Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"This is how I lost my faith"

SHULEM DEEN: This is how I lost my faith: Science helped, yes — but finally I accepted the holy texts were written by man. I thought religion and sacred texts held absolute truth handed down from God. I was so powerfully wrong (Salon).
Among people who lose faith, I would later learn, many point to scientific knowledge as the catalyst for their changed worldviews. I, too, found much of what I learned troubling. Wherever I turned, I discovered that ideas I had once taken for granted, trusting in rabbis and sacred texts to convey absolute truths, were dubious at best. The universe was not six thousand years old but closer to 14 billion. Humans shared a common ancestor with apes—and all living things, for that matter— and were not the exalted species created by God’s hand out of clay of the earth on the sixth day of Creation. The sages of the Talmud, by our traditions infallible, were demonstrably wrong in their understanding of the natural world.

Two great balls of fire descended from heaven, and their names were Abaya and Rava, said the old rebbe of ruzhin. The two great masters of the Talmud, their names occurring at least once every three pages, were not humans but chunks of divinity. Balls of fire. Reading the Talmud anew, however, I discovered that the sages were as flawed as could be expected of any ancient people. They were mired in superstition and misogyny and xenophobia, which did not necessarily mark them as villains but offered troubling indications of ordinary humanness.

Nothing, however, had a more shattering impact on my faith than the realization that, stripped of religious exegesis, our primary religious text, the Hebrew Bible, had the markings of human rather than divine authorship; it was beautiful, intricate, layered in poetry and metaphor and heart-stopping drama, but human nonetheless.

Just because I go after and condemn Talmud libel, it doesn't mean I don't sympathize with people who struggle with the implications of historical criticism for what they have been taught about the scriptures in their faith tradition. It is one thing to read scriptures sympathetically and to find historical and moral problems in them from our intellectual and moral perspective in the twenty-first century. It is quite another to twist them out of context and disseminate outright lies about them to promote anti-semitism. This essay is an honest and heartfelt account of the author's encounter with historical criticism and how it affected his faith.