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Friday, February 12, 2010

Interpreting Scripture

Suppose I gave you a book and I told you the book is filled with deep truths and ways to live your life. How would you judge this book? Clearly, you would read the book, understand what it says and then judge it from what it says. If the book is really wise you would recognize that from studying it.

Now suppose I give you a Koran (we will assume you are not Muslim). He tells you it comes directly from God and it is filled with only truth. You start reading the book. You notice the immoral commandments, contradictions, and infactual statements. So you conclude that this book cannot be from God, it got too many problems. So you tell a Muslim that you do not accept the Koran as coming from God because you read it and realize it could have possibly not have came from God.

The Muslim tells you "there are no contradictions in this book whatsoever and all the commandments are moral teachings". You then show all examples of the problems that are present in the Koran. So he tells you that there are commentaries written on the Koran and they address all of your concerns. Thus, you show him a contradiction in numbers, but he tells you the commentaries on the Koran say that they are not really contradictions. One number is for counting one way and another number is for counting another way. You will then ask why should you trust the commentaries themselves on how they choose to interpret the Koran? The Muslim will tell you because they are divinely inspired. And so when they comment on inner mysteries of the Koran they are doing that because they have been blessed to do that directly by God himself. But then you ask the question of how do we really know these Muslim commentators have divine inspiration? The Muslim would not be able to give an answer to such a question. It all comes down to the Muslim religion. If you were born in the Muslim religion and brought up, then you would from as a kid already trust the Koran and commentators. You were taught to believe that the commentators have divine inspiration and so know the secrets of interpreting the Koran. But the fact that they were divinely inspired was never demonstrated to you.

If one wants to be intellectually honest then he should apply the same procedure to Judaism. We need to ask a very important question, "how do I know that what I know is true?". This is not just in regard to religion, but this question has to be applied everywhere in life. That is exactly what skepticism is all about. We have been taught so many things every since we have developed as little children. We need to ask how do we know what we were taught as children is true? It is certainly possible that our parents made mistakes and taught us things which were not true. If we want to be figure out what we were taught is true or false we need to apply the method of skepticism. That is, we need to reject everything and start all over again. All the science, all the math, all the history, all the religion, and so forth, that we were taught, we need to reject them. And begin with an empty slate. First, we can ask "how do I know math is true?". Well, that is the easiest one to answer. Math is proven by proposititons that stem from the definitions themselves, and if we look at the proofs we can see that mathematics is true. Or even if you hate math and do not want to prove you, you can just notice that mathematics works. It works if we want to make predictions. Because it works it is a good sign that it is based on truth. The same with science. Even though science is not as easily verified as mathematics it can still be tested by numerous experiments that show it to be true. And again if you not so much into science an easy way to see that it is true you can just see that it works when we apply our scientific knowledge. History is more difficult to verify but it proceeds by a similar process. We can see how well it explains the current situations of the world, we can look for archeological findings that are consistent with known history, we can also see that different nations have a general history - showing that historical knowledge is consistent. Of course, we do not know absolutely if that is true, and with history sometimes we make mistakes, but nonetheless this approach is quite useful to showing that general historical knowledge is true. And now you need to get to religion, in particular Judaism. We need to ask the very same question again, "how do I know that what I have been taught about Judaism to be true?".

The most important piece of Judaism, or perhaps one of the most important components to Judaism is the Torah. The book that was supposedly written by God and handed down to Moshe (Moses). Remember before you can accept Judaism you need to confirm Judaism like with all other kinds of knowledge that we have through the method of skepticism. This means you cannot accept whatever interpretation or explaination the Jewish commentators say. So you would have to reject Rashi, ibn Ezra, and all those other guys. Of course, if you can indeed show they have divine inspiration then you can use them for illumination. But because this has not been revealed to us we need to be completely neutral on accepting the interpretation of the commentators. Since we have not yet established Judaism as being true a good way to proceed and test its most important document, the Torah. We need to look into the Torah itself and in a completely neutral way and fair manner read what it says to determine whether this book came from God or not.

We would therefore have to read the Torah straight. We cannot use wishful thinking. If at any point we arrive somewhere at something we do not like, we cannot use the old excuse "well that is just being metaphorical". Because how do you know it is being metaphorical? There is not reason at all to assume that what it says is metaphorical unless you can provide an argument from within the Torah to why it should be taken as metaphorical.

For example, let us consider the passage in the Torah that tells us to kill a wayward and rebellious son. A Jewish believer who is not comfortable with such a passage may resort back to the old boring excuse, "that is just a metaphor, it is talking about killing the son spiritually". But why should we assume that is a metaphor? Unless, no reason is provided to read metaphoricaly we should read literally because that is the default. Furthermore, the Torah has some specifics to how the rebellious son must be killed. If it was only a metaphor then why would it give the specifics? Again, it does not make sense why we need to switch over to a metaphorical interpretation. However, if the Torah says that God is without form and later on in the Torah it uses the expression "the right hand of God" then we can assume that is just a metaphor for perhaps "the strength of God" because we already know from the Torah itself that God is without form. So now when it brings up his right hand it makes sense to talk about a metaphorical intepretation. In this rare case we can demonstrate that "right hand of God" is metaphorical. So the lesson here is to accept a metaphorical interpretation only when it can be demonstrated from the Torah itself that it is necessary to use such an interpretation.

This is the only fair, neutral, and skeptical way to look at Scripture. This is the approach that we will have to apply if we want to look into the Torah skeptically.

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