Sunday, January 17, 2010

More With Torah and Biblical Criticism

So River Tam treats Bible/Tanach as an engineer would, and Shepherd Book responds the way a loyal caricature of a religious person would, according to the personality of Joss Whedon; a mixture of unreflective "faith" perspectives as defined by science, instead of definied within a given religious perspective. I respond with Bro. Guy Consolmagno on River Tam-style reductionism (the silliness of her coordinating 'sources' in a translated text, and revising it as if the entirety of the 'sources' are presented in the Bible, her attempting an overarching 'way' the text is to be, is not worth addressing);

"Most of the people [in the sciences] who are creationists tend to be engineers ... I'll tell you a story. A couple of years I was asked to do a bible study group. I'm thinking, Catholics don't do bible studies, you know. To do a bible study group in Houston...Catholics definitely don't do bible studies in Texas. To do a bible study in Houston with a group of astronauts. Astronauts, ooh, I could do that. So I wound up at a dinner with about 12 couples, all of them astronauts and spouses. One of the guys came up to me and said, "You know, I just want to let you know, I believe in the absolute truth that creation was made in six days just as described in the book of Genesis, and that's my religion I just want you to know ahead of time." And I'm thinking, You know, have you ever actually read Genesis? Where it says the world is flat, and it's covered with a dome, and there's water above and below the dome? [And on the science side of what the person would seem to presume] Where does the shuttle go? How come you don't get wet?
But then he told me a little more. He said before he was an astronaut he was a test pilot. With test pilots you don't want to have the habit of creatively interpreting written instructions. And that's true of computer programmers and it's true of engineers in general. These are people whose world depends upon them literally interpreting the material that they've been given [and interpreting what they learn as data, information, etc]. And so, to them, the bible is just another owner's manual...
Because that's the way they view the world. Whereas in the ancient world [when Tanach was Given, the era it was Given over and the people and the "leshon Bnai Adom" it was Given through], what are the oldest books we have? The Illiad, The Odyssey - they're poems. They're books of poetry. And the world was interpreted in terms of metaphor and simile. and of course the crazy thing is, science itself is metaphor and similie. Newton's equation for the fall of a rock due to the laws of gravity is a poem. It says the path of this falling rock is like the solution to this equation; it's not that they're the same thing. You know the sad thing of that statement about evolution being proved, evolution is not going to proved - nothing in science is ever proved; science describes, it doesn't prove [R. Yuter; Halacha prescribes, it does not describe].
I've got two really thick books on my shelf back in of them is the Bible, and the other is a book by Mr's. Thorne and Weaver called Gravitation...about that thick and it's all about Einstein's general law of relativity. The Bible is 3,000 years old. The gravitation book is 25 years old. The gravitation book is out of date. It's obsolete. Science books go obsolete. They're supposed to. You know, a thousand years from now our science, our understanding of evolution, our understanding of the solar system, our understanding of the Big Bang is going to be completely different than what it is now. I hope.

My two shekels of criticism is that the oldest books "we have" is less meaningful than what was written whether it survived or not - how and why it was written. Reading was hardly universal, so the meanings of texts we have from them, as a highly literature culture, is a very different matter. Both the works he cited were oral for a very long time - and even then probably didn't have the dispersal in their cultural settings that the Bible has had it it's settings; we've been obligated since it's composition/codification to read significant portions of it aloud to the masses, who themselves are to study and learn it themselves (Catholic settings is different, but still relevant). This was not the case with much of the surviving material we have.
Illiad and Odyssey are not the only, nor even the most numerous works from the ancient world that we have! they are the most accessible and hense most popular examples of ancient texts - they're neither the most abundant nor necessarily the most noteworthy; transactions, legal documents from kings and such are. Mythic narratives from temple walls (cloistered away and not the stuff of popular literature...), also the paperwork of hegemony, to be seen or recited (let alone readable), only for the Gods and their administrators the priests and rulers and the aristocracy. Not the case with Israel and the Torah. It was made or Given (one way or another), for the masses and speaks of itself just this way! Other ancient works were vastly not, and survived only because they were long buried, or oral works (copied down later), or simply saved and ignored because they spoke to no one. Try and say this about Sifrei Torah copied now for eons, about Nach, Talmud, Mishna, ideally learned by the community since they were established.

