Would the Torah Look Different If God Revealed It Today?

Moses with iPads

The Torah was given 3500 years ago; it’s filled with things that are directed toward ancients. Things like:

  • Sacrifice: Hundreds of commandments regarding sacrificing animals, which hasn’t been done in 2000 years. Ancient cultures utilized blood sacrifice in idolatry, but today it’s virtually disappeared. And because the Temple isn’t standing, we can’t keep these commandments today even if we wanted to.
  • Agricultural prominence: The Biblical holidays coincide with agricultural events. Ancient Israel was almost entirely agricultural, but today agriculture makes up a tiny percentage of human work.
    image
  • Care for women: A judicial system providing care for women (e.g. levirate marriage, where a man is obligated to marry his dead brother’s widow). In ancient cultures, women were almost entirely dependent on their husbands to provide food and wellbeing. Today, thanks to education and cultural changes, women are able to provide for themselves independently of men.
  • Plural marriage: Polygamy and concubines were permitted, likely because women and infants so often died during childbirth. Multiple female sexual partners would ensure children, who would then take care of parents in old age. But today, thanks to modern medicine, mother and infant mortality is exceptionally rare.
  • Slavery: Torah legislates slavery to reduce its ills (e.g. “You shall not return an escaped slave to his master.”). Up until the 20th century, slavery was prevalent in virtually every culture. Today, it’s all but abolished.
  • Work: Lighting a fire on shabbat was forbidden, possibly because fires were often used for work purposes. Today, a fire can be started effortlessly with a press of a thumb or flick of a switch. Moreover, people have fires for non-work reasons.

This is just a sampling; there are dozens of other commandments that, while they were important in the context of ancient Israel, are far less important now.

In fact, we religious people don’t keep many of these commandments. Faithful Jews and Christians don’t practice levirate marriage today, for example; there’s no need.

The corollary is, the Torah doesn’t address modern problems. For example,

  • Automobiles: Is it permissible to drive a car on shabbat? Turning the ignition technically starts a fire inside a combustion engine, and starting a fire is prohibited on shabbat.
  • Medicine: Many medical pills use gelatin capsules, which is often made from animals the Torah forbids eating.
  • Food: Kosher laws don’t address certain animals unknown to ancient Israel (e.g. turkeys). Moreover, could pork be kosher if fed a clean diet, or did God give kosher laws for reasons besides health? And by extension, if kosher laws are solely for health, would God forbid modern kosher-but-unhealthy foods, like fast food? (And yes, there are kosher McDonalds in Israel.)
    Image result for mcdonalds israel
    ”McDonaldim” מקדונלדים: A kosher McDonalds in Israel
  • Restaurants: Modern restaurants have grills on which both kosher and non-kosher animals are cooked. Is it permissible to eat kosher food cooked on a grill which inevitably brought it into contact with non-kosher food?
  • Electricity: Does electricity fall under the “no fire on Shabbat” prohibition? Flipping a light switch is technically starting a spark, which is technically a fire.
  • Construction: Modern houses are built differently than in ancient times. The Torah requires that ancient houses be built with guardrails on the roof so as to prevent people falling off. Today, most homes are not built by the person living in them, and it’s a very rare event to have someone walking on your roof.
  • Clothing: The Torah prohibits wearing wool and linen together as a garment. But modern clothing is often made up of multiple pieces of clothing (shirt, undergarment, pants, socks, etc.) How does one apply this commandment today, when clothing is made up of many pieces of garments, and each garment may be made up of multiple kinds of cloth?
  • Garment corners: God commanded Israel to put fringes on the 4 corners of their garments. Modern garments don’t have 4 corners. Do we put the fringes on belt-loops? Or as an undergarment (tallit katan)? Or do we even need to wear them?

Since the Torah doesn’t address such questions, we’re left to do our best to apply them in principle. Orthodox Judaism defaults to the most stringent application: no, we cannot drive on shabbat. Meanwhile, leftist streams of Judaism and Christianity all but dissolve the Torah; replacing it with a humanistic whatever-feels-good morality.

