May 9th, 2013 by Alan
I was contacted by this new internet portal featuring experts talking on their field of expertise. I decided that my field of expertise would be “what the Torah really says,” since I am one of the few laypeople who has actually bothered to find out, along with related questions about atheism, blasphemy and the “clear alternative to the Torah” (SCIENCE!).
The questions were partly supplied by me, generally softballs, and the answers were, I hope, unexpected. When the interviewer asked me about blasphemy, I replied that calling God the CEO from hell was just telling the truth. As for the arguments for atheism, I dealt with the philosophical ones but added that I’ve found it to be a freer, happier life, not worrying about what God thinks or wants — as well as a more dignified one, not groveling to him all the time.
The interviews are divided into eight segments. I hope they get seen a lot, but I’m aware that everybody’s famous for 15 seconds now, as attentions spans continue to shorten.
Anyway, here are the links, followed by the notes I wrote out as prep and followed pretty closely in my replies. Whatever happens, I finally got my thoughts and images into cyberspace. Once again, the truth is out there.
Interview #1: The Torah
1. Do we really know what is in the Torah?
Pretty much. The Jewish Publication Society version represents millions of rabbi-hours spent getting the translation right, yet there are copious footnotes (“meaning uncertain” or “alternate translation”) – which, taken together, mean that maybe 10% of it will forever elude us. Some stories are obscure, even with the most meticulous translation.
2. Does Judaism interpret the Torah as it was originally meant?
No one knows exactly what was originally meant. All we know is what the text tells us. We can distinguish narrative from laws/commandments, promises, and threats. There is a little figurative language in the Torah, but no humor, satire, or parody whatsoever.
Rabbis have produced voluminous tomes of interpretation (Talmud, Mishna) to fill in the blanks and explain how to practice the Torah’s directives.
There’s no single “Judaism” as there is for the Catholic Church. Different Jews have different attitudes.
Orthodox (and probably some conservative) Jews take it literally. Liberal Jews spin the text and find meaning in the stories, while allowing for belief or unbelief (“it’s allegorical”). Secular humanists seek the truth
about the text, i.e., that the divine events didn’t happen; science tells us that the historical events and characters are fictional.
2. What relevance does the Torah have in today’s society?
To the 90% who say they believe in God, a lot of relevance. For these Jews, the Torah’s characters are archetypes, worthy of study and endless interpretation. They work hard to find meaning and profundity in this primitive document. If they’re Orthodox, they consider ALL of its rules and regs to be worth adhering to. But even the most liberal Jews plumb the Torah for its minimal wisdom and assume a grain of historical truth.
Secular Jews consider it the earliest extant document produced by their ancestors. It reflects its era. Except for a few simple moral precepts, it is irrelevant to life in the 21st century.
3. How do clerics make the Torah palatable and relevant?
– Selective quoting/avoiding the more barbaric parts (I didn’t know they existed until I read the Torah)
– Quoting out of context
– Assuming alternate (and sometimes dubious) translations of words
– Investing elementary rules with great profundity (it says to let the land lie fallow, so they were ecologists! No, the only reason to do anything is that God says so. The commandment to observe the Sabbath means that the ancient Jews knew the benefits of rest! Wrong – the text says nothing about this. These are modern concepts. You observe the Sabbath because God says to. And you’ll get killed if you don’t. That is the ONLY reason the Torah gives for obeying its commandments.
– Adding material that isn’t in the original, usually in the form of inferences and symbolism, or grabbing material from other sources (a rabbi will never be challenged on this!), e.g., if a man comes to kill you, kill him first. A rabbi told me this was in the Torah. It’s not. It’s in the Talmud. This is not trivial. Rabbis can say that anything is in the Torah (and therefore MUST be obeyed), and no one can call them on it.
– FAKERY: Adding material that is not in the text and saying it IS the text. Also, blurring the line between text and interpretation.
