Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Manipulating Texts

I learned something today which disturbs me greatly. I am learning Genesis with Dr. Levine, who is an excellent professor and very well-informed. Today she suggested that there is a prevalent theory that is understood by midieval scholars that any piece of knowledge/ information, especially scientific, which is proven to be absolutely true is clearly part of the "lost wisdom of Chazal." The idea is that Chazal at one point in time knew everything, because clearly the Torah contains everything. However, for one reason or another, some of this knowledge was lost and appears, in corrupted form, in the secular world. At this point, Judaic sources (especially midieval commentaries) feel justified in taking this knowledge and reclaiming it.

This is what Ramban does when he explains his theory of the creation of the world (Rambam clearly does this as well, when he explains it within Aristotelian terms.) I have many problems with this entire idea- the major one is that this allows for major apologetics. "Well, that's just another lost piece of Chazal's knowledge," doesn't seem to me to be a very strong argument. But much more importantly, scientific knowledge clearly changes. For example, as my teacher pointed out, when it comes to the Ma'aseh HaMerkavah, apparently Maimonides explains it in Moreh Nevuchim in terms of Aristotelian science. Malbim later says this science is defunct and reinterprets the passage in light of what he sees as currently being the truth.

If you can change the Torah to fit the current scientific "truthful" norms, what does that say about the honesty of your scholarship? Ideally, shouldn't the text suggest a certain type of reading, and that is the way things work? It bothers me that different commentaries can manipulate the text in order to force different scientific meanings upon it (depending on what is available during their time period.) If this is the case, I can inflict any meaning I desire upon the Torah text and then happily claim, "Look! It's here! Everything is contained within the Torah!"

Of course, this is what some people are still trying to do- except the new vogue is to make the text of the Torah somehow show that evolution is true. Why is this necessary? And even if someone could ostensibly prove that- why should it be any more valid than Ramban forcing his theory of the four elements onto the text, or Malbim reinterpreting Ma'asei HaMerkavah in context of the science of his time period? And why is this even necessary? How do we interpret texts- do we take a particular meaning, knowing that it is "true," and then force it onto a text, or do we read texts in order to find meaning? The first approach speaks to a kind of desperation I do not like to think about. The latter approach seems far more logical- and true- to me.


Holy Hyrax said...

>If you can change the Torah to fit the current scientific "truthful" norms, what does that say about the honesty of your scholarship?

Shadal's very first comment in Genesis speaks highly against this practice of fighting Torah to new scientific theories. I will get you the exact quote later

Yosef said...

Shadal writes:

“The wise understand that the intent of the Torah is not to teach the natural sciences, but that the Torah was given only to direct humankind on the path of righteousness and justice[.] ... Therefore it is not proper for the Torah scholar to force the Scriptures from their literal meaning to make them conform with the natural sciences.”

Holy Hyrax said...

thank you yosef

Erachet said...

It's like they say, hindsight is 20/20. It's so easy to know about an event or know a piece of information and then make the text fit. It's much more difficult to look at the text devoid of any expectations and discover meaning in it.

I, too, am troubled by times when science seems to contradict Torah or when people try to make Torah fit with the world when it seems kind of false. I once heard an explanation that science and Torah do not contradict each other in their ultimate truths and that if they seem to now, it is only because not everything in science has yet been discovered or not every meaning of the Torah has yet been unfolded. I like to think of these things in that respect as opposed to forcing Torah and science to make sense as they are right now, because I definitely don't think we are finished understanding Torah (if we were, why would we need to learn anymore?) and we're definitely not finished making scientific discoveries about the world. If people would relax more and just understand that Torah and science will come together at the end of the day, whether it's next week or in the next millennium, they would stop feeling the need to force it out of the little we know now.

Jewish Atheist said...

They're not after truth any more than the Muslims or the Mormons are.

G said...

Sadly many miss the point of the Bible completely.
It's an amazing book, and what separates it from all others is simple. Nothing mystical or magical, historical or scientific. Instead, human responsibility is its focus.

Charlie Hall said...

"The idea is that Chazal at one point in time knew everything"

Obviously a false statement. If they knew everything, why did they put so much in the talmud that is factually wrong (mostly their medical treatments). This was understood in the gaonic period. We are halachically forbidden to follow their guidance on those issues!

Off topic, you might find this of interest:

Charlie Hall said...

Trying again with the yeshivaworld link:

Charlie Hall said...

It looks like it doesn't want to work. Go to and page down to the story,

"Out Of The Mailbag - To YW Editor (Rejected To Seminary)"

You may have something useful to contribute there!

daniel-saunders said...

I agree with you about forcing texts to fit science (which isn't to say people don't come up with interesting ideas sometimes, but I wouldn't stake my emunah on such intellectual gymnastics).

I disagree that with the idea you seem to be presenting that the text has an absolute meaning that we can find purely by reading it with an open mind. No one ever has a completely open mind about any text. One does not have to be a postmodern relativist to realize that we always come to a text with a certain amount of personal and cultural 'baggage' that informs the way we read the text. People do "inflict any meaning [they] desire upon the Torah text", and not just the Torah, but every text. A look at academic discourse in the humanities will confirm this. The most we can do is try to have enough self-awareness to try to look past our preconceptions at the text itself, and be ready to jettison our fondest beliefs if we can not find adequate textual support for them.

jewish philosopher said...

I think science can help to better understand certain comments in the Torah, see this post for example.

However if the Torah would contain a clear factual error, then it simply means the Torah is bogus.