Tag Archives: Torah

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.

Striking results from survey of American Jews

The Pew Research Center recently published its study of American Jews conducted between February and June of 2013. While their findings confirm some trends a lot of us had already sensed, it’s still interesting to see how striking some of the numbers are.

I recommend taking a look at the report (go here), which presents the findings in a very clear fashion.  But here are some highlights:  (Note: It seems they defined someone as Jewish if s/he had one Jewish parent, father or mother).

  • 22% of Americans who consider themselves Jews also consider themselves as either atheists, agnostics, or having no religion.
    • The younger the “Jew,” the more likely is s/he to be part of this group of non-religious Jews.
    • These non-religious Jews are far less likely to donate to Jewish organizations and to raise their kids with any Jewish culture or identity whatsoever.
    • 30% of Americans who consider themselves Jews do not identify with any denomination of religious Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc).
    • Orthodox Jews have more than twice as many babies as other Jews, and so their share of the Jewish American population is growing.
    • Only about half of those raised Orthodox are still Orthodox; however,
    • 83% of those raised Orthodox who are now between ages 18 and 29 are still Orthodox.
    • Among Jews married in 2000 or later, 58% married non-Jewish spouses.

And so if you raise your kid Orthodox today, there’s a very good chance the kid will remain Orthodox into adulthood.  And the Orthodox population is growing, because Orthodox Jews have a lot more babies than other Jews.

On the other hand, if you raise your kid Reform or Conservative or one of the other flavors of modern religious types, it seems likely your kid will be less religious than you in adulthood.

And so it seems like we’re heading towards a pretty severe dichotomy:  Jews will be split between very religious and very not religious.  As I argued previously, you can teach your kids to be strictly Orthodox, i.e. to believe that the Torah is the inerrant word of the perfect, all-knowing being and ignore the challenges of science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship, and unfortunately that usually works.  Conversely, you can teach your kids that to accept science, philosophy, and modern Biblical scholarship and accept that the Jewish religion is as man-made as every other religion, and that also usually works.  But when you try to mess with Mr. In-Between, as some Reform and even more Conservative Jews, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews, do, you have your work cut out for you trying to get your kids to buy into both modernity and the Jewish religion, as these survey results seem to show.

I will say, though, I think it is sad that more non-religious Jews means much less involvement in and donations to Jewish organizations and more raising of Jewish kids with absolutely no Jewish identity.  There are so many Jewish-led organizations, many if not most of which are non-denominational, that do such wonderful philanthropic work, and it would not do anyone any good if they go out of business.  And while raising kids who are not Orthodox may be a good thing, so that these kids realize they have a choice on how to live their lives and are not taught beliefs that have been disproven, raising kids with no Jewish culture whatsoever would mean no more Jews.  After all the pogroms, exiles, and a Holocaust, I think it would be very unfortunate if all the richness of our ancient Jewish customs, songs, foods, teachings, values, expressions, and sense of community would be no more.  That’s not going to happen, because the Orthodox Jewish community is growing, but I wouldn’t want a Jewish population consisting only of Orthodox Jews either.

And so when I bring in words of Torah or Jewish expressions or talk about Jewish culture, it’s because a) I think it’s fun, and, more importantly, b) if Freethinking Jews don’t make an effort to spread the gospel of “Jewishness Without the Dogma,” we’ll be headed for a Jewish world that none of us wants.

But what do you think!

h/t Chatzkaleh Kofer

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.

Think the wives of Talmudic rabbis were submissive yes-women? Think again!

I happen to find some stories in the Talmud highly entertaining – especially the ones about the wives of the great Talmudic sages living some 1,500 years ago in Babylon (Iraq).  If you imagined them as these quiet little demure and docile yes-women who were submissive to the men in their lives, you are in for a few surprises:

Surprise #1:

Rabbi Yosi the Galilean was travelling on the road. He met Bruria (the wife of Rabbi Meir) and asked her: “Which way must we take to the city of Lud?”

She answered: “You Galilean fool! Did not our sages say, “Do not converse much with a woman? You should have just asked, “Which way to Lud!”

