Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crossing the Reed Sea and the Boundary Between History & Fairytale / Passover 2016

In 2001 on the first day of Passover, Rabbi David Wolpe told his congregation that the story of the Exodus could not be verified by archaeologists and most likely did not happen as Torah describes. This being the age of the internet and social media, news of the sermon spread through the larger Jewish community at the speed of light. Many people responded with anger, derision, and disappointment. Anger because they heard in Rabbi Wolpe’s words a challenge to the veracity of the foundational story of the Jewish People, the narrative that explains our origins as a nation and our purpose as a people, and which provides a paradigm for just about everything we do as Jews: it’s all focused on redemption. Derision because a rabbi suggested that Torah isn’t “true” (of course, this depends upon a very narrow understanding of what constitutes truth). Disappointment because the story of the Exodus is stimulating and inspiring and the thought that it is largely  (or entirely?) fictional demotes it from “history” to “fairytale. Fairytales are far less inspiring than historical accounts and we Jews have long taken religious and ethical cues from our own history. Those who did not respond with anger, derision or disappointment nodded in recognition because Rabbi Wolpe said what academics have been saying for a long time. But hearing it in synagogue on chag—the religious track of life—rather than on a college campus or reading it in an academic book felt different.

Recently, Prof. Michael Satlow of Brown University published How the Bible Became Holy, in which he goes several steps further along the academic track. Satlow’s provocative book argues that the collection of writings that have come to be called “the Bible” were not widely disseminated and taught—or even widely known—during the biblical period, nor considered holy books with normative authority until rather late in the game: they were promoted by the Sadducees at the end of the Second Temple period. Prior to that, they sat in Temple and royal archives, the province of scribes who composed them and used them for training exercises (freely altering and amending them at will), or were considered oracles. Satlow points out, for example, that the Book of Chronicles reflects the Deuteronomistic history. He writes: “Chronicles portrays a Jewish society firmly entrenched in the land of Israel with a well-functioning cult. Chronicles does not even mention the story of Israel’s sojourn in and exodus from Egypt. Israel, according to the Chronicler, did not ‘settle’ the land of Canaan; it was always there.”[1] No enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt? No plagues? No Exodus? No crossing the Reed Sea?

Some academics have argued that there is no evidence to prove the Exodus narrative is based on historical fact: There are no written records from ancient Egypt attesting to Hebrew or Israelite slaves (and certainly not to a man named Moses). There is no mention of any of the plagues, let along a series of them. There is no archaeological evidence of an Israelite settlement in Egypt, nor movement of even a fraction of the 600,000 souls Torah claims wandered for you decades through the wilderness of Sinai (and that number includes only military-age men; women and children would bring the tally closer to two million). The Torah account includes supernatural events (for example, the parting of the Reed Sea) which cannot be accepted as historical in any regard. There is no evidence at all of a conquest of the Land of Israel on the timeline of the Bible.

Others have decried that an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Ancient Egyptian texts would have referred to “Asiatics,” not Hebrews or Israelites. Archaeological evidence of West-Semitic populations in the area called Goshen in the second millennium B.C.E. does exist. The biblical account includes details of ancient Egyptian culture from the time of the purported Exodus and long before the texts were written down. The Torah’s description of Israel’s journey reflects knowledge of the geography and conditions of the area Israel is said to have traversed. Migrants don’t leave archaeological evidence precisely because they move around rather than settle down. While the two million number is clearly hyperbolic, perhaps a much smaller group left Egypt (which is more in keeping with the Torah’s own description of the size of the Israelite encampment in the wilderness). Other ancient texts—particularly from the Roman period—are accepted as having historical value despite their use of wildly inflated numbers and supernatural claims.

Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, points out that among academic disciplines, Bible studies stands apart for the double standard that is applied to biblical texts alone, perhaps stemming from the fact that many students of Bible are also “believers in” the Bible. The fear that students of Bible will lean on their faith and justify their views with, “The Bible says it’s true!” or worse, “God said so!” and call this academic scholarship is alarming to many academics. Berman says that, “In the drive to keep fundamentalists at bay, some scholars have wound up throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, preemptively downgrading its credibility as a historical witness.” What is more, Berman claims, the power struggle we find within biblical studies today is, “an aspect of the larger culture war that rages between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. (and, with different expressions, in Israel). In that war, the place of religion in the public square is a major battleground, with skirmishes over hot-button issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to public display of the Ten Commandments.” In this culture war, the Bible has been co-opted on one side to suppress evolutionary science, on on the other side, to claim that all of Ancient Israel is a fictional fabricatione.

