Doing it the Wrong Way

I couldn’t walk away from this discussion without a word about accuracy.

Whatever you’re selling, there’s always the temptation to cut corners and paint your product in slightly brighter than real life colors. And whatever you’re studying, there’s always the risk that you’ll draw unwarranted or incorrect conclusions. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that those defending the Torah’s authenticity are, like any other human being, susceptible to error.

Ok. But why is that any more relevant here than on wikipedia.org or newyorktimes.com? Perhaps it’s not. And perhaps most people will breeze past flawed arguments and not notice anything amiss. But some might well be deeply disturbed and associate the poor scholarship they see with Judaism itself: “if the Torah’s representatives are unable to present intellectually sound arguments to support their ideology, perhaps it’s the ideology that’s to blame.”

So why do I mention this? Just so there should be at least one voice on record stating that God’s Torah may not necessarily be bound to the well-intentioned but flawed products of each and every Jewish writer (myself most definitely included).

Here are some areas of concern:

When a proof may not be a proof

When laymen (or sometimes even credentialed scientists) draw firm conclusions about complex, multi-disciplinary scientific theories that lie beyond their expertise, their arguments are, by definition, weakened. They might well be correct, but the very doubt has hurt their credibility.
When arguments are based on brief fragments of quotations stripped of their original context and used to argue positions the original writers would almost certainly dispute, I wonder if they prove anything.

When the Torah may not really be the Torah

When Torah principles are presented superficially or even incorrectly (either to avoid contentious issues or out of plain ignorance), I wonder whether God – the God of Truth – wants His words distorted, or whether we should just trust His judgment and let the Torah speak for itself regardless of the consequences.

Oh, and just in case, while reading my material, you catch me in error, please be sure to let me know!

Now here’s an example of what I mean:

I recently made a point of reading through Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (New Revised and Expanded Edition – 2005). I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in general, it was considerably more accurate and helpful than I’d suspected (besides his presentation of the teleological argument about which I’m simply unqualified to comment). However, there are some points with which I take issue:

Virtually all contemporary Bible scholars no longer side with the conclusions of the early Bible critics. Except for a few real “diehards.” they have retracted their claims. They all now agree that the evidence stands overwhelmingly against the Bible critics and their assertions. And, thus, nowadays most of them trust the Torah to be historically true and accurate even where no evidence has yet been found.” (page 91)

As proof, Rabbi Waldman quotes Prof. W.F. Albright. However Waldman seems to have confused Documentary Hypothesis (something with which Albright was apparently quite sympathetic) with what Albright called “old critical theory” – which taught that the entire Bible narrative was an historical fabrication. Albright rejected the latter while accepting the former. It is therefore incorrect for Waldman to use Albright as evidence against Documentary Hypothesis.

He also ignores the fact that, in the ensuing decades, Albright’s academic reputation has suffered some serious setbacks (I’m not offering my own opinion as to how justified these attacks might be – that’s way above my payscale – I’m just observing that Waldman is wrong to use Albright’s words as evidence of academia’s modern position).

More worryingly, we now live in the Google-Wikipedia age. Regardless of what we feel about DH, many in the academic world think differently and it is simply irresponsible to pretend otherwise. Since Waldman’s readers need only Google the words “documentary hypothesis” to quickly learn the truth, what, when it’s all done, have we gained with this line of logic?

Another incredible archaeological find in support of the Torah is the Ipuwer Papyrus. Archaeologists discovered in Egypt an entire book which describes cataclysmic events similar to the Ten Plagues…And the Ipuwer Papyrus is dated in the same general era as when the Torah says the plagues would have happened.” (page 97)

Perhaps in 1909 (the year Waldman’s source for the document’s precise age was published) the general consensus was that the papyrus dated to the time of the Exodus. Perhaps not. But I can say with confidence that the ensuing century of research has, at the very least, introduced considerable doubt over the matter (the opinion currently enjoying widest distribution would have the document predate the Exodus by some four centuries).

It is also quite a stretch to write “…the plague of hailfire is seemingly described in Papyrus 5:5…the plague of locusts…this certainly seems to be referring to the slaying of the firstborn…” A quick reading of the whole text in its context reveals that none of these could be said to bear more than a superficial and circumstantial relationship to the Tanach narrative.

It is thus misleading to treat Ipuwer’s support for Tanach as a settled fact. And, again, the claim’s weakness is only a single Google-click away.

Or consider kashrus…an amazing phenomenon has recently been discovered. The flow of blood to the head in kosher animals…is physiologically different from the flow of blood to the head in non-kosher animals! Shechita done on kosher animals – and only kosher animals – immediately stops the blood flow to the brain, causing instant death…” (page 243 – from the appendix “Torah and Nature Working Together”)

I suspect that spending some quality time in a kosher slaughterhouse should cure anyone of this delusion. Instant death through shechita is most obviously far from guaranteed. But a quick trip via Air Google will confirm my suspicions: shechita might (or might not) be the best kill-method available and it’s certainly the only one available to Jews, but it’s not instant and painless. Here’s what Temple Grandin (a respected gentile academic known to be sympathetic to responsible shechita) had to say:

Scientific researchers agree that sheep lose consciousness within 2 to l5 seconds after both carotid arteries are cut (Nangeroni and Kennett, 1963; Gregory and Wotton, 1984; Blackmore, 1984). However, studies with cattle and calves indicate that most animals lose consciousness rapidly, however, some animals may have a period of prolonged sensibility (Blackwore, 1984; Daly et al, 1988) that lasts for over a minute. Other studies with bovines also indicate that the time required for them to become unconscious is more variable than for sheep and goats (Munk et al., 1976; Gregory and Wotten, 1984). The differences between cattle and sheep can be explained by differences in the anatomy of their blood vessels.

Observations by the first author of both calf and cattle slaughter indicate that problems with prolonged consciousness can be corrected. When a shochet uses a rapid cutting stroke, 95% of the calves collapse almost immediately (Grandin 1987). When a slower, less decisive stroke was used, there was an increased incidence of prolonged sensibility. Approximately 30% of the calves cut with a slow knife stroke had a righting reflex and retained the ability to walk for up to 30 seconds.”

Presenting mis-information that can – and often will – be quickly exposed, is bad policy. It serves only to harm credibility – which is among a kiruv professional’s most precious assets.

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