The same Bruria once found a young scholar learning quietly to himself. She kicked him and said: “It is written [II Samuel 13:5]: ‘Firm in all and sure,’ which signifies that if the Law is firmly imbedded in all the two hundred and forty-eight parts of the body [i.e. if one puts all his energy into his studies] it can remain with the man, otherwise it cannot!”

(Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 53b)

Surprise #2:

Here’s a lovely passage about reciting the blessings after meals over a cup of wine:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Whoever says the blessing over a full cup is given an inheritance without bounds….  Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Ḥanina says: He is privileged to inherit two worlds, this world and the next….  It was taught, ‘He sends [the cup] around to the members of his household,’ so that his wife may be blessed.

‘Ula was once at the house of Rabbi Naḥman. They had a meal and he [Ula] said grace, and he handed the cup of benediction to Rabbi Naḥman. Rabbi Naḥman said to him, “Please send the cup of benediction to Yalta [Rabbi Naḥman’s wife].” 

He [Ula] said to him [Rabbi Naḥman], “Thus said Rabbi Yoḥanan, ‘The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body….’ [So you don’t need to give the cup to Yalta.]

Meanwhile Yalta heard, and she got up in a passion and went to the wine cellar and broke four hundred jars of wine. Rabbi Naḥman said to him, “Let the Master send her another cup!!”

He sent it to her with a message: “All that wine can be counted as a blessing.”

She returned an answer: “Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin from rags.”

(Babylonian Talmud: Brachos 51b)

“Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin from rags!”  Ouch!!

Surprise #3:

Apparently the assets of the great Talmudic sage Abaye were left to the rabbinic court in Maḥuza in Babylon to administer.  Abaye’s wife Homa, whose previous two husbands also had passed away, went to the court one day to try to obtain some of Abaye’s money so she could buy some food – and some wine.  It didn’t go so well.  Ḥoma, meet Rava’s wife, a.k.a. “Rav Ḥisda’s daughter:”

Ḥoma, Abaye’s wife, came to Rava [in court] and asked him, ‘Grant me an allowance of food,’ and he granted her the allowance.

‘Grant me [she again demanded] an allowance of wine.’

‘I know,’ he said to her, ‘that [Abaye] did not drink wine.’

‘[I swear] by the life of the Master,’ she replied, ‘that he gave me to drink from horns like these!’

As she was showing [the horns] to him, her arm was uncovered and a light shone upon the court. Rava rose, went home and solicited R. Ḥisda’s daughter [i.e. Rava’s wife]

‘Who has been today at the court?’ enquired Rav Ḥisda’s daughter.

‘Ḥoma, the wife of Abaye,’ he replied.

Thereupon she went after her, striking her with leather straps until she chased her out of all Maḥuza.  ‘You have,’ she said to her, ‘already killed three [men], and now you come to kill another [man]!’

(Babylonian Talmud: Kesubos 65a)

Damn.

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?

Freedom is actually a good thing

In this article about the horrible tragedy of Deb Tambor’s apparent suicide and the way she and her partner were treated by her family and former community, the most powerful line to me is the last one. The Hasidic Jew from New Square levies upon her the damning accusation: “It’s like she was free!”

By all accounts, Ms. Tambor treated people with dignity and was a wonderful friend and partner. But all that is rendered insignificant because “she was free.”

I think that’s the biggest thing that separates us as freethinkers; we believe freedom is a good thing.

But this Chasid makes perfect sense, given his assumptions; if you’re sure you have the precise instructions from the all-knowing being on how to live a good life, and that includes a lot of restrictions and thus tells you that living however you want is a bad thing, then of course being free would be a bad thing. As the Torah says:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).

(In other words:

free will)

It’s like if you teach your daughter that cocaine is harmful, and she says, “But I want to be free!” of course you don’t want your kid to live free and do whatever she wants if that involves harming herself. So if you know that violating the Torah is as bad for you as snorting cocaine – except it’s worse, because it ruins your life both in this world and the next, then of course you would think of living free as a bad thing.

I normally have held the view that Orthodox Judaism, while based on a false assumption that the Torah is of divine origin, is not necessarily harmful, and as long as someone is happy and isn’t harming anyone, there’s no reason to try to encourage people not to be Orthodox.

