Saturday, May 17, 2008

Parashat Behar: Bad Proofs of Torah #4 - The Sabbatical Year

"There are many Biblical commandments which due to their very nature could not have been thought of and promulgated by any human mind and will. No human leader would ever contemplate introducing such ordinances to his follows and no human ruler, no matter how strong and forceful, could ever impose such absurd whims of his upon any people, least of all the People of Israel" - Rabbi Eli Gottlieb.

Among the many bad proofs of the divine nature of Torah (Hey Kids, Collect Them All!) is the Sabbatical year. The posting title says "Bad Proofs of Torah #4", for this is Gottlieb's fourth "proof" in his book, The Inescapable Truth a Sound Approach to Genuine Religion. For now, let's ignore the intrinsic logical fallacies that are apparent in his introduction above, and hear the rabbi out.

Gottlieb states how difficult it would be for an agricultural society to follow such a commandment. It would be irresponsible to suggest such a law and would have been an absurdity to expect a whole nation to accept it. Why would a human ruler ever want to order his people to accept a foolish observance which would pose a real economic and physical danger? How could a human ruler guarantee the needs of the people which only nature normally provides?

Although not specifically stated by Gottlieb, this is also one of numerous "proofs by way of a falsifiable miracle" [my terminology] that is used by kiruv organizations such as Aish Hatorah. The assertion is "why would a human leader include a commandment that relies on a miracle? The first time that the miracle didn't occur, the people would say 'What the hey? I was promised X and God didn't deliver - I'm not following all of this nonsense!' Only God would therefore create such a commandment."

Now let's list all of the problems with this proof which basically revolves around the question "would a human leader to create such a law"? In the words of the renowned Jerome Lester Horwitz, soitenly!

1) First, we cannot presume to know the psychology of a religious leader that has been dead for more than 3000 years. We cannot know the psychology of the people he was leading. We have a cultural mind-set that is just too far removed from people of the Iron Age. We therefore cannot state what would be "reasonable" or "unreasonable" for a human leader to include in his set of laws.

2) This is not a "falsifiable proof" as no miracle was needed. Justification could always be made in the absence of a miraculous 6th year. As in "Because of the sins of the people, they did not merit a bountiful year." Which leads me to:

3) There is no evidence in any Biblical book to suggest that the Jewish nation actually kept the Sabbatical year for crops! To the contrary, there are only numerous passages that suggest that they didn't keep it, and attributed exile and other punishments as a result of their neglect of the commandment.

And they burnt the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia; to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had been paid her sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill threescore and ten years. - 2 Chronicles 36:19-21.

Likewise, there is no suggestion within the oral tradition that Shmittah was observed. The discussions are relegated to legal details of the commandment.

4) Some scholars suggest that the Shmittah year was always theoretical, meant to convey theological lessons. This is similar to other laws that Chazal states were never operative nor ever will be, such as the Ir Hanidachas (city that had turned to idol worship and must be completely annihilated) of Devarim 13:13 or the Ben Sorer U'Moreh (rebellious son) of Devarim 1:18.

Certain provisions of the Shmittah and Yovel years are reminiscent of earlier Babylonian laws (e.g., the clean slate proclamations of debt cancellation and land restoration). But what about the specific requirements to let the land lie fallow? Is it a uniquely Jewish innovation? Again, the answer is no.

Letting the land lie fallow on a regular basis confers numerous benefits including reduction of pests and diseases in the absence of a host crop, and replenishments of nutrients. (Crop rotation was later used to accomplish the same thing. Now, of course, we rely on fertilizers and pesticides and are paying dearly for our profligate use of them.)

Indeed, the collapse of the Sumerian civilization was likely caused by not letting their land lie fallow! The hot climate in the "fertile crescent" evaporated most of the irrigation water, leaving behind salts. Eventually, too much salt had accumulated and wheat would no longer grow. Letting the land lie fallow for several years effectively reclaimed the land by the slow leaching downward of salt. The Sumerian rulers, however, demanded increased food production in order to extend their civilization. The farmers initially switched from wheat to barley as it is more salt tolerant, but eventually even the barley crops started to fail. In one of the earliest recorded environmental disasters, "the earth turned white" due to the salt. As a result of malnutrition, a weakened army, and peasant revolt, the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadian empire. Thus, one thousand years before the traditional time of the giving of the Torah, it was already a well known fact in the Ancient Near East that letting the land lie fallow was a critically important agricultural practice. (Though completely unnecessary in the Nile regions of Egypt due to the annual inundation.)

The uniquely Jewish innovation, of course, was to turn sound agricultural technique into one of deep religious significance. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha said it more eloquently than I ever could:

The Shmitta commandment expresses an important ideal of Torah teaching. The very language used by the Bible that "the land rest" speaks of a relationship between nature and man from which modern man in an industrialized society has become dangerously alienated. The Shabbat Shabbaton, the great Shabbat that the land should have as a "Shabbat unto God" – a phrasing very similar to the one used for the Sabbath observance by man – suggests an intimacy of God-Nature relationship that limits man's proprietorship over the land. The Shmittah year frees the land from total human ownership. The yield of the land in that year, whatever grows without human effort, is ownerless and is available for all, including the animals of the earth. The philosophy of the interrelatedness of all life within itself and with its Creator is the seed for vital ecological and socio-ethical insights, responsibility. and promise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It could be interesting to compile a list of similar "miracle promises" in other religious texts. I would guess that there are more than enough examples out there.

We can prove the truth of so many religions!