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13 October 2011

Why We Can't Just Do It Like the Bible Says

I have been swimming in a sea of words, words in the bible, words about the bible, my words, words I wish I'd written, spoken or thought of. I have been so overwhelmed with all of the words that I haven't been blogging, although I've been writing, preaching, teaching, thinking and talking.

In the ocean of words that is the internet, I found some words that say what I've been trying to find the words to say - words which I'm sure others have spoken - explaining to the fervent faithful that biblical literalism is not a faithful response to God or the scriptures; the issue is broader than slavery and stoning people or abducting girls in war and killing baby boys and yes, same gender-sexual contact.

The words I found were a blog post from God explaining to some orthodox Jews why they couldn't observe the festival of Sukkot exactly as the bible or the tradition says. Along the way God explains how every noun, word and concept, in the biblical and exegetical tradition has changed so much that they all mean completely different things (sometimes along with some of the old things) that they are for all intents and purposes new and different words. [Christian readers may think of old wine in new wineskins here.]

Everyone wants to imagine that Moses himself could amble into their Shteeble or sit down and their Shabbos table, and blend in without missing a beat. There’s something romantic about that, I guess.

But what you fail to appreciate is just how much the Halachic ground shifts irrespective of your efforts to preserve it. The bottom line is that the experience of observing Shabbos 3,000 years ago is dramatically different than that of observing Shabbos 300 years ago, or even 30. This is not due to changes in any Halacha per se, but rather due to revolutions in technology, society, and culture. Someone adhering to a particular set of rules a long, long time ago is simply not doing the same thing as someone adhering to the same set of rules today. Trying to latch onto a particular ancient interpretation of a particular rule is like holding your coffee mug in place on your desk during a major earthquake (which are not the gays’ fault, by the way), and trying to pretend that your office looks just like it used to. 

For example, while I leave it to you to sort this particular issue out, I hope you understand that forbidding a woman from serving on a Shul board in 2011 is not the same thing as doing so in the year 1011. Sure, the prohibition is technically the same, but so much has changed with respect to women (and Shul boards) that every relevant noun in the prohibition no longer means what it used to, and the sense that you are clinging to the past is illusory.

This is also what bothers me about all of those "year of living biblically" projects. It's simply not possible without rickets and malnutrition and blood infections and unacceptably high infant and maternal mortality and illiteracy and...and...and...

We have also relinquished the God-given responsibility and authority to wrestle with the scriptures and tradition. We have settled on and for one set of interpretations, whether New Testament or Halacha, and instead of learning from how and why our ancestors interpreted the text in the ways they did we have settled for trying to mimic them out of context. Both Christian and Jewish traditions have amazingly complex systems of biblical interpretation that their adherents are forcefully ossifying, burying alive.

Yet God's word is alive, calling us to the torah-tussling, word-wrestling, God-grappling dance.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I love your conclusion. Working with the texts often feels like wrestling.