not a science book. The Bible is not a photograph of events. It doesn't compete with Newtonian physics or Darwinian evolutionary theory…

BAILEY:

What in the world is it that the Bible does record then? Doesn't it speak about the ten plagues? Doesn't it speak about the revelation from Sinai? Are those events not meant to reflect facts corresponding to reality? What is the Bible recording if not the literal truth?

CLARK:

The Bible, Mr. Bailey, records the response of the Jewish people to events which they consider of superordinate significance. The important thing about the Bible is not its archeological facticity but its spiritual and moral meaning.

BAILEY:

How about the plagues? Get down to specifics. Are the ten plagues true or false?

CLARK:

The Nile may well have turned dull red with vegetation, as it does between June and August; the slime of the Nile may have bred vast numbers of frogs; the air may have filled with swarms of tormenting insects which in turn spread the disease attached to animals, flocks and human beings; an eclipse may have darkened Egypt. That may or may not be what caused the plagues. But that may be incidental to the spiritual truth of the lesson it instructs.

BAILEY:

Well, if its facts are incidental, what is essential about the narratives? You've taken the heart out of its meaning.

CLARK:

The whole plague experience teaches us that tyranny and corruption brings its own death. The Nile river which the Egyptians worshipped as the giver of life turns into blood to teach us measure for measure the belief that evil plants the seeds of its own destruction "measure for measure,”  middah k'neged middah. Moral symmetry lies in the ten plagues of Egypt.

BAILEY:

What kind of symmetry?

CLARK:

It is no accident that frogs fill the Nile, given what we know of the Egyptian goddess, Heqt, the goddess of fertility. And the Pharaoh was jealous of the fertility of the Israelites and designed to drown the Hebrew males in the river. The genocidal designs of the Pharaoh turns the blessings of fertility into the curse of sterility. The authors of the Bible are not reporters sent down to cover Egypt. They were persons of spiritual insight seeing the finger of God beneath the facade of facts.

The history in the Bible is not the record of date or place, it is the reflection of Heilsgeschichte, sacred history, faith history.

BAILEY:

And you say the same thing about the flood story, the story of Noah and the deluge, that it was only a bit of perfervid imagination, that it has no basis in reality. Be specific. Was the flood fact or fiction? Was there a real flood, real water, real devastation?

CLARK:

There most likely was some sort of deluge, some sort of flood. We know from comparative religion that there were many such literary records of floods including the famous Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. Floods occurred, but what is unique about the Bible is not the fact that it offers evidence of a flood but that it gives a different interpretation to the meaning of the flood than that which the Babylonians gave. Remember, the Babylonians felt that the flood was brought about because the gods were angry at the noise which humanity was making. But in the Hebrew Bible, the flood is a consequence of human violence, of human destruction, of the corruption of the land. The Biblical lesson which is eternal, and is expressed in the rabbinic Midrash wherein God says to Noah and to his descendants, "You take care of the earth because it will be destroyed and not by Me but by you who are to guard the earth. You are the custodians of the earth and of the waters so I pledge you with the symbol of the rainbow in the cloud, a covenant between Me and the earth." (Chapter 9:14) "I will not again smite anymore everything living. While the earth remains seed time and harvest and cold and heat, summer and winter and day and night shall not cease." That, Mr. Bailey is the art, the beauty, the truth of the Bible. That is the meaning that is given to events.

BAILEY:

We've talked about narratives. What about laws, what about statutes, what about commandments? And what of the 10 commandments themselves? Exodus 19:16 "And it came to pass on the third day that it was morning. There were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount and the voice of the horn exceeding loud. And all the people that were in the camp trembled." Verse 18: "Now Mt. Sinai was altogether on smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice." Is this fact or is this fiction? Is this truth or is this falsity?

CLARK:

Of course it's true, something happened, but what the Bible records is the ecstasy, awe, excitement and grandeur with which the Jewish people responded to an event. And that event could have been a volcano, could have been a storm. It could have been an impassional revelation that Moses conveyed to the people standing at the bottom of Sinai but the surroundings are not critically significant. The message, not the medium, is sacrosanct.

BAILEY:

Ms. Clark, I think that what's wrong with your view of the Bible is that it is hopelessly subjective, that it is so filled with parables and allegories, that you fail to acknowledge the objectivity and factuality and truth of the text. You have turned the Bible into poetry. That is what the prophet Ezekiel's complaint about his contemporaries. Ah, Lord God, they are saying of me, “Does he not speak parables?"  (Ezekiel 21:5) Ezekiel is to the people a singer of lonely songs, a pleasant voice, a musician who plays on an instrument. The people fear his words but they do not do them (Ezekiel 33:32) .

That, Ms. Clark, is why there is such weak faith and why rabbis have to write books for those who can't believe. What has been taken away from faith is its literalness, its facticity, its objectivity.

