Religious teachings vs. science and moral progress: Modern Orthodoxy’s fatal flaw

As we all know, people who are religious are sometimes confronted with two types of conflicts:

1)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but modern science has shown otherwise.

2)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but our morality and reasoning have progressed and now say otherwise.

Examples of the first type are….

Religious teachings say:

a)      the world was created in 7 days and is thus less than 6,000 years old (Genesis 1),

b)      the Earth stands still while the sun moves (e.g. Joshua 10:12, Psalms 104:5, etc), and

c)      an invisible being spoke and gave commandments on top of a mountain (Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5.

But science has shown:

a)      the world is approximately 13.8 billion years old,

b)      the sun is still while the Earth moves, and

c)      an invisible being can’t speak and give commandments on a mountain top.

Examples of the second type are….

Religious teachings:

a)      support slavery and treating slaves as subhuman (e.g. Exodus 21);

b)      mandate genocide (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc);

c)      reward Abraham and commend Jephthah for their willingness to sacrifice their son and daughter to Hashem (YHWH) (see below), and

d)     say gay men are committing an abomination and deserve the death penalty (Leviticus 20:13 and Leviticus 18:22).

But our morality has progressed and now says:

a)      slavery is wrong, and all humans deserve to be treated equally;

b)      genocide is immoral,

c)      child sacrifice is evil; and

d)     consenting adults should have the right to have relations with each other, and it’s no one else’s business, regardless of the sexual orientation of those involved.

So what to do?

If you’re a Haredi Jew or a fundamentalist Christian, no problem!  God’s word is always right.  When science or modern morality conflicts with God’s word, God wins.  As the Harvard-trained geologist Kurt Wise famously said:

“… if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

But if you’re a Modern Orthodox or Conservative Jew or any of the more moderate Christian denominations, you don’t have that option.  You’re modern.  You accept scientific and moral progress.

Such religious moderates or centrists no doubt mean well, and the world would probably be a much better place if their numbers were growing and those of the fundamentalists were shrinking, when the opposite is the case.  But it seems the only solution for those of this mind is:

Reinterpret the religious teachings in an intellectually dishonest way so as to conform as much as possible to science and modern morality.

Here are some examples….

Modernity: The world is 13.8 billion years old.

Religious teachings: The world and mankind were created in 7 days, so the world is less than 6,000 years old.

Solution: When the Bible says 7 “days,” it means “eras.”

Fatal flaw: The Hebrew word for “day” (yom) appears 2,303 times in the Hebrew Bible.  It never means anything but day when used in the singular, and it never means “era” in any form. (See: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3117.htm). When the Bible’s creation story says 7 days, it means 7 days.

***

Modernity: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is evil.

Religious teachings: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is proper, when my god commands me to do so – e.g. the nations of Midian, Amalek, and 7 indigenous nations of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc).

Solution: What God meant was to kill anyone with the evil Amalekite mentality and behavior who is not willing to change (e.g. http://www.jidaily.com/vAmb7).

Fatal flaw:

a) You can’t ask little Amalekite babies whether they have the evil Amalekite mentality, and yet you’re commanded to kill them anyway;

b) Both the command to wipe out Amalek and the story of Saul’s near accomplishment of that goal make clear that the command was understood quite literally (I Samuel 15).  Hashem removed Saul from his throne because Saul didn’t do a good enough job killing all the men, women, and children of Amalek; he had the audacity to let their king Agag live and sit in jail and to let their sheep and cattle survive (to be brought as sacrifices to Hashem, of course).

***

Modernity: Slavery is wrong, and all men are created equal.

Religious teachings: Slavery is not only OK, but slaves are to be treated like the master’s property, and their lives are not as important as those of freemen.

Solution: When the Bible talks about slaves, they weren’t slaves like the kind we think of when we think of slavery.  They were treated well.  They were just live-in nannies.

Fatal flaw: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money (Exodus 21:20-21).”

***

Modernity: Children should not be taught they have no choice and that they must believe in and follow the same religion their parents do.

Religious teachings: “Hear, Israel, our God YHWH is one YHWH (Deuteronomy 6:4).” “I am Hashem, your god, who took you out of Egypt.  You may have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).”

Solution: Claim, as the former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks does below, that

1)      Jewish schools do not teach children what they have to believe, and

2)      Judaism does not have any sort of confirmation into the faith.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 28 minutes, please move it to that spot. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

1)      Every Orthodox Jewish day school (Rabbi Sacks was in charge of all the Orthodox Jewish day schools in England) teaches children what they have to believe.

2)      I assume chief rabbis get invited to more bar and bas mitzvahs (i.e. confirmations into the faith) than anyone.

***

Modernity: Sacrificing one’s son or daughter to a god is a heinous crime.

