Tag Archives: Bible

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. 🙂 But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?

Why Biblical criticism is important for both the religious and non-religious

I know I haven’t posted anything in ages.  Sorry; been busy with important stuff.  Thanks a lot for sticking with me.

I can’t write as well as this guy.  Here some of my favorite quotes on the virtues of modern Biblical scholarship (a.k.a. Biblical criticism) – especially for those who are religious, courtesy of the late Italian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Alberto Soggin, via John Bowden’s outstanding translation (Introduction to the Old Testament, Revised Edition).  [I’ve added occasional points of clarification in brackets].  If you have any favorite quotes on the subject, please share!  Enjoy:

“It is impossible to understand the attitudes of people or schools of thought and therefore the writings that derive from them, without knowing the events which have influenced them in whole or in part.  For example, inadequate knowledge of Canaanite religion would constitute a most serious obstacle to understanding the message of the prophets…, nor could we understand properly their comments on society if we did not know the economic and social conditions which they were attacking (p. 4).”

“The fact that the Christian theologian is convinced that he finds Christ foretold in the writings of the Old Testament (cf. John 5:39) or that the Jewish believer discovers here the revelation and the promise of God for his people, and the divine law, should not in any way prejudice critical and historical study of the texts, which is needed if faith is not to be reduced to the level of ideological prejudice.  The fact that the texts of the Old Testament have an authoritative character for the believer, whether Jew or Christian, which they evidently do not have for the unbeliever, should not prevent the former from achieving a proper objectivity.  On the contrary, it should compel him to listen humbly to what they say.  This is not a paradox.  He should therefore make as calm an examination of the text as possible, taking care not to read into it what is not there.

“Thus the criterion of scientific objectivity applies first of all to the believer, if he wishes to hear the word of the Lord instead of his own, and if he wishes to have a dialogue with his Lord instead of a monologue with himself and his own opinions.  At the same time, it is right that the scholar who is not a believer should be asked to apply the same objectivity to the text of the Bible as to any other oriental [Near Eastern] text (pps. 9-10).”

“In the case of the Old Testament and all the literature of the ancient Near East, the reader finds himself at a considerable remove in both geographical setting and chronological context; the modern reader, especially the Westerner [of the Western hemisphere], meets peoples (and therefore literature, customs, institutions and patterns of thought) with which he has little or nothing in common.  We shall certainly be right in supposing that anyone who does not have an advanced and specialist education will be largely ignorant of the historical, political, economic, social and religious facts to which the texts refer.  In addition, … there is a problem peculiar to the biblical texts; when considering a work which for thousands of years has been the sacred scripture of Judaism and Christianity, and still is, it is all too easy for the Western reader, who has grown up within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to have assimilated unconsciously a theological and ecclesiastical tradition which will not fail to make its weight felt in an any explanation of the texts.  Without one noticing it, centuries of exegesis loaded with preconceptions can lead either to uncritical acceptance of certain unproved assertions or, paradoxically, to an equally uncritical rejection of particular positions simply because they have traditionally been sustained within the sphere of the religious community.  The need for a science of introduction which offers a critical view of the biblical literature must therefore be obvious to anyone (p. 5).”

“While there has never been a time when the reader of the Bible has not felt the need for information about the circumstances which accompanied and often governed the origins of a particular text…, we must remember that (leaving aside the Antiochene school and Jerome) up to the Renaissance the Christian church was not very interested in establishing in an independent and original form the circumstances in which the sacred books had their origin, being content to accept the traditional views of them handed down by the synagogue.  Allegorical exegesis [interpretation] , very soon practiced on a large scale in the medieval church, avoided problems by means of that special form of unhistorical sublimation which is its hallmark; consequently the problem of the difference between the reality presented in the texts and the traditional interpretation of them did not arise before humanistic exegesis  at the beginning of the sixteenth century….  It was humanism, with its principle of a return to the sources, which first laid the foundation for scientific and critical introduction (pps. 5-6).”

“From Napolean’s expedition to Egypt onwards, with the discovery of the Rosetta stone which provided the key for the deciphering of its two scripts and of the Egyptian language (1798), through the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth, there was a rediscovery of the world in which the men of the Old Testament had lived and against which they often struggled.  Practices and customs, religious, political, judicial, and social institutions, people and places previously unknown, or known only vaguely, began to take shape.  Perhaps more important still, their languages came to be understood.  This restored a proper historical basis and a setting in a wider historical context for texts which hitherto had almost always been read only in a church setting.  It also often eliminated fictitious themes and explanations which had been created by the traditions of synagogue and church (p. 7).”

