Truth Is Stranger Than Truth

Editor’s Note: Well, it’s back to Vacation Bible School!  This time, in the spirit of Ecumenism, we’re hearing from a Rabbi. I can’t find any Google reference to Jews doing Bible school, but if they did, I’m not sure this lesson would make the cut. It was originally posted on “The Atheist Rabbi” blog on 3/6/13 by Jeff Falick, a Humanist Rabbi, and is reprinted here with his permission.

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small_3370859327There are few moments in my education that stand out more than the time when I asked a professor in rabbinical school about whether and how we should teach biblical criticism. After all, we’d been learning about the approach of archeologists and other academics for a long time. It was one of the backbones of our education.

Yet I did not understand what I was supposed to do with the material. In my student rabbinical jobs I would teach Torah in the usual way, but sometimes I would bring it up. Usually, I found my students an eager audience, but I struggled with how to mine the text for wisdom while simultaneously pointing out that so much of its content was simply wrong.

So when I raised the question, I had some practical considerations in mind. His advice to me was to ignore archeology and biblical criticism when teaching Torah. Apparently, this is the answer they had been giving rabbinical students since the time when Kaufman Kohler first brought critical study of the texts to HUC (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion).

Today I’m a little embarrassed about how I solved the dilemma. I began to talk about the Torah as if it were something other than the very human document that I knew it to be. I spouted some real doozies like,

“Well, the Torah is not true in the sense that it’s historically accurate. It’s True with a capital ‘T’ because it preserves timeless truths.”

I sort of glossed over the fact that among these timeless truths were instructions to kill homosexuals, forcibly marry off rape victims and execute adulterers.

So imagine my surprise when I opened up the latest issue of “Reform Judaism” magazine and turned to a section called “Focus: Greatest Jewish Myths” asking the key seasonal question: “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?”

In an excerpt from his excellent book, “The Original Torah,” HUC’s S. David Sperling, reveals:

“The biblical tradition of slavery in Egypt and the Israelite conquest of Canaan appear to be fictitious.”

And that’s just the article’s subtitle!

What’s with all of this newfound honesty?

This seems to be part of a new trend in liberal Judaism. I guess they’ve just decided to put all of their cards on the table and confirm what anyone who’s ever taken a university Intro to Bible class already knows.

Back in 2001, (Conservative) Rabbi David Wolpe was publicly castigated for pointing out the non-occurrence of the Exodus. Being that he’s liberal Judaism’s go-to “God Guy,” he’s made an entire career out of explaining how a book so full of stuff that’s not, you know, true, is nevertheless TRUE. When I did that, I just got a stomachache. But when you have faith, you can say all kinds of stupid things and if you phrase them elegantly enough, then you will sound profound.

“Reform Judaism” magazine puts Wolpe to good use in a sidebar about how it doesn’t really matter that the Torah isn’t historically accurate. The piece is an adaptation from a beliefnet.com article that he wrote in 2004: 

The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us. Standing at the Passover Seder, I see in my mind’s eye the Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, and the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night. I feel an enormous gratitude to God. For although we cannot know exactly how God has saved our people, we have been saved. Despite unimaginable odds and opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Here is where archeology, history, scholarship and scripture meet: Am Yisrael Chai, the nation of Israel remains alive.

In the new article, he altered the first sentence to say “larger truth.” Because obviously bigger is better.

Here’s how I read Wolpe:

“It doesn’t matter that the story didn’t happen. Because I believe in God. And Jews exist. So obviously God saved them. And now I shall wrap it all up by placing scripture in a list of things that we can all agree are reliable sources of accurate information (i.e., truth) like archeology, history and scholarship. Because if they’re all in the same sentence then that must mean that they’re all equally reliable. And in conclusion, ‘Yay Jews.’”

The Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible are incredibly important works of literature that tackle significant issues faced by early Jews and their Israelite ancestors. Collectively, they are a precious artifact of ancient times; an indispensable resource for understanding how ancient people perceived and navigated their reality. Why can’t that be enough? With all of the tools at our disposal to reconstruct the real story of the Jews, what need is there to invest the Torah’s legends with authority?

If Wolpe really believes that “God has saved our people, we have been saved,” I would advise him to find better evidence than the fictional tales of our ancestors. Personally, I think history makes it quite clear that whenever we have been saved, it’s because we saved ourselves.

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25551e_9ad1b36d762444a0be678812295f4b05.jpg_srz_261_372_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzBio: Jeffrey L. Falick is the rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Ordained by the (theistic) Reform Jewish movement, he later became associated with Secular Humanistic Judaism, an approach that combines adherence to nontheism with a celebration of Jewish culture and life. He serves as president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis and on the Executive Committee of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

 

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/lawriecate/3370859327/”>Lawrie Cate</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • Kent Truesdale

    Rabbi Falick, your beautifully humanist hermeneutic resonated deeply with me as a liberal Christian minister! In my own preaching and teaching I also emphasize the crucial human role in the redemption of not just our species but the whole cosmos. A common refrain in my sermons is, “If WE don’t change and above all ACT, how is God going to save us from ourselves?” (A bit of a tautology and certainly a paradox but it gets people thinking!) Sincere thanks for sharing with us.