Religious teachings: The Bible praises Abraham because he proved he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to Hashem (Genesis 22) and tells us how Jephthah, the leader of the Israelite people in his day, sacrificed his daughter to fulfill his oath to Hashem (Judges 11:29-40).

Solution: Claim, as Rabbi Sacks does below, that the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice, and that the purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story was to teach us that child sacrifice is wrongnot that it’s praiseworthy. The only reason Hashem told Abraham to sacrifice Abraham’s son was because child sacrifice was so pervasive in those days that, had Hashem not done so, Abraham would have thought something was wrong with Hashem.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 19 minutes and 20 seconds, please rewind it to there. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

After Abraham binds Isaac on the altar and shows his willingness to obey Hashem’s orders, Hashem tells Abraham:

“because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring … because you have obeyed my voice (vv. 16-18).”

It should be clear to any honest reader of this chapter that the author of this story thinks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was an admirable thing.  Hashem blesses Abraham and clearly states He is blessing him because Abraham went against his fatherly inclination and “did not withhold” his son.  This shows clearly that the author of this story believed that being willing to sacrifice your son to Hashem is a good thing, not a bad thing, and so to say the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice is contrary to fact.

***

Lest we think this is a new phenomenon….

Modernity (even 800 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): Donkeys can’t talk, and so a story about a talking donkey that claims to be real cannot be believed.

Religious teachings: “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? (Numbers 22:28)

Solution: “That which happened to Balaam on the way, and the speaking of the ass, took place in a prophetic vision (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 2: Chapter 42).”

Fatal flaw: The talking donkey story says nothing about a prophetic vision.

***

Modernity (even 1,000 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): The idea that God wants humans to feed him is absurd.

Torah: Sacrifices to Hashem (YHWH) are a central part of Judaism. See especially the Book of Leviticus.

Solution: Maimonides says Hashem commanded his people to sacrifice animals and grain to him only because that was the primary way ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Israelites knew how to connect with their god, and so Hashem make concessions to work within that frame of mind.  It’s not as if the author of the Torah really believed that you’re feeding Hashem when you offer sacrifices (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3: Chapter 32)!

Fatal flaw: “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel and say to them, ‘My offering, my food for my food offerings, my pleasing aroma, you shall be careful to offer to me at its appointed time.’ And you shall say to them, This is the food offering that you shall offer to the Lord… (Numbers 28:1-3).”

***

Finally, it appears this phenomenon has been going on since the early days of Rabbinic Judaism:

Modernity (even 2,000 years ago, in the days of early Rabbinic Judaism): Punishing a woman by cutting off her hand is never right.

Religious teachings: When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

Solution: When it says, “cut off her hand,” it really just means to give her a fine (Sifrei, cited in Rashi).

Fatal flaw:

a) Really?

b) If the Torah just wanted to say that you should fine her, why didn’t it just say “Fine her,” instead of “cut off her hand?”  (Lawrence Schiffman told me the reason was “to scare the hell out of you.”  However, if everyone knew from the beginning that “cut off her hand” really just means “fine her,” how does that scare anyone?)

c) This barbaric punishment is typical for Ancient Near Eastern law codes.  E.g. in the Code of Hammurabi we find:

192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

194. If a man gives his child to a nurse and the child dies in her hands, but the nurse unbeknown to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother and her breasts shall be cut off.

Did the Code of Hammurabi also just mean to fine the nurse when it said to cut off her breasts?

Nowadays, when we’re capable of writing blogs and calling out religious leaders when they reinterpret their religion’s teachings in academically dishonest ways, is it any wonder that the population of Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews and moderate Christians is shrinking?

I’ve done enough talking. Do you agree with this post?  Any examples to add?

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14 thoughts on “Religious teachings vs. science and moral progress: Modern Orthodoxy’s fatal flaw

  1. SJA

    Freaking excellent post! I appreciate the work you put into it.
    R’ J. Sacks, just shocking. As you show though, this shocking, and frankly disturbing, intellectual dishonesty has a long history.
    Funny that I was taught the “Christian understanding” of the Old Testament stories in my Jewish Orthodox education.
    (I linked to your post on my tumblr).

    Reply
    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks so much, SJA. This one did take a lot of work, inserting the videos and all the links and trying to figure out how to lay out the information clearly, etc. But the positive feedback makes it all worthwhile. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Noam

    Wow this post is amazing
    couple things i wanna add:
    1. i love how people goout of their way to say the torah said days but they arent literal, when the torah goes out of its way to say after every day ” and it was morning and evening, day or 2 or 3 etc” sounds alot like quite the opposite.
    2. science doesnt say that an invisible guy CANT speak on top of a mountain. it just says its improbabale and has not been observed
    well done alltogether

    Reply
    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks a lot, Noam, for reading and commenting and for your kind words!