CLARK:

I would argue to the contrary. I would argue that faith is weakened when you read the text with a verbatim literalism that ultimately leads to a suspicion as to the truth of the Bible. Listen to Maimonides in his Foundations of the Torah 1:5. He is interpreting Deuteronomy 32:41. "If I whet my glittering sword and my hand, my hand takes hold on judgment." On this verse Maimonides asks, "Has God then a sword and does He slay with a sword?" He goes on to explain that these are allegories. That statements such as "written with the finger of God" or "the hand of God" are all expressions that are written and adapted to the capacity of the human mind. The Bible, the Torah, speaks in the language of men, Maimonides insists.

BAILEY:

If it's all poetry, if the narrative is myth, what of the laws and commandments? Are they figures of speech? "Thou shalt not murder,”  "Thou shalt not steal".

JUDGE:

I'm going to have to cut this off. Give me a brief summary.

CLARK:

Surely, Mr. Bailey, you know what the Rabbis did with such laws, how Talmud has to interpret the applicability of such concepts to life. How, for example, did they interpret "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"? Did they take it literally or did they not agree that it cannot, must not, be taken literally? Didn't they say that the commandment is to be understood as paying monetary compensation for the unemployment, healing, pain, embarrassment that was caused by the injury? That's not literalism, is it Mr. Bailey?

BAILEY:

So the Bible is not divinely, verbally inspired? How can a holy book be inaccurate in a matter of fact? Ms. Clark you can't weasel your way out of these matters of faith. Does your Hebrew calendar not read 5755, and is that not contrary to all of the evidence of geology and zoology and biology, astronomy, anthropology? You have to make a choice. Is the Bible right, or is Darwin right? Is creation right or is evolution right? Is Newton right, or is the cosmology of Genesis 1 correct?

CLARK:

But surely, Mr. Bailey, if the universe is only 5755 years old how do you account for fossils that are millions of years old? Do you deny the antiquity of the fossils?

BAILEY:

I have heard rabbis say that God deliberately placed fossils which appear to be millions of years old in the earth in order to test our faith, because faith is greater than science. How dare we place Darwin's evolutionary theory over the Bible's account in Genesis!

CLARK:

Mr. Bailey, even as great traditionalist as Rabbi Kook wrote that the evolutionary hypothesis of Darwin far from being at variance with the Jewish outlook is in full accord with the Kabbalistic view of the whole of creation slowly climbing to ever greater heights.

JUDGE:

Would you summarize this part of the discussion, Ms. Clark?

CLARK:

Your Honor, I haven't brought in the testimony of scholars who argue that the repetition, inconsistence with the Bible indicates multiple sources, “J-E-P-D.” I think it is wrong to speak of one kind of truth as if only scientific or historic truth ought to be counted. The Bible is concerned with moral truths, with metaphysical truths, with truths of faith. That the human being is created in the image of God is not verifiable, but is a powerful moral truth. It is a faith assertion; it is not a scientific assertion. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" is not a scientific description. It is a moral and religious prescription.

Your Honor, unlike Mr. Bailey's view, there is no conflict in my mind between science and the Bible. The Bible is not to teach the way in which the heavens go. The Bible is to teach the way to get to heaven. The Bible is not science. It deals with salvation. The Bible speaks eternal truths which are transmitted in a manner that reflects the thought patterns of the age in which that revelation took place. Either/or thinking is not the way to see the truth of the Bible for either/or splits our thinking, divides science from religion, God from man, fact from meaning.

JUDGE:

Thank you. Now Mr. Bailey.

BAILEY:

I believe that the Torah is literally true because the Author of the Torah is true, because His revealed word is literally and eternally true. If I have to choose between the Torah or science, between the word of God and the word of man, I will choose the word of God and the word of the Torah. Minds are fallible. We have seen this in history, we have seen this in science. Men and women are finite and errant. They will never be able to base their lives on something as deep and secure as the Bible. That is based not on trust in logic. That is based on trust in God, in God's will, in God's communication, in God's word.

However clever you may be, you can't solve this issue of the Torah being true or false by eliminating the either/or choice. You have to choose one way or the other. It is not an easy choice to be made but it is the choice faith demands of us. Our salvation shall not come from Copernicus or Kepler or Newton or Einstein, our salvation will come from God's truth.

That is what kept our people together. Not the vagaries of science and philosophy but the constancy of faith and obedience.

JUDGE:

We'll continue this discussion tomorrow at Sabbath services. Let's hear what the Rabbi has to say.

CLARK:

I object.

JUDGE:

Overruled. Court adjourned until 8:45 tomorrow morning. Torah commentary at 10:00 AM.


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Fri, January 21 2022 19 Shevat 5782