Friday, February 28, 2014

Doing What's Right or Doing What You're Told?

These and these are the words of the living God.   
Within that short epigram is a deceptively simple explanation for the idea of machloket.  That is, how is it that from the time Jews began codifying their laws, there was almost never an unanimous consensus on what the law is.  Famously, Hillel and Shammai.  The idea is that at Sinai, Moses was given two laws; the literal law and the oral law.  But over time the oral law got muddled.  Plus, as local traditions made their way in, individuality became inevitable.

And so, how can both Hillel and Shammai be right?  It seems almost paradoxical.  So instead of figuring out which one is right or wrong, the sages speak of which one we follow.  In fact, it is even said that at Sinai, Moses was given all of those opinions.  Which makes little sense.  After all, did Moses not review the entire law with the Israelites before he died?  And they understood everything.  If he was indeed given the entire corpus of the Talmud, it would take him more time than plausible to complete all of it. 

And so, to a certain extent, individual opinions ARE respected even to this day.  Over the years, the rabbis have come up with some pretty ingenious interpretations of the law.  Based on the existing precedent--the Torah, the Talmud, the works of earlier rabbis (Rishonim), the casuistry of the later rabbis (Achronim), etc, they try to figure out what individuals should do.  And if done properly, it is not a cut-and-dry process.  It is quite dynamic!  When reading through the responsa of the great rabbis, one finds that many of the more erudite ones would take into account who was asking the question, the repercussions of each opinion, and even modern understanding of the issues. 

However, there are exceptions.  Most famously, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Modern Orthodoxy.  Plenty of hard-line right wing Jews look with extreme contempt of the liberties they are willing to take with halacha.  And then when you point out that from the time of the second temple (perhaps earlier), rabbis have changed traditions, they start splitting hairs on why what they did was acceptable.

I am reminded of Chaim Potok's The Promise.  The protagonist, Reuven Malter, is studying for his rabbinic ordination.  He is in a school that is very loosely based on Yeshiva University.  Now Reuven's father is a bigshot in a school loosely based on the JTS.  As a result, Malter's method of learning is one that's not approved by tradition.  Now Malter is a bright student and able to keep up with his rabbis.  But not all approve of him.  The highest level shiur is taught by one Rabbi Gershonsen, holocaust survivor with a chip on his shoulder.  He has neither the patience nor the will to indulge Malter.  So Malter asks to transfer into a lower level shiur, one where the Rabbi is more indulgent.

In the end, Malter is taking his ordination exam.  One of the stages is a faher, where he sits in front of three rabbis and is grilled by them.  One of them was Rabbi Gershonsen.  Of course, Rabbi Gershonsen tried to trap Malter.  He presented Malter with a very difficult to understand piece of Talmud, one that makes no sense as it is worded.  He asked Malter how to interpret it.  True to form, Malter does what his father would do and assumes that due to a scribal error, the wording was a mistake and opted to change the wording.  When the Rabbi asked him on what authority he tweaked the words of the Talmud, he quipped back that many Rabbis, from the Tosafists to the Vilna Ga'on did it all the time.  But of course, Gershonsen argued back that there was a difference: when the Tosafists and the Vilna Ga'on did it, they had a text that supported their changed wording...

In the end, Gershonsen actually showed a side of himself that was slightly open-minded.  He agreed to give Malter ordination even though he disagrees with his methodology.  But he did warn Malter that when he gets out there in the world and applies his methodology, Rabbi Gershonsen will vehemently be a thorn in his side.  But at least Gershonsen was willing to ordain Malter.

In recent news, there was word that Yeshiva University was possibly withholding ordination from a student who completed his program of study but was being a bit too brazen for their palates.  He decided to throw a "partnership minyan" in his house, one where a woman is allowed an Aliyah to the torah and then to bentsch gomel.  Because of this one incident, he was no longer welcome in the minyan he usually prayed in, so he started his own private minyan.  He then received a letter from YU asking him, on one foot, if he can agree that when it comes to issues like that he is willing to consult with his superiors first.

But this leads to a problem.  Once you ordain a man, does that not confer upon him the right to decide the law?  Does not the process of ordination mean you think this man is ready to responsibly do his job without needing to consult with his superiors?  And if not, does it not undermine the entire process?

