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….
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).
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!)
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 wrong – not 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!)
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).
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?