Question:

Years ago, I attended a seminar where we were presented with logical proofs that the Torah was delivered to us by Moses at Sinai. I was convinced and began a path towards complete Jewish observance. After many years and much thought, I (and many of my friends who were similarly convinced) realize that every one of these proofs is flawed, including the classic proof of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari. I continue to practice as an orthodox Jew, but I do not have faith in the ideology.

My question has to do with being called to the Torah and making a blessing that says, "He has chosen us from all the nations and given us His Torah," when I do not really believe that this Torah in front of me is the one given to Moses. Am I permitted to make this blessing if I do not believe what I am saying?

Response:

I have to agree with you that there is no scientifically flawless proof that the Torah we have today is exactly what Moses wrote. It's obviously so, since there is no real science of history, of proving anything in the past.

At one time, history was thought of as the retelling of traditions. It is within that context that the proof of the Kuzari that you cite was formulated, basically saying that the tradition with the most witnesses wins. With the rise of the natural sciences in the 18th century, physics-envy drove many scholars to attempt to mold history into a science as well. In the 19th century, it was a widely held belief that a scientific approach to history will eventually uncover, in the words of Leopold von Ranke, "how it actually was." But science is about reproducible experimentation and observation, and history is about things that can never be reproduced or observed. So in the 20th century, the idea of history as a science came under serious skepticism. By 1964, A. Richardson was able to write, "No one believes that historical judgments can be "proved" after the fashion of verification in the natural sciences."1 Today, the only historians who still cling to the belief that they are really scientists are those antiquarians who engage in "Biblical criticism" (supplemented with related studies of archeological artifacts) in their attempts to "prove" or "disprove" the Biblical account.

Many of the "facts of history" that are commonly accepted today are really quite questionable. Just take a look at how newspapers today report events around the world as they are happening. How can anyone then have faith in the history we reconstruct from fragments of copies of copies of documents, traditions and artifacts from thousands of years ago? Rather, history is more an art than a science, a form of interpretation of traditions, relic documents and scattered artifacts.

True, there can be overwhelming evidence for a particular event. Specifically, when there is a strong tradition that is accepted by a large population, and that tradition is not directly in contradiction with any evidence to the contrary—such as is the case, as far as I can tell, with our traditional belief that Moses wrote the Torah. It makes sense that Moses wrote the Torah, since that is the simplest and best explanation, and it is a strong tradition that lay uncontested for millennia. We have plenty of evidence that a phonetic alphabet was already in use at the time. We see that the style of the text matches the style of documents from that time period. We see that it provides an accurate account of matters for which we have external evidence. (For one example: In Genesis 37:28, Joseph is sold "for twenty pieces of silver." Kenneth Kitchen in a fascinating article in Biblical Archeological Review2 presents evidence from other Near Eastern texts that this was the going rate for a slave in the Old Babylonian period—just around the time of the event, but not before and not after. In fact, slave prices in later biblical texts are higher, in keeping with the trend recorded elsewhere.)

The Torah also provides accounts in a style that is hard to imagine someone writing at a later date—such as the detailed accounts of the building of the tabernacle and the census of the people. These accounts read precisely as we would expect a compilation of accounting scrolls to read, certainly not as a fictional narrative.

We see that the Torah narrates events that a later chronologer would be very uncomfortable describing—such as the failures of the heroes of the stories and the people as a whole. Then there are accounts of marital relations that were later forbidden. Why would an author later than Moses want to write that Jacob married two sisters, when this was already forbidden by the law of Moses? Or that Abraham claimed to have married his half-sister—likewise forbidden. Or that Judah and Simon married Canaanite women and Joseph married an Egyptian? Books written in the 19th century about the 17th are full of anachronisms, but the Torah preserves the idiosyncrasies of each era.

In general, the Five Books of Moses have the style of someone obsessed with detail and accuracy—even when those details are overtly embarrassing and inconvenient. (For a thorough treatment of this topic, see Provan, Long and Longman, "A Biblical History of Israel".)

The line of tradition is also fundamentally reliable, since there is plenty of evidence (not proof, but strong evidence), archeological and otherwise, that the Jews were always a literate society obsessed with preservation of traditions.3 Since the Torah was in the public domain of a literate populace, it would be difficult for significant change to fall into the text. As well, there was always a central authority with a Torah scroll from which to check any variance.