The cultural Zionist, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsburg, 1856–1927), long ago dismissed the challenge of scholars who denied the historicity of the Exodus account. He was unmoved by the attempt of scholars in his day to prove that Moses never existed. Focusing on the character (in both senses of the word) of Moses, he wrote in 1904:

I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has been enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on your investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses—the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all he wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.[2]

Ahad Ha’am said that we are asking the wrong question. Rather than ask, “Who is Moses?” we should ask, “What is the meaning of Moses?” Moses is the figure of leadership that is loyal to God, loyal to his people, and a loyal advocate for justice and righteousness. The meaning of Moses’ life—whether the biblical account is historical, fictional, or a hybrid—remains a shining example of why the Jewish people exists and how we see our mission in the world.

Where does this leave us, who wish to find religious and moral meaning in the story of the Exodus? I cannot share Ahad Ha’am’s lack of curiosity at what legitimate academics can teach us about our history and the origin of our sacred texts; I do not worry that what they will reveal will make them any less holy. I believe that, in fact, they will challenge us to use our religious imaginations to dig deeper into our texts to inspire our religious lives. I believe we can learn to balance academic knowledge with our need to find spiritual direction and meaning by studying these texts. With a Moses and an Exodus that are very much alive in our imaginations, vivid in our religious memory, and inspirational in our souls, we will learn that there are different kinds of “truth” and that no one has a monopoly on either truth or wisdom. For after all, as Talmud (BT Shabbat 55a) teaches, “God’s seal is truth.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Michael Satlow, How the Bible Became Holy, p. 92.
[2] Ahad Ha’am, “Moses,” 1904.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Plague on Your House / Parshat Metzora 2016-57

In the Wilderness, the Israelites live in tents, but when they enter the Land of Israel they will build houses to live in. When that happens, Torah says, they may experience a plague of tzara’at on their houses. Tzara’at, as we saw in last week’s parashah (Leviticus chapter 13), encompasses a number of skin afflictions that convey ritually impurity and necessitate quarantine outside the encampment. This includes rashes, swellings, and eruptive discoloration. But a house with tzara’at? Torah’s description sounds like something straight out of a Steven King horror book waiting for Steven Spielberg to make the flick:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” The priest shall order the house cleared before  the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house. If, when he examines the plague, the plague in the walls of the house is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the priest shall come out of the house to the entrance of the house, and close up the house for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall return. If he sees that the plague has spread on the walls of the house, the priest shall order the stones with the plague in them to be pulled out and cast outside the city into an impure place. The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the coating that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an impure place. They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house. (Leviticus 14:34–42)

What is going on here? What are the greenish or reddish streaks? We might suppose mildew or mold, but they don’t fit Torah’s description. No one seems to know what this house plague is. In the world of Jewish interpretation, most fall into one of two categories: p’shat and d’rash.[1] P’shat is an interpretation that considers the contextual, or direct, meaning of the text, and D’rash is an interpretation that seeks to explain the metaphorical meaning for our lives. Another useful and similar set of terms are those employed by academic biblical scholars: exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a critical interpretation of a text that seeks to explain the meaning of the text solely in its context, while eisegesis introduces the interpreter’s assumptions, agendas, and biases into the explanation of the text. In the absence of clear p’shat, when we are unable to say much exegetically, interpreters resort to d’rash and eisegesis. Who has ever seen a house contract a skin disease? Given that there is no corollary to experience, commentators have free rein to explain what Torah means to teach us. As a result, we find a wide range of divergent interpretations. In the end, perhaps they say more about those who offer the explanations than they do about the Torah itself.

Let’s begin with Talmud. BT Horayyot 10a tells us this is a good news announcement. R. Chiyya asks: Really? How is this good news? R. Shimon b. Yochai explains that the moment the Canaanites learned that the Israelites were coming, they ran home and hid their gold behind the walls in their homes. When the Israelites came to inhabit their houses, God brought the plague so they would have to tear down the walls, exposing the treasure hidden behind them. R. Shimon b. Yochai’s imagined scene is problematic on many levels, from historical (there is no evidence of a conquest of the Land of Israel as the Bible describes it) to ethical (taking people’s homes). This perspective is echoed by Rashi (11th century, Province) and the anonymous Sefer ha-Chinuch (13th century, Spain), which explains: “God brought tzara’at to a few houses when [the Israelites] conquered the Land for the benefit [of the Jews] so they would destroy those houses and discover the treasure hidden by the Amorites.”

