Tradition Today: Is the Torah true?

I am seeking ethical truths and values by which to live, then I turn to the Torah – the teaching of Moses.

Torah scribe 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Torah scribe 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Derech AMI)
Of course the Torah is true – but not in the sense of providing us with provable scientific facts concerning the origins of the world and humankind. For that I turn to scientists.
If, however, I am seeking ethical truths and values by which to live and worthy beliefs concerning God and the way to relate to God and to my fellow human beings, then I turn to the Torah – the teaching of Moses. In this belief I follow the path of my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and my teacher and colleague, Louis Jacobs, both of whom pursued truth fearlessly and did not hesitate to teach the Torah as the Divine book of eternal truths while simultaneously seeking scientific and historical truth elsewhere.
As I have attempted to demonstrate in my recent book, The Torah Revolution, the Torah is best understood when seen against the background of the religious beliefs of other civilizations of its time that it vigorously refuted. The account of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, must be read as a denial of all the creation stories of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt – stories in which creation is a struggle between various divinities and primordial monsters. The Torah’s stark statement, “At the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth, when the earth was chaos and void, God said ‘Let there be light’ – and there was light,” with one blow swept away centuries of primitive superstition and substituted a magnificent image of Divine force creating a world of light and order. That is a basic value – a truth – that is much more important than the question of how long it took to create the world, which is a question best left to science to try to answer.
The story of the creation of human beings is another such instance.
Other ancient literatures portray the creation of human beings in ways that are physically similar – but the difference is that they ascribe human existence to the decision of the gods that they needed a being who would do whatever they want and provide for their needs. Therefore, they created “a savage” who was nothing but a slave to the gods.
The Torah, on the other hand, portrays humans as the pinnacle of creation, endowed with freedom of will and action, made in the Divine image. Therefore, human life is sacred and taking it is an offense against God. This is a value concept of inestimable worth, as is the Torah’s teaching that all human beings are equal, regardless of their racial or ethnic origins. The scientific concept of human development, the origin of the species, is another matter again best left to science.
The story of the destruction of humankind in a cataclysmic flood is also to be understood in relation to similar flood stories found in ancient Mesopotamian literature. The main differences are the reason for the flood and the reason that someone is saved. In Mesopotamian stories, the gods wanted to destroy humans because they were disturbing them and one person was saved because he was a favorite of some deity. In the Torah, the reason for the flood was that humanity had become immoral and Noah was saved because he alone was righteous.
By thus recasting this ancient tale, the Torah is emphasizing something that is found elsewhere in the Torah time and time again – namely that God is concerned with ethics and morality, and judges human beings not capriciously and not on the basis of their ritual conduct but on the basis of their treatment of one another. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah emphasizes the same truth. Was there a flood of those proportions? Did it last that period of time? Does it matter? The Torah is true because it teaches us a value-laden way of understanding the world, God, human life and how we should live. It eliminates superstition and gives us ethical norms for living and for creating a decent human society. What could be truer than that?
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).