Thursday, August 4, 2011

Can we trust our sacred texts?

Some strange thoughts involving some new research about our moon, the opening chapters of the Torah, and the Talmud…

This morning, in our weekly Talmud class, we got into a brief side conversation about something which a couple of us heard on the radio earlier this morning. It seems that some scientists now believe that we used to have more than one moon. Our moon, as we know it now, was formed when some of these smaller moons combined with the “main moon.” Actually, that part isn't so new, but the way they combined (slowly and nondestructively, rather than explosively) is new.

Someone in the group mentioned, tongue firmly in cheek, that this was a problem for the Torah. After all, the book of Genesis talks about God creating the sun and the moon, but never talks about God making multiple moons!

I suppose that those who regularly dismiss scientific findings and prefer, instead, to rely on the Torah/Bible as the ultimate source of all types of truth, won't really have much trouble with this. If you can explain away dinosaur fossils, then this shouldn't be much of a problem at all. But, to those of us who don't accept the Torah as absolute, perfect, literal truth, this is just one more piece of evidence: as a scientific history, the Torah really isn't very good, at all.

During the same Talmud lesson, we came across a somewhat disturbing passage. The Talmud is discussing whether we are supposed to observe the formal rites of mourning for a slave of ours who passes away. Rabbi Eliezer (and, it must be said, that he was one of the great sages of antiquity) was adamantly against the idea, going so far as to even say that we should treat the death of a slave exactly as we would the death of an ox or donkey. It's disturbing enough that our ancestors—rabbis, no less—had slaves*, but this seemed, somehow, even further beyond the pale. To be so dismissive about a human life, to compare it to a pack animal, isn't exactly a shining example of humanity and morality. This in the Talmud—one of the most sacred, and arguably the most foundational book in all Judaism.

*actually, I don't have such great moral trouble with our ancestors having slaves. Not that slavery was a good thing, God forbid. But, understanding that, in the context of their day, slaves were an accepted reality and that, in a world which lacked any kind of social services, slavery was often a last resort for people trying to stay alive, I've come to understand that ancient slavery was often the lesser of some terrible evils. It's not fair to judge them too harshly based on our modern (and, I'd say, better) moral understanding of this issue. But, the often used (and, often by me) argument that ancient slavery was different from the chattel slavery with which we are most familiar, is definitely put to the test by Rabbi Eliezer's attitude.

Look—I don't think I have to defend my bona fides as a lover of our ancient, sacred texts. I believe that a serious study of our texts can be the basis of an unbelievably profound life, and it continues to be one of the sustaining parts of my own personal religious life. But, accepting our texts does not have to mean accepting them uncritically. We don't have to choose between the Torah (or the Talmud) and our minds. We don't have to decide to follow onlythe Torah, and never accept any of the lessons which thousands of years of history have taught us.

When it comes to science, the Torah (which may, or may not, have ever intended to include scientific facts) is completely out of date. If I were bold, I might even call it “useless,” from this one point of view. And, although it can be the beginning of a very serious conversation about morality, it clearly isn't the last word on that, either. neither is the Talmud. Neither is any single book.

If you're reading this, and you've heard me say this kind of thing before, I know. But I just don't understand how or why people will accept a book as perfect, when it is so obviously, manifestly not. Sacred—yes. Beautiful—yes. Perfect?

You know what? I was going to say that you don't need it to be perfect for it to be meaningful. But, the truth is, that doesn't go far enough. It's more meaningful, and more perfect, when you can see all of its flaws.

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