Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ten "Too Jewish" Questions

I write an advice column for Spirituality & Health magazine, and I’m always on the lookout for questions that I can use as part of the column. Sometimes the questions I receive are too Jewish and don’t make it into the column. Here are ten of these “too Jewish” questions and my answers to them.

1. Is YHVH God? No. YHVH is one particular Jewish understanding of God, but God cannot be limited to particulars. For me, God is the Source and Substance of all reality; God is what is. The Hebrew YHVH, a future imperfect form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” suggests that God is the is’ing of reality. This comes close to my understanding, so I use the term. But I know that my understanding is still not a full understanding. The Tao that can be named, as Lao Tzu says, is not the Eternal Tao.

2. Are Jews God’s Chosen People, and is Israel God’s promised land? No. While Judaism holds tight to these claims, I cannot. To me notions such as chosenness, promised lands, saved and damned, true believer and the infidel are nonsensical and dangerous. God, as I understand God, chooses no one and promises nothing. God is what is; nothing more and nothing less.

3. Is Torah God’s revelation to the Jews? No. God doesn’t reveal or conceal anything. Torah is an amalgamation of stories, laws, teachings, and codes of behavior written by numerous individuals over centuries, and reflecting Bronze and Iron Age views of the world. While cloaked in history, most books of the Bible were written long after the events they claim to relate, and are more apt to speak to the people and the times in which they were written than to us.

4. Should we design our lives around the teachings of Torah and Talmud? Certainly traditionally minded Jews would say so, but I do not. While there are timeless teachings in both Torah and Talmud, and I value these along with other sources of ancient wisdom, most of what I find there is largely irrelevant to my life. On the other hand, if you want to be a traditionally observant Jew you have to accommodate yourself to Jewish tradition as spelled out in Torah and Talmud, as well as other sources of rabbinic law.

5. Are the teachings of the rabbis extensions of Torah? No. The earliest collection of rabbinic teachings, the Mishnah, is totally independent of Torah, and makes no attempt to link itself to Torah. The rabbis claim to embody a new Torah, the Oral Torah, which they say was given to Moses on Sinai and passed down separately from the Written Torah. While the Written Torah was given to the Priests, the Oral Torah was given to the rabbis. Is there any evidence for this? No. The rabbis invented their own Torah to legitimize what is in essence a religious coup in Jewish life.

6. Where does rabbinic authority come from? From the laypeople who choose to follow rabbis in general and specific rabbis in particular. While rabbis claim to be heirs to the Oral Torah given to Moses on Sinai, the fact is they invented this Torah as a means of legitimizing their movement. This is nothing new. This is how all religions operate. Do you imagine the Buddha spoke all the sutras attributed to him? Some were written hundreds of years after his death. People who need authority figures find ones they like and legitimize them. This is why Jews will shift allegiance from rabbi to rabbi and synagogue to synagogue in order to find a rabbi who speaks “truth,” that is a rabbi who agrees with them. The same is true of Christians who continually change churches or start new versions of Protestantism. They all claim to be revealing the Truth, when in fact they are only promoting their own opinions.

7. What is the most important element of Jewish life? Shabbat? Kosher? Passover? While all of these are important, the most important to me is Torah. Jews are a people whose identity is rooted in story. Notice I say “story” rather than “history.” There is scant evidence that the story of the Jews from Abraham through Joshua is historical. But that doesn’t bother me. I am not interested in history, but in story. We are the stories we tell. So if archeologists are correct and the Exodus never happened, it doesn’t bother me a bit. The story is what moves me (both positively and negatively); it is the story that matters. So if we were to lose everything but Torah (that is everything but our story and the freedom to continually interpret and add to it which is the Way of Torah) we would still survive.

8. Is the State of Israel central to Jewish life? Yes, but for all the wrong reasons. Israel has become the secular god of the Jews. Jews who have no interest in Jewish texts, teachings, or traditions link their identity as Jews to the Jewish State. This is unfortunate because Israel cannot live up to the spiritual genius of Judaism, and too often falls prey to its worst elements. Judaism is a mythos, a laboratory for meaning-making, Israel is a logos, a program for politics. As scholar Karen Armstrong repeated proves, when logos takes the place of mythos violence almost always erupts. When the state becomes god, it is the devil who rules. This is not to say Israel is irrelevant, only that Jews shouldn’t ask Israel to be other than it is: a political entity willing to do whatever is necessary to survive.

9. Since God is just and good, what did the Jews do to deserve the Holocaust? Nothing. The Jews were murdered for being Jews. No one “deserves” a Holocaust? The problem the Holocaust poses for believers in a just God is that this god is revealed to be anything but just. There are at least three responses to this discovery: 1) become an atheist; 2) defend god as God and blame the Jews; and 3) stop imagining a just God. Most Jews I suspect opted for #1, while traditional Judaism continues to focus on God, most Jews are no longer traditional. When they speak of God the word is often empty of anything but nostalgia for old ways of talking. Some Jews opt for #2 and continue the ancient argument that God punishes the Jews because we are not living up to God’s standards. I prefer #3, what I call the way of Job, who challenged the idea of a just God and discovered a God beyond good and evil, justice and injustice, who cannot be reduced to these human concepts. This is a minority position to say the least.

10. Who is your favorite rabbi? Me. I am the only rabbi who says exactly what I believe. If you asked me for rabbis other than myself that I admire, I would say the following: Hillel, Jesus, Shabbatai Tzvi, the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Ber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi.


Jake Richter said...


You wrote, "...the Mishnah, is totally independent of Torah, and makes no attempt to link itself to Torah."

This confuses me. My understanding was that the Mishna does link itself to Torah and that's why Pirkei Avot starts out the way that it does (Moshe kibel Torah miSinai etc.). The Rambam in his Mishneh Toreh does the same thing. I agree that these are separate and that the Mesorah as is understood by many in the Orthodox world, is a story and not history, to use your terminology, however, I always thought that the Mishna, the Rishonim, etc. thought of themselves as linked and extensions of the Torah.

Can you clarify?

Just me. said...

Some Jewish people are going to be very upset with you Mr.know-it-all!

; )

Rabbi Rami said...

Hi Jake,

Look at Avot carefully and you'll see that the history the rabbis offer is invented. it by-passes the priests entirely, and yet Torah is clearly focused on them. My point was that the Mishnah makes no attempt to link its rulings to Torah texts. Rather it claims to be Torah., the Oral Torah, something the Written Torah knows nothing about. True rabbis don't admit this, and the Gemorah tries to show the links between Mishnah and Torah, but the Mishnah speaks for itself.

I hope that helps. If not, read Jacob Neusner's books or Ellis Rivkin's the Hidden Revolution.

As for some Jews being upset with me... Yeah that is the story of my life beginning with my years growing up in an Orthodox shul. I learn to live with it.

My Mother's Child said...

Thanks for this blog. It has added a brighter undertanding of the Jewish faith and the vast span of indifference that seperates one from the other.

Uriel said...

Dear Rabbi,
may I ask you,why you list Shabbatai Tzvi among the Rabbis you admire?I don't know many details about that,and the mystical aspects or interpretations related to it, but I believe that your insights will help me know more.