In our last issue, we began outlining some of the reasons for my steadfast belief in Hashem and the divine origin of the Torah. We discussed the argument from design and the argument from an unparalleled mass revelation whose contents has been passed down in an unbroken chain of tradition from the millions of witnesses to their biological descendents who are alive until this very day. We continue this week with approaches based on Jewish history, Halachah and Tanach.
The Argument from Jewish History – The Aruch HaShulchan
The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 1:10) wrote (in 1903):
There is no greater sign and proof than our survival of nearly two thousand years of Exile. The only reason for our survival is because of Hashem’s Hashgachah (Divine providence) that is not removed from us even for a moment like a father who watches over his only child and chastises him for the latter’s benefit.
Indeed, one who ponders the wonders of Jewish history, unparalleled in any other world culture, realizes that logically we should have disappeared long ago. Our survival attests to the fact that Hashem watches over His special people. Indeed, the stories of Am Yisrael’s close encounters with extinction in the Tanach (such as the infertility of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu as well as Yitzchak Avinu and Rivkah Imeinu, the Exodus from Mitzrayim and the parting of the Yam Suf, and being saved from Haman) have been repeated in our time.
The Jewish People seemed to have been lost and finished as a nation after World War II. Yet we managed to establish Medinat Yisrael in 1948 despite overwhelming odds. Rav Yehuda Amital (Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion) often commented that some future historians will likely cast grave doubts on the authenticity of the story of a downtrodden people, who lost a third of its people within six years, who, three years later, managed to reestablish its homeland by winning a war fought on multiple fronts which at times even was won by throwing seltzer bottles from planes and firing fake cannons (such as the Davidka).
Similarly, one who reads Michael Oren’s Six Days of War can only be amazed at how a desperate situation for the Jewish State shockingly turned into a stunning victory for Israel. For example, one is amazed at the irrational behavior of the Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians who prematurely retreated at their respective positions of battle, thereby enabling Israel to take control over so much territory. One can only conclude, as even Moshe Dayan did at the conclusion of this war, that this is another example of Hashem sustaining His people. One who studies the Yom Kippur War will also discover that Israel’s surviving this war was an incredible feat. The Arab armies were well prepared for battle (unlike 1967) and Israel was devastatingly unprepared. Despite this fact and the need to fight on two fronts, Israel emerged badly bruised, but intact.
In the United States, as well as in Israel, sociologists in the 1950’s predicted that Orthodox Judaism would soon disappear. Look Magazine, in 1964, ran a famous cover story entitled “The Vanishing Orthodox Jew.” Baruch Hashem, at this point, there are (Beli Ayin Hara) more than two million Orthodox Jews worldwide (including Chareidi and Modern Orthodox Jews) and the once popular Look Magazine has vanished. Moreover, Orthodox Jewry is the only Jewish religious group that is, with Hashem’s help, increasing in numbers.
Interestingly, a Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate suggested (also see Rav Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofeik”) that Hashem decided to create Medinat Yisrael in 1948 to maintain our faith in Torah after the Holocaust. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik recalled that when he traveled from Boston to New York to give Shiur at Yeshiva University during the Second World War, he constantly encountered missionaries who argued that the Holocaust was “proof” that Hashem had abandoned the Jewish People. The establishment of Medinat Yisrael undermined this argument that was used against us.
Mark Twain’s famous words regarding the Jews help clinch the Aruch Hashulchan’s argument:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
We religious Jews understand very well that divine providence is the secret of his immortality. Indeed, Rav Yaakov Emden said in the introduction to his Siddur - "By the life of my head," the greatest miracle is the continued survival of the Jewish people. Rav Emden asserts that the miracle of Jewish survival is even greater than the miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf.
Rav Soloveitchik – The Argument from Halachah
Rav Soloveitchik writes in his classic essay, The Ish HaHalachah, that the Halachah is the most compelling proof for the truth of Torah. I understand this to mean that the scholar (or student guided by a competent teacher) who plumbs the depths of the Halachic system will be overwhelmed with its beauty and majesty to the point that he is left with no option other than to accept the divine origin of this system. It also might mean that one who spends a lifetime dedicated to abiding by the Halachic system will conclude that it is indeed the finest prescription for leading a fulfilling and content life. He will also comprehend why a recurring theme in Sefer Devarim that the Torah’s rules are “LeTov Lach,” serve our best interest. This idea is best expressed by the Yeushalmi (Chagigah 1:10) that the light of Torah will draw people close to Hashem.
