Thursday, September 1, 2005

Can the Torah contain Mythology?

In the previous post I showed how Breishis does not in any way conform to the accepted scientific account of the Universe’s creation and subsequent history. What’s quite amazing is how frum Jews, even well educated ones, often have no clue as to the extent of the incompatibilities. I will even admit that I was exactly the same. In the frum world, people just don’t think about these things with any rigor.

Most frum people are dimly aware that Scientists say the world is billions of years old, man evolved ‘from’ monkeys, and dinosaurs existed, but that’s about it. They assume the answer to Breishis questions is that ‘day’ isn’t literal, ‘taninim gedolim’ means dinosaurs, and that evolution is treif. When you point out to them that a global flood and subsequent repopulation of the entire planet’s human and animal life from one small boat is completely impossible, they say it was all a ness and that there is no evidence it didn’t happen, just lack of evidence that it did.

Well, actually there is plenty of evidence it didn’t happen, making the ‘ness’ theory somewhat theologically troubling. Also, you can’t discount all of evolution without taking a large part of our biological sciences down with it.

Some people insist that Science can’t tell us anything about the past, only about the future, because the past may have had a different set of scientific laws. Well, thats kinda crazy. Why would the scientific laws just change like that? Is G-d just playing with us? And maybe they will all change again tomorrow? Better not get on that plane tonight! I would regard those kind of answers as too crazy, and I am not going to entertain them here.

So, most sensible educated people take it for granted that at least the first 11 chapters of Breishis are mythological. Sure, there could have been a naked couple in Iraq six thousand years ago called Adam and Eve, and there could have been a guy in a boat called Noach, but once you accept the Scientific account of the history of the world, stubbornly clinging on to these characters when their surrounding stories can’t possibly be true doesn’t seem to make much sense.

After all, if Adam & Eve were just a couple living in a particularly nice part of Iraq, then what’s the point? And if Noach was just one of thousands of flood survivors from some small local flood, then what’s the big deal about Noach? And if the Tower of Babylonians really was not the cause of the many different languages, then why that story?

So, let’s think about the alternative. What are the problems if we say that Breishis 1-11 is Mythological? Let me present a few issues, and some solutions. If you think this all sounds somewhat apologetic, well duh!

1. Divine Authorship
Many people feel that once we say something is mythological, it is a threat to Divine Authorship. After all, why would G-d write mythology? Surely G-d would only write the truth? There are a few different aspects to this question:

1. Who actually wrote Breishis ?
2. Does G-d allowing Breishis in the Torah mean it must be true?
3. Would G-d write Mythology, and if so why?

In terms of the first question, we find that it seems to be quite acceptable to hold that G-d was NOT the original author of Breishis, but that Breishis was written under ‘Divine Inspiration’, just like the books of Nach. Rabbi Gil Student writes:

We find the following in Shemot Rabbah 5:22: "And Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He, (Exodus 5:22) 'Why have You done evil to this people...' I opened the book of Genesis and read it and saw the acts of the generation of the flood..." As R' Zev Wolf Einhorn points out in his Perush Maharzu, it seems like Moshe had some sort of book of Genesis well before he descended from Mt. Sinai. …. The answer is simply that our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov, and even those who preceded them like Adam and Noach, wrote down personal histories and theological works that were kept by their descendants. As prophets, their writings were sacred and treated like holy books. They were studied by their children and handed down from generation to generation. Rashi on Gittin 60a says that first the scroll of Creation was written, then the scroll of Noach, and then the scroll of Avraham. … Rashi seems to say that it was written at different times, scroll by scroll. Or, perhaps Rashi is not talking about the book of Genesis at all. Rather, he is telling us that all of these people wrote their own scrolls. Adam wrote a book about his life and what happened during his lifetime. He was a prophet and, naturally, this was an inspired book. ….Throughout the stay in Egypt and the desert, the scrolls of the forefathers were treated as sacred books and studied. These books, which were written under prophetic inspiration, form the basis of the book of Genesis. Granted, they were highly edited so that the book would not be too long….

According to R Gil, Breishis was written by the Avos, and even Noach and Adam (unlikely since they probably didn't exist), and then ‘edited’ by Moshe under G-d’s command. So Breishis being written by others besides G-d is not the actual problem. The main problem is, if Breishis stories were Mythological, why would G-d have included them in the Torah. Isn’t that very misleading? Why is that any better than faking up the post-flood evidence, or creating a fully formed world complete with fossils? How could G-d have let such a situation arise, when many people, even great Gedolim, don’t realize its all mythology?