In the Messianic movement, most of us take a more pragmatic walk: yes, wear tzitzit in whatever way you can, because the principle is remembering God’s commandments, not whether you have 4 corners on your garment. Yes, you can eat clean animals even if cooked at a non-kosher restaurant, because contamination is a reality of the world.

Is the Torah irrelevant?

Liberal and leftist streams of Judaism and Christianity look at all this and say, “All those laws were for a different time, and need not be kept today.”

This isn’t to say the Torah is irrelevant. The values of the Torah are eternal; codifying a divine moral system in which murder, rape, and cruelty is immoral, while legislating care and provision for widows, orphans, and the poor.

And this is true historically. The values of the Torah set the stage for Western civilization, and enabled further moral advancements. For example, it was British and American Christians who, informed by the Biblical value that all men are on equal standing before God, abolished slavery. The whole world followed suit, and here we are a few hundred years later and slavery has all but disappeared.

Would a 21st century Torah look different?

Since we’ve achieved moral advancements built atop the Torah would the Torah look differently if God revealed it today?

This question came to mind while watching Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew and political conservative, engage in a discussion with an atheist at a secular university. Here’s the engagement in question:

Student: You had a great discussion with [atheist author] Sam Harris on your show about ignoring certain doctrinal texts, yet still believing in ideas like revelation.

Ben Shapiro: Yes.

Student: My question is, if you truly believe in the supernatural side of monotheism, why is it OK to perform, as you describe it, an “ongoing dialectic” – over time, pick and believe certain piece of doctrine, when you realize that the original parts were from an omniscient Being.

Ben Shapiro: So the answer that I gave Sam Harris, is that the omniscient Being, in this case God, gave us flawed human beings this book. This book was directed at a certain time and place. The people living 3000 years ago didn’t have the same education and values, the same evidence, the same scientific knowledge. They didn’t have the same 3000 years of development we’ve had since Sinai – and so God was speaking to a specific people at a specific time.

So a lot of the commandments are specifically directed at converting people away from more primitive practices to less primitive practices. To take an example, animal sacrifices. We now look at them and say that’s really primitive, pretty terrible. [Medieval Jewish sage] Maimonides puts this forth in 1100 [AD], this idea that there were pagan practices in which animals were slaughtered on behalf of pagan gods. And the idea was that you were appeasing these gods, and that these were use of animal sacrifices for perverse purposes. People weren’t willing to give up the perverse purposes at that time, and God knew that, so God converted the use of those purposes to the worship of Him.

[…]

Here’s the point. God didn’t just say to human beings, “Here’s the Law, I mean exactly what I say, forever, on these areas, without regard to what human beings are.” God injected an enzyme into human development. That enzyme, in my view, is revelation. And without that enzyme, there is no catalyst for Western civilization… Human beings using their reason and logic to apply eternal principles to new circumstances and new evidence over time.

The question the student poses is, if the Bible is from an omniscient God, why is it OK to not keep certain commandments?

Shapiro’s answer is that God gave the Bible to an ancient people with the understanding that people must interpret the Bible in new circumstances and evidence that would later arise. So while the principles of the Bible are eternal, circumstances may arise that change our application of those principles.

The principle to care for widows, orphans, the poor, women and children are eternal. But how we care for them looks different than 3500 years ago. (For example, we don’t leave the corners of our harvest fields for the poor, since many of us don’t have fields. Instead, we might give directly, or to charitable organizations that help the poor.)

The principle behind the commandment to create guardrails on the roof – to make homes safe for those in and around it – is eternal, but keeping it might look different in today’s culture.

Yes, a hypothetical 21st century Torah would look very different, but only in application. The eternal principles behind the application would remain the same.

Does this mean God changes? No; it means God gave an ancient people a law code – a civilizational document – for how to live good and upright lives. The principles behind this remain the same, even if applying those principles looks different 3500 years later.

Does this mean God wasn’t omniscient, or does this disprove divine authorship of the Torah? No; it means God was omniscient to the extent that He allowed human progress to shape the application of the eternal principles. God doesn’t assume we’re robots stuck in time, and it’s why the principles of the Bible remain relevant and applicable today.

