Understanding

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Understanding

fschmidt
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This post was updated on .
When I was in eighth grade, my math teacher was considered one of the best in the school.  So I paid attention to what he said in class.  He would write down the formulas and explain how to use them and then apply the formulas to many examples.  None of this made much sense to me, but I tried and managed a B in the class.  The next year, in ninth grade, my math teacher was considered one of the worst in the school.  This was accurate since he was intolerably boring to listen to.  So I turned my attention to the math textbook.  Some of the formulas were derived there and I found the derivations interesting.  Following the derivation made the formula make sense.  After this, I found the examples to be trivial, not by applying the formula, but rather by applying the logic behind the formula that was in the derivation.  Not all the formulas had derivations, so I started trying to derive the formulas myself.  I found this fun and so I stopped even looking at the derivations where they were in the book and instead I derived all the formulas myself.  In doing this, I found that all of math made perfect sense and that doing exercises was just a waste of time since the exercises were nothing more than trivial applications of the ideas behind the derivations of the formulas.  So I never considered formulas as something to memorize and apply, rather I considered them as problems to be solved, the problem being why they are true.  I got an A in math that year and every year thereafter, and I was a math major in college because I found math so easy.

To understand means to answer the question "why".  Understanding means knowing the reason for things.  To have understanding, ask why, why, why.  School teaches the opposite.  It teaches to apply rules without understanding.  School turns out obedient robots who can follow orders.  These make good employees since they never question the idiotic orders of their boss.

Besides asking why, the other key to understanding is play.  Play is usually associated with children.  Children play in order to understand the world they live in.  Playing is exploration.  Turn kids loose in a playground and they will run all over it exploring and testing it until they fully understand it.  I did the same with math.  Math is a mental playground.  As you play with mathematical ideas in your mind, you develop a mathematical intuition.  Intuition is needed to progress to deeper levels of understanding because it increases the speed and accuracy with which you can think about the subject.  And without play, you cannot develop intuition.

Reading the Old Testament is much like reading a math book.  The commandments of the Old Testament are the formulas.  Derivations are not provided but are left as an exercise to the reader.  To derive the commandments, one needs an understanding of history, anthropology, primate behavior, and evolutionary biology.  Once one understands the reasons behind the commandments, the commandments themselves are no longer so important.  It is the reasoning behind them that matters.  This reasoning provides a moral framework in the same way that mathematical reasoning provides a logical framework.

For those who don't think that God is supernatural, this approach should make sense.  But if you believe in a personal supernatural God, you may object and say that it isn't our place to try to understand God.  To which I respond, why not?  If God made man in His image, why shouldn't we try to understand Him?  It seems like the least we can do in an attempt to follow His will.  So I ask you, believer in a personal supernatural God, why does God give us commandments?  Are these commandments for His benefit or for ours?  Is God an egomaniac, like a bad king or a bad boss, who wants us to follow senseless rules just to show allegiance to Him?  This kind of God makes no sense to me and doesn't at all appear to be the character of God portrayed in the Old Testament.  I see the opposite kind of God, one who wants justice and morality for OUR benefit.  So the commandments of the Old Testament are for our benefit, not for God's benefit.  If this is the case, then all the commandments can be understood by asking why/how the commandment benefits us.  When we can answer this question, then we understand the commandment in the same way that we understand a mathematical formula that we derive.  So this is the way to understand and follow biblical law.  Actually, the Hebrew word "Torah" doesn't mean law, it means "instruction" or "teaching".  Properly studying the Torah will teach you to understand morality.  The rest of the Old Testament after the Torah can be considered applied examples of Torah thinking that will deepen your understanding of the Torah.

On this website, I apply this approach to understanding the Old Testament to specific examples.  One example is dietary law which is clearly a health law.  The reason behind the law is that eating bad food makes you sick.  The application of this reasoning is to avoid bad food, an example of which today would be trans-fats.  Another example is the commandment to wear tzitzit.  The reasoning behind this is to wear something to remind yourself and others that you are different from those who don't follow biblical law.

Is everyone intellectually capable of understanding math and the Old Testament?  I think most people are.  In college, I tutored math.  There was a room where tutors and students who needed help went to work together.  Two types of students typically went to be tutored, pre-meds (who wanted to get into medical school) with B's and football players with F's.  The pre-meds would come to me and ask me for the formulas.  I told them that I didn't know any formulas and they looked at me with horror and went on to the next tutor.  But the football players were innocent, not having learned to be obedient robots.  So I taught the football players to understand math and they did well.  The football players were capable of understanding because their minds hadn't been destroyed by school, but the pre-meds were a lost cause and seemed to me to be permanently incapable of understanding anything because their minds had been destroyed by school.

One of the challenges of those who insist on taking the commandments of the Old Testament as formulas is that sometimes the commandments no longer apply well because times have changed.  A famous Jewish example of this is a problem faced by Hillel.  The problem was with Torah law about debt which says:

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“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how to cancel debt: Every creditor is to cancel what he has lent his neighbor. He is not to collect anything from his neighbor or brother, because the Lord’s release of debts has been proclaimed.
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Deuteronomy 15:1-2

According the Hillel, this was a problem in his time because people were unwilling to lend under these conditions, so according to Hillel, this actually hurt the poor since they couldn't borrow.  His solution is called Prozbul which is a legal fiction/loophole/hack which effectively nullifies the written Torah law.  From a Talmudic perspective, this is considered a great achievement.  But according to Manfred Davidmann, this is just removing a Torah protection for the poor.

I haven't read the Talmud itself on this issue, but I will still give my opinion.  I suspect that Hillel was right in that the Torah law was harming the poor.  But instead of looking at the intent of this Torah law, he implemented a legal hack that destroys not only the literal Torah law but also ignores its intent, and so Hillel is directly violating the Torah in typical rabbinic fashion.  The intent of the law is clear to me, namely that people should not fall into permanent debt, and possibly indentured servitude or slavery as a result.  This seems clear from the context, this part of Deuteronomy discusses other things to help the poor and also the release of slaves.

The ideal implementation of the intent of the Torah was implemented in America in the late 1880s.  This was the idea of personal bankruptcy as a way to relieve debt.  If Hillel had focused on the intent of the Torah instead of on literal law, there is no reason why he couldn't have come up with the same idea 2000 years earlier and saved poor people from 2000 years of debtor's prison.

So once again we see the intent of the Old Testament being right, but the implementation of that intent in the Old Testament only worked in the agrarian society of that time.  When times changed and a new approach was needed to implement the Old Testament's intent, Jews failed to respond and instead, Hillel threw out the Old Testament's intent on this issue.  Instead of respecting the intent of the Old Testament, Hillel only considered the literal law which he worked around.  This is a good example of what is wrong with Rabbinic Judaism.

So where are the Jews who understand the Torah?  They are dead.  It is clear from reading the Old Testament that the prophets had a deep understanding of the Torah.  They weren't legalistic like Rabbinic Judaism is.  They applied broad Torah principles, not convoluted logic, to their commentary.

Why is the modern world so utterly devoid of understanding?  I can think of two reasons.  First, the most intelligent people in the modern world tend to go into math or the sciences.  In these fields, they can effectively use their intellect and be around other intelligent people.  They avoid spiritual pursuits like religion because these areas do not have other intelligent people and do not reward intelligence.  The second reason is that the number of highly intelligent people is rapidly decreasing as modern culture causes strong evolutionary pressure against intelligence.