Jewish Origins Explained Without Reference to Revelation: A New Approach

Preface

The next few blogs will be dealing with the above indicated title. You may ask yourself why so. Certainly not in order to persuade anyone to understand Judaism as I do! I am not a Jewish missionary! However, from conversations with fellow congregants I have become aware that there are Jewish persons who, similarly to my understanding of Judaism, reject the supernatural elements in our faith but decided to maintain their Jewishness in terms of adherence to Judaism and membership in a synagogue congregation.

Now the question arises: is it possible to maintain one’s Jewish faith while jettisoning belief in a supernatural God as the Torah and TaNakh (Hebrew for Bible) present this God to us? Clearly this is impossible without one’s necessity to rethink Jewish origins and religious development.

In the following essays I will try to convey to folks who wrestle with this issue that yes, indeed, it is possible to remain a Jew, to read certain faith affirmations in the siddur without being a traitor to one’s faith, or a hypocrite. Jewish history and its resulting faith can be understood without one’s having to make intellectual sacrifices. One can be an agnostic (a person confessing lack of absolute knowledge, the preposition “a…” meaning without) or an atheist, (a person living one’s life and belief system without the biblical God).

Introduction

On the Jewish high holiday of yom kippur the Day of Atonement (in October 2013), during the worship service, after one of the Torah scrolls had been taken from the aron hakodesh, the holy Torah ark or holy Torah closet, there arose something like a collective gasp emanating from the congregation. Three Torah scrolls tumbled from the Torah shrine’s open doors with one of them partially unscrolled, touching ground and being slightly damaged.

Catastrophe! What next?

Why is such an accident considered a disaster? Because the Torah (the hand-written Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses, (Genesis through Deuteronomy), is the centerpiece of Judaism without which the Jewish religion could not exist. Without the Torah and a minyan, (an assembly of a minimum of ten Jewish adults), public worship cannot take place according to Jewish tradition. Torah is the greatest treasure the Jewish people possess. Torah is referred to as etz chayiim, a “tree of life for those who hold on to it.” As a sign of contrition for having let this happen the tradition calls for a congregational fast of 40 days.

One of the earliest mentions of this practice is found in a responsum (a rabbinic response to a question submitted to a rabbi or a body of rabbis by a congregant or a congregation) of Rabbi Israel of Brunna (present day Brno, capital of Moravia in the Czech Republic, 15th century). According to this responsum the fall of a Torah scroll is something for which one must repent not just as an individual but by the congregation. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th century) known as the CHIDA explains that by fasting, the congregation repents for the lack of care and respect which allowed the holy object to fall. The tradition of 40 days of fasting is derived from the time that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days while receiving the Torah from God, without eating or drinking. Even though in our time this quasi command is not exactly followed – the times they have changed! – people will perform alternate practices of teshuvah (repentance) such as offering monetary gifts to the synagogue or fasting a shorter length of time than 40 days. To have let this happen was a deplorable sign of disrespect for the Torah that demanded repentance as ordered by Jewish minhag or tradition.

Our synagogue leaders decided, rather than calling for a congregational fast, to use the following weeks for special education sessions concerning Torah, its origins, history, values and sanctity.

It was to be my honor to initiate this special educational unit by giving one or more sermons on Shabbat morning on the subject of Torah.

And so I did. My first sermon dealt with how the Near Eastern tribe of the Habiru developed into a theocratic nation presided over by Israel’s second king, David, around the year 1,000 BCE, something I want to deal with in the following essay very briefly. This was followed by a session dealing with David’s and king Solomon’s reign and the initial formation of Torah as the religious and civil constitution, as it were, of the so-called newly formed United Kingdom. It is here that my reconstruction of Israel ‘s history offers elucidations of much that has been puzzling to thoughtful Bible readers. I might add that my understanding of the beginnings of this first version of Israel as a geopolitical entity shows some resemblance to the formation of our country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Before we go any further with this we need to agree that Judaism as well as Christianity teach that their respective religion’s origins came by way of revelation from the biblical God. So, for instance, as the Torah scrolls are about to be returned to the Torah ark, one of the congregants holds up high the partially opened Torah scroll for everyone to see its written text while the congregation chants in Hebrew, “This is the Torah that Moses set/placed before the people Israel [al piy adonay] by order of the LORD , through Moses.”