Learn Hebrew the Fun Way with Duolingo

Today is my 200th consecutive day of Hebrew language lessons with Duolingo!

Image may contain: text

Image may contain: text

Image may contain: text

Image may contain: text

Duolingo is a free mobile app and website, and it’s the best way to learn a language. I’ve tried in-person lessons, group studies, audio lessons, video lessons, subscriptions,...but I’ve learned more with Duolingo than all of them combined.

Duo gamifies learning; turning learning into a game and friendly weekly competition with a small group of people learning the same language as you. It’s actually fun. And super easy to do lessons: I usually just whip out my phone on my lunch break and do 5 or 10 minutes. Works as an app or just in your browser on the phone, tablet, and desktop. Super easy and even fun.

Interested in learning Hebrew with me? My Hebrew group on Duolingo has a few spots opened:

Image may contain: text

Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, Explained

imageLast year I came across 5 Proofs of the Existence of God by Edward Feser. It’s a modern take on classic logical proofs of God.

Though it reads a bit academic, it’s nonetheless enjoyable and a powerful tool for defending the reality of God’s existence.

Yesterday, the author appeared on Ben Shapiro’s Sunday Special. His explanations and discussions of the classical proofs are fascinating and clarifying.

There’s a saying, “If you can’t teach it, you don’t understand it.” So I’d like to write my thoughts one of these classical proofs – teach them to you, fine Kineti reader – so that I better understand them myself. Along the way, maybe you’ll learn them better as well.

In the interview Feser says his favorite of the five classical proofs of God is the Aristotilian proof, also called the Unmoved Mover argument. This is the one we’re tackling today in this post.

Here’s Feser explaining in his own words the Aristotelian argument for God’s existence:

This proof of God goes back at least 2300 years, to the time of Aristotle, though it may be even older as Plato presents an earlier version of it.

The Aristotelian argument is based on the observation that change occurs: my fingers changing from idle to active as I type this, your eyes changing from still to moving as you scan and interpret this sentence.

Aristotle calls this the actualization of a potential. My fingers had potential to move, and when they moved, the change was actualized. Your eyes had the potential to scan this text, now they are actually scanning it. This is change: something going from potential to actual.

And this affects all matter, including inorganic matter. Water changes from cold to warm. Molten lava to solid rock. Potential to actual.

If change involves going from potential to actual, how does it ever happen? What causes the change from potential to actual? Aristotle observes that only actualized objects cause something to go from potential to actual.

For example, my fingers are sitting ready at the keyboard: just look at all that potential. Potential to move downward and strike the keyboard. How are they actualized, what causes them to start typing? An already-actualized thing, my nervous system in action, flexed my muscles and caused them to go from potential movement to actual movement.

In a nutshell, actualized objects are the only thing able to move something from the potential state into actual state. Something can go from potential to actual only if there’s something actual that makes it happen.

This goes all the way down the line: my nervous system has potential to send signals to my fingers. What causes it to send signals, moving it from potential to actual? Well, another actual: my brain.

One thing caused by another, caused by another, caused by another. All the way down the line.

Intuitively, my thought while watching the video was, “Ah, and those series of changers go all the way back in time until we get to God.”

Wrong.

Feser says Aristotle’s fundamental position isn’t that the changes go merely backward in time, but that they are downward in the here-and-now. The fingers are typing here and now because my nervous system is firing here and now. The nervous system is firing here and now because my brain is sending signals to it here and now.

This chain of changers – my fingers, by my nervous system, by my brain, by molecules holding together my body, and so on – where does the chain end? It must have an end – a first domino - Aristotle argues, otherwise we’d have a “vicious regress.” (More on this theoretical vicious regress later.) There must be a root changer – a cause of change that itself was uncaused – responsible for all successive changes.

The first domino

There must be an uncaused cause, an unchanging changer, an unmoving mover; the first domino. Aristotle argues such an unmoved mover is purely actual. While it’s changing other things, itself is unmoved and unchanged.

How do we know the unmoved mover is God?

Consider the properties of the first cause, that first domino. We observe that it must be both unchanging and powerful. Furthermore, it must not be governed by time nor by the material universe.

