Taking Things On Faith

A secular Jewish friend emails me:

I have known for several years that scholars believe the enslavement of Jews by the Egyptians, and the exodus and the wandering for forty years never happened. At that time I remember Prager among others said that without the Exodus there is not Judaism and denied the myth and accepted the story as reality. I wonder what impact, if any, this has on you as a convert. It seems to me that if the founding myth is false so much that flows from that is also false including Moses getting the commandments from God. On one level acceptance of any religion and especially a monotheistic one of which Judaism is second only to Zoroastrianism requires a suspension of belief and taking a lot on “faith.”

I was raised by a critical Bible scholar who received PhDs in religious studies from secular universities. He taught me that the Bible was composed by men who edited together different stories, and that this process was perfect for its purpose, and it was inspired by God.

I’ve always accepted that the stories in the Bible did not happen exactly as described just as the stories most people tell about their lives did not happen exactly as described.

To the best of my knowledge, it has had no impact on me as a convert to Orthodox Judaism.

What you should believe about God does not get a great deal of attention in synagogue compared to precepts about how you should behave.

I am not sure that scholars state that the Exodus story never happened. Rather, they state that the Exodus story did not happen as described in the Bible. Nobody knows that much about what really happened in Egypt 3200 years ago.

Dennis Prager says a lot of things that sound profound but dissolve upon inspection. Judaism is not primarily a set of theological precepts, it is a tribal identity with a particular history and culture and foundational claims about God and the world that most Jews don’t believe in.

Judaism as practiced has almost nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with joining a tribe.

Torah means “teaching.” It does not mean history.

It was very important in my early years in Judaism that Judaism was the truest of the world religions, but as I relaxed into my adopted identity, I stopped sweating this. The practices of Judaism became self-authenticating.

I consider many of the myths of modern conservatism are false:

* The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen
* American exceptionalism
* America is an idea
* America has a divine mission to spread democracy and freedom
* Liberal fascism
* Democrats are the real racists
* American cities are blighted because Democrats run them
* Democrats want to destroy America
* Democrats are using Covid to install socialism
* Democrats are groomers and pedos

Yet I will only vote Republican because it is the best of two choices.

Acceptance of religion usually means accepting the way you were raised. It’s not primarily about a leap of faith. For most religious people in America, religion is a way of life and an ersatz form of traditional community. It is not a set of beliefs.

Most people can’t articulate a theology or a political philosophy. They do feel vibes, however, and they usually accept their religious and political status on the basis of a vibe (that this feels good to me).

As the sub-head on a Janan Ganesh column put it: “Our ‘beliefs’ are often just unexamined tribal loyalties.”

I agree with John J. Mearsheimer that reason is a weak reed compared to the power of genetics and imprinting. We shouldn’t expect people to have strong rational arguments for their allegiances. We love our children because they are our children, not because we share ideas about the universe.

In his 2018 book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John J. Mearsheimer wrote:

My view is that we are profoundly social beings from the start to the finish of our lives and that individualism is of secondary importance… Liberalism downplays the social nature of human beings to the point of almost ignoring it, instead treating people largely as atomistic actors… Political liberalism… is an ideology that is individualistic at its core and assigns great importance to the concept of inalienable rights. This concern for rights is the basis of its universalism—everyone on the planet has the same inherent set of rights—and this is what motivates liberal states to pursue ambitious foreign policies. The public and scholarly discourse about liberalism since World War II has placed enormous emphasis on what are commonly called human rights. This is true all around the world, not just in the West. “Human rights,” Samuel Moyn notes, “have come to define the most elevated aspirations of both social movements and political entities—state and interstate. They evoke hope and provoke action.”

[Humans] do not operate as lone wolves but are born into social groups or societies that shape their identities well before they can assert their individualism. Moreover, individuals usually develop strong attachments to their group and are sometimes willing to make great sacrifices for their fellow members. Humans are often said to be tribal at their core. The main reason for our social nature is that the best way for a person to survive is to be embedded in a society and to cooperate with fellow members rather than act alone… Despite its elevated ranking, reason is the least important of the three ways we determine our preferences. It certainly is less important than socialization. The main reason socialization matters so much is that humans have a long childhood in which they are protected and nurtured by their families and the surrounding society, and meanwhile exposed to intense socialization. At the same time, they are only beginning to develop their critical faculties, so they are not equipped to think for themselves. By the time an individual reaches the point where his reasoning skills are well developed, his family and society have already imposed an enormous value infusion on him. Moreover, that individual is born with innate sentiments that also strongly influence how he thinks about the world around him. All of this means that people have limited choice in formulating a moral code, because so much of their thinking about right and wrong comes from inborn attitudes and socialization.

In his 2015 book, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, Marc Shapiro wrote:

THERE IS OFTEN A TENSION between the quest for historical truth and the desire of communities of faith to pass on their religious message. This is because lifestyles and outlooks often change drastically over the generations, while the traditional religious mindset views itself as carrying on the values of the past, the latest link in a lengthy chain. Before the rise of modern historical scholarship, this was an issue that rarely if ever came to the fore. Yet now, when we are so much more attuned to the past, and the study of history is an important part of our lives, there is no escaping the fact that ‘tradition’ and history are often at odds with each other.

