Friday, May 1, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Quoting out of Verbal Context

Logic, logic, I’m sick to death of your logic.
OK, now that I have the Trekker in me out of the way, let’s talk about logic.
I watched some online lectures on a particular field of Judaism and afterward I emailed the teacher.  I got some interesting ideas out of the course.  But the field strongly relied on a fallacy.  Since 1998 it has become increasingly clear to me that fallacies are at the basis of the urban legends about Torah.
When it comes to Jewish law, the main fallacy is quoting out of context.  There are three layers to the context, and each plays its role.
One layer is the simple verbage context.  You saw right off the bat that the urban legend of lex talionis comes from using two verses of Torah but ignoring related verbage.
You also saw that the issue of “thou shalt not kill” ignored the textual requirement for execution by the court under specific conditions (as well as being mistranslated, which is a subject for much later).
And so on and so forth.
Those legal experts I talked about who run Jewish courts know Torah backwards and forwards.  They also know Mishnah backwards and forwards, and Gemara, and Mishneh Torah, and Shulchan Arukh, and all the legal decisions made since then.
They can't look things up like an American lawyer.  That is so much easier now with digital systems like Westlaw and Lexis, that it isn’t even funny.  In Jewish law, the experts know everything by heart.  They still do their homework because the human memory is a funny thing and they don’t want to bring on ill-repute by doing a sloppy job.  But it’s not like American law where you don’t dare walk into court without doing your homework because yesterday’s superior court decision may have invalidated part of your argument.
The verbage on Jewish law extends to 30,000 pages or more.  And the experts know it all.  Through years and decades of study.  The person who isn’t willing to study all of that material will never become expert enough to participate in a Jewish court.
I’m not that expert.  All I know is that every time somebody comes up with a question that reveals an urban legend about Torah, the single most important step in answering it is to look at the verbage.  And usually, the answer is right next to it.  A rabbi said that 19 centuries ago, and it’s still true today.  Samuel Levine found that every time a missionary used what was supposedly a supporting quote, examination of the context “right next to it” showed that the verbage actually meant exactly the opposite.  This will also come up again much later.
Everybody knows about the problem of quoting out of context, if they know anything about sound bytes and how they lead to arguments because they don’t accurately reflect what the person really meant.  It’s time to remember that the same thing applies to the Bible.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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