 “Because the believer, Jewish or Christian, sees the text as having a sacred and therefore authoritative character, he should be able to accept biblical [textual] criticism* without difficulty in so far as it sets out to present a text which is as close as possible to the original.  However, precisely the opposite has happened:  among conservative [religious] Jews, Protestants and Catholics, biblical criticism has often received with mistrust, as through the discipline set out arrogantly, and there impiously, to put itself above the text to judge and to ‘criticize’ it.  Such an interpretation of the functions criticism shows a complete lack of familiarity with the concept … and it cannot therefore be taken seriously (p. 30).

*Textual criticism means looking at various old manuscripts of the Bible and, wherever the manuscripts differ, trying to figure out in each case which manuscript has the best reading.

The best explanation for miracles, e.g. Splitting of the Sea

This Saturday, Jews around the world will be reading about how our ancestors walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, with water on both sides.  Accordingly, I thought you would enjoy this hypothesis given in 2010 by Carl Drews of the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

You can find many news articles about this study online (e.g. here).

While we have no way to know for sure the event occurred as Mr. Drews suggests, I happen to love this way of thinking when it comes to explaining miracle stories.  We freethinkers look for the most likely explanation, and since “An invisible being came and messed with the laws of physics” is never the most likely explanation, seems that we’re left with either:

a)      The story was completely fabricated, or

b)      A natural event happened, and the authors of the Bible did what everyone did in the first millennium BCE – they attributed the event to the hand of their god.

Which is the more likely explanation for miracle stories?  a) or b)?

No doubt that for some of the miracle stories in ancient sources such as the Bible, explanation a) may be the most likely explanation.  But, in general, all else being equal, I would think that b) should be the default, at least when it’s a story that is presented as an historical event that happened to an entire people.  In some cases, though, the story may have started as a b), but as it was related many times over many generations, some additional embellishing fabrications crept in.

The Aish HaTorah/Ohr Somayach types (those who try to “prove” the Bible is divine) are known for arguing, “There’s no way you could convince an entire nation that –

– their ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai;

– their ancestors survived in the desert for 40 years on manna;

– their ancestors all saw the sea split;

etc etc.

While their basic argument is wrong – plenty of people have been convinced that miracles happened to their ancestors – just ask students of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach! – I think it is true that the more likely explanation is that something did happen, and the people interpreted that something as an act of God.  For instance, we wouldn’t argue the Miracle of the Sun story never happened at all.

What do you think?  Do you think miracles are usually made up 100%, or are natural phenomena misunderstood, … or Option C!
(h/t Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – one of the things I actually learned from him in that debate with Professor Richard Dawkins for which I criticized Rabbi Sacks in previous posts.)

Why is Christmas in the winter? Not the reason you thought, says New Testament scholar

Since many Christians will be celebrating Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany this Monday, on January 6, I figure it’s not too late to post about this.  I think it’s good for us freethinkers to have an idea of why Christmas is celebrated when it is, and this article suggests a reason you may not have heard.

In this interesting article (here) in Biblical Archaeology Review, New Testament scholar Andrew McGowan goes through the sources and explores how December 25 or January 6 came to be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

I recommend reading the full article, but if you really want a short spoiler, keep reading.  My short summary is:

  • The first mention we have of Jesus’ birth occurring on December 25 is from some 300 years after the time of Jesus.
  • The earliest source we have on Jesus’ birth says it occurred on May 20.
  • Some of the rituals associated with Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, are probably borrowed from pagan religions (religions where people worshipped more than one god).
  • No one knows for sure why Christmas is on December 25, but
    1. One possibility, which Professor McGowan does not advocate, is that Christmas was established on December 25 either to coincide with pagan holidays celebrated at that time in order to spread Christianity among the pagans, or to connect the birth of the Messiah to the winter solstice, when the sun is “reborn” (i.e. when the days start getting longer).
    2. Another possibility, which Professor McGowan thinks is more plausible, is that if Jesus died on the Eve of Passover, his death would have occurred on March 25, and early Christians believed he was crucified on the same day he was conceived.  If he was conceived on March 25, add nine months and you get Baby Jesus on December 25.

