We continue in our series of discussions intended to strengthen our Emunah in traditional Torah beliefs with a discussion of two important issues: that Orthodox Judaism represents the authentic version of Judaism, and the impact of Middle Eastern archaeology on religious belief.
Only Orthodox Judaism Withstands the Test of Time
Many have been presented with the evidence of the prior essays and respond that they now believe in the divine origin of the Torah. However, they wish to be presented with evidence that Orthodoxy is the proper manner of Torah interpretation and practice. One answer (Mishlei 12:19) is that truth withstands the test of time while lies do not. We stressed last week that the Jewish people on a whole have passed the test of time. We quoted Mark Twain who accurately observed that whereas all the great empires and cultures of the past have come and gone, only the Jewish people remain as vigorous as they were in ancient times.
Similarly, there have been many deviationist sects in Judaism since ancient times. These include the Northern Kingdom of Israel (of Sefer Melachim), Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans and Karaites. Many of these groups were powerful, large and highly influential for very significant periods of time. However, each of these groups has either ceased to exist or is in its death throes. Only Orthodox Judaism withstands the test of time.
The same holds true today for non-Orthodox versions of Judaism. It is well known and documented that non-Orthodox versions of Judaism are in rapid decline (or, in the case of Reconstructionist Judaism, failing to gain any significant traction). This phenomenon is most stunningly documented in New Jersey’s “Jewish Standard” of July 15, 2011, which reported that a 2010 professional study of Jews in Baltimore made an astounding discovery: Barely fourteen percent of non-Orthodox Jews between 18 and 34 want to be part of the Jewish community. In an essay distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in August 2011, Joel Alperson, a past national president campaign chair for the United Jewish Communities (who states that he is not Orthodox), writes:
“Non-Orthodox Judaism is confronted by rising levels of secularism that almost always lead to assimilation -- a trend that within a generation or two could render Reform and Conservative Judaism largely irrelevant in North America (and abroad as well). Non-Orthodox Jews’ general discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life, left alone, stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence.”
“This prediction is neither original nor new. From studies about very high interfaith marriage rates to growing assimilation percentages, we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by just about every metric we have at our disposal”.
By contrast, Orthodox communities are vigorous, vibrant and growing at a very high rate with many new institutions opening each year. As we emphasized in our last issue, this is entirely counterintuitive. One would think the less demanding versions of Judaism that are more in harmony with contemporary values would thrive. Nonetheless, specifically the most demanding and most traditional version of Judaism is the most successful version of Judaism in the twenty first century. Indeed, the enduring version of Judaism is the authentic form of Judaism.
Sadly, the reality in the State of Israel is not much different. Ideologically motivated secular Zionism, whose adherents made enormous sacrifices and contributions to create a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, has been in considerable decline for decades. The Zionists who remain steadfast in their devotion to Medinat Yisrael are the Religious Zionists. This is evidence by reports that now nearly half of combat officers in the Israel Defense Forces are Orthodox Religious Zionists, although this group constitutes only about ten percent of the population of Israel. Religious Zionists also serve in highly disproportionate number in the most elite combat units in the IDF. The secular Zionist ideals clearly have continually waned in recent decades in its influence on the youth of Israel, whereas Religious Zionist commitment is stronger than ever.
The Gemara (Shabbat 104a) expresses the point very well. It states “The truth stands and lies do not.” Indeed, when Orthodox Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite Jews interact, they find that their Tefillot and observance of Mitzvot are essentially the same, with the differences lying primarily in style. This is because each group of Jews has, incredibly, preserved the Mesorah (our ancient traditions) with a minimal amount of variety. Indeed, based on our observation, the only reason they survive as Jews is because they observe the Mesorah. Yirmiyahu (2:13) describes Hashem and the Torah as a “source of living waters” and bemoans those Jews who abandoned Torah for “broken cisterns that do not retain water.”
There have been extensive archaeological excavations conducted in the Middle East during the past two hundred years. In that time, stunning discoveries have been made which support the accuracy of the Tanach. Examples abound in the Da’at Mikra commentary to Tanach. A specific example is the archaeological account of King Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah). Reliefs created by Assyrian artists depicting Sancheiriv’s conquest of Lachish, described in Melachim II 18:13-17, were discovered on the remains of Sancheiriv’s palace. They are currently on display in the British Museum in London (room 10).