Interview #2: The Torah and Morality
1. Is the God of the Torah worthy of reverence?
He is not worthy of respect, much less reverence. He is a murderous, vengeful, violent, destructive, vain, petulant, obnoxious CEO from hell, but with the power to inflict plagues or blow you up as if he had drones (he torches Aaron’s two sons with fire from the sky – nice).
2. To what extent are the laws in the Torah barbaric?
They reflect the values of the people who wrote them. Liberal application of the death penalty – homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting your parents, practicing another religion (if your relative urges you to follow another god, kill him). Women have almost no rights. Other tribes are to be annihilated (Jews are advised not to kill their fruit trees).
Aside from exile, the only non-lethal punishment is Deut. 25:11-12. A woman who helps her husband in a fight and touches the other man’s genitals is to have her hand cut off. “Show no mercy.” No kidding.
3. What is unique about Judaism?
Of course, Jews by and large think it’s ALL unique (as do members of every religion), but the truth is far different. There’s nothing in Judaism that you can’t find in other religions around the world: a founding myth, a holy text, reasons why believers are so special, a SuperGod (with or without sub-gods), an account of creation, prophecy/revelation, celebration of events that didn’t happen, lots of required prayers and rituals, a rich accompanying culture and unifying language.
The various religions just have different backstories and divine and semi-divine figures. They fill in the blanks differently. If there’s anything relevant to modern people, it’s the few simple moral precepts that this or that religion is selling. Some of the Jews’ stories (Noah, Moses) aren’t even original.
If there’s any respect in which Judaism stands apart, it’s the number of rituals. Elaborate dietary laws and prayer requirements. It all keeps you VERY busy, if you buy into it. Plus, it makes Jews feel SO special.
AND, as with all religions, Judaism’s beliefs and practices ensure isolation from everybody else.
Judaism, more than any other I know, is truly a religion for the obsessive-compulsive.
Interview #3: Science and the Torah
1. What if the events in the torah didn’t really happen?
For most people, including a billion Hindus, the events in the Torah didn’t happen. They have their own stories.
For believing Jews and Christians, life would go on as before, as my life has gone on during my many decades of knowing that the events didn’t occur.
People would find something else to worship, like Oprah. You would live your life the same, except that MUCH of the veneration of these holy texts – and accompanying prayer and ritual — would go away. Just think of the vast amounts of time that would now be available for more worthwhile pursuits!
This is the view of a secular/skeptic, who holds that the alternative to the Torah is science: archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, anthropology, genetics, and others will tell us the real history of the Jews…and cosmology, astrophysics and evolution tell us how the world came to be as it is.
The falsifying of the Torah would, of course, profoundly affect True Believers, who will really have the prayer rug ripped out from under them. They will be very upset, unless they can somehow be trained to view atheism as a great liberation and taught that they have more power than they think.
In practical terms, Humanists already accept that nothing in the Torah happened (if they admit it).
They replace it in their services with secular meditations and music.
They use, as examples, real Jews in real time, de-emphasizing fictitious Bible characters (at least, I hope they do – that’s what Rabbi Wine did).
They focus on human virtues: forgiveness, compassion, dignity, charity, non-violence, and all the rest…come from people. No God necessary.
2. If you believe the Torah is not Holy, then why do you think it is important?
It’s the Jews’ first extant document. Also, musty consider its importance to other Jews – we must try to understand religious belief and investment in fantasy.
3. What does science say about the author of the Torah and how did they reach that conclusion?
The Documentary Hypothesis, about 100 years old, is that the first three books had three authors and Deuteronomy a fourth, and the four texts were stitched together (sloppily – that’s why we have so many duplications) by a separate individual, perhaps the Ezra mentioned later in the Bible.
Painstaking examination of the texts reveals several different styles of writing, from different periods, interspersed. The discipline that focuses on this kind of analysis is “historical and comparative linguistics.”
Interview #4: Humanistic Judaism
1. What is humanistic Judaism?
An attempt to perpetuate Jewishness, but without God. The holidays are reinterpreted. The services include secular music and literature. Bible stories and characters are of secondary importance and are seldom mentioned; what counts is the experiences of real Jews in real time.