What do you think?  My Jewish education taught me a boatload about Judaism and zip about Christianity.  So if you have anything to add, please do so.

Modern religious leader’s dishonesty about the Bible: another example

Here’s another example of a modern-minded religious leader’s seeing his religion’s teachings the way he wants to see them, rather than looking at what those teachings actually say. The Bible has so much cool stuff in it – I really don’t think there’s any need to mangle it.

When talking about the story of the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14), former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, claims below that the entire Hebrew Bible is a polemic (an attack) against power, and that the story of the Exodus, where long-oppressed slaves won out over the most powerful empire of the time (Egypt) is Exhibit A.

(The clip should start at about 16:10, hopefully!)

While a beautiful message, the claim that the Bible is a polemic against power is not only untenable but contrary to fact.

Here are five instances in the Torah (the Pentateuch – the first five books) alone that glorify the powerful:

  1. Throughout the Torah, the only way the people get to hear YHWH’s (Hashem) command is via Moses (and rarely his brother Aaron). When a man named Korah and his supporters complained to Moses and Aaron that “the entire congregation is holy! Why do you raise yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?” Hashem had some of them swallowed up in an earthquake and the others burned alive (Numbers 16).
  2. The Bible supports the power of the master over that of his slave. Not only does the Bible not present any polemic against the power of the master, it instructs the master to consider the slave to be sub-human, as noted in my previous post. E.g. if someone strikes a non-slave and the victim dies, the perpetrator is put to death (Exodus 21:12); however, if a master strikes his slave and the slave dies, as long as the slave survives a day or two before passing, Biblical law dictates: “If he [the slave] survives a day or two, he [the master] will receive no retribution, for he [the slave] is his [the master’s] money (Exodus 21:21).”
  3. A priest (kohen) is given the power to incarcerate anyone he wishes for as long as he wishes. All he has to do is see some sort of spot on the person’s skin and declare it to be leprosy. No doctor or anyone else is consulted (Leviticus 13). Indeed when the priests got into a bitter dispute with their king Uzziah, wouldn’t you know it – they noticed that the king had leprosy on his skin! The alleged leper spent the rest of his life in jail (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
  4. The people must obey every legal decision rendered by the priests or the judge at that time or else be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). No jury of one’s peers. No appeals process. All the power resides in the hands of those priests or judges.
  5. When a famine crippled the entire Near East, the only one who had any food was Joseph, viceroy to the Egyptian king, who had stored up seven years’ worth of food. Rather than use his seat of power to save as many as possible from starvation, the Bible devotes a whole section to tell us how the people had to beg Joseph to keep them alive, and only after selling to him literally every piece of property they owned – their animals, their land, everything – did Joseph give in (Genesis 47:13-26). No polemic against power found here. (One could argue that the Joseph story as a whole is a polemic against the power of his brothers who had tried to kill him. But this episode in the story is clearly an example of the opposite dynamic – one of the powerful winning out.)

I have no reason to believe that the Rabbi Sackses of the world knowingly and maliciously lie about the true content of their religious teachings. And we’d rather have a world of religious people who embrace science and morality than a world of religious people who don’t. But as I argued in my previous post, if you dig yourself into the hole of trying to reconcile ancient religious teachings with modern science and morality, it seems you leave yourself no other choice but to mangle the religious teachings and/or misrepresent them until those teachings seem palatable in 2013.

Do you think modern religious thinkers usually mean well, or are they purposely trying to mislead people about what religious teachings really say?

Do you agree that these examples show that the Bible is NOT a polemic against power, as Rabbi Sacks claimed?

Religious teachings vs. science and moral progress: Modern Orthodoxy’s fatal flaw

As we all know, people who are religious are sometimes confronted with two types of conflicts:

1)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but modern science has shown otherwise.

2)      Their religious teachings say one thing, but our morality and reasoning have progressed and now say otherwise.

Examples of the first type are….

Religious teachings say:

a)      the world was created in 7 days and is thus less than 6,000 years old (Genesis 1),

b)      the Earth stands still while the sun moves (e.g. Joshua 10:12, Psalms 104:5, etc), and

c)      an invisible being spoke and gave commandments on top of a mountain (Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5.

