In Judaism, halacha means “established law” as decided by the rabbis (in Talmudic times it was often by vote). The Mishna (the oldest part of the Talmud) might contain a very terse line: “Rabbi Jeff says X, Rabbi Bill says Y”. Here it’s not clear for an observant Jew which ruling to follow. Later commentaries usually discuss reasons behind why Jeff says X (and Bill Y), weigh them up, and say “the halacha follows Jeff”. In which case “you’d better do X”.
1 of the 63 tractates of the Mishna isn’t like the others. Instead of dealing with legal rulings, Midot describes the Second Temple. Here’s a quote (no need to think about the actual details for the purpose of this post): The second storey had[...]4 cubits of railing and a cubit for the hook [to stop crows perching]. Rabbi Yehudah says: the hook was not included in the dimensions, rather the railing was 4 cubits (4:6). Nothing strange so far. But then we turn to Kehati (one of the many-many authoritative commentaries): “the halacha follows the first opinion”. What The Flying Fuck??? When I saw it I burst out laughing. It seems the rabbis have taken a vote on what was at the Temple! They’ve literally legislating facts!
It’s only natural for a system where correct action is decided by rabbinical discussion to eventually forget itself — and start deciding facts by the same method. Especially if the system believes itself to be the endpoint in a chain that originates from God. In fact, Talmudic rabbis did this all the time. This was just a particularly eggregious example. But it made me realise that virtually every religion is in the business of legislating facts. It’s just done so matter-of-factly that most people start missing the pink elephant:
- During the council of Nicea (HT DeepThought) When the Bible was canonised, they decided which books were written with the holy spirit and which weren’t
- Most Papal encyclicals are examples of legislating facts, eg. changes of dogma or the long historical development of concepts like limbo
- The idea of Papal infallibility legislates whatever the Pope says whilst wearing his special hat as fact. In fact this gives the Pope a license to print facts.
Obviously this is wrong and bullshit. Facts aren’t decided by authority and especially not by vote. In fact it’s ironic that fundamentalists cry out about the “relativism of secularism”. But this has helped me put my finger on why I’ve found Holocaust denial laws so ridiculous. They’re doing something very close to legislating facts. They say “the government of Germany rules that the Holocaust happened”. And although Holocaust deniers and all other cranks cause great harm, legislating truth is as ridiculous as Alabama ruling that pi equals 3 — which BTW is an urban legend.