Midrash moves in an entirely different direction, beginning with the rabbinic understanding that tzara’at in people is divine punishment for lashon ha-ra (gossip and tale-bearing). In others words, immoral behavior can be manifest in physical disease. The house plague works similarly. Leviticus Rabbah, taking a queue from the words, “I inflict,” explains that the plague is Divine punishment for sinful behavior; the cure is repentance:

The diseases which infect a person first appear in the house. If he repents, only the infected stones must be pulled out; if not ,the entire house must be destroyed. They also infect his clothes. If he repents, they need to be laundered; if not, they must be burned. Then they afflict his body. If he repents; he will be purified; if not, he must sit alone. (Leviticus Rabbah 17)

Nachmanides follows much the same line, but adds that the plague in question occurs only in the Land of Israel because that is where “God dwells.”:

[The affliction of clothing] is not natural and does not exist in the world, and the same is true of plague in houses. However, when the Israelites are wholly devoted to God, whose spirit will be upon them at all times to keep their bodies, their clothing, and their houses looking well, but when sin and iniquity occur in one of them ugliness will appear in his flesh or his clothing or his house to show him that God has forsaken him... See then, that this does not happen except in the Land, which is God's inheritance: When you enter the Land… which I give you as a possession (Leviticus 14:34) and ...this [plague] will never occur except in the chosen Land where the presence of God dwells.

The “cure” for the house is specified by Torah:

To purify the house, he shall take two birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop. He shall slaughter the one bird over fresh water in an earthen vessel. He shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the crimson stuff, and the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle on the house seven times. Having purified the house with the blood of the bird, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop, and the crimson stuff, he shall set the live bird free outside the city in the open country, Thus he shall make expiation for the house, and it shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:49–53)

Curiously, the cure for tzara’at of the house is virtually identical to the purification of a person, except that while oil and blood from the sacrifice are sprinkled on a person, water and blood are sprinkled on a house. This reinforces the sense that tzara’at that plagues a house derives from immorality just as tzara’at that afflicts one’s person is the physical manifestation of immoral behavior.

Everyone is struggling to explain a phenomenon described by Torah which has no analog in the world we know. The result is a broad range of interpretations—call them d’rash or eisegesis—of this especially recondite text. R. Shimon bar Yochai chose a triumphalist explanation that paints Canaanites negatively and Jews as the deserving conquerers. The Talmud, written in the shadow of the Destruction of the Second Temple and all the devastation the Roman cataclysm entailed, is deeply concerned with Jewish humiliation, loss of power and sovereignty, and the possibility of regaining hegemony in the Land of Israel. R. Shimon bar Yochai’s d’rash gives voice to these negative feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge. Yet, at the same time, there is another stream of thought working its way through Talmud, and found in midrash and later commentaries. Understanding that the Temple would not be rebuilt any time soon, many rabbis and commentators hunkered down for the long haul and fixed their focus on the internal spirit and psyche of the Jew living in the Diaspora and the needs of a community in Exile awaiting the Messiah. They asked: How do we strengthen the moral fiber of the Jewish community and encourage people to live lives of honesty and integrity, in covenant with God? These questions led to a different understanding of the house plague passage, one that exhorted people to grow ethically.

Today, while we are privileged to have a thriving State of Israel and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, our focus is still on moral teaching. Hence Etz Hayim comments: “A home is a family’s private refuge. Thus a home afflicted by plague represents the breakdown of the social values that kept a family safe and united. It was a cause for concern if the problems of society at large had come to infect the home. Most commentators suggest that the antisocial behavior that brought the plague to the house was selfishness, a blindness to the needs of others.”[2]

Each time we face a text and it says, Darsheini! (“Explain me!”) we have options and therefore responsibility for the meaning we find in the text. History is riddled with painful examples of the horrible interpretations of biblical verses and passages, wrenched out of context to justify the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of black Africans, and child abuse, and to condemn homosexuals.[3]

Certainly we can explore through sacred text our human experiences of disappointment, confusion, anger, frustration, envy, and all the rest, but in the end, will we privilege and affirm our negative emotions, or will we explore the possibilities and promise of ethical growth, love, joy, awe, empathy, responsibility? The house plague of tzara’at was, in the end, purified. The goal of Torah is to work that same magic on us through study and interpretation. Bit by bit, we purify our souls and improve ourselves.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Traditionally, the four modes of interpretation, known by their acronym PaRDeS, are: Pshat (contextual meaning), Remez (hidden or allegorical meaning), D’rash (seeking meaning and application), and Sod (secret, spiritual, or prophetic meaning).
[2] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 664.