Regarding Biblical Criticism, the seeming methodology River Tam revises the Bible in accordance with - I give Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, teacher at the USCJ-affiliated Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem - no newbie to BibCrit, critical scholarship in general or the attempts to account for reverancing the text (my emphasis in capitalization and some boldface), I give it not as a part of the above presentation, just a view of Biblical Criticism and revelation;

Doesn’t Biblical Criticism undermine the idea that the Torah is God’s Word?
The fact that the Bible was most likely written by many people over a number of generations in no way undermines its status as the Word of God to Israel [a minor error of tongue to say "Bible" instead of "Torah"? - I'm not sure, but many people over a number of generations clearly are responsible for the Bible]. Recall for a moment the example of the water bottle given above. When one looks through the water bottle toward God, it makes no difference whether the bottle was made in Taiwan or in the People’s Republic. So too, the claim that Torah is the Word of God has nothing to do with its origin when one looks at it as a thing in the World. Incontrovertible evidence that the Chumash miraculously materialized from thin air in Moshe’s hands would make it a remarkable thing, but not God’s Word, because a remarkable thing is not the meaning and purpose of our lives. The Chumash is the Word of God to Israel when we look through it toward God to reveal that Word so that it functions as the meaning and purpose of our lives.
It’s true that some people who study the Bible critically look at it as a thing ['some" being an interesting bend of phrase, as the more I follow the paths of many of these scholars, many indeed don't find an "excuse" in BibCrit to dispense with belief in Tanach as something to look "through" to God]. And for them the Torah’s divine nature is concealed. But there is no contradiction between studying the Bible critically and recognizing its divine nature. Looking through something toward God means recognizing it as an instance of the All, and thus as fundamentally infinite [twe we cannot do with other religions or their texts, which we must look 'at' more than through; explicated elsewhere in this essay]. In the infinity of meaning of God’s Word there is plenty of room for the significant, meaningful and valuable interpretations of Biblical Criticism, just as there is room for another midrash, the fruit of today’s learning in the beit midrash (study hall).

Is this authentic Jewish thought?
First, the Jewish thought of the past might be considered pretty radical when examined from the viewpoint of, for example, contemporary Orthodoxy. Just open Rambam’s Guide or the Zohar. [by which I think he means "Jewish Thought" in general over time, as is done by Jews, would be considered deviant by both the logics of the Zohar and Moreh Nevuchim - themselves attested to be normative within Judaism, but attest about themselves the status of measuring Judaism from within - despite their clear distinctions between each other, among many other systems of thought? I would also suggest Abraham Heschel's "Heavenly Torah" for giving something of a history of the belief in Torah Min haShomayim]

Second, Jewish thought should not restate the understanding of past generations but rather provide a compelling self-understanding for Torah Jews now [as I've said through my posts, arguments for Judaism, for self-understanding, may obligatory as "know that I am God", in the sense of us being obligated to reformulate them each 'generation', to 'know' for ourselves anew in each era and setting that indicates a cleavage of comprehension from a previous one, requiring reformulation]. It seems to me that in order to provide that self-understanding, a viable theology of Judaism must make compelling sense of the following three foundations of Jewish Tradition [something of a formulation of R. Yosef Albo's "He is, He Gives, we're culpable"]:

One: God is real and the source of ALL meaning [even in some sense, the true esoteric stuff].

Two: The Torah is God’s Word.

Three: The Tradition (Oral Torah) is the medium through which the meaning of God’s
Word is revealed.

If you make sense of and share these assumptions, then the practices and texts of Jewish life speak directly to you about the most important things in your life. The power and beauty of the Jewish way to God are revealed – and you live it, and help define it, as an equal among equals.
Many committed [but not observant] Jews don’t share these assumptions. But in important ways, it seems to me, they engage Torah from the outside: God is “a profound idea”; Torah “contains something divine”; Tradition is “an important part of our identity and past”. [even observant Jews who claim to take these assumptions can also engage Torah from the outside, since Torah is very much what is done - halacha - not what is thought and believed throughly, or what has been thought/believed over time; see fundamentalism below].
Statements like these, I think, divide one from the world of ideas and values that bring Torah alive.