But science has shown:

a)      the world is approximately 13.8 billion years old,

b)      the sun is still while the Earth moves, and

c)      an invisible being can’t speak and give commandments on a mountain top.

Examples of the second type are….

Religious teachings:

a)      support slavery and treating slaves as subhuman (e.g. Exodus 21);

b)      mandate genocide (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc);

c)      reward Abraham and commend Jephthah for their willingness to sacrifice their son and daughter to Hashem (YHWH) (see below), and

d)     say gay men are committing an abomination and deserve the death penalty (Leviticus 20:13 and Leviticus 18:22).

But our morality has progressed and now says:

a)      slavery is wrong, and all humans deserve to be treated equally;

b)      genocide is immoral,

c)      child sacrifice is evil; and

d)     consenting adults should have the right to have relations with each other, and it’s no one else’s business, regardless of the sexual orientation of those involved.

So what to do?

If you’re a Haredi Jew or a fundamentalist Christian, no problem!  God’s word is always right.  When science or modern morality conflicts with God’s word, God wins.  As the Harvard-trained geologist Kurt Wise famously said:

“… if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

But if you’re a Modern Orthodox or Conservative Jew or any of the more moderate Christian denominations, you don’t have that option.  You’re modern.  You accept scientific and moral progress.

Such religious moderates or centrists no doubt mean well, and the world would probably be a much better place if their numbers were growing and those of the fundamentalists were shrinking, when the opposite is the case.  But it seems the only solution for those of this mind is:

Reinterpret the religious teachings in an intellectually dishonest way so as to conform as much as possible to science and modern morality.

Here are some examples….

Modernity: The world is 13.8 billion years old.

Religious teachings: The world and mankind were created in 7 days, so the world is less than 6,000 years old.

Solution: When the Bible says 7 “days,” it means “eras.”

Fatal flaw: The Hebrew word for “day” (yom) appears 2,303 times in the Hebrew Bible.  It never means anything but day when used in the singular, and it never means “era” in any form. (See: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/3117.htm). When the Bible’s creation story says 7 days, it means 7 days.

***

Modernity: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is evil.

Religious teachings: Killing all men, women, and children of an entire nation is proper, when my god commands me to do so – e.g. the nations of Midian, Amalek, and 7 indigenous nations of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 25:19, Deuteronomy 20:16, Numbers 31, most of the Book of Joshua, etc).

Solution: What God meant was to kill anyone with the evil Amalekite mentality and behavior who is not willing to change (e.g. http://www.jidaily.com/vAmb7).

Fatal flaw:

a) You can’t ask little Amalekite babies whether they have the evil Amalekite mentality, and yet you’re commanded to kill them anyway;

b) Both the command to wipe out Amalek and the story of Saul’s near accomplishment of that goal make clear that the command was understood quite literally (I Samuel 15).  Hashem removed Saul from his throne because Saul didn’t do a good enough job killing all the men, women, and children of Amalek; he had the audacity to let their king Agag live and sit in jail and to let their sheep and cattle survive (to be brought as sacrifices to Hashem, of course).

***

Modernity: Slavery is wrong, and all men are created equal.

Religious teachings: Slavery is not only OK, but slaves are to be treated like the master’s property, and their lives are not as important as those of freemen.

Solution: When the Bible talks about slaves, they weren’t slaves like the kind we think of when we think of slavery.  They were treated well.  They were just live-in nannies.

Fatal flaw: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money (Exodus 21:20-21).”

***

Modernity: Children should not be taught they have no choice and that they must believe in and follow the same religion their parents do.

Religious teachings: “Hear, Israel, our God YHWH is one YHWH (Deuteronomy 6:4).” “I am Hashem, your god, who took you out of Egypt.  You may have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).”

Solution: Claim, as the former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks does below, that

1)      Jewish schools do not teach children what they have to believe, and

2)      Judaism does not have any sort of confirmation into the faith.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 28 minutes, please move it to that spot. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

1)      Every Orthodox Jewish day school (Rabbi Sacks was in charge of all the Orthodox Jewish day schools in England) teaches children what they have to believe.

2)      I assume chief rabbis get invited to more bar and bas mitzvahs (i.e. confirmations into the faith) than anyone.

***

Modernity: Sacrificing one’s son or daughter to a god is a heinous crime.