More cynically…it is an attempt to say, “Hey, we’re Jewish too.” By the time you reinterpret the holidays and detach Judaism from its ancient barbaric past, you have removed the core reason to be Jewish: identifying with other Jews by believing in the truth of the Torah and the historical reality of the holidays.
But ultimately H/J hits a stone wall: the core myth – slavery and exodus – simply did not happen! Yet I have never heard this idea articulated unambiguously from a Humanistic pulpit.
So now what we have is a two-faced con game: we’re going to tell the Passover story as a story and not say anything about what actually happened, which was that the Jews were never in Egypt, as slaves or in any other capacity.
In recent years, Humanistic congregations have drifted backwards and include a lot more Bible-talk than Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the movement. The more they repeat the ancient stories, the less odd and threatening they will seem to other Jews.
3. Why do humanists still debate over where to put the Torah?
Nostalgia. Some may think it’s “sort of” true.
At the Birmingham Temple, Humanistic Judaism’s founding congregation, it was in the library. A Chicago-area humanistic congregation — Beth Or – had it up front in a trendy modern Ark of lucite and metal.
BTW, This nostalgic attachment to the past is what makes people think the Torah must be a scroll, whereas it is readily available in book form. But I never see Jews debating over where to put a book, and I’ve never seen a book in the Ark.
Interview #5:Jews and the Torah
1. Is the Torah the ‘constitution of the Jewish people’?
No. They are two different documents with very different content and purpose. T contains history, genealogy, commandments. C describes the creation of a govt. that promotes equality (as the Founders saw it) before the law.
Torah is the very opposite of equality. Non-Jews get killed or enslaved. Women have no rights.
2. How does ‘Torah centered Judaism’ make some Jews dishonest?
It makes liars of everyone who believes in the truth of it, who elevates its simple stories to great moral significance, who whitewashes and reveres a God who is not worthy of respect, who pretends that Torah characters existed, that the barbaric parts are to be glossed over. I had never heard about them till I read the thing.
Other lies come from the extrapolation of Torah text into excruciating and rigid rule-sets.
EG, Torah forbids only “work” on the Sabbath. Most obvious interpretation is: don’t practice your occupation or profession.
Simple enough — but thanks to rabbis, Jews must now avoid 39 kinds of work, including driving, telephoning, operating any mechanical or electrical device. Jews invent ingenious workarounds (Sabbath elevators) that supposedly propitiate God, who is assumed to notice every act of work or non-work. It’s insane.
Or take the dietary laws. Torah says only not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk. From this, Orthodox Jews avoid ANY mixing of meat and dairy products – two sets of dishes, waiting period between eating milk and meat…and of course you cannot enjoy a delicious turkey melt. Goes so far as to require food companies to manufacture meat and dairy product in different machines, or they won’t get that coveted “kosher” seal on their packages.
Rabbis perpetuate these lies on a regular basis. They prey (no pun intended) on the ignorance of their congregants, very few of whom will read the Torah in an objective light or ever know what it really says.
3. What does being Jewish mean?
At least half a dozen different answers, from born of a Jewish womb…to officially converted…to approved by the Grand Rabbi of Israel. Also, anyone who says he’s a Jew, which makes sense to me.
My wife was adopted but officially made Jewish by a conversion ceremony that took place while she was an infant. Even though she is a staunch atheist, she’ll always be considered Jewish by the people who follow the conversion rule.
But one of her high school friends, whose mother is not Jewish, WANTS to be Jewish but cannot be accepted as such because of the “Jewish womb” convention.
Some people think being Jewish means following all the laws and commandments (excluding the death penalty for minor offenses, I would hope). OK…if you’re going to observe every one of the 600-odd commandments, knock yourself out.
Others rely on the genetic argument (“my parents and relatives are Jewish, so I must be”) and assume that the few days a year they devote to Judaism will be acceptable in the eyes of God (or the community, which in practice is even more important than what God thinks).