Jacob Katz put the matter bluntly when as a young student in Germany he declared that ‘there is no Orthodox history.’ One who studies the Jewish past and wishes to be taken seriously as a historian cannot for dogmatic reasons declare ahead of time what his research will reveal. Yet in the eyes of many Orthodox religious leaders, this is precisely the type of history that is needed, and it is what the masses must be indoctrinated in. Call it ‘Orthodox history’, ‘haredi history’, or any other name, recent decades have seen a virtual explosion of works of this nature. They all diverge, some drastically, from how history is approached in the academy, and can be seen as a counter-history?

Haym Soloveitchik has described the genre as follows:

“Didactic and ideological, this ‘history’ filters untoward facts and glosses over the darker aspects of the past. Indeed, it often portrays events as they did not happen. So does memory; memory, however, transmutes unconsciously, whereas the writing of history is a conscious act. But this intentional disregard of fact in ideological history is no different from what takes place generally in moral education, as most such instruction seems to entail misrepresentation of a harsh reality. We teach a child, for example, that crime does not pay. . .. Yet we do not feel that we are lying, for when values are being inculcated, the facts of experience—empirical truth—appear, somehow, to cease to be ‘true’?”

This so-called ‘Orthodox history’, which insists in viewing the past through the religious needs of the present, is, as we shall see, only the latest manifestation of a lengthy tradition. It is a tradition that long pre-dates our current assumptions about the need for objectivity in telling the story of our past and the importance of absolute truth in our writing.

Jacob J. Schacter was the first to examine this matter in detail, in a lengthy article written in response to the controversy that broke out over my publication of letters from R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (1884-1966) to Samuel Atlas (1899-1978). In his article, Schacter called attention to a fascinating essay by David Lowenthal, which is very helpful in understanding the phenomenon of ‘Orthodox history’. Lowenthal distinguishes between ‘history’ and ‘heritage’ (and if we adopted his terminology we ‘would speak of ‘Orthodox heritage’).

Heritage should not be confused with history. History seeks to convince by truth, and succumbs to falsehood. Heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets. . . . Heritage uses historical traces and tells historical tales. But these tales and traces are stitched into fables closed to critical scrutiny. Heritage is immune to criticism because it is not erudition but catechism—not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Heritage is not a testable or even plausible version of our past; it is a declaration of faith in the past. . . . Heritage diverges from history not in being biased but in its view of bias. Historians aim to reduce bias; heritage sanctions and strengthens it.

Elsewhere he writes: {H]eritage is not history at all; while it borrows from and enlivens historical study, heritage is not an inquiry into the past but a celebration of it, not an effort to know what actually happened but a profession of faith in a past tailored to present-day purposes. Lowenthal is speaking about the creation of myths in all sorts of communities, and what he says resonates just as powerfully when looking at parts of Jewish society. Yoel Finkelman has also recently discussed how the American haredi community has created a history of eastern Europe that is both nostalgic and inspirational. However, as he also remarks, for this community and for others like it, ‘what happened may be less important than what stories we tell one another about what happened.” As Finkelman notes, occurrences are invented, or covered up, all in the effort to create a tangible group identity…

What stimulated my friend’s email was an essay by historian of science Nick Kollerstrom called “Judaism as a Self-Terminating Religion.”

Usually, before I bother to read something intellectually demanding, I Google the author to assess whether they are worth my effort.

When I looked up this bloke on Wikipedia, I found this:

Nicholas Kollerstrom (born 1946) is an English historian of science and author who is known for the promotion of Holocaust denial and other conspiracy theories…

In 1985 he co-founded the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal, which sought to question the legality of nuclear weapons…

In 2006 he appeared in a video by David Shayler supporting a fringe conspiracy theory that the men accused of the 7 July 2005 London bombings had not carried out the attack…

In 2007, on the website of the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), a Holocaust-denial group, Kollerstrom argued for a fringe view that the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camp had been used for disinfection purposes only and that only one million Jews died in the war. First proposed by the French fascist writer Maurice Bardèche in 1947, this position has no support among historians. In March 2008, a second article of his on the CODOH site alleged that Auschwitz had had art classes, a well-stocked library for inmates, and an elegant swimming pool where inmates would sunbathe on weekends while watching water polo. David Aaronovitch called this “one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of insulting stupidity” he had ever seen…

Kollerstrom’s The Life and Death of Paul McCartney 1942–1966: A Very English Mystery (2015) supported the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory, namely, that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike,[37] while his Chronicles of False Flag Terror (2017) suggested that several terrorist attacks in Europe had been false-flag operations.[38] Writing in 2017 about the relationship between conspiracism and historical negationism, Nicholas Terry, a historian at Exeter University, referred to Kollerstrom as a “classic example of so-called crank magnetism”.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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