Also on display at the British Museum (room 55) is Sancheiriv’s chronicle of many of his military campaigns including his campaign in Yehudah. Sancheiriv’s chronicle is replete with descriptions of his victories including in Yehuda as is recorded in Melachim II 18:13. However, Sancheiriv boasts only that he set siege to Yerushalayim and that he trapped Chizkiyahu “like a bird in a cage”. However, unlike all his other campaigns where he always records conquests, Sancheiriv does not specifically mention that he conquered Yerushalayim. This fits perfectly with the Tanach record (Melachim II Perek 19) of Sancheiriv setting siege to Yerushalayim, but failing to conquer it. Sancheiriv’s failure to record the miracle, recorded in Tanach (ibid. Pasuk 35) of the great smite where 185,000 Assyrian soldiers were smitten by an angel, is not problematic since in the ancient world, only the Jews recorded their defeats and their failures. Sancheiriv, following this pattern, could record only that he surrounded Yerushalayim, but would not record his miraculous defeat in Yerushalayim. Finally, the tunnel dug by Chizkiyahu to bring water to Yerushalayim (Melachim II 20:20) has been discovered It is available to visit on site in Yerushalayim and online in pictures. The Museum of the Living Torah in Brooklyn also has an artifact of Chizkiyahu.
Some draw conclusions negating the veracity of the Tanach text on the basis of the absence of archaeological evidence for certain events. A response to such assertions is first to note the highly precarious approach of drawing conclusions from the absence of evidence. This is particularly true in archaeology were precious little from the ancient world has been preserved and precious little of what has been preserved has been excavated. Excavations of Tanach sites in Israel are an ongoing effort and new and sometimes very exciting discoveries are made every year. For example, David Dobkin (TABC ’07) told me in August 2010 that he had recently participated in a Hebrew University excavation in Yerushalayim where his team discovered huge piles of ashes which were scientifically dated to 586 B.C.E., the date of Churban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash).
The example regarding David HaMelech demonstrates this point. In the words of National Geographic (secular) magazine “Until the 1993 discovery of a ninth-century B.C.[E.] stela (ancient monument) inscribed with ‘House of David’ there was no nonbiblical evidence that David actually existed. Few dispute it now”. Prior to 1993 many secular scholars pointed to the absence of archaeological for David HaMelech as proof he never existed. The 1993 discovery should put to rest any conclusions rejecting the truth of a Tanach text based on the absence of nonbiblical evidence.
In regards to excavations which appear on a superficial level to contradict Tanach texts, the contradictions emerge from either inaccurate archaeology or inaccurate understanding of Tanach. An example of the first variety of error is the conclusion of some archaeologists that the battle of Ai described in Sefer Yehoshua did not occur, a conclusion based on excavations at Ai showing that the city was not inhabited at the time of Yehoshua’s entry into Eretz Yisrael (Encyclopedia Judaica 2:471-472). However, Rav Yoel Bin Nun writes (Mechkerei Yehudah V’Shomron-Ariel, second conference, 5752, pp. 278-289) that he has proven that the wrong area had been excavated. He claims to have found the correct location of Ai, which, when subsequently excavated, yielded evidence that it was in fact inhabited during the time of Yehoshua’s conquest.
Sefer Shofetim 4:2 in regards to the city of Chatzor is an example of an improperly understood Pasuk. Chatzor has been very extensively excavated (it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site) and shows evidence of its existence and burning during the time of Sefer Yehoshua (11:10-12) and Sefer Melachim (9:16). However, it is clear from the excavations that the city was not heavily populated during the time of Sefer Shofetim unlike the Tanach which seems to suggest that it was. However, a careful reading of the Pasuk (see the Radak and Da’at Mikra ad. loc.) reveals that the Tanach teaches specifically with the use of the past tense for ruling (Malach) that Chatzor was not a major center during the time of Sefer Shofetim.
Conclusion: Aristotle, Rambam and the Big Bang Theory
Jews who were exposed to philosophic and scientific thought were challenged for over two thousand years by Aristotle’s assertion that the world was eternal and never created. For thousands of years Orthodox Jews steadfastly held to their belief in creation, repeated and emphasized every Friday night during Kiddush. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed) devotes much attention to this issue in the second chapter. Lo and behold, in the twentieth century, with the emergence of evidence regarding the Big Bang, the consensus in the scientific community changed and agreed that the world was created! Although it took two thousand years, those who did not deviate from Torah belief were proven correct.
Our experience with Aristotle and his theory of an eternal world serves as a powerful model for dealing with conflicts between Torah and science in general and archaeology specifically. In certain instances that the conflict emerges from an inaccurate or superficial understanding of Torah that appears to contradict scientific evidence. However, it may be that what is considered to be “true” by current academicians may emerge as false in later years. A friend of mine told me of his medical school graduation ceremony at which the school president stated that half of what the students had been taught is false. Science is an evolving endeavor with new developments regularly emerging. Thus, when considering conflicts between Torah and science one must consider the distinct possibility that the science is incorrect. This is most certainly true in the case of archaeology.
 The fact that Sancheiriv placed an eight foot by eighty foot depiction of his conquest of Lachish and did not place a mural of a conquest of Yeruhalayim, the capital city of Judea and seat of the Jewish Temple, also indicates that he did not conquer Yerushalayim.