Phasing Out Faith: The Exodus Continues

NASA image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, sometimes referred to as the "Eye of God" nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)
NASA image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, sometimes referred to as the "Eye of God" nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)

I am a naturalist rabbi. I do not believe in the supernatural, or miracles, or transcendental emanations. When I talk about God, I am talking about the natural world, the awe-inspiring set of laws and causes that keeps it in existence — all of which are potentially accessible to human reason. Many would say that my perspective is incompatible with Jewish thought and values. But I argue, to the contrary, that this is where Judaism has been heading ever since the parting of the Red Sea.

According to the foundational narrative of the Jewish People, our story begins in about the 14th century BCE when our predecessors were living an abject, almost subhuman existence in Egypt. At this point, the proto-Israelites exercised nothing that could be characterized as freedom; their conduct was controlled by brutal taskmasters and their only goal in life was to live another day.

The Exodus narrative teaches us that in the 49 days after departing Egypt, these same people were sufficiently elevated in intellect and self-awareness to receive and comprehend the Ten Commandments (and by implication the entire Torah) at Mount Sinai. Presumably illiterate, however, they relied on Moses and the Priests to interpret the Torah and institute a new set of controls over the people, based on the needs of the community, rather than the individual. (For example, not coveting one’s neighbor’s wife separates humans from the lower primates and makes peaceful society possible.)

Those controls that described the Temple obligations of the Israelites remained under the autocratic control of the priests, all the way to the destruction of the Second Temple. But the secular controls followed a different path and guided a continuation of the Exodus.

The Israelites, then, submitted to two sets of authorities: the priests and the pharisaic courts. And in the courts the Israelite not only chafed against arbitrary controls, but fought against them, through disputation and advocacy.

Civil and criminal law grew into an important industry in ancient Jerusalem. Working with the belief that disputes should be resolved by referring to the Torah, the Pharisee lawyers developed the art of expanding, adjusting, extending, limiting or obviating the so-called written Torah, creating hundreds of new precepts, rules and operational definitions. These machinations were the true origin of the so-called oral law, transcribed into the Talmud after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.

The oral law was a legal fiction, a way of adapting the original Torah for people living five or six hundred years later. It allowed the Pharisees, now Rabbis, to pretend that these new regulations were from Moses. (They were not.) And it incentivized the craft of “proving” that the new laws — entirely developed by rabbis/lawyers —were in fact based on so-called proof texts in the Torah.

I put “proving” in quotes, because, in fact, Talmudic proofs are much more entertaining than logical. Proof texts are cited that do not say what they are purported to say. Inapt analogies abound, along with numerological arguments (gematria) that prove nothing. And I have found cases where, when the numbers don’t work out, the advocate will use a different grammatical form of the Hebrew word, changing its spelling and number.

All this legal legerdemain underscores what was really happening: The Jewish people, using a variety of devices, created the illusion that the Talmud was from Sinai, when, in fact, it (like the written Torah itself) was an invention of the Jewish people themselves.

Rabbinic Judaism was difficult, scholarly, technical, perpetually subject to dispute. So, therefore, it engendered many anti-Talmud, anti-intellectual reactions. The first major rebellion was Christianity, a gentile adaptation of Galilean Judaism. There were also the Karaites who doubted the provenance of the Talmud. Later the mystics rebelled, elevating feelings above arcane regulations: cabalists and Chassidim.

At the end of the 18th century, the founders of Reform Judaism finally had the nerve to propose the formal acceptance of Maimonides’ bold idea from centuries before—that all Torah sentences with “God” in them must be understood figuratively, not literally. That the answers to our ethical questions “are not in heaven,” but in our own imagination and reasoning. Abraham Geiger’s position was that Reform Judaism was not a rejection of anything but rather a continuation of the Pharisaic process of inventing new Torah.

As I see it, the next major step in the emancipation that began in Egypt is to destroy the most enthralling of all the idolatries: Superstition, specifically–

  • Belief in the existence of things that do not exist.
  • Belief in the actuality of events that never occurred.
  • Belief in causal connections that do not obtain.

What all these superstitions have in common is their reliance on faith, that is, acceptance of claims for which there is no evidence (like the existence of the afterlife) or for which there is abundant evidence to the contrary (like the belief that the world is less than 6,000 years old). Such superstitions imprison the minds of billions of people today. They cause poverty, they fuel wars, they threaten the survival of a livable earth.

My current belief is that, in the absence of superstition, we all can distinguish fact from fiction and live in a world of what is known. There are no secrets being kept from us and no mysterious forces guiding our destinies. In principle, we can continue to learn and understand more in each generation, gradually accumulating pieces of knowledge — but only through science and thoughtful analysis. (Epiphanies are interesting but not dispositive.) We do not need more than this to be filled with awe and gratitude  —and freed from our Egyptian beginnings.

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