Riding a Trojan to ruin

Riding a Trojan to ruin

If you believe that God spoke to Moses and walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, you may be a heretic. Said Rabbi Yosi, "The Shechinah [the Spirit of the Lord] never descended to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven," even though it is so stated in the Tanakh, the Bible. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 5a).

Rabbi Yosi probably would not call someone who disagreed with him on this a heretic, but Maimonides would. Writing 1,000 years after Rabbi Yosi’s declaration, Rambam was blunt in his assessment.

Particularly irksome to Rambam was the belief that God has a physical form merely because the Torah suggests as much. He codifies his displeasure in his Mishnah Torah: The Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 1:7, where he states as a positive commandment to know (not merely to believe) that God has no form of any kind.

As Rambam explains two laws further down, the anthropomorphic terms used by Scripture to describe God and His actions are expressions "adapted to the mental capacity of the majority of humankind…, [because] God’s essence as it really is, the human mind does not understand and is incapable of grasping or investigating…."

Rambam also made this the third of his 13 articles of faith: "To believe that He is incorporeal, that His unity is in no way physical, either potentially so or actually so. None of the attributes of matter — motion, say, or rest — can be ascribed to Him…. Whenever Scripture describes Him in such corporeal terms as ‘walking,’ ‘standing,’ ‘sitting,’ ‘speaking,’ and the like, it speaks metaphorically." (See "Chelek," Rambam’s essay to Chapter 10 of BT Sanhedrin.)

In MT The Laws of Repentance, 3:7, he bluntly labels anyone who does not accept this a heretic.

True, Rambam’s opinion is not universally held (see, for example, what follows Rabbi Yosi’s statement in BT Sukkah 5a), but it is the normative one, reflected even in our liturgy (the declaratory Ani Ma’amin and the poetic Yigdal are both restatements of the 13 principles).

This does not mean that traditional Judaism rejects as literal truth what the Torah says about such matters as creation, or God’s appearance on Mount Sinai, or His talking to Moses. That is not the same thing, however, as accepting the literalness of the words and images used to express such truths. As Rambam notes, we are "incapable of grasping" the actuality of God.

The Torah relies on metaphor to explain the unexplainable. Literally taken, "and God spoke" is a falsehood. As metaphor, it is absolutely true. After all, God did communicate something in a way we cannot even begin to comprehend.

Now, a question: In all of the above, what is the most important fact?

Answer: That the sources quoted here are between Riding a Trojan horse to ruin KEEPING THE FAITH One religious perspectIve on issues of the day 800 and 1,800 years old, give or take a decade or two.

That the Torah uses metaphor and that its words are not always meant to be taken literally are not modern notions. They may even be as old as the 3,500- year-old Torah itself. Moses himself may say as much in Deuteronomy 4:1′, when he states that Israel "perceived no shape" when God "appeared" on Mount Sinai. God did appear to all Israel, but not in any way we can understand.

Creation is the perfect case in point. Take the six "days" of creation. According to the Talmud’s understanding (see BT Sanhedrin 97a and elsewhere), a ‘4- hour day is not intended here (or wherever "day" refers to divine time). Rather, based on Psalms 90:4, 1,000 years’ worth of ‘4-hour days is meant — 8,760,000 hours.

And even that is likely not to be literal, but merely meant to depict a very long period beyond our ability to comprehend, for "just as the language of Torah is distinct, so is the language of the Sages." (See BT Avodah Zarah 58b, where the adage is used to explain that the rabbis of the Talmud at times translated words differently than the way the Tanakh meant them, even in matters of halachic consequence.)

For nearly ‘,000 years, then, if not much longer, we have accepted as true that God created the world in six days and that — in truth — we have no idea what that really means.

If we, the people whose Torah this is and in whose language the Torah is written, do not have a clue as to what it actually says about creation and the like, where do the Christian fundamentalists find their certainty?

This brings us to a four-week-old U.S. District Court decision in Pennsylvania that banned the teaching of so-called "Intelligent Design" as a scientific theory.

What is most perplexing, however, is that teaching "ID" has Jewish proponents. Sure, God is the Creator of all that is and He knew what He was doing, but that is not actually what ID is about. Besides, as Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "science should be taught as science and religion should be taught as religion," and, in any case, "the Bible is not meant to be a scientific textbook."

There are, however, other Jewish voices — prominent ones — who bemoan the court’s decision and extol ID’s virtues.

And that is what is so perplexing, because not only do we admit to the existence of metaphor in the Torah, starting with Genesis 1, but the ID they are defending was designed (not so intelligently, by the way) by its fundamentalist Christian creators to promote Christian fundamentalism, period. Our views, whatever they actually are, can find no welcome in that curriculum; indeed, our views are probably antithetical to it.

This became perfectly obvious to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in the course of the six-week trial he oversaw. In a 139-page decision rejecting what he called a "breathtaking inanity," the judge made some interesting — and for us, at least, alarming — observations about ID. The excerpt that follows is composed of findings strewn throughout those 139 pages.

"[T]he writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity…," Jones found. "[One major ID proponent] has written that ID is a ‘ground clearing operation’ to allow Christianity to receive serious consideration, and ‘Christ is never an addendum to a scientific theory but always a completion’…. The Wedge Document, developed by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture … states in its ‘Five Year Strategic Plan Summary’ that [ID’s] goal is to replace science as currently practiced with ‘theistic and Christian science’…. ID aspires to change the ground rules of science to make room for religion, specifically, beliefs consonant with a particular version of Christianity."

ID is a Trojan horse. Its goal is to use the public schools to achieve in fact what the Constitution will not allow in law: turning America into a fundamentalist Christian nation with zero tolerance for other views. How can any Jew support that?