Friday, May 8, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- forgetting your history

Quoting out of context usually applies to using part of the words to mean something when what was said actually means something else. 
With Jewish law, part of the urban legends come from this classic aspect of quoting out of context.
Another part comes from thinking of Jewish law from the wrong historical context.  This will come up again in the next section of the blog but with Jewish law the issue is confusing concepts in Jewish law with something that has to be historically impossible.
Calling tumah uncleanness and thinking it means failed hygiene is an example.
I’ll give another example of this issue although it doesn’t involve the kind of tumah that requires immersion.  Deuteronomy 23:13-15 says soldiers should have a “pin” in their packs to use when they “go” outside the camp.  On the surface of it, you would think this was a hygienic regulation, despite the fact that it comes from 33 centuries before the Germ Theory of Disease.
It also originated 34 centuries before medicine understood the origin of dysentery.  Western medicine once thought that dysentery was a disease of the tropics, but large outbreaks in New York State helped prove that was wrong.
Dysentery is the result of an infected water supply, and soldiers had to camp close to their water supply, such as a river.  So this regulation had the potential to spread dysentery.  Nobody knew that at the time, and nobody had the science to prove it until late in the 1800s CE.  So the urban legend that Deuteronomy helps prevent disease in the camp is out of context for the state of medical knowledge at the time.  The people then didn’t know it. 
The other historical facet that leads to misunderstanding is viewing Torah only as a series of stories or laws that applied in other times.  I’ve shown that Torah deals with issues that the law still has to deal with: ownership, permanent or temporary; transfer of ownership and the rules for that; economic exchanges and disparities; physical conflict.  The idea that it’s outdated is an urban legend.
So is the idea that just because we’re living in the 21st century, we do things better.  The same human needs and habits drive law today that drove it when people started living by Torah law.  There have been dreamers thrown up in history from time to time who tried to come up with a way to get away from law by pretending to codify it in simple terms.  It even provided one company with an ad tag: “No rules, just right.”  That’s an oxymoron.  “Right” always has to be defined by rules that can be applied by an impartial party when two people come into conflict over what it means. 
As long as human nature remains the same, Torah will not be outdated because human nature is exactly what Torah and Jewish law deal with from a perspective of millennia of experience.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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