Is the Bible’s factuality essential to faith?

To properly believe in God, must one believe in the factuality of the Bible’s contents, and that God Himself was its Author? Indeed, to worship God as religion demands, must one believe that God actually performed the acts attributed to Him; must we accept as authentic His purported interactions – His Creation of the universe and mankind, the plagues that He visited on Egypt, His splitting of the Red Sea and His conversations with mankind, Moses, Abraham and David.  More to the point, must we obdurately accept them in the particular and peculiar ways described in the Bible?

Does Observant (Rabbinic) Judaism declare that God’s clear cut demand requires a literal reading of the Bible?   Why can we not simply accept Biblical accounts as morality plays or anecdotal narratives, created by human beings without God’s help or involvement – indeed, dare I say, created by the fathers of the religion in order to breathe life into a belief system that would otherwise be hollow without them?

Of course, in the secular (non-theocratic) world in which we live, we may believe in God however we choose to.  Perhaps, in anthropomorphic terms; as a nonagenarian, great-great grandfather who peers down at earth amused as man attempts to imagine – as if man were himself God – God’s thought process.  We may choose to believe that God dictated nothing whatsoever to Moses, and merely instructed a spiritually inspired Moses to write of the Creation.  We may choose to believe that all that God really wants from mankind is for it to live a conventionally moral life based on civility, charity and love of one’s fellow man.  That a moral life is not only the sine qua non to a life of faith, but is also its sole prerequisite.  We may believe that all of the meticulous laws of animal sacrifice (morphed, upon the Temple’s destruction, into communal prayer), the Sabbath’s sanctity and kashrut were fashioned by man himself in order to nationalistically (if you will) create a “culture.”  Perhaps even, a culture that designated this particular Society as having been chosen, while others were not.

How heretical this must all sound to those in “good standing” in the realm of Rabbinic Judaism (that is, the world of observant Jews who accept the rabbinic, post-Biblical, interpretation of the Law, including the Oral Tradition that they believe was first given to Moses and then existentially handed down through the generations).  In pre-modern times, it was surely far easier to believe with abandon in miraculous occurrences.  Thousands of years, however, have elapsed since the time of Moses.  And given the advent of modern science, Darwin included, it is virtually impossible to truly believe that God scooped up man from the dust, and created woman by literally pulling her out of man’s rib.  What practical person today truly accepts that account as literally true?

Modern Rabbis understand this – they opt to allow thinking about the factuality of the Bible to evolve.  Many now preach a belief system which argues that “it really doesn’t matter” if  these events truly happened as described in the Bible; some rabbis go so far as to say that even asking whether they actually occurred is the “wrong question.”  Rather, they say, it’s about “tradition” – a tradition which creates our “chosen” place, both in history and in the world today.

But do rabbis use “it doesn’t matter” as a tactic to prophylactically assuage their congregants who may read the Bible with skepticism, or see it as somewhat of a work of historical/Biblical fiction?  And isn’t the real question, what do the rabbis themselves believe? Do they say aloud “it doesn’t matter” because they recognize that defending the Bible’s stories to moderns simply won’t (or can’t) be effective, leaving congregants to turn elsewhere or pay less attention to what observant Jews tend to believe?  Or is it because they, themselves don’t believe in their authenticity?

Do rabbis engage in a spiritual disconnect? Or are they similar to Galileo Galilei, brought to trial for heresy in 1633 as a champion of Copernicanism – the now universally accepted theory that the Earth circumnavigates the Sun; yet a theory which was then hugely heretical as inconsistent with Church Doctrine which decreed that the Sun circumnavigated the Earth (the Book of Joshua saying that God instructed the Sun to “stand still” during Joshua’s battle with the Amorites (Joshua 10:13)).  Galileo’s Inquisitor, Vincenzo Maculani, allowed Galileo to escape torture by publicly denouncing Copernicus.  According to tradition, after recanting aloud the Copernican theory, Galileo reportedly muttered almost inaudibly “Eppur si muove” – “still it [the Earth] moves.”

So we must ask: when modern rabbis utter either in sermon or tete a tete that a Biblical account’s authenticity “doesn’t matter,” do they immediately then mutter to themselves: “But yet it happened”?  And, really, does it and should it matter if an observant rabbi/teacher doesn’t himself believe in exacting fashion that the Bible is God’s literal Word transmitted by God to Moses at Sinai?

The problem for the rabbinic view of yesteryear, and even more so for the rabbi of today who adheres to the view that the Bible is God’s factual account of our history, is that they (and we) must live in the real world, a world where scientific certainty shone on certain Bible episodes makes objective analysis of the events simply irreconcilable with the literalist interpretation that argues that the Bible means exactly what it says. When science today (and one can only guess whether it will be more so in the future) so clearly establishes that the traditional views of creation and the birth of man simply cannot have occurred the way the Bible presents them, some rabbis, relying on Maimonides have chosen to accept “the metaphorical” – that we need no longer view the Creation account literally (“. . . the incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof; those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise.” Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, Ch XXV).  Just imagine the dialogue between two rabbis – one pre-modern armed with Genesis and one present-day with his copy of the Bible but also his dog-eared copy of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Checkmate!  Perhaps.

