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Notes from Limmud 2011

Religious Belief and Make-Believe

Samuel Lebens

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

The speaker wishes to rebut a standard approach to Jewish narrative, which he calls the historiographical approach. This views Biblical narratives (and most of the narratives of the Talmud) as attempts at history.

It follows from that that if you can prove there were no Jews in Egypt, for example, then the Bible loses its validity.

Those who follow this approach only ever resort to figurative interpretations as a last resort, and even then the resulting narrative, once the metaphors are cashed out, is supposed to map onto the narrative of natural history. Take for example, the Creation story. Lots of open minded Orthodox people accept it's not tenable, given the burden of empirical data, that the world was created in six days, so we say it's a metaphor. But, they say, once you understand the metaphor, you understand the Bible is validating science; hence books like Genesis and the Big Bang.

The reason people like that feel the pressure to defend the Bible in the face of historical data is because they follow this historiographical approach. The speaker, however, thinks this is baloney.

Jewish literature and Jewish narratives long outdate the birth of history as a literary genre in the fifth century BCE Greece, by Herodotus (the Father of History) and Thucydides.

Ancient Jewish audiences would have been acquainted with other genres, such as myth, folklore, legend and the like, but not, it would seen, with history.

When faced with a narrative or a story putatively about the distant past, they would have been unlikely to evaluate it in terms of its historical accuracy (which they were not able to assess) rather than in terms of its potency, its symbolism, its drama, its message and its lasting effects.

Eric Hobsbawn's classic work, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848) is an influential work of history, and is regarded so by our culture. However, we as a culture have not designed any rituals to reenact its main scenes. We may want to read it, criticise it, agree or disagree with it, but we don't try to relive it.

That's not the sort of attitude we generally adopt towards a work of history. In fact, a history becomes a myth preceisely when a culture starts to embed its narrative into their rituals and symbols.

If a personal relates to a narrative as all religious people relate to their canonical narratives, as sources of eternal wisdom, as a tapestry of symbols, and as a collection of narratives that call to be reenacted and brought to life by as language of ritual, then they simply aren't relating to the narrative merely as history, they're relating to it as myth—regardless of how they think they're relating to it.

Every time science comes along and proves something wrong, this is changing the rules midgame.

Non-historiographical interpretations of narratives are accused of being new-fangled—of changing the rules midgame—when in fact, taking religious narrative literally is what is really new-fangled (if you can call something originating with the likes of Maimonides and Saadia Gaon new-fangled). More than being new-fangled, it's wrong—Hobsbawm is history; the Bible and the tales of the Talmud are something else.

If historical accuracy isn't a relevant criterion for evaluating them, what then is? Consider dealing with a hostile audience facing one as a Limmud presenter by saying to oneself "Imagine they're all naked!" Why would this help? This game injects a certain amount of irreverence, which may help loosen the speaker up. Even though he knows it's a game, it still helps.

Make-believe has a corrective effect over your behaviour. Consider V.S. Ramachandran's Mirror Box. He was the first doctor to cure phantom limb pain, by getting his patients to put their real hand in a box with a mirror, and mimic the posture of the phantom hand, then slowly open the clenched hand: the phantom hand does what the reflection does.

An uncontroversial Jewish example of make-believe:

Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destriction upon himself. If he performs one mitzvah, he tips the balance and that of the entire world to the side of the merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. This is implied by [Prov. 10:25] "A righteous man is the foundation of the world", i.e., he who acted righteously tipped the balance of the entire world to merit and saved it.

—Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3-4

The commentators point out Maimonides knows this is false: he sinned, he saw other people sin, and the world didn't come tumbling down. He knew it was not true, and he knew the reader knew that. If people really believed this, they would be paralysed by fear. But the game of pretending, even though we can't really succeed, even perhaps because we can't really succeed, might be enough to inculcate an appropriate sense of responsibility in us.

What is make-believe? To make-believe P is to try and experience your surroundings as if P were a true description of the world.

P can be true. For example, we know the world is orbiting the sun at 100,000 km/h, but we don't experience the world as if it's a rock hurtling through space; we have to go out of our way to try and do so. P can also be false.

More examples of Jewish make-believe:

We're supposed to view ourselves on Seder night as if we actually left Egypt. Some people have a custom, following the Vilna Gaon, of saying Hallel in shul on the first night of Pesach, complete with a ברכה. This is very controversial halachically, as it's a daytime mitzvah, which makes it a ברכה לבטלה. But there's also a personal obligation to say Hallel if you've witnessed a miracle yourself, and you can do that by night.