Religious teachings: The Bible praises Abraham because he proved he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to Hashem (Genesis 22) and tells us how Jephthah, the leader of the Israelite people in his day, sacrificed his daughter to fulfill his oath to Hashem (Judges 11:29-40).

Solution: Claim, as Rabbi Sacks does below, that the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice, and that the purpose of the Abraham and Isaac story was to teach us that child sacrifice is wrongnot that it’s praiseworthy. The only reason Hashem told Abraham to sacrifice Abraham’s son was because child sacrifice was so pervasive in those days that, had Hashem not done so, Abraham would have thought something was wrong with Hashem.

(If the clip below doesn’t start at about 19 minutes and 20 seconds, please rewind it to there. Sorry!)

Fatal flaw:

After Abraham binds Isaac on the altar and shows his willingness to obey Hashem’s orders, Hashem tells Abraham:

“because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring … because you have obeyed my voice (vv. 16-18).”

It should be clear to any honest reader of this chapter that the author of this story thinks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was an admirable thing.  Hashem blesses Abraham and clearly states He is blessing him because Abraham went against his fatherly inclination and “did not withhold” his son.  This shows clearly that the author of this story believed that being willing to sacrifice your son to Hashem is a good thing, not a bad thing, and so to say the Bible is a polemic against child sacrifice is contrary to fact.

***

Lest we think this is a new phenomenon….

Modernity (even 800 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): Donkeys can’t talk, and so a story about a talking donkey that claims to be real cannot be believed.

Religious teachings: “Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? (Numbers 22:28)

Solution: “That which happened to Balaam on the way, and the speaking of the ass, took place in a prophetic vision (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 2: Chapter 42).”

Fatal flaw: The talking donkey story says nothing about a prophetic vision.

***

Modernity (even 1,000 years ago, in Maimonides’ time): The idea that God wants humans to feed him is absurd.

Torah: Sacrifices to Hashem (YHWH) are a central part of Judaism. See especially the Book of Leviticus.

Solution: Maimonides says Hashem commanded his people to sacrifice animals and grain to him only because that was the primary way ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Israelites knew how to connect with their god, and so Hashem make concessions to work within that frame of mind.  It’s not as if the author of the Torah really believed that you’re feeding Hashem when you offer sacrifices (Maimonides (Rambam) in Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3: Chapter 32)!

Fatal flaw: “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel and say to them, ‘My offering, my food for my food offerings, my pleasing aroma, you shall be careful to offer to me at its appointed time.’ And you shall say to them, This is the food offering that you shall offer to the Lord… (Numbers 28:1-3).”

***

Finally, it appears this phenomenon has been going on since the early days of Rabbinic Judaism:

Modernity (even 2,000 years ago, in the days of early Rabbinic Judaism): Punishing a woman by cutting off her hand is never right.

Religious teachings: When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

Solution: When it says, “cut off her hand,” it really just means to give her a fine (Sifrei, cited in Rashi).

Fatal flaw:

a) Really?

b) If the Torah just wanted to say that you should fine her, why didn’t it just say “Fine her,” instead of “cut off her hand?”  (Lawrence Schiffman told me the reason was “to scare the hell out of you.”  However, if everyone knew from the beginning that “cut off her hand” really just means “fine her,” how does that scare anyone?)

c) This barbaric punishment is typical for Ancient Near Eastern law codes.  E.g. in the Code of Hammurabi we find:

192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.

194. If a man gives his child to a nurse and the child dies in her hands, but the nurse unbeknown to the father and mother nurse another child, then they shall convict her of having nursed another child without the knowledge of the father and mother and her breasts shall be cut off.

Did the Code of Hammurabi also just mean to fine the nurse when it said to cut off her breasts?

Nowadays, when we’re capable of writing blogs and calling out religious leaders when they reinterpret their religion’s teachings in academically dishonest ways, is it any wonder that the population of Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews and moderate Christians is shrinking?

I’ve done enough talking. Do you agree with this post?  Any examples to add?

Prominent Bible scholar admits to overturning students’ lives and marriages

I guess many of us were aware of this phenomenon, but I think it’s very striking to hear a prominent academic Bible scholar say it publicly: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/1652372.

The truth really does hurt – if you’ve been raised to be an all-or-nothing thinker, that if you don’t believe exactly as you were taught, you are doomed, and that if you expose yourself to other ways of thinking and new evidence, you’re going to hell.  I know from personal experience, as I’m sure some reading this post do.