But isn’t somebody who really believes that stuff a fundamentalist?
Fundamentalism should not be confused with taking the fundamental concepts of Torah seriously. Valuing Torah [as one has defined it through a 'Jewishly Jewish' hashkafah] above all else, seeing the world through the categories of God’s Word, and fulfilling mitsvot, are not fundamentalism but simply Torah life.
I understand fundamentalism as a denial of one’s moral responsibility for the content of the Word of God as it is interpreted. The fundamentalist regards criticism such as “that’s not true” or “that’s not good” as outside of Torah and therefore irrelevant. In his or her eyes, the true and the good have no meaning except how [we believe...] previous generations have understood them.
But this is a grave mistake. Torah makes a tremendous demand on its living bearers in each generation. We must not only understand and apply the teachings of the past, we must identify with them. When we say, in learning or in prayer, that Torah is true and good, we must mean it. The literary legacy of Torah demonstrates that different
sages interpreted the tradition in light of their different understandings of what is true and good. This is only to say that these sages fulfilled their obligations as bearers of God’s Word. No healthy soul calls “true” or “good” what in his or her considered judgment is really false or evil. A Torah Jew does not lie when she says “Righteous and
Just is the Lord”. Words like emet (truth) and tov (good) do not rest on the page of the Chumash or Siddur, they rise up through one’s eyes and demand consent from a living human mind. The yoke of heaven involves a hermeneutical project in which our evolving sense of the true and the good reveals new meanings in God’s Word.
Fundamentalists deny independent meaning to the true and good beyond what they imagine they deduce from authoritative text. They deny their da’at, their rational faculties and moral sense. When the words of the Chumash or Siddur evoke the living concepts of truth and goodness, when these terms reach up from the page to engage a
living bearer of tradition, they are met with empty silence. Fundamentalists quote understandings of the true and the good from the past. But they have no means to navigate the myriad and often contradictory ideas and world views recorded in the tradition, for they lack what previous generations cherished: recourse to the rational and moral sense with which God blessed them: “For the Lord gives wisdom, from His mouth judgment (da’at) and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). In this way fundamentalism robs the true and the good of any real meaning, and in a place where these terms are meaningless there can be no Torah. Thus it’s taught in Lev. Rabbah (1 15): “A scholar without independent judgment (da’at) - an impure carcass (nevela) is better than he!”
Reason and moral sense are no less critical to Torah life than knowledge and commitment. The authentic religious response to claims made in the name of truth and goodness against one’s understanding of Torah is honest reflection, Talmud Torah and finally, considered judgment.

The introduction to Jacob Milgrom's Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics has also recently been suggested by Zelig Aster (Orthodox), in this panel discussion for those identifying-Orthodox who find themselves moved to accept Bible Critical thought. As with my usual caveats on BibCrit - those Orthodox who seem to accept it make philosophical accomodations that non-religious Biblical scholars may likely not consider acceptable - and such scholars may indeed claim that one who adopts such Orthodox accomodations is not a 'believer' in fundamental principles of Biblical Criticism! However I doubt that this rejection by academic Bible scholars would then make them kosher in the eyes of most rabbinic authorities.


At 1/31/2010 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would also seem for the engineering-minded-literalist that knowledge can only come about as a result of human digestion of raw data into information and finally knowledge or wisdom - it's the product of a human process. knowledge is not Given, and if it is, we don't recognize it as Given. Whatever "revelation" would be to the secular literalist, it can't be integrated as knowledge or taken to be wise - it's not part of the operating sequence.

At 2/07/2010 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and that would seem to be the 21st cent. component of Buber/Rosenzweig's push for 'contentless' revelation (which came up again in some essays from Conservative Judaism Journal, Jerome Gellman and Sommer). Data is DIGESTED into information, then knowledge. This is back to being Told something vs. "coming to know it", receiving as a gift what otherwise one would have to "learn" over millenia as a new-born, unprecedented people with no substantive antecedents (no one to "learn" from). Conservatives prone to denying TMS presume the normative DIK pattern, thus Torah is humanly human, though God may chose that as the way it's revealed. But Torah gives an account of events, details that can't but be read as placing events in a course of history (names cited, 'renownedness' being noted, noting what places used to be called - to what end?! "what does it teach us" doesn't cut it where there's little to be learned but historical account!). Torah is the sole account of Sinai, the sole attestation to God speaking in human events (other than post-Mosaic ancient historians claiming we make that claim); THAT account reasonably should be the yardstick for measuring explanations of how "it all" happened.


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