On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

When it comes to the divinity of the Torah, the first question we must ask is not whether or not the Torah is divine, but how we could know that the Torah is divine. Assuming it is true, how would such information come to us. Ironically, the most direct source of this knowledge is seemingly indirect; the divinity of the Torah is due to the divinity of its author, and thus to prove that the Torah is divine what we really have to prove is that it was revealed by the divine. Once that were proven, we could know from there that the Torah is divine.

At this point, it’s necessary to talk about the different types of truths that exist, and how we can know them. There are three different types of truths, and each can be known in different ways. Rational truths, such as math and logic, are known through the intellect. Let a person sit and think in a vacuum and he will uncover these truths. Empirical truths, such as physics and astronomy, are known through examining the world around us. Let a person study the fields ands the forests and he will uncover these truths. Historical truths regard the occurrence and qualities of historical phenomena (ex: The torah was or was not given, and it’s giver was or was not divine, etc.). Historical truths must be known through witness, either by witnessing it first hand or by hearing it from those who did. Otherwise, you would have no way of knowing that it occurred. However, as you get farther away from the phenomenon, either spatially or temporally, you begin to need a chain of witnesses, meaning a tradition. Thus there are certain phenomena which certain people could only know through tradition.

The divine giving of the Torah is like that for people today. The only way we could know it is through tradition. Anyone who believes that the Torah is divine came to that knowledge through hearing of it from a trustworthy source, who themselves presumably heard it from a trustworthy source. This does not mean that we have a tradition through which we could know definitively that the Torah was divinely revealed, or that there could be such a tradition, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to prove it some other way.

The above division of types of truths and the way they can be known, which we have made use of up to this point, is slightly misleading. While it is true in the strictest sense, it ignores the way we corroborate different pieces of information with information derived from other methods. The most common proofs for the divinity of the Torah all fall under this category. The proofs can’t directly arrive at the knowledge that the Torah is divine, but they can strengthen the tradition-based claim.

There is, however, a distinct problem with this type of proof in this case. Such a proof requires knowing the characteristics of a divine text, such that if a text possessed those characteristics it is divine, and if it did not possess those characteristics than it is not divine. You could thus examine any text to see whether or not it has those characteristics and thereby determine if it is divine. Seeing as we do not possess a text which is incontestably divine, we have no way of determining what those characteristics might be, and we therefore have no way of proving that the Torah is divine. However, the flipside is that there is no way to prove that the Torah is not divine.

To illustrate this, it’s worth looking at a few examples. First, the approaches from history. People have suggested that the Torah is divine because it (whether superficially or through “codes”) successfully predicts historical events. People have also suggested that the Torah is not divine because it inaccurately describes historical events. The first approach is based on the the assumption that a divine text ought to correctly predict future events. The second is based on the assumption that a divine text ought to accurately and scientifically describe historical events. Neither of these assumptions is really based on anything, however, and so whether or not the proofs function is dependent entirely upon a personal choice regarding those assumptions.

Similarly, the divinity of the Torah is often disproved by showing that the Torah resembles documents with human authors. However, this is based upon the assumption that a divine text will not resemble a human text. Not only is this a baseless assumption, it is rejected by the midrashic hermeneutic concept that “the Torah speaks in the human language.” As this statement is adapted and developed by Maimonides, it becomes clear that the above assumption is particularly problematic, as a text that in no way resembles its audience will be incomprehensible to them, and thus a divine text intended for a human audience will be a very human text indeed.

This approach can be extended to pretty much every assumption people make about the Torah. The unfortunate side effect is that it empties the phrase “divine text” of all content. It makes no prescriptive claims about what a divine text would look like. “Divine text” becomes a label we simply apply to certain texts. This often feels less inspiring, but I do think it is more correct.[1]

In summary, the idea that the Torah is divine is not something that could be learned from logic, or from examining the world, or from reading the text itself. That knowledge must come to us through tradition. We can then strengthen the certainty of that knowledge through other proofs, but those will all be based on our own rather baseless assumptions about what a divine text should look like. However, this becomes less helpful when we begin to doubt tradition. Whereas medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Saadiah Gaon and Rav Yehuda HaLevi, took it for granted that knowledge derived from a tradition is trustworthy, this assumption fails to be compelling in the modern world. We don’t assume that information derived from a tradition is automatically false, but we don’t assume that it is necessarily true either.

The flip-side of all of this, however, is that it is equally impossible to prove that the Torah is not divine. The divinity of the torah exists in conceptual space beyond the reach of proofs or disproofs. Belief in the divinity of the Torah is thus an act of assent that involves a variety of factors, such as personal experience, identity, existential commitment, and a person’s understanding of tradition. It is something we ought to struggle with not just once over the course of our lives, as it is not something that can be settled definitively. But it is something that should have a radical and formative impact on our lives.

[1] Some important caveats to the idea that there is no content to the term “divine text”:
An exception to this might be morality. Seeing as we generally define God as perfectly moral, we would expect anything that issued from God, such as a divine text, to be perfectly moral, or at the very least not to prescribe things we think of as immoral. As opposed to other similar possibilities, Morality tends to override any relativist position.
The answer given to this is generally that the Torah was written in a certain historical context, and that this imposed certain limitations on the text. The text couldn’t be perfectly moral because the people of the time could not have accepted it. Whether or not this answer is compelling is a different question, but it works from a logical standpoint.
This flows directly from the idea mentioned above that “the Torah speaks in human language.” The Torah is now being said to be a divine text with very human limitations. Thus any analysis of it that reveals human characteristics, including undeveloped morality, is to some degree unsurprising.

Another caveat is that traditionally we assume a divine text will have a single author though this isn’t technically necessary. Thus a text that could somehow be shown to be composed of multiple parts, that should clearly be attributed to disparate times and places, this would prove that there were multiple authors and that the traditional divine authorship is incorrect. I am not at all confident that such attribution could be proved, but if it could then it would successfully challenge divine authorship. However, it’s also possible to suggest, less traditionally, that a divine author would make use of previously existing texts, combining them and perhaps adding to them to create the text we call divine, and this would solve this challenge to divine authorship.

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