Taking something on faith...
David left us with an interesting comment. He remarked that the material we were reading and discussing had to be taken on faith. Implying that it was not historically real.
He said that as if it was a problem, that it meant that the material was therefore tainted.
Let’s start with a bit of perspective.
Myths are ‘sacred history’. They are not verifiable historical facts. They are images, symbols, and stories that define a culture’s values and meaning.
Our TaNaK aka The Torah, Nevim (all the prophetic writings including the book of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, the major prophet books and well as the 12 Prophets book) and then the Ketuvim which is all the rest of the biblical text, aka The Hebrew Scriptures is not a historical document in the modern sense of the word, but a collection of mythology. There is nothing of significance that can ever by historically verified. The stories recount dialogues of the characters in the text – all of that is the significant and meaningful accounts and none of that can be verified.
There was no means of verification – without news reporters, eye witness written records, and clearly no audio records or video records – all the significant means of verification are lacking. Just as having the birth certificate of Abraham Lincoln does not verify the words he spoke at the speech we call the Gettysburg Address, so does all the archeological material that can be amassed will never verify what the Hebrews heard standing at Mount Sinai, or what songs David wrote and sung.
The most semi-verifiable texts are the major prophet and minor prophet texts when they contain the revelations of those prophets. Since these are the writings of some person recording their mystical vision and revelations . However, like the writings of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, or some of the texts of the Buddha – the possibility that we can ever verify who the author was and that the text contains the actual words of that author, this is not really possible. If you imagine how to verify Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and apply this to those text I mentioned you will see the difficulties. We can verify Lincoln’s writings but we can never verify those other texts with the same sort of accuracy.
The TaNaK is mythology. It is important as such. It should not be confused with a historical record of the events contained in it. It has more in common with the historical plays written by Shakespeare, or the Homeric tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Rabbinic writings of the Oral Torah, such as Talmud, Midrash collections are again commentary on the Torah and the rest of the TaNaK writings. They are the opinions of the writers, but they are themselves not purporting to document verifiable history.
As for the Kabbalah writings for example of the Zohar and Rabbi Isaac Luria, all of these are again not of much historical verifiable information but rather the accounts of the mystics and their understanding as gathered from their mystical events. They contribute to the mythology of Rabbinic Judaism.
Mythology is not to be confused with verifiable historical information. It may be coincidence contain facts that can be verified, but that is not the reason those stories are recorded and recounted. For example, it turns out that there was a city of Troy and the citizens were involved in a war with those who we call the ancient Greeks. But those Homeric myths are not trying to record history as we now know it but were recording mythology – sacred/important stories that define and describe the cultural values of a people.
For the most part we all take on faith the writings of historians, scientists, and news reporters. We almost never verify what those people are recounting ourselves. We do not do the actual fact checking. We simply take on faith that someone has and can fact check those statements. Thus, we take on faith the theory of the Big Bang as describing the creation of the universe. The writings of William James fully explores these important idea in his books Pragmatism, The Meaning of Truth, and his essay The Will To Believe.
We can on faith many things – since we do not actually have the time or the means to do actual fact checking ourselves. So, dismissing something because we have to take it on faith is a foolish statement since it fails to appreciate how much we rely on trusting others to do the job of fact checking and verifying. We simply assume that something like the Big Bang theory of creation is verifiable whereas the account of creation in the Torah or in the Zohar and in the teachings of Rabbi Luria are not capable of being fact checked.
Mythology is not important because it can be fact checked. It is important because it brings purpose and meaning to one’s life. Viktor Frankl in his books Man’s Search for Meaning and The Doctor and the Soul, explore and explain the vital importance for a person’s psychological well-being and even physical survival is vital for having something, some ideas, that can affirm that life is worth living. Mythology is created for that very purpose. It is a means to give and to explain how and why life is worth living. Mythology inspires us.
A differentiate between verifiable facts that can be said to be true and ideas that are inspirational and that are truths. I take the word ‘truth’ from the Declaration of Independence wherein it states: ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is important to recognize that statement contains no verifiable fact. It merely states an inspirational declaration of faith. It has become a political doctrine that is the motivation for the laws that have been enacted in our country. It is more like the mythology of America then any statement of history or science.
For more of an exploration of these ideas you can refer to my essays in my book Find Your Way.
Therefore, I believe we can find inspiring truths contained within the writings of the Jewish mystics. They are records that continue to describe, explore and explain our people’s mythology. It would be a serious mistake to think that they contain any verifiable statements. However, it would also be a serious mistake to dismiss them. We need myths to give life meaning.