Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wisdom of Torah

[title page of the Talmud]

"This is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who, when they hear these laws, will say 'This great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (Deut. 4:6)

It is my opinion that the extraordinary wisdom of Torah also testifies to its divine origin.

First of all the Torah contains an ingenious blueprint for creating a peaceful society and leading a healthy, happy life (provided that it is observed faithfully).

The genius of the Torah is that it doesn't decree point blank "Don't steal" and "Don't kill" and leave it at that, like almost any other legal system. Rather it prescribes an elaborate system of safeguards and educational activities that remove almost any possibility of murder and theft. Almost all of Judaism can be viewed as a vast network of "moral preventive medicine" - stopping evil tendencies at their actual root long before they can lead to a crime.

Take, for example, the belief in one omniscient, omnipotent God who will inevitably punish wrongdoers and reward the righteous, either in this world or in the next world. For its own sake, this concept is valuable since it can provide a person with peace of mind and purpose and meaning in life that would be impossible otherwise. More than that, however, it is the only guarantee possible to moral integrity. An atheist may feel that it "isn't right" to hurt other people or that it's bad for society. However, when he is faced with a strong temptation to hurt someone else (e.g. he has much to gain and little or no fear of punishment) will a vague sentimental feeling or philosophy stop him? Probably not. However, a God fearing Jew knows that to escape punishment is impossible.

This great concept is not left as an abstract theology, however. Judaism teaches its adherents to constantly remind themselves of this great principle. The Sabbath is a reminder of it (Ex. 31:17) . Passover and the other holidays are reminders of it. The phylacteries (Ex. 13:16) , mezuzah (Deut. 6:9) and zizith (fringed garment, Num. 15:38) are to remind us of it. The constant prayers and blessings which Judaism requires (Ps. 34:2) are also a reminder. Torah study reminds us of it.

[It is interesting to note, incidentally, that these educational activities seem to fully utilize all three forms of mental representation defined in "Toward a Theory of Instruction" by psychologist Jerome Bruner (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1966). Putting on phylacteries and eating matzah, for example, are enactive representations involving action and movement. Seeing the zizith, the mezuzah and the succah are iconic representations, or visual stimuli. Prayer and Torah study are symbolic representations, involving language, spoken as well as written. Much more could be said about this, however let it suffice to say that the broad range and great number of experiences required by Torah make realistic the psalmist's statement (Ps. 16:8) "I have always placed God before me".]

The morality and ethics of the Torah also emphasize the prevention concept. A Jew is not only forbidden to kill and steal. He is commanded to love his neighbor(Lev. 19:18); he is prohibited from gossiping and bearing a grudge and cursing (Lev. 19:14-18). He may not even desire someone else’s property (Ex. 20:13). The Torah commands the Jew to give generously to the poor (Deut. 15:7-11) and to return lost objects (Deut. 22:1-3). When one considers that a Jewish child spends months being taught the section of the Talmud dealing with the returning of lost objects, imagine how foreign the idea of killing or stealing will seem to him as an adult!

The Jewish code of modesty also indirectly strengthens society. Everyone is aware of the emotional damage and delinquency caused by unwed mothers and broken homes, which has been the direct result of the "New Morality" (a glorified term for the virtual prostitution of American women over the past 25 years). By requiring the strictest monogamy, the Torah insures that children will be raised in secure, stable homes.(And to insure that monogamy doesn't become monotony, a Jewish couple are required to observe occasional periods of abstinence, see (Lev. 18:19).

The dietary laws also play a role in this, in that they encourage social isolation - preventing Jews from frequenting gentile taverns, parties, etc. where they will be badly influenced.

If one needs any further proof of the wisdom of Torah ethics, one may note how they have tremendously influenced the religions of Europe and the Middle East for fifteen centuries and are clearly a major foundation of Western thought.

The originality of Judaism's teachings may also be taken into consideration. Today we accept ideas like God, morality, ethics, etc. as being more or less universal, however 2000 years ago they were very unusual and bizarre ideas. No other work of ancient literature emphasizes modesty, self-control, moderation, humility, peace, justice, kindness, and patience as does the Hebrew Bible. Nearly all human literature at that time was filled only with stories of idolatry, violence, and obscenity.

