Tanks into Tractors? How Much Chutzpah Do You Need to Rewrite the Torah?

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By Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

Leviticus 11 -- “These are the creatures that you may eat…” -- is one of the more perplexing sections of the Torah.

What a list it is:  any animal that has clefts through its hoofs as long as it also chews the cud; anything living in water that has fins and scales. Crickets and grasshoppers – yes. Camels and swine, ostriches and owls, herons and lizards – no.

Perhaps you could once justify these rules as an attempt to minimize food-borne illness, but is that argument still relevant in an age of refrigeration?  Believing this is the word of the Lord might be enough for some, but for others, don’t the holy texts cry out for modern updating?  We ask in our new book, Minds Wide Shut, when is a reinterpretation something that MUST be considered? 

The laws of kashrut are one thing. What about the more troubling passages about, say, homosexuality?   Leviticus 20:13, as part of a list prohibiting incest and bestiality, includes the words “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death…”

What do we do with that one?

We believe that any reinterpretation of the holy texts should be infrequent and done with great care, and we illustrate that point by repeating a story from a memorable Shabbat sermon. A visitor observed a workman raising a clock in the village square far above eye level. She wondered whether this was being done to increase its visibility. No, a villager replied; it is to place it beyond arm’s reach. Folks would walk by and continually adjust the hands of the clock. If a person’s watch said 11:02 and the clock said 11, the passerby would change the clock. The next person who would come by did the same, until it turned out that there was no reason to believe that the clock told the true time. After the clock was raised, people instead started adjusting their watches to the clock, thereby agreeing on a common time.

People of faith should never adapt that faith for the sake of convenience or personal comfort. A standard that changes arbitrarily is no longer a standard. The Ten Commandments are not ten recommendations for today. They convey timeless wisdom. If there were no sacred texts – and every culture has them, whether written or oral – there would be nothing against which to measure contemporary preferences and beliefs.

Sacred texts remain relevant precisely because we cannot make them mean whatever we choose. They somehow manage to say something pertinent today, and yet speak with a voice outside normal discourse. The voice of the Bible is both intelligible and unfamiliar, relevant but not already present. For that reason, the great biblical scholar, Robert Alter, argues that it is a mistake to translate the Bible into relentlessly colloquial English. Its language needs to speak to us in the present, but from outside the present.

The amazing thing about the holy texts is how relevant they are today despite their origin in another world with very different concerns. We all respond to the verse about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks even though most of us are urban, and no one uses ancient agricultural implements. There is no need to update the verse by substituting modern tools, so that we “retrofit tanks into tractors.”  Society has changed in unimaginable ways, but some truths seem eternal.

But what do we do when they don’t? 

While we aren’t theologians, neither was the esteemed anthropologist Mary Douglas, author of “The Abominations of Leviticus.”  More than a half century ago she argued that the worldview of Leviticus is based on a classification of animals. In fact, numerous cultures offer a classification of animals and treat those that fall between categories as taboo. As Douglas paraphrases the biblical text, “Holiness requires that individuals should conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused” in order to “preserve the order of creation.” 

What is holy conforms fully to its class. Cattle have cloven hoofs and chew the cud; therefore to exhibit either characteristic without the other – the camel chews the cud but does not part the hoof, the pig parts the hoof but does not chew the cud – is to fall between categories and to be impure.

That way of thinking is foreign to us. As we see it, all creatures are equally natural, the products of Darwinian evolution. Could it not be that the biblical abhorrence of homosexuality derives from the same approach?  Such relations may be felt to be “unnatural,” to compromise a natural order, and thus to be unholy. But can’t one preserve the idea of holiness but reject either the particular classification system or the entire idea of nature containing the unnatural?  Many Jews keep kosher and observe Shabbat without regarding homosexuality as a sin. Once the prohibitions depend on a classification of nature we no longer accept, then the extensions would seem open for debate.

We conclude by returning to the rabbi’s parable of the clock. Like so many wisdom tales, just when one thinks it has ended, it adds one more complication. The clock has been mounted out of reach so it cannot be altered, and yet, on occasion, a workman needs to climb up a latter and adjust the clock, which, over a long period, has inevitably lost time. While those adjustments are rare, they are critical.

Truth might not be relative, but what we take to be truth is certainly not inviolable. It is eternal, but we still must approach it at a particular time. It is important that changes in liturgy and ethical tenets be rare enough so that they do not become mere echoes of our own shifting beliefs. If religion is to be an integral part of our lives, one needs to enter into dialogue with it.

This is an age when such dialogue seems especially elusive, not just in dealing with faith but in so much else. May we all rededicate ourselves to humble and meaningful discourse.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University where Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics. Their latest book is Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us.


5/6/2021 5:13:50 PM