One morning on the way to school, my son Jeremy asked me, “Are the stories of the Torah real?”
Jeremy (who is nine years old) understands the difference between real and make-believe. His favorite cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants (about a talking sponge who works at a restaurant deep in the ocean) is make-believe, whereas his family and friends are real. Jeremy’s question required a simple yes or no answer, but it didn’t feel simple to me. If I answered yes, I risked reducing the Torah to a history and biology textbook, but if I answered no, these tales would be mere fairy tales, as fictitious as a speaking sponge.
If only Jeremy knew how much ink has been spilled on his question! This week’s Torah portion, recounts the greatest miracle in human history – the splitting of the Red Sea. I have entire books on my shelf which offer scientific explanations (complete with graphs and maps) to prove that the splitting of the sea occurred exactly as recounted in the Torah portion. In The Riddle of the Exodus, Dr James Long notes that the scientific term for the event is a “wind set down,” a “rare oceanographic phenomenon (which) results in literally the parting of waters, creating a path on dry ground.” Although I found Long’s arguments convincing, I’ve reached the point where the questions of factual accuracy don’t matter as much to me.
During my rabbinical training, I attended an interfaith retreat in Texas with seminary students from various religions. At the conference, a Christian seminary student told me that if archaeologists ever found the bones of Jesus (and scientifically verified that they were actually Jesus’ bones), he would convert to Judaism. Since faith in Jesus’ resurrection is fundamental to Christianity, if this belief were proven false, he would need to abandon his religion. Reflecting on this conversation, I realized that no archaeological discovery could make me leave Judaism.
Even if archaeologists could prove (as some have attempted) that the Exodus never occurred, my faith would be unshaken. My beliefs don’t rest on the factual veracity of the biblical tales but rather on their power to teach us how to live. The story of the Exodus has throughout the years led individuals and groups to stand up for freedom. More than the splitting of the sea itself, the real miracle is the power of the story to inspire each generation to work toward liberation.
This perspective is what twentieth-century philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes as “second naiveté.” In his book Stages of Faith, theologian James Fowler portrays various stages of faith beginning in infancy and continuing through the lifespan. Fowler describes an early stage (which Riceur called “first naiveté”) wherein a child believes in the mythological stories of one’s religion as literally true. Then during adolescence, questions can pierce this faith and cause it to crumble. Subsequently, one can reach “second naiveté,” a renewed faith with a more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of one’s tradition.
As Fowler explains, movement from stage to stage is not automatic but rather an internal process of reflection and struggle. Yet each stage is a prerequisite to the next. To eventually reach second naiveté, one initially needs to experience first naiveté.
After a split-second of reflection, I answered Jeremy. “Yes,” I said emphatically. “The stories of the Torah are definitely real.”