Is It Idolatrous to Claim Certainty about Religious “Facts”?

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A heck of a question as the title of this blog post, I know. Here’s how it came about. I’ve often wondered why people who take their primary religious texts literally have such a fervent belief in the exact things written there. Obviously both within Judaism and beyond, some religious adherents allow for textual uncertainty and some do not. What drives some of us to claim absolute certainly about our religious beliefs? That anxiety-inducing avenue of investigation is not the point of this post, you’ll be happy to know.

What I find more curious–and important to explore–are the implications of claiming such certainty, particularly from a Jewish perspective. A synagogue friend forwarded to me this morning a blog post from Out of the Ortho Box, an Orthodox blog by Ruchi Koval that I’ve found interesting in the past. In the post, Why I’m Not a Pluralist, Koval says that she cannot allow for other Jewish perspectives to be equally valid to her own Orthodox Jewish perspective because:

“Religious pluralism does not make any mathematical sense to me, because to me, religion is based on facts.  Either God did or didn’t write the Torah as we have it today.  Either the Torah was or wasn’t given at Sinai.  Either Moses did or didn’t perform those miracles.  If religion isn’t based on a belief in facts, then what is it based on?”

There’s a healthy comment thread under the post as you might imagine. (When you’re done here, I encourage you to go there and read it.) I’ll make no earnest attempt to answer Koval’s question beyond saying that religious beliefs have a wide basis. What stood out to me more is the idea that the only valid religious perspectives are those that are based in fact.

If that were true, it would mean that the only valid religious perspectives–or truly religious people, for that matter–would be those religious adherents who believed in the literal nature of their primary texts. That would leave no room for doubt, but would offer almost infinite room for the most fundamental of religious perspectives. If religious perspectives were required to be vetted by this one thing to determine validity, no non-Orthodox Jew would be considered religious–but most Taliban would.

That was the red flag for me to delve a little more deeply. There seems to be a category error here. I don’t believe you can be a “religious Jew” and claim factual religious certainty at the same time. Why? Because for us Jews, the only one who knows with certainty the absolute, concrete “facts” about religion–whether Judaism or any other faith–is God. God knows all. We do not, nor can we.

We can make educated guesses. We can follow our heart and our inner sense of knowing. We can listen for the guidance of the still, small voice. And we can use all of that as a basis for belief. But we will never have proof because what we don’t have is fact. Merely saying that you believe what is written in the Torah is literal fact does not make it so. Neither does it falsify it. In fact, it has no bearing on textual veracity at all.

No matter how fervently you believe.

The value of our sacred texts comes in how well we allow ourselves to learn through them. And that learning is almost always about how to treat each other on the planet. How many times in the the Torah does saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” get anyone ahead? (We’re still in BamidbarKorach, anyone?)

The only one to whom deferment is required by the Hebrew Bible is God. Judaism–and its daughter religions as well (Christianity, Islam)–centers on the belief in one God. Not a multitude of God, not worship of ideas or inanimate objects, not worship of human beings. Just ephemeral Deity.

On those grounds, I do happen to think it’s idolatrous for Jews, at least, to claim certainty about religious “facts”. To say we have factual religious certainty without hard, verifiable knowledge that remains known only to God creates two problems. It elevates those alleged “facts” above God, because God may not be in agreement with us that they are, indeed, facts. And it elevates us to be equal with God, because to know such things with certainty as “facts” gives us an omniscience about the world that up until now has been solely available to God.

Both of those are idolatrous acts. If there is but one God and we–and any possible fact or concept–are not God, then to claim knowledge of factual verification of the Hebrew Bible and all that is contained within it without a.) being given independently verifiable proof by God or b.) having an omniscience equal to God is problematic. Far from being the definition of Jewishly “religious”, from a very traditional Jewish perspective, claiming absolute factual certainly about Judaism more appropriately meets the definition of heresy. (For idolatry is exactly that for Jews.)

Now I don’t for one minute believe that Koval is an idolater or anything less than a just, loving, religious Jew. But I do think we need to keep the implications of our words in mind when we talk about Judaism and what makes us Jewish. “Fact”, or the lack of it, does not in any way denote or separate religious Jews from anyone else. The real facts is that Judaism is plural, like it or not. Until Orthodox Jews or anyone else gets a telegram from Hashem telling them at they’re the most chosen of the chosen, no one can say heirs is the only true Judaism.

You can think you know. But that’s as far as you can go. That inability to know for sure–an inability created by God–is what brings pluralism into being in the first place. If we truly want to learn how to love each other on this planet, making friends with pluralism would be a better idea than considering everyone else’s path to God as an unworthy one.

The doubt, the struggle, and the lack of absolute certainly within Judaism are among our religion’s most challenging and most instructive elements. They make us what we are. The more we try to lessen the struggle and claim certainty as Jews, the more we needlessly cut ourselves off from each other.

The merit we accrue from the mitzvot depends on how well we love, not on how much we’re right.

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What do you think?