Rabbi tells rationale for accepting Torah as divine

Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith by Chaim Jachter, Menorah Books, New Milford, CT, © 2017,ISBN 978-1-940516-71-4, p. 234 plus appendices, $24.95

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D. 

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California – If believing is having faith in the evidence, then one might suspect that religion and reason share no common ground, but this is not the case, the foundation of both is belief. Religion demands belief in the existence of God, and for Orthodox Jews, this includes the divine origin of the Torah. Reason requires believing in the correctness of some man-made system of judgement, including, formal logic, induction, a given mathematical system, and the scientific method.

Compelling evidence turns belief into truth. If you think this is wrong, put pen to paper and list all the things in which you believe that are not true.

Unfortunately, the fundamental basis of truth, which some call signs and others facts, can be disputed, interpreted in multiple ways, and even if agreed upon, assigned different weights of importance by different people. Thus, there is no one truth.

In Reason to Believe, internationally known Rabbi and Dayan (judge) Chaim Jachter, gathers together rational arguments in support of Orthodox Judaism’s belief in God and the divine origin of the Torah in his quest to bring back into the fold those Jews who have been drawn away by the siren call of science and secularism.

For Orthodox Jews, according to Jachter, truth is the absolute belief in the evidence found in the Hebrew Bible and from Ḥazal, an acronym for the recognized sages who interpret it. This is similar to scientists referring back to original research to find what earlier scientists wrote and how they interpreted the results, or using mathematical models and equations developed by others in which they have full faith.

An important variance between Orthodoxy and the sciences, however, is that Orthodox Judaism trusts in the plain reading of and the immutability of the laws found in the Torah, whereas those who engage in the sciences and mathematics appreciate that any discovered laws have limits of application: Newton’s laws, for instance, do not apply to the subatomic world; Euclid’s propositions of geometry are not applicable to a sphere.

Scientists can’t see subatomic particles, like quarks, but they still have faith in their existence though circumstantial evidence, seeing how these particles affect the surrounding environment. For Jachter, some circumstantial evidence for God and a God-given Torah include, millions of witnesses at the Exodus and at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and the uncanny survival of the Jewish people through two thousand years of exile.

He rejects the theory that the Torah is a man-made product from the time of King Josiah (7th c. BCE), arguing that the doubter must “assume that the Jewish people accepted the fraudulent claims of a king with minimal charismatic influence. It is unreasonable to believe that Josiah managed to perpetuate the greatest fraud ever to occur in Jewish history.” Instead, he suggests that the “stiff-necked” nature of Jews makes them the perfect nation to receive the Torah from God.

Jachter provides biblical evidence to answer such twenty-first century controversies as the nature of creation, the age of the universe, when did modern man first appear, and evolution. For instance, he sees the “Big Bang” theory as an argument in favor of a belief in God. If the world were created in time, then it must have a creator. In addition, the opening sentence of Genesis, “let there be light,” is not contradicted by the “Big-Bang” theory, which asserts that the immediate result of the “bang” was an explosion of light.

With regard to the scientific assertion that there are human fossils dating back two million years, Jachter calls on Jewish scholars predating the theory of evolution by centuries. The Middle-Ages philosopher Maimonides wrote of the coexistence of animals with Adam “that were identical to humans in shape and intelligence, but because they lacked a neshama [high-level soul], they were animals.” The Mishna, which antedates Maimonides by at least a half millennium, asserts that there were animals so identical to humans “that when they died one could not tell them apart from a dead human.”

Detectives know that some crimes have hidden perpetrators, people hide in the shadows. Such is the evidence that Jachter presents in his chapter on discovering God in the modern world.  He begins with the Book of Esther and how she concealed her plans to bring down the evil Haman, but hiding behind the scenes is God. This is an example of a “hidden miracle,” a miracle that includes incredible timing, enemies acting foolishly, and the unfolding of improbable events.

God operated behind the scenes, according to Jachter, in such events as the creation of the modern state of Israel, Israel’s stunning victory in 1967, and the successful raid on Entebbe. As an example, some of the circumstantial evidence cited by Jachter for the creation of Israel in 1948, includes: An election did not bring Harry Truman into the White House, the death of Franklin Roosevelt did. President Harry Truman never let a Jew into his house, yet he idolized King Cyrus, the king who allowed the Jews to return from the Babylonian captivity. His top advisor George Marshall “urged Truman in the strongest terms against supporting Israel.” The Soviet Union and the United States, enemies in 1948, both supported the creation of a Jewish state, and that support brought the Eastern Bloc nation in the “For” column. Many of the South American nations voted in favor of Israel, in a last-minute surprise turn around. Expecting a clear win, the Arabs at the UN acted in a foolish manner—cocky and disorganized.

Because the Torah and its laws are morally objective and eternally applicable, there is only right and wrong in Orthodox Judaism, no middle ground, and morality does not change with the times, Jachter faces his toughest challenge confronting objections from Humanism, whose moral stance is subjective: humans define benevolence among themselves.  He considers several biblical laws at which humanists bristle.

One example is the biblical command to kill all Amalekites. Jachter answers that this command “is of strictly limited application,” used only when a well-known, creditable prophet issues the call. Of course, this is impossible since the Age of Prophecy is long over. But, the command can also be a directive to eradicate any individual or nation having “the potential to deteriorate into Amalek,” so the law is still valid, like it or not.

A second example focuses on mamzerut, the category of a child born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship. Biblically, a mamzer is psychologically punished by the community, such as being forbidden to marry another Jew, or have descendants to the tenth generation not marry a Jew (see Deut. 23:3). Jachter notes that both past and current dayanim, judges or deciders, are very sensitive to finding every possible means of believing that the child’s father was married to the his/her mother at the time of conception, even it means excluding DNA testing. However, if the individual is found to fall into that category, then the law prevails.

Juries can convict on circumstantial evidence, scientists can claim to have proven a theory through circumstantial evidence. Jachter writes with the question “why should Judaism be held to a different standard?” behind each chapter.

The problem for both religion and science, as demonstrated for example by climate-change deniers, is that people believe what they want to believe, even in the face of such things as cognitive dissonance and simpler explanations. Consequently, Jachter assumes a heavy load defending Orthodox Judaism through circumstantial evidence and rational explanations, but it is a weight he bears well, telling us that if it is the truth we want, then have faith in the evidence presented in the Torah, and believe.

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Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings. His newest work is the forthcoming The Jewish and Civil Calendars for Two Hundred Forty Years 2001 – 2240. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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