In practical terms, I couldn’t care less whether God exists. The important point is, my daily actions would remain substantially the same either way.
On a personal level, I believe in God, but realize logically that his existence is no more provable than the Big Bang. Logically, the inadequacies of science do not amount to proof of theology. Developing highly organized life in the process of semi-random mutations is mathematically improbable, but perhaps the process has been different. In another example, humans progressed from agricultural societies to space-farers in only three centuries; there are a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each; itis inconceivable that none of them would have organized life a thousand years older than us. If so, at our speed of development, they would have left noticeable traces. This apparently did not happen, which means that we’re alone in the universe. This fact suggests creation rather than evolution, but may be explained away perfectly logically. There is simply no way to ascertain God’s existence: few people today would believe that a roaring volcano in Sinai speaks commandments to them, and we wouldn’t believe a Las Vegas magician turning a rod into snake.
The great chasm between Orthodoxy and Conservatism lies in their attitude toward the Scripture. Orthodoxes, theoretically, believe it to have been dictated by God word-for-word, while Conservatives insist on divine inspiration. The difference is allegedly tremendous: if the reader is not certain that a particular commandment was uttered by God rather than misinterpreted or adapted by Moses, why observe it? It could be, for example, that God inspired Moses only generally to walk the Hebrews into Canaan, and all the genocidal commandments are Moses’s deductions from that general injunction.
The dilemma is false. People often follow non-divine ideologies with great zeal and scruple, thus the commandments must not necessarily be divine for Jews to observe them. Indeed, people only observe religious rules because they believe them to be right: endowed with free will, they can always reject all commandments, as atheists do. What is free will if not the human faculty to arbitrarily reject moral norms imposed on us? The rabbinical nightmare is Jews picking and choosing from among the commandments. But in the end, we only observe the commandments which we consider right: thus, Orthodox rabbis have practically abrogated the commandment to stone disrespectful children, and Conservatives have abandoned the prohibition of homosexuality. The latitude in interpretation is so great that it allows any commandment to be circumvented. Thus, to all practical purposes it does not matter whether we believe in divine dictation, inspiration, or any other origin of the Torah. In practice, we observe not the commandments which God might have said, but halachic rules made up entirely by humans.
If observant Jews readily submit to the rules created by halachic authorities, what’s wrong with submitting to the rules laid down by Moses and the priests rather than God? The argument is no less strong for atheists: if you follow the government’s laws, why not Moses’s?
Both dictation and inspiration are inherently faulty because they were addressed to a people at a particular level of intellectual development. Suppose God set out to tell Moses about creation—would he speak in terms of neutrinos, the Big Bang, and DNA?
Dictation cannot apply to what are supposedly historical accounts: Moses’s birth narrative, his stay in the Midian, the Hebrews’ travails in Sinai, and the like. There, at most, Moses could be inspired to record truth. But what is the truth? Criminal investigators often face situations in which honest people give contradictory accounts of events. Warring parties usually accuse each other. What can be an objective account of the American War for Independence, or the Russian Revolution? Each party has its own story. Thus, the Torah’s factual accounts must be taken with a grain of salt.
Ancient historiography, exemplified in Herodotus, openly proclaimed its major goal as didactic. From ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to Josephus, even the most accurate historical depictions are embellished. Can we expect Moses to have acted differently? That does not mean he was dishonest. Rather, honesty in his time was not defined as factual accuracy, but closer to our notion of morality. Thus, Abraham cannot be called dishonest for claiming Sarah as his sister. And we, who love Kant, cannot decry biblical idealism.
The Torah often has several versions of a single commandment, which rabbis reconcile ingeniously. There is nothing wrong with commandments changing over time. In Exodus, God intended “an eye for an eye” to apply only to the harm done to pregnant women. By the time of Leviticus, when Hebrews had evolved into a developed society, it became clear that men required similar protection. They were no longer tough Bedouins who could settle matters among themselves, wherefore they needed societal involvement in criminal justice. Or perhaps they were too much Bedouins, and “an eye for an eye” actually tempered their vendettas. To practical purposes, it does not matter whether God or his priests changed the commandment in response to the Hebrews’ practice of their free will.
That might sound heretical, but rabbis have a similar doctrine: tradition has the force of religious commandment. This is not surprising, since tradition is a defining characteristic of a nation, which in turn is an important part of personal self-consciousness. If I define myself as a Jew, then I want to act as a Jew, and thus I observe Jewish traditions.
As a rational person I realize that, for example, the prohibition of homosexuality is consequential to the ban of adultery in the Ten Commandments. The law against homosexuality could be divine, God choosing to clarify a rather general prohibition among the Ten. But it is no less plausible that the clarification came from priests in the way that lowly secular legislators develop detailed laws based on the venerable Bill of Rights. In practical terms, the uncertainty does not matter. I’m prepared to observe the commandment whether it is divine or priestly.
One can argue that unlike the divine commandments, traditions are not cut in stone. Wrong. Commandments evolve to begin with. We can see how Shabbat rules change in the Torah from a generic prohibition of hard work to specific restrictions on children, converts, and cattle. Kosher laws changed from Exodus to Deuteronomy to allow killing animals outside the Temple, and hunting. Call it a change or a development, the fact is that commandments are not cut in stone, either. On the contrary, time makes tradition ever more important. Regardless of the divine origin, I won’t eat pork or rabbit because my ancestors have refrained from it for three thousand years, and I observe Shabbat because they were murdered for doing so.
True, we can abandon traditions which fly in the face of modern reality; Scots do not wear kilts in Manhattan. But a wonderful fact is, I don’t know a single applicable commandment which I would disagree with. Everything the Torah says about politics rings a bell to me, whether culturally homogenous towns governed by judges, conquering the land God gave us, or cleansing it from inherently hostile natives. The Torah’s ethical and moral commandments are fully agreeable, too: avoiding your wife during her menstruation is nice, practical advice; if you’re married, you know what I mean. I have no problem with kosher laws; if anything, they make me less uncomfortable about taking an animal’s life: I refuse to kill most animals for food, and when I do I allow its blood to flow out as a last sign of respect.
What about purely ritual commandments? The issue is moot since they are inapplicable in the current circumstances. I’m all for building the Temple, since that would be a great political achievement. As for its theological significance, it would be doubtful: we lack the Arc, Urim and Tummim, and we cannot bring sacrifices in the quantities that Torah prescribes, and our hereditary priests are suspect; but the Second Temple suffered from the same problems.
Jewish religion is amply described as orthopraxy, meaning that actions are more important than beliefs. Whether we observe commandments as a matter of divine revelation, whether out of habit or national tradition, is not of practical importance. The Torah’s commandments are presumably divine, but even if some of their later versions are not, that changes nothing in regard to our obligation to observe them.
In our enlightened time, it would be unrealistic to expect most people to hold theological values. People, however, have an inherent need for values, ideological if not religious. They can observe the commandments, even if they do so for non-Orthodox reasons.