The truth really shouldn’t hurt, right?  The truth should be fascinating and liberating.  Uncovering the Torah’s contradictions, borrowings from earlier Near Eastern literature, scribal errors, scientific errors, historical errors, later additions to the text, anachronisms, pre-modern morality, etc., should be enlightening and, in my opinion, fascinating, not hurtful.

Indeed, once I got past the many years of stress, guilt, and torment of thinking that I had a problem that needed fixing, a sickness that needed to be cured or at least treated, the truth was marvelous.  It’s delightful to learn the Torah with a more accurate sense of the context in which its authors lived and what they were really trying to say and to use the Torah as our most revealing window into the pre- and early history of my people and its neighbors.  Now, all I am left with is the joy of learning the truth and the feeling of good fortune that I have been exposed to such truth.

But that was only after a decade or so of the truth’s hurting.  And had I gotten married to a religious wife and had kids during that time, the truth would, no doubt, still be hurting.

Parents who send their kids to religious schools where they are taught what they must believe apparently are simply unaware of the potential harm they are guaranteed to be causing their kids.  Either:

a)      their kids’ lives will be overturned , as Professor Propp described, when they discover the truth that those beliefs are no longer tenable, or

b)      their kids will be so close-minded and sheltered their whole lives that they’ll never discover the truth.  Ignorance may be bliss, but if you really want what’s best for your kids, do you really want them to be living their lives being shielded from knowledge and truth?

If only these parents would realize that they are guaranteeing that their kids will have only the two options above, perhaps they would think twice about the type of religious education their kids receive.

Flooded with skepticism

On this very day, Jews around the world are reading Noah’s Flood or Deluge story in synagogues throughout the world. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a leading proponent of embracing science and history while trying to apply a rationalist approach to Biblical study and religious observance, has written a lot about this topic in his books and in his blog. In his most recent post Dealing with the Deluge, he also cited some other contemporary sources that tackle this issue (beginning by promoting his own book).

The problem I always have with these modern religious approaches that say, “Of course that story is allegorical; it was never meant to be taken literally,” is: Why didn’t you say that BEFORE science left with you no other choice?

As soon as you discover scientifically that the world could not have been created in seven days, humans could not all have come from one human ancestor, a global flood could not have taken place, etc., it seems to me you have two choices at that point:

1) The one who wrote those stories was a human living at a time and place where people believed these things, or

2) God wrote those stories, but He always intended them to be allegorical and in no way literal.

There’s a very good logical basis for choosing Option 1; we have many other examples of other stories written by humans living in a certain time and place with certain beliefs about the world.  But what logical basis do you have for choosing Option 2 instead?

The forgotten Rosh Hashanah

What comes to mind when you think of Rosh Hashanah?

It’s the Jewish New Year?  The day when all creation is judged by the Israelite god Hashem for the coming year?  The day we dip the apple in the honey to symbolize a sweet new year?  The day when we engage in a very long prayer service, most of which focuses on declaring Hashem’s dominion over the world?  The day when we hear the shofar blowing (ram’s horn)?

Turns out that none of the above, with the possible exception of the shofar blowing (depending what the word t’ru’ah means in Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1), appears in the Bible!

On the other hand, the Bible tells us some beautiful things about the holiday we now call Rosh Hashanah that almost none of us was ever taught in school!  How about giving food to the poor, for instance?

When the Israelites returned to the Land of Israel from their exile in Persia in the late 6th or 5th century BCE, we are told in Nehemia Chapter 8 that they knew very little about their religion but wanted to learn.  When they discovered all the sins they had been committing all this time, it was the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar – the day we now call Rosh Hashanah.

Here’s what happened:

All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed Hashem, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

(Nehemia 8 – English Standard Version)

“Send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?”

“All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions?”

Who ever thought of Rosh Hashanah as a day when we send portions to anyone who has nothing ready!

Rosh Hashanah is one of the few holidays that a good chunk of the Jewish population still celebrates.  How many needy people could be served if all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah would send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?

Finally, one other thing we see clearly in the passage above that directly contradicts the practice of some today is that Rosh Hashanah was not a day to cry over one’s sins.  As you just read, the people were doing so, and the Levites told them to stop!

