Open Orthodoxy? First open your hearts and open your souls

Again a lazy Shabbat afternoon and again a conversation with R.  Shavuot is approaching, and beyond the mundane of what type of cheese cake will be served (raw  live cashew cheese for me please), there is the matter of getting together for a study session with people I love and respect in the remarkable place that Shiloh is. Torah was given by G-d at Mount Sinai we have  learned,  but R tells me that Open Orthodoxy wants me to open my mind to other possibilities.

In an essay, which I found quite interesting,  called “Open Orthodoxy?”  [Torah Musings] by Yoram Hazony, relates Mr Hazony’s reactions to a symposium of sorts at an Orthodox synagogue dealing with archeology  and bible studies. The topics, despite the venue, were of a technical informative nature and in fact had nothing to do about religion in the traditional sense.  As Hazony relates:

So there were some fascinating bits like that one, from which I think every Jew (and non-Jew) could have benefited. But there was also a lot of the kind of thing that you learn to expect from historians and archeologists of ancient Israel, even if they are—as is now often the case—themselves practising Orthodox Jews. One of them explained that only the books of Samuel and Kings can be considered to be historical, whereas everything from Genesis to Judges is “not historical” (this is an academic buzz-phrase meaning that little, if any, of the biblical account up to Samuel actually happened); another explained that according to his findings, there was no conquest of the land by Joshua, but just a “gradual infiltration” by Israelite tribesmen; a third said that the religion of the biblical period was “not Judaism” but a different “ancient Israelite religion,” and that Judaism was only invented later. All the speakers treated the biblical texts as comprised of “different traditions” or “strands” that historians have been able to identify. At one point, one of the speakers asserted that there were in fact multiple different gods in ancient Israel that went by the name of YHWH, and that these different gods were only later combined into one.

In short, the description of the lectures is that of a deconstruction of faith, and not a celebration of belief. Rationalism, I suppose.

Rationalism isn’t a dirty word for most of us. My work demands a rational, questioning mind and the tools I use are ( or should be ) objective. A road project is either economically justified or it is not and what I believe must be backed by hard numbers. Further a field, I have no problem with science, nor with the theory of evolution. I would never go to a geologist with a stone and ask him when on Tuesday the rock was formed, even if in Bereshit (Genesis) we are told that the world was created in six days. Why should I balk then if I am told that the Torah was written by a committee around  600 or 700 years BCE?

Does Science disprove Faith? In my opinion, no. Believing that the World is the product of Creation, doesn’t mean that I believe that the rock strata, the fossils, the erosion of mountains, and Humanity itself was created basically in situ, as is and fully formed as, well, as Athena. Read about the Burgess Shale and the Cambrian Explosion [see Stephen Jay Gould‘s book Wonderful Life ]. Gould, a firm believer in the mechanism of Evolution theorizes (and yes I know there those who refute his thesis) that  the world we see is far from being the result of an inevitable process, but rather the fruit of random circumstances. Where randomness exists I (yep and don’t laugh) see  G-d’s intervention.

So where do I square the circle of archaeological theories that contradict the Scriptures? At the moment I do not because they are only theories. As Hazony points out, for one, the experts are not “ very good at distinguishing actual facts (things that can’t really be disputed) from the sweeping, largely hypothetical conclusions that they routinely draw from these facts. ”  The second is that in  my opinion, the facts do not trump the totality of belief. Even if the Torah was written, or edited  over a period of time, I am sure of the divinity of the source, in principle, through my faith. I rationally choose to be irrational.

I realize that being irrational makes it difficult to argue with me. Not that I am not open to a good argument, which as Hazony observes even scientific members of the “Guild” , or those dealing with the various debunking theories, might be resistant to. It is just that I am sort of fond of the image of the Mount Sinai looming over the Children of Israel at the reception of the Law, of the People, as one saying “we will do and we will listen”  and the image of intimacy between the Creator and His creation. Laws made by men could never be both so fitting and yet so unfathomable to our nature as those from a Divine source. The ambiguity of the Torah leads to a constant questioning and study of its meaning and relevance and in the process a quest to find the meaning and relevance in ourselves.

Being irrational means  that on receiving a mail or a sms from our yishuv’s rav asking that I say psalms for the health of a young mother having a risky birth, that I do so.  Rationally I know that my prayers could physically change nothing, but my soul tells me otherwise. Prayers open the gates of mercy , we believe and that is the same belief that bonds us together and gives us strength in times of travail.

I will give Open Orthodoxy the benefit of the doubt and will learn more about it. Being aware of secular knowledge is indeed important and being aware and involved in social issues and tikun olam even more so.  I draw the line though when rationalism is used to deconstruct or tear down faith. In our materialistic and alienating world what is need is more, not less faith. This Shavout is a time to celebrate the gift that is our heritage, the Torah, and to study it. Some will learn the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, others will hear lectures or study texts in a group. Those who do so will reconnect not only on an intellectual level but on a spiritual as well. All Jewish souls, some say, were at Sinai. Huddled under the mountain we received our covenant with G-d and the laws pertaining to it.  Tomorrow night we will celebrate it.



About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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