However, as Sam Harris would say, beliefs have consequences. The Chasid in this article reminded me that if you really truly believe what Orthodox Jews are obligated to believe – i.e. that the Torah is God’s perfect instructions on how to live, then it’s impossible for you to believe that living “free” – i.e. living however you want as long as you’re not harming anyone – is a good thing.

And so how could we sit here while our neighbors teach their kids they do not have the freedom to live the way they want?

Succos: missing the whole point

As we lamented regarding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just think how different the world would be if everyone celebrating Succos (/Succot) – the Holiday of the Ingathering of the Crops – this week would be aware of the following two things:

Perhaps no song is heard on Succos more ubiquitously than “V’samachta b’chagecha [You shall rejoice in your festival].” But there’s actually a lot more to that verse:

You shall rejoice in your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, the Levite, the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow who are within your gates (Deuteronomy 16:14).

The whole point of the holiday is: While you’re celebrating how wonderful it is that you can finally bring in your crops, after spending the last year planting them, harvesting them, drying them, threshing them, … and now you can finally enjoy the fruits of your labor, you need to make sure that those who have no land in which to grow their own crops are rejoicing like you are.

Just singing “You shall rejoice in your festival” misses the most important part!

The other thing is Ushpizin.  Many have the custom of reciting a text every night of Succos in which they “invite” the Ushpizin – the exalted “guests,” as the Kabbalistic legend has it that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David visit each person’s Sukkah every night.  But, as a good-hearted man in yeshiva showed me a few years ago, the whole point is that the idea of inviting the Ushpizin is simply a metaphor for inviting the poor!

Here is the magnificent source in the Zohar.  Notice the beautiful manner in which the author uses “their portion” to refer to the Ushpizin’s and the poor’s portions interchangeably, emphasizing that the Ushpizin merely represent the lofty status of the impoverished guests:

At the time when a person sits in this abode (the Sukkah), the shade of faith, the Shekhinah (divine presence) spreads its wings upon him from above, and Abraham and five other righteous ones set their place of dwelling with him.  Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and five other righteous ones and King David set their place of dwelling with him…. 

A person should rejoice every day with his face lit up with these guests who are dwelling with him….  And he [the host] should bring joy to the poor.  What’s the reason?  For the portion of those guests he has invited is the poor’s.  Whoever sits in this shade of faith and invites these exalted guests, guests of faith, and does not give them their portion, they all get up and say, “Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy. Do not desire his delicacies (Proverbs 36:6).”  It is clear that table he has prepared is his and not the Holy One’s, blessed be He….  Woe is to such a person, when these guests of faith get up from his table.

Rabbi Abba said: Every day, Abraham would stand at the path of the travelers to invite guests and to prepare tables for them.  Now that there are those who invite him and all the righteous ones and King David and they [the hosts] do not give them their portions, Abraham gets up from the table and declares, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs (Numbers 16:25)….”

Rabbi Elazar said: The Torah has not burdened a person [to give] more than he is able, as it is written, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of Hashem, your God, that He has given you (Deuteronomy 16:17).” [However,] let not a person say, “I shall eat and drink and be satiated first, and whatever is left over I shall give to the poor.”  Rather, the first of everything is the poor’s.  And if he brings joy to the poor and allows them to be satiated, the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices with him; Abraham declares, “You will take delight by Hashem (Isaiah 58:14);” Isaac says, “No weapon fashioned against you will succeed (Isaiah 54:17);….”  Meritorious is the lot of such a person who has merited all this.                                                                                                              (Zohar, Emor, 276-281)

Reading a text to invite Abraham to your Sukkah misses the whole point!  The point is to invite Abraham et al by inviting poor and making them happy!

So we’ve shown, in this post and in the last two, that the most important and beautiful messages of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos have all been pushed aside.

How did this happen!!

UPDATE: Dov F just informed me of another wonderful source, courtesy of Rambam (Maimonides):

When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed resident aliens, orphans, widows and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.                                  (Hilchot Shvitat Yom Tov 6:18)