      Why do you think an invisible guy speaking above a mountain is only improbable? Is there a way that is possible?

      Reply
  3. Cynthia

    Does interpreting something with anything other than the literal surface meaning necessarily mean that someone is being intellectually dishonest?

    Judaism isn’t fundamentalist Christianity. Even going back to the earliest days of rabbinic Judaism 2,000 years ago, the simple meaning of the words was not considered to be the final word. Later, Maimonaides made it pretty clear that some things are supposed to be metaphors to describe a God that cannot be described, and shouldn’t be taken literally.

    So, I think it’s safe to say that Judaism itself is not about just looking at the simple, surface meaning of the written Hebrew Bible. All major streams of Judaism today go back to rabbinic roots, which means that a long tradition of interpretation and argument on multiples levels is hardwired into the religion to some extent. It may even be one of Judaism’s defining characteristics.

    Can an interpretation based on metaphor or parable be valid?

    Also, do you consider it valid to consider context in any interpretation? Can we ask, “how would this passage have been seen by someone living 3,000 years ago, and how might the message have conformed to or gone against popular societal trends at the time?”

    This is the only way that the passages on the near-sacrifice of Isaac or slavery make any sense to me. In isolation, of course they sound cruel and crazy. We know, however, that both human sacrifice and slavery existed prior to the Bible. Once you factor that in, it makes sense that the story with Isaac is meant to say, “hey, Jews are every bit as willing to sacrifice as anyone else, but it’s GOD that doesn’t demand it”, or that the Bible is simply taking into consideration the fact that slavery existed on the larger society, while at the same time inserting an entire storyline focusing on the human side of slavery and in fact emphasizing that an entire people – and their main prophet – came from slaves rather than nobles.

    Reply
    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Cynthia, and offering a different perspective.

      I tried to show in each example why the modern-friendly interpretation is untenable. Can you point out any errors I made in the “fatal flaws” I presented in my post for each of the examples?

      I do agree in principle that any author, including a Biblical author, could write something that has a deeper meaning. However, as Bible scholar Yairah Amit once wrote (I’m paraphrasing): “Our sages said, ‘The Torah has 70 faces [interpretations],’ but it doesn’t mean they’re all necessarily good ones.” 🙂

      If mean if you write a book, wouldn’t you want people to try to figure out what you really intended when you wrote it, rather than what the reader would like to believe you wrote?

      Reply
      1. Cynthia

        With other literature, we DO look at historical context, political context, use of metaphor, etc. in deriving meaning from the text.

        I don’t believe that it’s possible for humans to suddenly awaken and find that they are dung beetles, but that doesn’t mean that Kafka’s The Metamorphasis has no meaning. I can prove that in the year 1984, there was no country called Oceania that was ruled by Big Brother, but that doesn’t mean that Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t have meaning. Similarly, Animal Farm isn’t really a book about talking animals.

        Huckleberry Finn contains language and images that are uncomfortable and even offensive today – but it was written in a different historical context and reflects some of the realities of that time.

        Re Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

        Interesting clip. I don’t necessarily disagree with what’s he’s saying. I haven’t been to English state-funded Jewish schools, so I have no idea how they deal with beliefs. I’ve seen the question dealt with in different ways by different Jewish schools in Toronto – a Chabad preschool will definitely spend time talking and singing about Hashem, while a community day school will be more open and less dogmatic on faith questions.
        Sacks was talking to an audience familiar with Christianity. Christianity is DEFINED by a specific faith creed in a way that Judaism is not. There’s some variation among the denominations, but the basic Christian idea is that a Christian is someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God who died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and that you need to have this belief in order to have salvation. Judaism’s concept of God is more abstract, and it’s focus is on following the commandments. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is NOT a confirmation in the Christian sense of the word (except for child converts, who formally accept their Judaism and its obligations at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah). It’s not the ceremony that makes someone Jewish, and no statement of faith is required. Bar/Bat Mitzvah is simply the acknowledgment that the child has reached an age where they are responsible for fulfilling the commandments.

        Reply
        1. Freethinking Jew Post author

          Thanks for your reply, Cynthia.

          The first half of your comment seems unrelated to what I’ve written, but I completely agree! It’s all about trying to figure what the author really intended when he/she wrote those words. So just like we try to figure out what Orwell and Twain REALLY had in mind when they wrote the books you mentioned, seems to me we should try to figure out what the authors of the Bible REALLY had in mind when they wrote their works.

          As I showed in my post, if you’re shackled by the assumption that the Torah’s lessons are eternal and that they come from the perfectly moral, all-knowing being who cannot make mistakes about science or morality, then you will be forced to interpret the Bible to fit with that assumption rather than trying to figure out what the authors really intended, as you would do with Twain or Orwell. That’s how you have intelligent people like the Rambam and Rabbi Sacks coming up with the most absurd interpretations – they left themselves no other choice.