Is belief in science, as it develops, what God intended? Was it His way of allowing believers on the edge to remain in “good standing” so they can believe in the Bible, as metaphor?  As allegory?  And while many, including this writer, see the Torah as a living document, the question of what no longer needs to be taken literally raises the serious question of whether anything in the Bible needs to be taken literally.   Is “metaphorical”  interpretation only permitted where “science” absolutely undermines a literal interpretation of the Bible?   At least today, neither science nor any other rationalistic enterprise can affirmatively renounce the (party line) belief that Abraham was buried at the Machpelah; that the Children of Israel lived in  Egypt for hundreds of years before the Exodus occurred; that the Sea of Reeds was split with high arching walls of water so that the Children of Israel could traverse it on dry land; or even that Balaam’s donkey spoke to him.

So, for those rabbis willing to acknowledge science to exempt from literal interpretation what science can disprove, why can’t they also comfortably reject (or simply take with a grain of salt) the rest – and in particular that Moses actually heard the Torah dictated by the Voice of God at Sinai, an event not (yet?) disproven by science or some other form of rationalism? Their answer, I imagine, would be that Maimonides believed that those who reject the primacy of Moses as having heard the Law from God at Sinai, essentially “loses his religion” – in his phraseology, his place in the World To Come.  But must an independent-thinking believer in God accept that pronouncement if he finds the Maimonidean view too arbitrary?  Can a believer be willing to venture further along the continuum away from literalism?  How is it that Maimonides, having uttered his thinking 800 years ago, is still be able to dictate what we, today, must believe – that he alone, for all time, has made the literal/metaphor separation in the Bible? In other words, if a believer doesn’t accept the Maimonidean view, does he forfeit his “good standing” as a Rabbinic Jew?

In this regard, one wonders whether the rabbis (and their followers) who currently articulate the locus along the continuum which has the “literal” at one end and “metaphor” at the other somehow have “copped out.” They seek to distance themselves from tradition-locked rabbis – those who “religiously” adhere to the view that all Bible stories are literally true – who may be discredited as hopelessly out of touch by would-be congregants who accept modern science.  But in doing so, they pick and choose – relying on the wild card of science – so that they preach the literalism of the Written Word, but only for those Biblical events that science has not disproved.

Which brings us this:  in terms of one’s need to view the Bible as literally factual, what does it actually mean to be a Rabbinic Jew, particularly one in “good standing”?  Does it mean we have to accept the credo dictated by the rabbis – indeed, those who are authoritative enough – or can we, ourselves, determine what the Bible truly means to us?  While it may be controversial or provocative to articulate it that way, that’s exactly what’s at stake. And, lest it go unsaid, this decision, dilemma if you will, is not limited to Judaism.  How different is it that the Fathers of the Church, years after Jesus’s time, dictated that Jesus is actually part of the Holy Trinity (part of God Himself) , even though the Christian Bible never said that.  Yet, would a modern Christian remain in good standing, if he doesn’t believe (or, at least state he believes) in a Triune God?

Even if backed to a wall, most rabbis would be hard pressed to say to a congregant: “If you don’t believe that this occurred you will be denying God’s demand of you” – although Maimonides himself basically did.   Indeed, Maimonides articulated that belief that the Torah was received by Moses at Sinai is a requirement specifically dictated by God.  But what if you don’t believe that Moses ascended the Mountain and heard the Voice of God, yet you nonetheless keep your disbelief to yourself? Meaning, when Revelation at Sinai is addressed in synagogue or at the Shabbat table, you remain mute; you act as expected, consistent with the party line (and that phrase is not used in ad hominem fashion).  Will you still remain in “good standing”?   Put another way, is your “good standing” dependent on your community’s assessment of your belief system, that you have not been cut from your religious moorings?  Can’t your faith in God be unwavering – as strong as anyone’s – even if you don’t accept the Sinai saga as literally true?

Perhaps the following anecdote might be instructive to this discussion. Sometime ago, I addressed a group in discussion about the historicity of the Splitting of the Red Sea. As my talk concluded, I asked those assembled to close their eyes (with only mine open to make a count).  I asked those who accepted that event as the Bible described it to raise their hands.  Afterwards, those who don’t.  This group of Modern Orthodox Jews – clearly, people whose lives are steeped in faith – split so that approximately 50% said they accepted the Bible’s account; the other 50% did not.  Then, after everyone had opened their eyes, the moment of truth arrived:  I asked those who had only  “confidentially” acknowledged that they didn’t believe the Bible’s account to raise their hands in full view of the now eyes-wide-open congregation.  Only a handful raised their hands.  How does one explain this?  For me at least, the overwhelming majority of those “non-believers” of the Red Sea story who sat on their hands were comfortable in their belief, but only privately.  They apparently didn’t want their community to know; essentially, they didn’t want their neighbors to think “less” of them.

Or perhaps they believed that at the end of the day, one’s faith is a very personal thing, and should remain so. People might believe in only certain things their religion places before them, irrespective of whether the Author is divine. But even if they don’t believe in all of it, they remain believers in God, as well as believers in the importance of faith in their lives.

The critical notion is that belief in God must enable the faithful to believe in God as they choose. The rubber meets the road, however, when fundamentalist notions of “what one must believe” overtake open-mindedness in a non-secular community – when one’s personal beliefs, and more important his personal disbeliefs, ostracize him from “good standing” if he articulates  those disbeliefs aloud.  If that occurs – if the Bible’s factuality becomes essential to one’s faith for fear of being shunned – it will be man, and not God, who decides what one must believe in order to be viewed as having Faith.  And that principle cannot ever be what God intended.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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