Note: The literal translation of the Hebrew in italics above is an idiom that reads “according to the mouth of.” When LORD is found written in English Bibles as used here it stands for the four sacred letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh usually transliterated as Y-H-W-H and representing the name of God as revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. The tradition calls for the Torah reader to pronounce these four letters as adonay, the Hebrew word for “LORD” in 1st person plural possessive form or actually “my lords,” followed by a verb or adjective in singular. (More about this a bit later when we will discuss Judaism’s only faith affirmation, called the shema.)

It follows that the words “set, placed, given” in this literary context are synonyms for “revealed.” Based on this text sung in synagogue and found in many other biblical places that deal with God’s spoken conversations with Moses, the Torah was given to Moses for the purpose of its transmission to the people Israel in order to serve the people as instruction and guidance for life, as well as religious law. It follows that the word “Torah” when translated into English (or any other modern language) needs to be translated as one of the three nouns given above depending on the literary context in which it is found. Let me mention here that one of the gross errors found in the New Testament where reference is made to a Hebrew Bible text, the ever repeated translation of the word “Torah” is given as law.

It could be said that Torah in an ultimate sense is not just about religion but represents guidance to a way of life as, allegedly, demanded by the biblical God.


Note: Please direct your comments or responses to my e-mail, waziff at aol dot com. Thanks.

For all those who search for God and have not yet found him.

Shabbat, two weeks ago, I heard a remarkable sermon by Justin, our rabbi. He introduced it by saying that this time he would be sharing his “theology” with us. I am not aware that he ever gives a title to his sermons but were I to give a title to that sermon it would be “Beware of Jewish hubris or chutzpah.” I told him afterwards that I had been waiting for this sermon for 26 years – the number of years that Gail and I have been members of this congregation.

It takes courage to say what he said, namely, if I understood his words correctly, that it is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our faith is superior to other faiths. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that our service of God is superior to that of non-Jews. It is chutzpah to think or let alone say that we know more about God than other religions. To think and to voice these kinds of attitudes is proof that our thinking is flawed.

Who are we Jews to make such statements given that we are an infinitesimally small portion of the world population? How is it that we have come to such a conclusion? According to the rabbi, this thought pattern of superiority has been handed down to us by our rabbinic predecessors who voiced this flawed mode of thinking for centuries.

I must make a confession: I am always appreciative of being honored by an aliyah, but the words of the blessing before the Torah reading tend to stick in my throat because of their intimation that we Jews are a “chosen” people.

I once shared this feeling with a rabbi-friend who suggested, “Why don’t you say instead of asher bachar banu mikol ha’amiym, “chose us FROM all the peoples,” asher bachar banu im kol ha-amiym, meaning, “chose us with all the peoples?” While “from all the peoples” sounds to me like a lot of chutzpah, somehow with all the peoples” does not quite make sense.

I always appreciate the honor of an aliyah but I am stuck with this portion of the blessing which goes against my belief.

But my problem is even more deep-seated than what concerns these few words.

As a Holocaust survivor, thinking just about daily about the murder of the Six Million among whom were fourteen members of my family, can I say the opening words of every b’rakhah as well as those of the Amidah, barukh atah adonay – Praised are you Adonay? And then continue honestly proclaiming, haEl haGadol, haGibbor vehaNorah, El Elyon– the Great, the Powerful and the Awesome God, the highest god?

The late Elie Wiesel suggested in his writings that during the Holocaust the “onlookers” who saw the tragedy and did not raise a finger to protest, let alone to stop the slaughter, were just as guilty as the perpetrators of the murders. I totally agree with Eli Wiesel. Now this raises, of course, the frightening question about him who, in the Amidah and in many other biblical texts, is called “great, strong,and awesome.” We encounter in English Bible translations the word el-shadday, translated as “Almighty,” as a title and an attribute of God. After the murder of the Six Million, the frightening question arises why this almighty God did not intervene, but let the smokestacks of Auschwitz belch out the smoke of hundreds of thousands gassed and cremated innocent persons.

In short: was the God whom we worship the most guilty of all bystanders by letting this tragedy and many other tragedies happen?

Who is this God, really? What kind of god is he? Or, is there such a god at all?