          Re: bar/bat mitzvahs, I was referring to the ritual rather than the status, and perhaps for more so for bar mitzvahs. Requiring a boy to say, “Blessed are you, Hashem, who chose us from all the nations and gave us his Torah… who gave us the TRUE Torah and planted eternal life in our midst” sure seems like a confirmation of faith to me (even though 99% of boys have no idea what the hell they’re saying 😀 ).

          Reply
          1. Cynthia

            The Bar Mitzvah ritual is odd, since most Jews think that it means something more than it does. Unlike brit milah or marriage, nothing changes in a spiritual sense as a result of the ceremony. So, while being called up to the Torah is a really common way of marking the milestone, it’s a tradition and not a requirement.

            The role of Christian confirmation ceremonies seems to vary with the denomination. Catholics consider it a sacrament, some other groups consider it a rite, and some just a statement of faith.
            http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/practices/confirmation.htm

        2. SJA

          Wouldn’t the belief in Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah from Hashem at Har Sinai qualify as a required belief for ORthodox Jews parallel to the Christian belief?

          Reply
          1. Cynthia

            Yes and no.

            It defines Orthodox Judaism, but does not define who is a Jew.

            So, Orthodox Jewish institutions generally don’t hire rabbis who question matan Torah, nor do they teach the documentary hypothesis as a likely explanation for the origins of the Hebrew Bible. A rabbi who does question may be branded as being outside the pale.

            A lay person who questions, however, doesn’t cease to be a Jew. It’s possible that this would be considered a heresy, but most modern sources today tend to view it as a lack of understanding rather than a deliberate evil. Someone may not be considered leadership material, and they may not be considered “frum”, but they are still Jewish.

            Moreover, most Orthodox Jews will identify what the commandments are, but will also say that we don’t necessarily know how God will ultimately weigh our deeds and sins and repentance and judge us. I remember attending the shiva of a lady who had done some tremendous work with disabled kids in the Jewish community. There were tons of Orthodox mourners singing her praises, and one family said to me, “You know that a soul like hers has gone straight to heaven”. She did tons of good and had a strong belief in the value of each soul, regardless of ability, but she was not “frum” in her personal life. By contrast, most Christian doctrines put the emphasis on the role of faith in salvation. Some will say that good works help, some say it’s faith only, but almost all have this idea that faith in Jesus is the main part of the ticket to heaven.

            I can think of one exception to this: if a Jew not only believes in Jesus, but it very public about their beliefs and works to lure other Jews into Christianity, many will say that they have removed themselves from the community. This case is a prime example:

            http://www.jta.org/1999/06/29/news-opinion/cemetery-refuses-to-allow-burial-of-jewish-born-christian-minister

            I’d note that Pardes Shalom is a community Jewish cemetery – I know people who are buried there who would not be considered Jewish according to the Orthodox interpretation of halacha, and they have tons of atheists. When it came to this fellow, though, the Reform and Conservative groups joined in the decision to bar his burial (the article quotes Keith Landy, who is a Conservative Jew).

  4. SJA

    Cyntia, thank you for the detailed reply to my question. I am not referring to what makes a Jew; my tumblr is secret jewish atheist, so clearly I don’t think one has to believe anything to be a Jew. We are unique of the monotheistic religions in that we are a nation and not just a faith. We are a people, of a country. i am simply referring to the fact that Orthodox schools certainly do in fact teach required beliefs and it is not as the Lord Rabbi said.
    This distinction I mentioned of the Jews vs. the other monotheistic faiths, I think may explain why Jews are unique amongst them of not being violent against people not of our faith (at least certainly not anywhere in the same ballpark). A faith not connected to a nation that exists independently of the faith is only as big as the members of the faith and the faith desires to spread. The Jews were a nation and weren’t really interested in spreading the faith to others; only to be a light, a shining example of a moral society to the world.
    Also of course, most of our history we were not strong enough to hurt others.

    Reply
  5. AlterCocker JewishAtheist

    U have written a long post and I know plenty of work is involved. U beat me to Rambam as he is my on list of things to do, but my post will be devoted to him and at times from a different angle and sometimes a similar angle.

    Another thing: A tactic is to distort the Science to fit the Torah/Holy texts and or distort the Torah/Holy texts to fit the Science or a combination thereof. I have just started to read Schroeder’s the Science of God who seems to do this. He also provides half truth references. I have begun documenting it at http://altercockerjewishatheist.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-science-of-god-schroeder-part-1.html Keep it up and get the word out – best wishes

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Striking results from survey of American Jews | Freethinking Jew

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