Sunday, February 25, 2007

Egyptian Conspiracies

Someone on TFSG brought up the question of whether the ancient Egyptian government could have conspired in such a way to destroy the evidence of a large Hebrew slave population and Exodus, thus explaining the apparent lack of corroborating evidence for the story as it is recorded in the Torah.

This is how I responded:

"While conspiracy theories are fun, if they have nothing behind them but speculation then there's no reason to give them credence unless you're already convinced otherwise.

If the Torah's account is taken as literal, it would, first of all, conflict with the estimated population figures that Egyptologists give for the New Kingdom which is 3-4 million - total. If the Hebrews then made up ~3 million of that number then the entire social situation would have been wacky and Egyptian history - as it is currently understood - would be mostly nonsense from that period.

Furthermore, after a series of events which lead to the death of a good portion of the Egyptian population - at least one firstborn from every household - not to mention the rest of the plagues - and the exodus of 75% of the population as it existed before Moses came back - there would have been a tiny fraction of the pauperized population still living in Egypt. That massive depopulation would have required massive societal restructuring (as virtually the entire working/servant class had escaped) as well as a huge shrinking in economic output and military prowess. Egypt would have been a shadow of its once powerful self.

None of this occurs in any historical record, nor is there any archeological evidence even remotely suggesting it.

I cannot conceive of a realistic method by which the leaders of Egypt could simultaneously destroy the evidence of millions of people living over hundreds of years, leave no record (historical or archeological) of a depopulation and subsequent societal restructuring - all the while staving off foreign interest in conquering their land with a much reduced military might.

The whole idea is simply absurd.

Mix all of that in with the up front claims of miracles and other supernatural wonders and it becomes obvious that we are not dealing with a realistic portrayal of historical events.

Now, that said, I do believe that _something_ happened and that the story is predicated on real events. The exact nature of those events I am not sure about but I suspect they hold a similar relationship to the Torah's record as the Trojan War has with the Iliad.

As I said earlier, myths were common in every civilization. Why should we presume that Israel was an exception?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Of Halachah and the Unknowable

Ben Avuyah has just written another very well written post, this time primarily about the unknowability of God or His intentions and therefore the vacuum of knowledge on which Halacha is traditionally founded and the lack of guidance offered to Halachic decision makers.

As he writes, in excerpt:

"The difficulty is that halachah is not a self contained legal system. It is an extension of God’s mind, and in that sense it is an outgrowth of theology itself: A murky tar pit with no bottom or sides upon which we insist we have built or rigorously argued a coherent code of law.

Yet the fact remains that upon such an unsteady foundation the only blueprint for construction is doubt.

I highlight but one example above…the idea that a creator being may deliver a code of law to test if its subject can follow it, to test if and when its subjects righteously rebel against it, or any number of reasons in between. Without knowing motivation or plan, there is not much more to say.

With the axiom in hand, the we are not privy to God’s thoughts, it appears equally likely that he would choose to test our ability to follow what he has clearly spelled out, as he would to test our ability to rebel, and “tell truth to power” when we “feel” our rules are not guided by moral dictates acceptable to our human sensibilities. Indeed, I weigh the second option over the first. What can God know about you character other than a willingness to follow rules, in the first scenario; it is the second case that is necessary to evaluate character."

In response I wrote this:

Very interesting post. The point is, though, something we can come right to at the start. We don't really know anything about God (meaning ultimate truth, existence, what have you) and therefore we have no means of understanding intent - or even if there is 'intent' as we understand the term.

So in what sense is Halacha the will of God? Standard Orthodoxy is simply that Israel made a deal with God. We follow His rulebook and He gives us Eretz Yisrael, the good life and protection from our enemies (and later on eternal life). But that is as simplistic as it is uninspiring for today's age.

I think an important aspect of religion is exactly the kind of internal conflict resolution you wrote about. Like the famous illustration by Kierkegaard, should Abraham follow the command he thinks is from God and slaughter Isaac or should he "tell truth to power," as you said, and refuse? What indeed is the real test here? Obedience or moral rectitude?

As I see it, Abraham had earlier stood up to God on moral grounds when he actually reproached God of the wrongness of killing the good with the bad at the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Yet God there assured Abraham that there really were no righteous men there and therefore the act - and by extension God Himself - was moral.

The assurance then is that God is good and the laws He gives are good laws. Personally, I believe a more correct way of phrasing it is that the laws were made by men with moral intent. They did err in some aspects, but the basic thrust is clear, even if rudimentary.

I do believe you are right on the money where you state that Modern Orthodoxy is backwards in its mechanism of defending Halachic practice through very specific dogmatic theological principles. A better way is to treat Halacha, not as commands by God later on further defined by rabbis, but as a system laid down from antiquity by farsighted men with the intent of promoting, as David opined, an ideal society as understood between men and as the individual while being cognizant of a profound reality.

The intent of Halachic Judaism then is simply to encourage individual progress, societal morality, respect for our heritage and consciousness of the divine. As a human construct, the intent is of human origin and hence comprehensible.

I believe it obvious that we are currently in a transitional age (and have been for some time). What the form Halacha will take in future times is difficult to predict, but I do believe, as David does, that we ought to stick with it through the "tough" times so that our posterity are there for the good times.