It is irresponsible to assume that the Word is Dead.  After all, if one assumes that there is a living God, then shouldn't one treat his words as the same?  In our ever changing world, there is no room for stagnation.  After all, the people who wrote the sources (Torah and Talmud) were mostly a pastoral society.  Over the years, times have changed.  Still, the Talmud uses plenty of agricultural references because that is what the common people understood back then. So as Jews moved to towns and cities and got into more professions, things had to change.

And so, why the backlash against those who take such drastic steps against tradition?  Why feel so threatened when one comes along and decides to take liberties?  Sure, we are a stiff-necked people.  But it is by being flexible that our people have survived.  Through persecutions we have moved from place to place.  We had to be able to adapt to our new societies.   Why not adapt to the changing times now?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliot Friedman

       In my quest to reconcile the mythos I was fed as a childhood with current known history, I have done a steady reading of alternative views on Jewish History.  Some have been more instructive than others.

       As a rule, when you are trying to discredit a belief, it is good practice to replace it with one that is more plausible.  Plenty of times, this is not done.  For example, many will agree that the Warren Commission has plenty of holes in it; it does not plausibly explain who killed John F. Kennedy.  However, the alternate theories people have come up with are sometimes even more outlandish!  The CIA, KGB, FBI, Military, mob, aliens, citizens of Atlantis, sojourners from planet Nabiru, an underground cabal of Illuminati--the list goes on.  While it is safe to say that if Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone he must have been damned lucky, more likely it was part of something bigger.  But there is very little out there I have found that is more compelling at all.

       The first foray I took into this was Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible.  Yes, the famous sci-fi author.  But he has written so much more than that.  The span of books he has written covers every subject in the Dewey Decimal System.  In his Guide to the Bible, he attempts to reconcile the greatest bestseller in the Western world with contemporary history (or contemporary in the 1960s).

       A little background.  Asimov was an Humanist Jew.  As such, he denies that the stories of the Bible are to be taken literally as History.  However, we can learn much about History by reading it.  Much as we can learn about Sumeria by reading Gilgamesh, the Greeks by Homer, and India by learning the Mahabharta.  The Bible provides us with plenty of insights about the people who eventually became the Jews and later also inspired Christianity, Islam, et al.

       So in his book, he attempts to reconcile the biblical narrative (both testaments) with history.  In many cases, he tries his best to take the Bible seriously when he can.  For example, the story of Exodus does not have a lot of support amongst plenty of secular historians I've read.  Asimov at the very least attempts to explain it as if it happened and how it probably came about.  Of course, he might be speculating.  Without extra-Biblical evidence, it is extremely hard to prove.  But he does give us a paradigm as to how it may have happened.

        However, there are times where he throws his hands in the air and says that certain narratives are clearly fiction.  E.g. Jonah, Job, Esther, Daniel, and Samson.  He does not even look for a way to reconcile them.  Jonah and Samson both read way too much like fairy tales for his pallet (and Samson even sounds Hellenistic, kind of like Hercules).  Whoever wrote Esther was clearly intimately familiar with the Persian Empire and their Court; but it also reads too much like a fantasy.  And no coincidence that Mordechai and Esther sound like Marduk and Ishtar (Babylonian deities) while Vashti and Haman share names with Elamite deities (an empire conquered by Persia).  But if Ahaseurus was indeed Xerxes (of The 300 fame), when did he have time to throw all those parties or get involved in such drama as explained by the Megillah?  In between fighting Sparta and ruling a vast empire, not a whole lot.  And Daniel is written in a dialect of Aramaic that is later than the period it speaks of; and this is a period of over 200 years, longer than the life span of any man!

       So reading Asimov, I got a good sense of secular history and how the Bible fits in.  He even filled in some gaps I had.  One example is the Hittites.  They are mentioned in the Bible as one of the groups who inhabited the Promised Land.  We know that Abraham purchased a parcel of land from one Ephron the Hittite.  But if the Bible is our main source of history, we would not know that once upon a time they were a mighty empire that once ruled an empire spanning the Levant and Asia Minor even cutting into Egypt at some point.  In fact, Ramses II (who Asimov alleges may have been the Pharaoh of enslavement) drove their empire back into Asia Minor and even seriously weakened them.  So how come the Bible doesn't mention how great they were?  He surmises that at the time the Bible was written they were no longer a threat, and during the period that the Hebrews were allegedly in Egypt, they were their biggest; so the Hebrews never really dealt with them at their apex.