One striking example of the benefit of a Torah lifestyle is the dramatically lower incidence of divorce among observant Jews than among non-observant Jews. A Torah lifestyle which include adherence to the discipline of Taharat HaMishpachah and “forced vacations” on Shabbat and Yom Tov is most conducive to creating a content married and family life. Considering that most of life’s happiness or misery hinges on the success of one’s marriage, Orthodox Jewry’s far lower incidence of divorce is a fact of monumental importance. Another meaning of Rav Soloveitchik’s assertion appears to be the incredible enterprise of applying the ancient Halachah to the contemporary situation. The world in general and the Jewish People specifically in the last hundred years have undergone a dramatic and unprecedented degree of change in all areas ranging from technology to sociology and political reality. Nonetheless, Poskim have readily applied the venerated concepts of the Gemara to modern circumstances.
Amazingly, Poskim find a precedent in the Gemara for virtually every new phenomenon that emerges in society. The Halachah is a fully functional and sophisticated system despite the inability to create new rules in most situations. It functions beautifully on an almost entirely precedent based system. This is because of the miraculous existence of a precedent in the Tanach or Gemara for every new phenomenon that emerges.
For example, precedents exist in the Gemara for electricity (see Sanhedrin 77), in vitro fertilization (see Chullin 70), and Jews who deviate from Halachah who are psychologically unable to grasp their error (Sanhedrin 26). A perusal of every issue of the Israeli Torah journal “Techumin” and America’s “Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society” demonstrates the ability of Halachah to be applied to the contemporary situation in Medinat Yisrael despite the fact that we had not enjoyed political independence for nearly two thousand years.
A comparison with the United States Constitution, an extraordinary document created by human hands, is helpful. It has succeeded far beyond the expectations of its authors. However, critics have recently noted its shortcomings in that it does not adequately address the many new technological and social phenomena that could not have possibly been anticipated by its human authors. The Constitution does allow for Amendments, but this is an acknowledgement that America’s Founding Fathers could not have foreseen every eventuality. The fact that the Torah contains precedents for every new phenomenon leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the Torah is of divine origin and that the Talmud and its commentaries are the result of pronounced divine assistance. There exists no parallel in any other culture in the world. Natural occurrences as a rule are not unique and reoccur throughout history. A unique occurrence points to a supernatural phenomenon.
Similarly, I find it profoundly inspirational to study Tanach using and the Megadim Tanach journal and the Da’at Mikra commentary. They have used the sophisticated tools of modern literary analysis that Bible critics use to denigrate Torah, to provide stunningly profound insights into Tanach and Chazal. A perusal of every issue of Megadim contains breathtaking new insights into our holy Torah and Chazal. Indeed, Rav Mordechai Breuer observes (in an essay published in Herzog College’s “Esther Hee Haddassa” p. 66) that just as the pole that Haman wished to hang Mordechai upon was used to hang Haman, the methodologies that Bible critics wish to use to disparage the Torah are used to bring glory to Torah and Chazal. Da’at Mikra is a late twentieth century commentary on the entire Tanach written by Orthodox scholars who have used the tools of archaeology, geography and knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages to add invaluable insights to Torah knowledge. This work also thoroughly but subtly responds in a highly sophisticated and effective manner to the claims and accusations of Biblical Criticism.
In short, the developments of the last two centuries have hardly undermined the Torah. Just the opposite is true. Rav Hershel Schachter once observed that new challenges posed by technology and other novelties have literally forced Talmudic scholars to refine and define areas of Torah that were not addressed in earlier generations. For example, issues of the precise definition of motherhood, paternity and fire have been formulated, intensely debated and refined by twentieth and twenty first century Poskim due to unprecedented developments in science and technology. The developments and discoveries have enriched the Torah to an extent far beyond any reasonable expectation.
In coming issues we shall IY”H and B”N continue this series with a discussion of how promises in the Torah have been fulfilled throughout history including our times, pragmatic theory of truth, archaeology and why Hashem makes a bit of a challenge.