How the Talmud made me an atheist

When I was struggling with questions and doubts about the core Jewish beliefs I had been taught in my Orthodox Jewish day schools and yeshivas, my parents agreed to pay for me to fly to Israel to hear a rabbi and philosopher present a series of lectures on the evidence for the existence of the Jewish God and the divine authorship of the Torah. I found the rabbi’s arguments persuasive when I heard them; however, my inner reaction upon hearing each of the arguments was always, “OK, that’s pretty interesting. Now let me hear from someone who knows as much as this guy does and disagrees with him. What would an atheist philosopher respond to these arguments? What would a modern Bible scholar who believes the Bible was written by humans say?” Once I had a chance to speak to such people and read how they had addressed these arguments, I discovered that not only were these arguments full of holes, people who study philosophy and the Bible for a living did not even consider the arguments legitimate.

My journey included a lot of stress around whether I was going about deciding what to believe in the right way. At some point, however, I recalled something I had learned in the Talmud (the rabbinic teachings from the first six centuries CE) in my yeshiva days that tremendously helped bolster my confidence.

The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 84a) recounts that when Rabbi Yochanan’s prize disciple Shimon ben Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable. The other rabbis, hoping to help Rabbi Yochanan’s healing process along, sent one of their sharpest colleagues to go speak with him in Torah learning in order to try to fill ben Lakish’s void. When the two were engaging in their Talmudic discourses, whatever approach Rabbi Yochanan would suggest the other rabbi would cite teachings of earlier sages as support for Rabbi Yochanan’s words. Rather than gaining comfort, however, Rabbi Yochanan exclaimed: “Whenever I would say anything, he [ben Lakish] would critique me with 24 questions, I would respond with 24 answers, and so the subject would become clearer.  And you, you say, ‘There’s a teaching that supports [your view]?’ Don’t I already know that what I say is good!” Rabbi Yochanan tore his clothing, cried, and said, “Where are you, ben Lakish! Where are you, ben Lakish!”

What a powerful lesson in truth seeking. Rabbi Yochanan knew that he, like everyone, was biased, and especially since he was such an expert in his field, he may have been absolutely certain that what he was thinking was true. But then he would put his view out there for another expert in the field to look for holes, and he would discover, “Well, maybe what I thought was a great argument isn’t so great after all.” He knew that only after completing this process of peer review , having other experts in the field try to tear your arguments apart, only then can you feel good that you have arrived at the truth.

Many people today are sure they have good reasons to believe what they believe. They may be just as sure that they’re right as R’ Yochanan was. But this story reminded me that if I really want to have a sounds basis for concluding that my beliefs are true, I need to know what critiques are offered by experts in the relevant fields. When following Rabbi Yochanan’s approach and seeking out such critiques, I discovered that all the reasons for my belief in the existence of God and the divine origin of the Torah had already been reviewed and knocked down.

For instance, if one says he believes in the Biblical god, known by Jews as Hashem, because “The Bible is so amazing that no human could have ever written it,” he will often be so certain that he will stop there. If he would only go seek out critiques of his view, he would find out all the reasons why most of the scholars who study the Bible for a living today have concluded, based on over 250 years of modern Biblical scholarship, that the Bible was, in fact, written by humans. If he really wants to know if his beliefs are true, he should want to know the “24 questions” from the Shimon ben Lakishes in the field. Or if someone believes in God because she can’t imagine a world without a father in heaven, if she really wants to know whether her reason for believing is sound, she could easily poke around and discover that wanting to believe something is true does not make it true.

If we think about how we know anything that we know today – in history, the sciences, mathematics, morality – anything! – it’s because these ideas have all been put completely out there and examined and critiqued by highly intelligent experts in the relevant fields and have stood up. Discoveries are often made by individuals, but we don’t know if those discoveries are legitimate until they’ve been vetted. So if that’s how we always figure out what is true about the world – not just in the sciences, but in everything, then why should we settle for less when we decide what is true about the existence of God or the divine authorship of our holy books?

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