       But Asimov is not a Biblical scholar.  Alas, he is a man who loves knowledge.  But I wanted more.  I wanted something from an actual biblical scholar.  So I read a few interesting ones.  "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong and "How to Read the Bible: Then and Now" by James Kugel opened doors for me.  Both are great surveys into how people have viewed God and his Word over the years.  Kugel provided a nice survey into biblical criticism, including Documentary Hypotheses.

Documentary Hypothesis, for those unaware, is the Golden Calf of many modern Bible critics:
For many years, religious Jews (and perhaps others) have assumed that the Torah was a monolithic work, the word of God and transcribed by Moses.  The book is divine, cannot be split, not even a word or letter omitted or added.  Of course, those more educated know this is not completely true.  Some early Biblical commentators allude to the Bible having been edited somewhat.  Perhaps Moses did not actually write about his own death.  Perhaps certain editorial information (and this place is called XYZ until this day) was inserted by a redactor.  Most of the time, such controversial subjects were written about in disguised language.  But alas, there are those more learned than me who would better explain this.

Documentarians do not labor under the assumption that there was one author or that the Bible is divine. The theory states that the Bible as we have it today is like a patchwork quilt, woven together from multiple sources.  One redactor had several sources and put them together to form one unity.  The four that are traditionally named are

E:  Refers to God as "Elohim", written by an author from the Northern Israelite Kingdom, worshiped the chief Canaanite deity, El.  Not strictly monotheistic, possibly henotheistic (many deities exist but only one is fit to worship).
J:  Refers to God as YHWH or JHVH, the unpronounceable tetragrammaton.  Written in the Southern Judean Kingdom.  No one knows who YHWH originally was (possibly a storm deity from the desert folk).  But eventually he was conflated with El.  Whoever He is, He tells Moses that the forefathers did not know His name.   Eventually, E and J were combined.  Both imagined a deity who was personally involved with earthly matters.  He walked in the Garden of Eden, He sent down Fire and Brimstone, He sent angels and messengers, and He was pretty bipolar.

P:  Written later by a Priest.  The God of this source is more aloof.  He speaks and things are done.  He is more impersonal.  He says let there be light, and there is light.  Most of his source is lists, rules, and things to do with priestly duties.  He goes into great detail about how to build a tabernacle, what kinds of sacrifices are allowed and how to offer them, etc.  He is pretty much rules rules rules and lists.  Considered more dry and less literary than the other two sources.

D:  Deuteronomy.   The entire last book of the Torah and parts of Numbers.  The literary style here is completely different.  Whoever wrote this book was clearly sympathetic to the monarchy and less to the priests.  This book is mostly Moses reviewing the events that led up to the entry into the Promised Land but also reiterating the law.  

Many also add an R:  Redactor, editorial notes.  Information added by whoever put it all together.

Richard Elliot Friedman's book finally presented me firsthand with a proponent of DH.  Now I do deny the divinity of the Torah.  And I am not a believer in a personal higher being.  But as stated above, it would be good to have a replacement.  If the Torah was not a divinely written book by God and transcribed by Moses, then what is it?

Reading his book, I am actually now dubious about DH:

For one thing, when presented with a breakdown of verses and which author wrote each, I see that sometimes one verse has two different authors.  And he even admits that the styles of E and J are actually quite alike.  Although he does finally get around to explaining how he knows they are different sources, I don't feel as if he's actually replaces one nonsense with something more plausible.

The way it looks, our redactor may have been a sloppy editor!

Okay, he does say that there was no project like the Bible in its time.  No collaboration of sources in its time was as ambitious.  Our redactor (he believes it was Ezra) was not being sloppy at all.  He was in fact trying to satisfy all different streams.

D, for example, was written by descendants of Moses ("Mushites") who were estranged by Solomon but then got back into the fold during the time of Josiah.  And P was by Aaronid priests who were popular during the time of Solomon.  By the time of Ezra, both myths had permeated.  So he could not completely ignore them.  And not to mention that E and J were also popularly told by the people, so nobody would accept Ezra's torah as authentic if it left out those narratives.  So Ezra was trying to be cautious.  Sometimes, he could simply use doublets to tell the same story twice.  It's a style of poetry.  But sometimes, it was easier just to have a verse splice two different sources.  Why he didn't clean up the language and make it look like one source is not clear.

Still, now that I've read a serious attempt to explain DH, I find that as it stands it's an overelaborate scheme that makes Biblical study even more spaghettilike than it is to begin with.  Though it does raise some great points, like the different literary styles used in the Bible, I'm still not sold that it is THE answer to who wrote the Bible and how.

And so, the quest to find alternatives has begun.