Bertrand Russell purportedly said that the “patriarchal and Mosaic” data in the Pentateuch (a Greek word meaning “Five Books,” referring to the 5 books of Torah, which are also the first 5 books of any Bible) are fiction rather than historical fact.
How would I respond to Bertand Russell?
First — I’d respond without any expectation that I could change his mind.
That being said…
I’m very familiar with Russell’s name, hardly at all with his thinking. To give an answer I could myself truly take seriously, I’d need to see his actual quote in its original form and in the context in which it was written or said.
Russell’s purported quote allows only two alternatives for the “Patriarchal and Mosaic” data::
Either the data are factual records of historical events, in which case he presumably means that they’re valid and reliable.
Or — They are “fiction” (did he actually use that word?), which means that they aren’t valid or reliable as historical records.
Jewish tradition, it must be stated, holds every word of the “Pentateuch,” or Torah, as intentional, perfect and of Divine origin.
Certainly the “patriarchal” narratives were not written word-for-word by the patriarchs themselves. That doesn’t make them “fiction.” They could have been — and probably were — actual events that were preserved in an oral tradition that was later recounted and included in the written text of Torah.
The patriarchal narratives aren’t “reliable” as historical records in the way that more modern historical recording is supposed to be.
Russell seemed to be speaking with a degree of arrogant confidence in a “scientific” approach to the study of history that we use today. But if we look at “modern” historical narratives, we find that even with access to all the verifiable details, there can be great differences of interpretation with regard to the importance of each detail. In fact, there can be great differences about the actual veracity of the details themselves!
The “patriarchal narratives” accurately reflect the view we are to have of the previous events. That view — G-d’s Dominion over the universe, including nature itself — is consistent with everything else taught in Torah and all of TaNaCh.
Russell was not an atheist:
“God is a reality of spirit… He cannot… be conceived as an object, not even as the very highest object. God is not to be found in the world of objects.”
At least, he wasn’t always an atheist. His thinking might have changed from one phase of his life to another.
It should also be noted that it was Christianity, more than Judaism, in which Russell was most disappointed.
“…there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence [Russell’s sarcastic metaphor for rationality or pure intellectualism].”
Russell’s rejection of the validity of patriarchal/Mosaic narratives wasn’t meant as a rejection of Judaism in favor of Christianity.
He eschewed “faith” in favor of “rationality.”
However, the best proof of G-d’s Reality and Presence is found in meditation or prayer, not in debate, argument, or an over-rationalized reading of the Bible that misses the underlying point entirely.
“Faith in G-d is not necessarily arrived at through the process of human reasoning. Faith is greater than reason. Faith is the infinite in man reaching out to join its Source. The faculty of reason is best equipped to act upon material reality; it is best qualified to interpret the visible and tangible aspects of existence. Faith, on the other hand, attains invisible heights of reality, it penetrates into the innermost depths of truth; it communes with the Divine Mind.”
(Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, z”l)
Rabbi Lichtenstein’s closest student, his wife, confirmed this in her own experience of prayer:
“…G-d cannot be perceived through the mind [i.e. intellect] alone. If you would know G-d, do not seek merely to prove His existence, but turn to Him with your heart; affirm your union with Him, affirm His responsiveness to prayer, pray to Him; if you actually turn to G-d and speak to Him in your heart, you will be astonished to find how close He is to you, you will feel His nearness, you will have found G-d.”
(Mrs. Tehilla Lichtenstein, z”l)
Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches the same:
“Talking to HaShem in your own words [hitbodedut] is a declaration of faith that surpasses all logic, intellectual arguments, proofs and explanations. When you speak to HaShem, He is surely with you.”
(Rabbi Shalom Arush, a contemporary Breslaver hasid and teacher of hitbodedut)
So, I would say to Russell:
“The biblical narratives aren’t empirical data.
They are Divinely inspired reports of those events. One might even say that they are G-d’s own view of events. The never-ending ways the words themselves can be interpreted is itself a glimpse into their Infinite Source.
Great Kabbalists — people not incapable of intellectual discrimation — called Torah Itself ‘the Name of G-d.’ [*]
To truly learn Torah is to encounter G-d no less than we do in prayer.
Your personal experience of G-d in prayer or meditation will show you why.”
[*] That’s why we say “B’rich Sh’mei…,” “Bless the Name,” when removing the Sefer Torah from the Aron in Orthodox/Conservative services. I confess to not knowing whether any or all of this is said in the services of other branches of Judaism.