I myself am Jewish genetically (though far different from Jews of Ethiopia), but that’s about it.
4. What is the clear alternative to the Torah?
Science. THAT is now we know how the world was created, how we evolved from lower animals. Science, not the Torah, tells us the real history of the Jews. The other alternative is modern humanistic morality that responds to the dilemmas we face today, not those of our ancestors. By this humanistic criterion, religion is immoral and very bad for people.
On a practical level, the alternative was to develop a branch of Judaism without God, as mentioned.
Interview #6: Atheism
1. How do you define atheism?
Denial of the existence of a god or gods. But I don’t like to be on the negative side of an argument, so I look at it this way: religion is a-humanistic.
2. What are the arguments for atheism?
Can’t prove a negative, other than by absence of evidence. Can I prove there’s no dragon in my garage? Only by observation. Can’t do this with religion. Can only accumulate evidence one way or the other. Outside the Holy Texts, there’s no evidence.
On a practical level, atheism is a great liberation. Not one moment wasted worrying about what God wants.
3. Why do some believe that without religion a person cannot rely on their personal moral compass?
I don’t know individual motives, but religious people seem to need authority, and often at a basic level: don’t be an alcoholic, a fornicator, a criminal, a spouse-abuser. They fear that they can’t govern their own impulses or decide what’s right.
“Without religion” implies ALL of it. Yet the Torah contains many examples of deceit and murder (rape of Dinah [daughter of Jacob and Leah], Genesis, Ch. 34). So you have to decide which of the Torah’s directives you’ll obey – and is that not a personal moral choice?
Example of Eve and the snake: knowing right from wrong is reserved for gods.
Also, such people are unaware of the rich literature on morality, from other cultures and eras that can be practically applied today. More wisdom in one week of the Little Zen Calendar than in the whole Torah.
4. Some critics imply that atheists can be blasphemous, how do you respond to that?
You can’t offend an entity that doesn’t exist. Thus what believers call “blasphemy” is for atheists nothing more than “telling the truth”:
– Torah God is vengeful, punitive, and sadistic, not worthy of respect, much less worship.
– Neither he nor any other gods exist.
– Holy books don’t deserve reverence: they prescribe death for any offense; advocate slavery and ethnic murder (Deuteronomy contains explicit instructions for ethnic cleansing).
– Torah morality is juvenile.
– There is no independent verification for anything that happens in the Torah.
This alone is blasphemy, but since atheists don’t believe in God, they’re free to make jokes about him, which also constitutes blasphemy.
Interview #7: Atheism and the Torah
1. Why would an atheist study the Torah?
“Read,” not “study.” “Study” usually means make inferences, try to decide what a given passage means beyond the text, make up stories about the stories – and giving God the benefit of the doubt at every turn.
Atheists should know the enemy; they should learn what it really says and not be bullied into believing what rabbis say is in it. To distinguish the actual text from “interpretation,” implication and inference.
2. Whether the Torah is understood and applied as it should be or not, is there any harm in practising Judaism as implied in the Torah?
Yes. Liberal death penalties, pointless rules and rituals, no concept of freedom or rights for women, primitive morality, isolation and ostracism of anyone, INCLUDING FAMILY MEMBERS, who denies the truth of the Torah and refuses to follow its ridiculous and primitive dictates.
Orthodox Jews who insist on living by rules dreamed up by priests 3,000 or more years ago are maladjusted to the modern world, if not psychotic. If they stone their children for disrespect, they are criminals.
Liberal Jews make the Torah relevant and interesting with lots of spin and avoidance of the barbaric parts. Many liberal Jews are prepared to believe that a lot of it is unverifiable stories, but think some of it may be true and are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (or to pretend to).
3. Would you also study the Koran or the New Testament as an Atheist, and if so what would you hope to achieve?
No. Again, it’s stories, impossible events, revelation by divine beings, bigotry toward the outsider – all the things you find in the Torah, just different characters and stories.