Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vulgate

I am currently reading Rabbi Louis Jacobs' Principles of the Jewish Faith, the first book in a long time to literally keep me up all night. I began his book last night and found myself standing over a kitchen counter I sauntered over to hours earlier to get a drink, with the sun rising and I was only up to the Eighth Principle.

For the uninitiated, the Eighth Principle of Faith concerns the divine nature of the Torah. This principle is extraordinarily difficult to understand, chiefly because physical evidence demands that we view the Torah as at least somewhat man-made. To be sure, the Ninth Principle, that the Torah is unchanging, seems even more problematic, but is widely regarded as an affirmation that Judaism will never be superseded by another religion. In other words, nothing external to the Torah can overturn a normative, halakhic practice.

The Eighth Principle, however, is extremely troublesome. It is difficult to see how anyone with a sense of history can fail to see the Torah as a statement of separateness that chiefly operated over a specific people at a specific time. More on this later.

For starters, what is meant by the "Torah?" The exact method of authorship of the Bible is the subject of Talmudic dispute. Some hold that the Torah was written in installments during various periods in the Wilderness (see Gittin 60a). Others hold that God dictated the entire text of the Torah to Moses (see Sanhedrin 99a). Buy what does "text" mean? Jacobs writes of Esdras, a book in the Apocrypha which records an interesting account of Ezra rewriting the Torah which was destroyed. Of the text we have today, the Masoretic, several versions are existent and there are other versions of the Bible of the same period and even one that predates the Masoretic text.

Even if you were to accept that the Masoretic text is the correct one (again, which version?) and all other texts are a corrupted form of the correct text, you are left with the problem of the Documentary Hypothesis and other forms of Biblical criticism. Ibn Ezra was well familiar with this problem. In Deuteronomy 1:1, the Bible states that "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan." This verse makes no sense. If the B'nei Yisroel had not yet crossed the Jordan, why would the verse use a spatial orientation that suggests that they were on the East Bank of the Jordan? We know they are on the East Bank, because they hadnt crossed the river yet. Ibn Ezra says "If you know the secret of the twelve, and of 'And Moses wrote,' and of 'The Canaanite was then in the land,' and of 'In the mount where the Lord is seen,' and of 'Behold his bedstead was a beadstead of iron,' you will discover the truth." The secret of the twelve are the twelve last verse of the Bible that are difficult ot imagine Moshe wrote. The other "secrets" are various anachronisms that are quite difficult to understand given a belief that Moses transcribed these events in one sitting or even contemporaneously as events unfolded.

But even putting these difficulties aside, I would like to return to the one element of the Bible, and, indeed, of all of Judaism that should shake anyone’s faith to the core: Cultures record unique moments in time. In other words, there is no reason to think that just as the Institutes of Justinian and the Code of Hammurabi capture not so much a timeless ethical system, but a unique taste of a culture existing in a specific place in time and space, the Bible captures a desert people recording their culture, especially insofar as it separates them from their neighbors.

Jacobs provides three examples which serve to demonstrate this idea:

1. The Babylonian Story of the Flood

This is really old hat for j-blogosphere. By now most of us are at least somewhat acquainted with the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the Utnapishtim takes a three hour tour at the behest of a god bent on destroying humanity by flood and who later releases a bird to discover whether or not the earth is once again safe to inhabit.

2. Cooking a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk

Maimonidies explains this prohibition as an explicit statement by the author of the Bible (God, if you like) that the B’nei Yisorel should not imitate a common idolatrous practice of the time that had nothing to do with cheeseburgers (to be totally fair, the Rambam speculated that the practice was connected to idolatry, speculation which was later confirmed in the 1930s when a collection of Canaanite tablets revealed that this was indeed a Canaanite temple ritual).

3. The Goring Ox

Suffice it to say that the law concerning a goring ox (Exodus 21:29-30) is nearly identical to the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Eshunna.

4. The Slave’s Ear

Both Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi talk about damaging a servant’s ear in a ceremony concerning his emancipation. Accoridng to Hammurabi, a slave who desires freedom has his ear cut off, while Exodus state that a servant who desires to stay past his term of servitude has his ear bored.

My point in all this is that it is increasingly difficult to see oneself as the keeper of a Mesorah that stretched back to Moses. It is far easier to see oneself as the heir to a cultural record of people who prided themselves as separate from their neighbors, but who were a product of their cultural milieu nonetheless. Any greenhorn apologist can point out how vastly superior the B’nei Yisroel were as compared to their neighbors. Indeed it is not hard to read the Bible as a magnificent testimonial to the high morals of the B’nei Yisroel. But of what import is that today? It is this normative claim that becomes much more difficult in the face of considering Judaism no different than any other culture- it creates myths and legends to further it communal interest. Given early Judaism’s desire for separateness, it is no mystery that we have maintained a cohesive identity for so long. But is it true? Is there deeper meaning to be culled from a cultural document?

No answers here.