It is also interesting to note that the Torah contains much scientific knowledge that is amazingly accurate.

The Torah exhibits a keen insight into human psychology. This can easily be seen in the books of Proverbs especially if studied together with the classical rabbinical commentaries. The Talmud (e.g. in Pirkei Avos - The Wisdom of the Fathers) also contains many psychological principles and the Talmudic interpretation of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible offers a wealth of insights into human nature. As already explained, the entire ethical system of Judaism shows profound psychological knowledge. It can be convincingly argued that a sensitive person with a thorough knowledge of Torah will be as well or better equipped to counsel troubled people as would any clinical psychologist. [For an interesting anthology of rabbinical teachings relating to psychology, see "Gateway to Happiness" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This is actually an excellent work, combining both theology and cognitive therapy.]

The Talmud (Shabbos 86a) states that semen remains vital for no more than three days in the uterus (which happens to be exactly correct) and learns this from Biblical verses. How could they have known this without microscopes and hormone tests?

Finally, the sheer size of Torah literature is amazing. The Talmud is really an encyclopedia of Jewish law (ritual and civil) and ethics. It is about 5000 pages long and written in a very abbreviated style - almost a sort of code. A page of Talmud is usually to some extent incomprehensible without at least the basic commentary of Rashi, and even then it will usually take an experienced student an hour to go over a page which he hasn't studied before. And to really understand a page of Talmud properly the student may need to spend many days examining the numerous commentaries and super-commentaries until each point in the Talmudic debate is clarified. The scope of even the basic Torah literature actually includes hundreds of large volumes, containing ethics, history, poetry, philosophy, and mysticism besides, of course, law. This is even more remarkable when one considers - why would any human minds conceive of such intricate and complex laws that obviously make Judaism only less popular? Wouldn't it have made much more sense for the rabbis to make Judaism easier and trim down the law - as the Christian leader Paul did, and with spectacular success?

Considering all of the above, it is very difficult not to feel that comparing Judaism to other religions is like comparing a living man to a mannequin: the mannequin may superficially resemble a man, however a living man is filled with endless complexity and true wisdom, while the mannequin is merely a lifeless piece of wood. So too, all the other religions are merely collections of fantasy, superstition, and, often, evil nonsense (except for a few grains of truth, usually plagiarized from Judaism) while Torah stands out as extraordinarily rational and practical (see Maimonides, Letter to Yemen).


zdub said...

You do know that the "Come and Hear" site that you referenced for the Gemara link is virulently anti-Talmud? The full English text of some tractates - albeit useful as a reference - has as its purpose the denigration of "Pharisaic" Judaism?

Unknown said...
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zdub said...

By the way, sperm can stay viable in the uterus for up to 5 days, not 3.

jewish philosopher said...

These webpages, here and here, seem to say 3 days.

zdub said...

And I'll show you other references that say anything from 2 up to 7 days! You are picking and choosing to prove a point about the superior scientific knowledge in the Talmud and Torah. That's ultimately a losing battle as has often been discussed in the Jewish blogosphere since for every possible correspondence between Torah and modern science one can find many more certainly untenable statements. For someone stuck in the trap of trying to reconcile Torah and Science, the only responses when being presented with the latter cases are wholly unscientific ones (e.g., turn Torah into a moshol, or say that we don't understand the Torah completely, or say that science is imperfect.) That's my beef with quoting the Talmud and claiming that it's scientific knowledge (which was usually learned from the umas haolom and not darshened from pesukim) "testifies to its divine origin."

jewish philosopher said...

In this case, the Mishnah is deriving medical information from a Biblical verse (one of the only instances I am aware of) and it does happen to be correct; unless you can find cases of a woman becoming pregnant from semen more than three days old.

Incidentally, I believe that is the criteria here - not whether the semen contains any motile sperm but whether it is capable of causing pregnancy.

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