I have been chasing after the reality of the biblical God pretty much all my life long because I want to know!

The fact is that we know nothing about this God, just as the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isa. 55:8-9:

“for My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, says Adonay. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”

This said, I would think that all human speculations about God, preceding Isaiah and following Isaiah’s pronouncement, are human words and human characterizations of this very God. They are guesses – they are human responses to human feelings about events we humans are unable to explain at the present.

Renown Rabbi Jehudah heChassid or Judah the Pious of Regensburg who died in 1217 during the time of the deadly Crusades, in his beautiful shir ha-kavod or “Hymn of Glory” that in some synagogues is sung when the Torah scroll is taken from the aron ha-kodesh, proclaims:

“Without having seen you, I declare your praise:
Without having known you, I laud you and your ways.
They have imagined you, but never as you are;
They tell of your deeds, to portray you from afar.”

This, in my opinion, is precisely what you and I are trying to do here: we imagine and we portray from afar.

And this is precisely what the folks and practitioners of other religions are doing as well and honestly so. So, it is very much wrong to see ourselves as specially favored to know and to do better. Doing so is chutzpah.

Having heard these my words, you may wonder, what I am doing here in this Jewish congregation. So let me explain.

I am here for several reasons.

  • I believe in community and especially in Jewish community. The term synagogue, a Greek word, means (lead-together) and this means “community.”
  • I love the people of this community, past and present, – who have been providing for Gail and me a spiritual home and all that goes with it, namely friendship and fellowship and care.
  • I love the Hebrew language which I have taught for decades, the language heard in this place very often .
  • I have made peace with the words I do not believe-in because they are beautiful and well-intentioned words, albeit fallible and flawed.
  • I am able to use the word “God” with all its adjectives FINALLY again, and it is here that enters my theology I want to share with you.
  • I love Judaism because of its teaching-values which I admire and consider indispensable for the ongoing life of our planet. So – -when we sing al-shlosha devarim haOlam omed, al ha-Torah, veal ha-Avodah veal gemilut chassadim, “The world stands on three principles: on Torah, on work avodah (which in Hebrew also means worship), and on good deeds,” I believe this with all my heart and try to live by these values.

But this change in my attitude became possible thanks to my many years of study and reflection on biblical and other so-called holy texts. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the term GOD is really a metaphor for these great Jewish values that I admire and try try hard to live by, the greatest of which is LOVE which I consider to be a synonym for the word God.

Now a few words about God and LOVE.

How do you and I define God and love??

If I were to ask you individually how YOU define God, I’d probably receive as many answers as I would ask people – perhaps a few more, because we are Jews.

Now if I were to ask you to define LOVE, I’d also receive many answers, And this makes sense, because all I would receive are definitions couched in human words.

It is virtually impossible to define either Love or God by means of words because words are unable to express all that the nouns”God” and “love” contain.

How do you express with words an emotion like the breaking of your heart when you stand at the grave of a beloved person or when I see on TV the little skeletal kids in a coma or dying of starvation, say in Yemen? This kind of experience makes my upper chest to physically contract – cave in – to the point that it hurts physically.

How do you describe with words the laughter that wells up in you? How do you describe in words your sexual attraction to a person? How do you explain your fear standing by the bed of a person fighting for her life?

There simply are no adequate words for any of these emotions.

But does that mean that the lack of our ability to adequately express our feelings or emotions suggests that these emotions are not real? I do not think so and I am sure you probably agree with me. In fact there is nothing more REAL than these feelings that well up within us on such occasions.

What I am suggesting then is that the word G-O-D or the word L-o-v-e are realities that defy description and definition.

Neither one of them are NOUNS! Grammatically – YES, of course. In their truest and deepest sense – NO!

Here then is my theology —

The word GOD is a metaphor. It expresses for me the values of Judaism. When I say adonay , I do not think of a person or some embodied spirit. Instead, I think of the biblical values such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” which have come to us from our ancestors in the faith, to be shared with the rest of humanity.

The words “God” and its synonym “Love” – are not static expression. Words can never convey what they really mean. They have to be lived and only by living them can we hope to transmit their life-giving richness to others.

And so, in my opinion, both Love and God, while grammatically nouns, are in their deepest and truest sense verbs.

Love and God-liness is something you do.

Shabbat shalom!