How do you make sense of that if it is false? (Some of the more mystic say it's really true.)

Why do we do this? If we view ourself as it we were a slave in Egypt, and were freed, it changes our attitude towards G-d as the redeemer, and towards the oppressed and the stranger. The empathy is real now, or at least make-believe real.

Another example: the Creation story. There's a few different attitudes we can take to this. We can say the scientists are wrong and it is literally true; or we can say it's a metaphor that does accurately describe the Creation; or we can say it's a metaphor about the human condition, not the Creation. The speaker believes that all three of these are wrong.

Rather, G-d wants me to view the world as if every single creature in it was created at His direct command; that every creature has its place and its role; that humanity was created very near to the beginning of time and that humanity was the pinnacle of creation, charged with preservering and nurturing his natural and social environment; that G-d has a personal and direct interest in our lives. The story gives the believer a make-believe perspective on the world that awakens and appropriate sense of responsibility for his surroundings and helps him to understand the sort of role that he is supposed to play.

[Audience question: What about, for example, the details of the genealogies in the Torah, or how to create the Tabernacle; why do we need to know so much about it? Response: There are different sorts of religious narratives, and this make-believe approach only applies to some of them. As for the Tabernacle, this is a question which puzzles everyone who opens the Bible, including the greatest of the mediaeval commentators.]

Orthodox Jews don't generally go around saying "I don't care whether we were slaves in Egypt" as the speaker does; does this not mean he is not Orthodox?

If religious narratives are valuable but only because of their effects, not because of the truth of their content, then we've opened the door to religious pragmatism and pluralism, i.e. picking and choosing which religion works best for you. Religious pragmatism says religions aren't worthy because they say something true but because they have a positive effect on you.

If you don't believe that the Torah is true then you can no longer claim to be Orthodox, surely?

There are three ways you can respond to this threat of pluralism:

1. Judaism can claim to work the best for Jews. For example, the Jewish liturgy has a power to move the Jew that other liturgies don't have, because only in response to the Jewish liturgy can you say these are the prayers my grandparents had, and great-grandparents, etc.

But of course, this argument only works for some Jews; it won't work for those who are put off by the Jewish prayers, or don't know anything about Judaism but have been raised Hindu or whatever.

2. Judaism can claim to work better than any other religion. But if this is so, why is it that the vast majority of religious people belong to religions that have usurped our narrative!?

But possibly Jewish culture has been very good at inculcating good values in people; this could explain why the Jews have achieved so much more than our numbers would apply, in terms of Nobel Prizes, etc.

3. We have good reason to believe that there was a revelation at Sinai (see below); that this was an historical occurrence, and thus, that Jewish religious traditions have a Divine Stamp of Approval above and beyond their pragmatic utility.

This experience in the desert triggered the beginning of the evolution of Jewish law and culture. The speaker doesn't know what happened at Sinai; probably the entire Torah wasn't given to Moses in the form we have it now, but that something happened somewhere, and it was really cool. Some myths would find it difficult to get traction in a culture unless there was something historically to get it started. It doesn't matter whether G-d wrote the Bible, but G-d wants me to pretend G-d wrote the Bible.

So isn't this saying that the narratives are false?

We don't need to deny the truth of any of these narratives, as long as we accept the obvious claim that different sorts of discourse demand different concepts of truth and falsehood. We can therefore accept a pragmatic account of truth for certain religious narratives without accepting a pragmatic account of truth elsewhere.

What makes a religious narrative true is the extent to which it is effective.

Truth and falsehood as classically conceived are just not relevant to religious narrative.

In conclusion, it's not enough to believe that G-d exists; people do that and have done terrible things despite this. You need to live as if you believed that G-d exists and to make-believe it: to live your life as if that were the most important thing in your life. Rav Hirsch gets the first commandment right, Maimonides doesn't. Maimonides says the first commandment is believe to G-d exists, that's enough. That's probably right for him, as he was a very consistent person. Rav Hirsch says the first commandment is to feel that G-d is your God.

(Make-believe is hard; how do we maintain it? Answer: a great many of the מצות are to push us back into the world of the make-believe.)

Secondly, to think that religious narratives need reconciliation with natural history is anachronistic and wrong-headed.

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