Oftentimes, people try to categorize the Torah in black-and-white genres, as either completely factual or completely fictitious. In the former view, the Torah is a non-fiction recording of historical events beginning with the literal account of the world’s creation and culminating in the Jewish people’s entrance into the Promised Land. This view sees all the biblical personalities, ranging from the matriarchs and patriarchs to the Pharaohs and warring tribes (Amalekites and so forth), as real people who existed and who influenced the Jewish people and their development as a nation.
On the opposing end, the Torah is seen as a fraud: a simplistic and often inaccurate account of history which ignores and delegitimizes evolution and documents the existence of people such as Abraham and Sarah, or, more to the point, Adam and Eve, of whom secular history has no evidence. This view is troubled by the lack of documented evidence for the various events contained in the Bible’s early chronicles, and doubts the authenticity of events like Creation, the Flood, the Exodus from Egypt, and the Divine revelation on Mount Sinai which resulted in a collection of God-given laws. With an awareness of these two schools of thought, how does one approach a true understanding of the Bible? Is truth different from fact and fiction? And who propounds these two schools of thought? What other assumptions and beliefs do people of each side hold, and how are they reflected in their respective views on Torah? And, at the crux of this debate, who is right?
The underlying assumption of the “Torah is historically accurate” school of thought is the belief in Divine authorship of the Torah. This view sees the Torah as the direct work emanating from God and recorded word-for-word by Moses on Mount Sinai (or, some more broadly say, over the course of the Jewish People’s forty-year journey through the Wilderness), and rejects such theories as Biblical Criticism, seeing the idea of a human-authored Bible heretical in nature and antithetical to Jewish belief and practice. To make a gross generalization, the more literal approach to the historicity of the Bible is supported by Orthodox Jews, who see the Bible as, at its core, a compendium of laws God has commanded the Jewish people. Questioning the authenticity and accuracy of the Torah, in either its Divine origins or in the veracity of its narratives, is part and parcel of delegitimizing the concept of mitzvot, of laws incumbent upon each and every Jew. If the Torah is to be questioned in terms of its origins, its accuracy, and its authority, the hope of an eternal Jewish nation comes under severe speculation and doubt.
In the “Torah is historically inaccurate” school of thought, the central belief which permits speculation regarding the Torah’s authenticity has been Documentary Hypothesis, the academic theory that the Torah is a man-made work compiled by various authors over an elongated period of time and is, due to its origins, fallible and capable of historical inaccuracy. Originally propounded by Protestants and later adopted by Reform and Conservative Jewry, this approach to the Bible is often shared in connection to the idea of man-made Jewish law, of halacha as a manifestation of men’s ideas and innovations as opposed to a Divine set of laws, and therefore can lead to the questioning of authority. As a result of such ideology, some Jews have come to connect to Judaism through cultural and national avenues rather than through the more traditional legal ties of the mitzvot. If ritual practice is of human origin, much of its authority is diminished and its practice is, if for no obvious and immediate and intuitive benefit, viewed as somewhat foolish.
Both these schools of thought, so polarized and so starkly contrasted, seem, in my mind, to be philistine (truly, no pun intended). The idea of the Torah as an historically perfect document whose very goal is to espouse and recount factual history is naïve and perhaps a bit narrow-minded. For example, in light of scientific developments which support the theory of evolution, the idea of taking Genesis’ creation narrative literally is troublesome, to be generous. However, the highly cynical viewpoint of Bible critics is most ungenerous. Holding the validity of alternative ancient documents contemporaneous with the Bible as more reliable sources for better verification of historical events is also foolish. Why, instead of trying to find events in Jewish history recorded in other people’s annals, don’t we instead look in our own, in the very historical documents which would have most reason to record our history, such as our own Bible?
The polarization of fact and fiction becomes relevant to this discussion, as the line drawn between these two genres is often a bit bizarre. This is especially so in relation to a document like the Torah, which has layers and layers of discussion surrounding it precisely because it is so intentionally vague, most unlike fact and more unlike fiction. Fiction generally (and this is a platitude for which I ask all readers to bear with me) reads as fact; meaning, fiction uses the makeup of characters, setting, dialogue, and description, all things contained in reality, in order to simulate believable, imaginable events. Even the most far-fetched of narratives is composed in the voice of a narrator who assumes the story to be true. Interestingly, good non-fiction reads like fiction (I hope the line between these two genres is becoming nice and murky now). As opposed to reality which can seem to be endless, purposeless, and random, non-fiction is generally arranged like a plotted narrative with rising and falling action, moments of climax, and moments of decline, and it portrays human beings with hubris, humility, tragic flaws, and hidden strengths, all aspects of the greatest of fictional tales. In short, the verisimilitude of fiction and non-fiction is both doubtful and evidenced at the same time, a wonderful irony and dialectic which should be appreciated in its own right. These nuances can provide insight for all students of the Bible.
The Bible is a work of great complex plots, with characters who are wonderful but flawed, wicked but clever, and intelligent but constantly fallible. Like those of great pieces of fiction and non-fiction, its plots can be well-rounded, with characters multi-faceted and complex. The point is that the Torah is unique because it transcends “fact” and “fiction” and grasps what is truth, something mysteriously deeper than the often-narrow labels which “fiction” or “fact” can communicate. The Torah can be understood as a wholly inaccurate record of the universe’s creation, or it can be understood as a precise description of how “God created the heavens and the earth;” but better yet, the Torah can be understood as a book which isn’t simply trying to tell us what happened, or to dupe us into believing things which didn’t happen.
The Torah is teaching us deeper truths, truths about what truth is: meta-truths about how humans think, how the Divine and the earthly coexist and co-destroy, how truth is not necessarily contrasted to fiction, and how fact is not necessarily helpful in determining truth. Torah transcends our narrow-mindedness, and should be understood as such. To subject it to such black and white analysis as to whether it is “fact” or “fiction” is ridiculous, and the Torah is undeserving of such simplistic and un-nuanced treatment. The Torah is, in content, form, veracity, historicity, parable, fable, and jest, truth.