So if you know anyone who will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah on Sep. 5, please show them Nehemiah 8, or simply tell them: “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine, send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, and do not be grieved.”  You will have made the world a better place. 🙂

How to apologize (a.k.a. ask for meḥila)

One of the most beautiful and beneficial Jewish traditions, in my opinion, is using the Hebrew month of Elul – the month prior to Rosh Hashana – to work on ourselves and to ask forgiveness (meḥila in Hebrew) from those we have wronged.  Just imagine if all who celebrate the New Year on January 1 would use the month of December as a time to improve themselves and shore up their relationships.

In addition, the ancient Jewish approaches towards accomplishing these tasks contain timeless psychological wisdom.  Two of the basic components of teshuva (repentance), as Rabbeinu Yonah laid out in his 13th century classic Gates of Repentance, are remorse and confession.

One thing I’ve long felt is misunderstood when it comes to apologies is that simply saying, “I’m sorry,” or “Do you forgive me?” does not really accomplish much – if the goal is to gain forgiveness and to mend fences.  It seems to me that apologizing is effective only when it includes both remorse and confession – meaning:

1)      Admitting that I was wrong, and

2)      Enunciating to the other person precisely what I did wrong.

Note that, in Judaism, confession isn’t just “I confess: I messed up.”  It’s “I confess: I messed up, and this is how I messed up.”  As the Yom Kippur confession ritual goes, “Forgive us… for the sin that we sinned before you by doing X.”

Both elements – remorse and confession – are important in order to accomplish what an apology is supposed to accomplish – i.e. to show the other person that I now realize what I have done to that person.

So a big pet peeve of mine is when someone thinks he’s apologizing, but he’s really not.  The most common examples I find are:

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” or

“I’m sorry for anything you feel I did wrong to you,” or even

“I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way.”

Any apology that begins “I’m sorry” and has the subject “you” soon after is not an apology!  You are not showing the person you’ve realized what you’ve done to him/her!!

The last example – “I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way” is a little better, because at least you’re accepting some sort of responsibility for hurting the person.  But you’re doing so only contingently, and so you’re showing that you do not truly realize that you did anything hurtful.

Here’s my favorite Biblical example of an effective apology (Numbers 21:5-7):

The people spoke against YHWH and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food [i.e. the manna from heaven].”  Then YHWH sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against YHWH and against you.

The Israelite god Hashem (YHWH) and Moses immediately forgive them, and Moses creates the Nehushtan of American Medical Association fame to heal them.

Nehushtan

The Israelites’ apology is only five words long in the Hebrew, yet it contains both elements of an effective apology:

1)      Admitting that I did something wrong (“We have sinned,”)

2)      Stating to the other person what I did wrong (“for we have spoken against Hashem and against you).

And so Hashem and Moses very appropriately accept the apology immediately.

A more recent example of an effective apology was when a Major League baseball pitcher threw one of the few perfect games in baseball history, except that the first-base umpire Jim Joyce called the last batter in the game safe at first.  Replays showed that the umpire blew the call, and it wasn’t even close.

It’s not like the pitcher could have said, “Oh well; I’ll just throw another perfect game.”  So how could the umpire possibly redeem himself?  Yet Mr. Joyce came through with such an effective apology that not only did he redeem himself in the eyes of the pitcher and popular opinion, he garnered greater respect than he had before the incident.  Here’s how:

He really admitted he did something wrong, and he very clearly stated what he did wrong.  He showed tons of remorse and did some serious confession.

So some simple everyday examples of effective apologies?

Honey, I’m very sorry; you were expecting me to bring dinner home tonight, and I didn’t.

I’m sorry, my friend.  I spoke behind your back, instead of going to straight to you.

I’m sorry, my son/daughter.  I wasn’t there for you as a parent when you needed one.

Remorse and confession – simple!  Not always easy, of course.  But simple nonetheless!

So maybe next time you’ve messed up, try it out.  Think “I have to do two things: acknowledge that I did something wrong (remorse) and state what I did wrong (confession).”

Let us know if it works!

Finally, what do you do when you want to mend fences with someone but you actually don’t think you did anything wrong?  Here’s an interesting article that just came out in Harvard Business Review that suggests a way to have the confession without the remorse and still gain some benefit, by showing that you’re aware of what effect your actions had on the other person: http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2013/04/what-to-do-when-youve-angered.html.  Enjoy!