Unchanging:

We’ve established that change involves going from potential to actual. But this first domino wasn’t any potential, it was purely actual, it wasn’t caused and isn’t susceptible to change. It’s unchanging.

Why is that important? Because everything in the known universe is susceptible to change. Time changes all material things, both organic and inorganic. Thus, the first mover must be not be a material thing; it doesn’t change with time. And since time has no effect on the unchanging changer, we say it isn’t governed by time like everything else in the universe is.

(Sidebar: is this a god-of-the-gaps argument? I’d say this is an observation of the universe; out best evidence shows that all things are governed by time; they change with time. There’s nothing in the universe known to be unchangeable over time. So, the evidence suggests that either there is no first mover – what Aristotle called vicious regress; an impossible, infinite recursion of movers – or there exists something outside of the material universe and outside of time.)

The first mover is unchanging. Because time changes all material things, the first mover is outside of time and outside of the material world.

Powerful:

Power is the stuff required to change anything from potential to actual.

As I type this and as you read it, both of us are expending energy – we’re utilizing power. We consume food to produce energy, which we utilize to actualize something, to turn it from potential to actual.

Feser gives the example that an earthquake has the power to knock a boulder down a hill: the actualization of potential. The rock had the potential to roll down the hill, and the earthquake’s power actualized it.

Working our way back to the first mover, the first domino, because nothing caused it, it’s ultimately the source of all power activity.

It’s power – at the beginning of time and throughout all-time – drives all other power. It’s the first of all the dominos and not caused by any other power.

Every power exerted since then – the formation of the universe, the creation of planets and stars, the beginning of life – everything until the point of you reading this very sentence – all of it started because of the enormous power exerted by the first mover.

Thus we say that the first mover is both exceedingly powerful and the source of all existing power in the universe. The first mover is all-powerful.

(The Hebrew Bible phrases it as אֵל שַׁדַּי, El Shaddai, usually translated as God Almighty; in plain modern English we would say God the All-Powerful.)

These attributes of the first mover – immaterial, unchanging, outside of time, all-powerful, the source of all power – describes divine attributes, something beyond of nature. We call that all-powerful, immaterial mover God.

Are we sure there’s a first mover? Why not a vicious regress?

How do we know there’s a first mover? Why can’t we have an infinite string of movers moved by another mover?

Feser says the problem with having an infinite chain of movers – what Aristotle calls a ‘vicious regress’ – is that it keeps deferring the explanation.

Sidebar: in The Universe Had a Beginning, I noted a similar problem of scientists just kicking the can down the road; deferring the answer. For example, modern cosmology posits the universe had a definite beginning about 13.7 billion years ago. But physicists uncomfortable with the reality of a universe that suddenly came into existence – the instant of creation – have tried to say there are multiple universes (multiverse theory) or the universe expands and contracts infinitely from nothing to something (oscillating universe theory). Both fail to answer the question of what created the universe, and instead merely kick the can down the road. In the case of the multiverse theory, the can is kicked down the road, and the question becomes “what created the thing that creates the universes?”

Feser says the vicious regress fails to answer the question we started out asking: “What caused the first actualization?”

That mover that made the universe appear in an instant, what made it move? Since the universe didn’t exist before then – and since modern cosmology affirms the universe is not eternal – we’re now back to square one: something outside of the universe (since it didn’t exist yet) exerted power on material to cause the universe to come into existence.

Why not just say, “We don’t know what started the universe?”

For some, because science doesn’t currently know what could cause the universe to come into existence, some say, “Who knows? Why posit any explanation at all?”

Feser answers with an analogy. Suppose a school student in chemistry class mixes the wrong chemicals together and causes an explosion. “There’s no explanation, it just happened”, say the investigators.

Would anyone be satisfied with such an answer? Of course not.

We don’t accept such answers in science or in everyday life; this “throw up your hands” answer is only acceptable, it seems, when the answer points to divine origins. And this, says Feser, is cognitive dissonance, a mental blind spot, on the part of proponents of atheism.

“When you push forward consistently this basic idea that things must have explanations, you’re going to be led unavoidably to the existence of an unmoved Mover, an uncaused Cause.”