  • Andy

    Great thoughts–thanks. I was wondering whether there have been efforts among liberal Jewish commentators to at least salvage some historical nugget from the exodus account, without all the miracles, of course. Christian scholars have made such an attempt. I’ve been particularly impressed by Norman Gottwald’s massive tome, The Tribes of Yahweh. He postulates a small group of ragtag emigrants who merged with peasants in the land. The latter found the story of the former’s ‘escape’ so interesting, that it was incorporated in the account of Israel’s history. Just wondering what liberal Jews have been saying.
    Thanks again

  • Shlomo

    Jeffrey- Thank you for so beautifully and clearly expressing
    your thoughts. I agree with you that even though the stories of the Torah aren’t
    true, the Torah still remains vitally important. It helps us understand our
    moral, philosophical, and religious development. The key is for us to examine
    it critically, asking questions such as whether the characters’ actions are
    right or wrong, still appropriate today or only understandable in ancient
    times.

  • guest

    Every other nation that still exists has survived hardships and been
    through rough times. Even rich oppressor nations like England or France
    went through famine, war, plagues and natural disasters before putting
    other nations through hell. Egypt itself survived conquests, plagues,
    droughts and starvation. This is what gives the story of Exodus its
    power- nobody stays on top for long. Everyone has been ‘oppressed in
    Egypt’ at some point in their ancestor line. And everyone comes from a
    long chain of survivors. Everyone has to come from survivors, because
    the ones whose ancestors didn’t survive, at least long enough to
    reproduce, don’t exist.

    That’s the wonder of metaphorical
    stories. Once you stop trying to fit them to history, it’s easy to find
    meaning in them. I think this is what people mean by Truth with a T-
    it’s not really true, it’s inspiration. Meaning.

    Take the song
    by Louis Armstrong, for instance. People find strength in stories,
    whether they’re true or not. Black slaves embraced the story of Exodus,
    because of its promise of liberation.

  • jfalick

    Thank you for the feedback.

    “guest” – That is an excellent observation. Part of the unfortunate ethnocentrism of the Jewish people is this idea that it has outlasted so many other peoples and civilizations. Wolpe and other religious Jews bring this as an argument for God’s presence, but even many secular Jews take this tack. The Jews may be somewhat unusual in having preserved a group identity in a long lasting dispersion, but others have managed to do that, too.

    Andy – Most non-Orthodox rabbis are basically receptive to secular scholarship of the Bible. This is evidenced by the Reform Jewish magazine’s willingness to run the piece by Sperling mentioned in my post. That said, I do frequently notice that many of them do not keep up with the most current scholarship. From time to time I hear them offering discredited theories about Habiru or Hyksos, etc.. Personally, while I regard the entire story of the exodus as fiction, I’m not adverse to the idea that there may be a tiny microscopic kernel of Egyptian refugee influence in the story of Moses, namely the anomaly of the Levites with their lack of land and Egyptian names. Generally, I agree with Sperling who views the tale as an allegory for Egyptian domination over Canaan. Since the early Israelites were mostly local Canaanites, that makes a certain kind of sense. We’ll never be completely able to reconstruct all of the separate strands of folklore that went into the final version, but what emerged is clearly and predominately a work of fiction.

    Shlomo – I completely agree with what you wrote. I would also extend it to the rabbinical commentaries. It’s very enlightening to see where the rabbis demonstrated some moral evolution (e.g., their transformation of lex talionis into a system of torts). And it’s just as informative to see where they did not.

    Kent – Thank you. I first came to Humanism with the idea that God only works through people. I later dropped the middle man, so to speak, but I continue to resonate with religious leaders who emphasize human responsibility. So while I no longer maintain faith in any version of God, I do respect those liberal theists who focus on service to humanity.

    • Andy

      Jeff, I agree with your assessment that we will never know what ‘really’ happened behind the Biblical text, although I am insatiably curious about how things came together. I like the version that reconstructs Israel’s early history around an internal revolution by hill-dwelling Canaanites, who dispossessed their overlords. I know it’s a bit Marxist, but I like it anyway :) Thanks again for your contribution.

  • Linda_LaScola

    The following comment is from my friend Neil who had trouble signing in:
    ——
    This was an excellent essay. When I got to the end, I reacted to this sentence:

    If Wolpe really believes that “God has saved our people, we have been saved,” I would advise him to find better evidence than the fictional tales of our ancestors.

    People who believe that the Exodus took place believe in God. People who believe in God do so because they want to, not because there is any evidence that God exists. In our Internet-enabled age, with the worldwide web at our fingertips, we have abundant scientific and historical information available to us to show that all of the stories told in ancient scripture are just that: stories. Anyone who doesn’t know that, doesn’t want to know it. That’s their choice, however pathetic it seems to me, and they have as much right to their fantasies as the rest of us.

    Linda, posting for Neil

  • http://www.theunderstandingapp.com Kevin Osborne

    The more interesting aspect of Judaism, for me, is why? Why among the vast peoples of the world has this unique set bonded to create a story line that matters across the Western world, despite owning a fraction of the population?
    I would call them the anti-Chinese. Instead of sitting in one place while invaders swooped in only to be defeated by a culture so entrenched it became the invader’s culture, Jews have spread to all corners yet maintained enough of the grist of Judaism to still be recognizable as themselves. Why and how? That would make a nice book. If someone has written it, minus bias, I would love to know.


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