I was listening to "On Point with Tom Ashbrook" today as he interviewed Wendy Doniger and Arshia Sattar, two great scholars of Indian culture. The topic was the recent film interpretations of India's two national epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. What struck me was the sophisticated way these women could enter into and appreciate the text without for a moment insisting on their historicity. The genius of these epics has nothing to do with history. Their wisdom has noting to do with reading them literally. Why can't we read the Bible the same way?
Of course many people do, and universities that teach Bible as literature do this for sure. But the religious world that I live in--the world of Christian fundamentalism and Jewish historicism demand (each in its own way and for its own ends) that the Bible is at least representative of actual historical events.
This is easy to understand in the context of religious fundamentalism, Jewish and Christian: the Bible is the word of God. ‘Nuff said. But why do liberal and largely secular Jews, Jews who have no interest in keeping any of the commandments of God found in the Torah, insist that the Torah is history rather than epic and myth like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana?
My guess is that their sense of identity depends on the historical accuracy of these texts. After all if we Jews weren’t enslaved in and escape from Egypt, and if we didn’t conquer Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, then our claim to Israel is weakened, and our sense of identity brought into question. We have so tied ourselves to history and real estate that we have closed ourselves to the deeper spiritual wisdom that transcends both.
This is dangerous. First it is dangerous because it links our identity to a false view of history which will become harder and harder to maintain as the facts become more and more irrefutable. Second it is dangerous because when that history is debunked (as many Israeli archeologists and scholars are doing right now) we will have nothing on which to base our identity as a distinct people. If you don’t believe in the supernaturalism of the Torah—and most Jews don’t; and you don’t feel obligated to adhere to the commandments legislated by this God you don’t believe in—and most Jews don’t, all you have to cling to is a history that is slipping through our fingers like sand through an hourglass. Then what? Judaism dies, and Jews disappear.
But a Judaism rooted in brilliant myth, epic storytelling, and deep and on-going argument over what it means to be human and how to live justly and compassionately is dependent on nothing but the imaginative genius of its people.
The Torah is the Jews’ Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Jews’ Iliad and Odyssey. We should look to Torah for wisdom not law, for insight into the human condition not glimpses of God’s nature. Judaism will die when the imagination of the Jews die. And it is the death of the Jewish imagination that is the greatest crisis of Jewish life today. Judaism won’t die because Jews intermarry or reject halachic rulings and rabbinic authority. Judaism will die because Jews can no longer imagine Torah.