I would suggest the following answers:

Man has free will. It’s not G-d’s fault if we can’t spot Mythology when we see it. After all, 2 billion Christians believe in Jesus. Is that fair? Why not wonder about that? Or don’t goyim count? And what about Skeptics? How could G-d have let a situation arise when so many people in the world don’t believe in Him? Of course the answer is that man has free will. Nothing in this world is absolutely clear. We have to do our best to understand it. But don't blame G-d.

2. Does G-d allowing Breishis in the Torah mean it must be true?
Many Gedolim, including Rav Kook, Rambam etc are okay with taking Torah non literally. Rambam explains the Bilaam episode as a dream. Why are these not misleading? Or even the cases of anthropomorphism? We have a klal, that dibrah torah keloshon bnei odom. So the Torah contained an account which was suitable for the people of the day to understand and that’s all. Nowadays, G-d expects us to use our sechel to realize that. Just because something is in the Torah does not mean it has to be literally true.

3. Would G-d write Mythology, and if so why?
The point of the Torah is to teach Moral and Ethical lessons, not Science, or even history. In fact the very first Rashi on the Torah confirms this. This can certainly be done using mythological stories. In fact, it can more effectively be done from mythology, since with real life you are constrained to only write about what actually happened, which may or may not contain any valuable lessons.

2. Slippery Slope
Many people are concerned that we have a very slippery slope here. If Breishis 1-11 is Mythological, why not 11-24, or Shemos, or the whole of Tenach? Where do you do draw the line?

I would suggest the following answers:

Many of our beliefs can be discounted through arguments. Torah MiSinai and many other ikkarim don’t hold up to serious skepticism. But we have emunah all the same. On the other hand, Science is clearly reliable and we trust it all the time in our everyday lives. So what to do?

The most sensible approach is as follows: Where we have proven Science which contradicts a belief or a pasuk in the Torah, we need to listen to the facts. If there is no proven Science, only theories and speculations, then that’s a different story.

Breishis 1-11 is ‘pre-history’ from a perspective of the Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai, or even from the Avos’s perspective. There is no reason why such ancient history would have been reliably known. However the stories of the Avos, and certainly Yetzias Mitzrayim itself would have been more recent history or even current events. In other words, the rest of the Torah could have been written at the same time as the events actually occurred, but the stories of Breishis 1-11 not so. Also, there is no proven Science against the stories of the Avos, and the Maccot and Har Sinai are clearly miracles, which would not have left much if any evidence.

There is certainly a problem with the huge numbers of people supposedly leaving Mitzrayim, and the almost complete lack of archeological and historical evidence for such a huge event. Some people like to claim that ‘Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence’, but that’s not so great. It’s definitely a question, and I don’t have my full answer fully fleshed out yet (soon). However, it’s still not quite as strong as the ‘proven’ science which contradicts Breishis 1-11.

Finally, I would say it is a slippery slope. However we already have questions and are already on the slope. So we might as well make the most of it.

3. Connectivity
There is a problem in that the Mythology stories are connected to the story of Avraham, by way of the geneologies. There is no clean separation there. The only answer I have is that the Torah was edited to make it into a seamless story, so it had to be done that way.

4. Emotional Attachment
Many people have an emotional attachment to Adam & Eve, or Noach. This probably stems from having learnt Breishis in kindergarten, or having a Noach blanky and crib set when they were younger. I have noticed a sliding scale here, some people can’t give up on the idea of any of them being real. Some people are okay with Adam & Eve being myth, but draw the line at Noach. Some people are willing to let Noach sink into oblivion (excuse the pun), but draw the line at the Avos. Personally I remember being quite upset when I realized Noach probably wasn’t real, but I got over it.

I would like to keep the Avos, since we daven about them quite a bit every day. Adam & Eve and the Mabul rarely appear in davening, except ‘Hashem LaMabul Yoshov’ which isn’t so serious. I recall some piyutim on Yomim Tovim, and of course you have the long Breishis description in the Avodah on Yom Kippur, but that’s not the end of the world either (nor the beinning haha). However I would be more upset to lose the Avos, certainly. There is no Scientific evidence against the Avos currently except for the Sedom story. People used to complain about the camels but I believe that has become a non issue now. So I think we can keep the Avos.

5. Mesorah
Finally, many people object that the Mesorah has always held Breishis 1-11 to be true. Well, I guess. But not Mesorah as in Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai, just mesorah in terms of natural assumptions, which is understandable. But it's time to change our natural assumptions. By the way, the mesorah also assumed the earth was flat and the sun went round the earth, so maybe mesorah (small 'm') is not so great.