Nevertheless, anyone resting their faith on historical evidence of facts alone—even in this case—is building a home on the swampy bank of the Mississippi. Faith cannot be based on evidence of an event of the past, no matter how strong the evidence may be. Faith arises out of your personal life experience. You don't have faith in your wife because your research into her past demonstrates that she deserves it—you trust her because you know her, personally and intimately. You build a marriage based on trust—not the other way around.

Precisely the same applies to our faith in the Torah: Despite everything they tell you in those seminars, we don't believe that G‑d gave us the Torah at Sinai because we have proof. Rather, we begin with our personal belief that G‑d is good, that He is purposeful and that there is only one of Him—and we believe all that despite everything we see out there. Then we build from there.

Why do we believe? Because we are Jews and that's just the way we are. We inherited from our ancestors this integral conviction that He is one and He is good, and therefore life is essentially good and meaningful, and no matter what, we just can't shirk that off. We can try to run from it, to transmutate it into radical politics, guru-chasing, trend-setting or even extreme corporate climbing. But at the bottom of everything that a child of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does lies an inherent, simple faith that there's got to be meaning behind all this somewhere.

Once we recognize that foundation and give it some room to breathe, we look at our history and see it in that light. We ask, "If G‑d is good, why doesn't He communicate with us?" Well, here's an answer: He does, through His Torah and through its sages.

Since we are created as semi-rational beings, we need some sort of support for this faith from our power of reason. We look, and we see that it is not unreasonable at all. In fact—if you have no problem with G‑d speaking to man and open miracles—it has more support than any other document from the distant past.

Another way of looking at it: Communication is always a two party process. I can't say I've told you something if you weren't listening. Neither can I tell you that I've given you a wise path in life if you are bound to forget it. Similarly, G‑d cannot say, "I gave them My Torah," if we were doomed from the beginning to change and distort it. So there's a promise that "it will not be forgotten from your seed."

Does that promise necessarily mean that exactly the same book will be transmitted down through the centuries without any discrepancy falling in? I don't think this is an absolute. We see, in fact, that Rashi and others had different versions of certain words and letters. What it does mean, however, is that the Torah the Jewish People make a blessing on today is G‑d's communication with them.

That's why, really, your approach of "orthopraxy" is really more viable. Your Judaism does not rest on an event of the past, but on your present reality. But I would go further than that. Jewishness should not be reduced to actions alone. There has to be a Jewish experience involved as well. That's where faith can really rest—on the inner human experience. A Jew needs to find and nurture that faith within that, "G‑d is good and there is only one of Him." He needs to feel an affinity, a closeness and an intimate relationship with that G‑d, with His Torah and with the Jewish People.

So this is where I see your faith right now—tell me if I have it straight: You believe in the Jewish People, you believe in a benevolent, all-encompassing G‑d who created you with a purpose. And you feel that "orthoprax" is good. What you are missing is a meaningful experience of that orthopraxy, in terms of its inner soul and spirit. This is what Chabad attempts to present in terms of intellectual chassidus and a chassidic life-style: Not just practice, but an inner, spiritual experience of that practice.

In this, as well, lies the answer to your predicament concerning a blessing on the Torah. Ask yourself: In what do I have faith? In a book? Obviously not—since, as I wrote, no one could ever demonstrate without doubt that this book is the real one. Rather, the Jewish faith is in that above-mentioned relationship between G‑d and the Jewish People. Torah is the communication of that relationship, and it is really an on-going dialog through the talmudic approach that continues to be generated along the generations. So if this is the Torah that the Jewish People are saying a blessing on today, this must be the Torah that G‑d communicates to them—along with all the innovations of halachah that have been accepted by the Jewish community at large over the millennia.

I am confident that if you take this approach, eventually you will be able to make peace with the statement of the Maimonides that a person who denies that a single word of the Torah was not told by G‑d to Moses, that person is a heretic. For even were it possible that a word may have changed here or there, or fallen away, the Torah that the Jewish People as a whole treasure and make a blessing upon is G‑d's communication through Moses to His people.

Also take a look at How Do I Know We Heard G‑d At Sinai?. Let me know what comes post-mulling.

--Rabbi Tzvi Freeman for Chabad.org