A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Parshat Va’era, or, Biblical Criticism and the Redactor’s Amnesia

I’m back! Did you miss me!? ūüėČ

Despite the purported break that comes with the new year, it’s been busy in these parts. I have a longer post coming out later today, but in the meantime, I’ve got a shorter comment on this week’s regularly scheduled Torah portion, Parshat Va’era.

Where are we in the story in this portion? Moses, we are told, has encountered Yahweh in the desert and made some initial forays into Egypt to try to free the Israelites. We are also told that these efforts have failed. And then we come to this passage, at the very beginning of the portion:

And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai–but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).

(“Hey, Humanistic Jew,” you’re thinking, “why uppercase ‘God'”? Because it’s used as a proper noun in this context.)

Now, there’s a problem here. The statement in verse 3–“but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them”–isn’t true!

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Photo of a shofar--ram's horn used as a trumpet--Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and a box with pencils and slips of paper.

Rosh Hashanah Success, Some Narrative Criticism, and Bits and Bobs

Rosh Hashanah Success

Photo of a shofar--ram's horn used as a trumpet--Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and a box with pencils and slips of paper.

The Script, the Shofar, and the Tiny Tashlikh Kit

This past Tuesday evening, I led a first-ever Humanistic Rosh Hashanah service in Indianapolis. Taking my family out of the mix, we had 21 people come (26 when you include my household and my sister’s household). We had a short service, lots of challah, apples and honey, and Mrs. Humanistic Jew’s apple raisin honey cake. (We’ve got more planned–Sukkot is coming up, and we’ll be doing a “Sukkah-less Sukkot” on October 4 at Holliday Park in Indianapolis; more details will follow, so stay tuned.)

Some Narrative Criticism

The Forward has a column, “Sarah and Hagar’s ‘Bad Blood’ is Feminism Gone Awry.” The writer¬†notes that it’s a little odd that we have the story of Sarah’s demand that Abraham expel¬†Hagar from the camp as one of the Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah, and, identifying with Hagar in some ways, connects the story to some of the experiences and processing she has undergone in adjusting to the world of Jewish feminists.

I’m hesitant to connect personally to biblical characters in quite this way. I don’t think the appearance of the Sarah and Hagar unit in the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings is terribly difficult to explain from a different feminist lens: the rabbis weren’t thinking about women when they fixed the Torah portions. The rabbis were¬†probably¬†thinking of the thing as a kind of unit: they’re focused on covenant, fulfillment of promises, atonement, and the high stakes associated with Isaac. I suspect they were not especially concerned about Sarah and Hagar per se. Continue reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

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“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

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Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Hipster Hanukkah Myth Busting

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Oil-Burning Hamsa Hanukkiyah

Continuing on the Hanukkah theme, for the last year or two I’ve wanted to try using oil instead of candles for Hanukkah. This year, Mrs. Secular Jew bought me an oil-burning hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) so I could try it out. Think of it as a kind of “hipster” Hanukkah thing–let’s use a purportedly old-style hanukkiyah and some olive oil and get all hipster-ironic-“I was doing this before it was cool”!

But because I wanted to actually do this during Hanukkah and had never used oil before, I decided to do a “dry” run. (Get it? Because oil isn’t dry! Well, I thought it was funny.)

My thoughts? They must have used a TON of olive oil to keep the menorah lit in¬†the Second Temple. Or maybe not…

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Let’s Make a Deal

I have heard it suggested that the biblical book of Genesis is really just the story of a fractious family. That’s basically true, I suppose, and the family story told by the biblical text keeps on rolling this week in Parshat Vayishlach, telling the story of Jacob and Esau’s meeting to bury their father, Isaac.

It’s also one of a number of Torah portions in Genesis that includes a negotiating session. This one is, in some sense, a life-or-death dispute: the time for Jacob to reckon with Esau over the lost birthright has finally come.

I’m not all that interested in the story itself at the moment. I want instead to talk about something that legal education has made me sensitive to: bargaining practices. Let’s look at the negotiations that appear in Genesis and how the conduct of those negotiations gives readers literary clues and a bit of heightened drama in the associated stories. Continue reading

It’s Negotiable

Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!

Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.

I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.

I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.

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What kind of justice do you pursue? Thoughts on parshat Shoftim and textual adoption.

Remarkably quickly, it seems, we’ve marched through the traditional Torah reading cycle and are several parshiyot into Deuteronomy. This week’s traditional cycle takes us to parshat Shoftim, which starts us off with the appointment of judges and the necessity that they blinker themselves as to the status of the parties before them.

Like many other parshiyot, Shoftim has lots of little verses (or parts of verses, anyway) in it that are often cited as grounding the principles of liberal Judaism in the Torah. And I and many other lawyers have often pointed to Deut. 16:20–“Justice, justice shall you pursue”–as a lodestar. (I put that verse in my law school application essays, and Mrs. Secular Jew gave me a gift with that verse on it–it’s one of the Mickie Caspi pieces.)

But perhaps we’re too quick on the draw. Continue reading

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Hypotheses, Theories, and Biblical Criticism, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Higher Antisemitism”

(Warning–this is not a post written for the linguistically or intellectually faint-of-heart. If you’re a casual reader, you’ve been warned.)

In response to my post a couple of days ago about the implications of biblical criticism for Jewish thought–which was itself a response to Jay Michaelson at the Forward–the Society for Humanistic Judaism in its Facebook feed asked when a hypothesis becomes a theory. I’ve been mulling that over a bit, and came belatedly upon TheTorah.com‘s meme about what biblical criticism is:

Bible Criticism – From TheTorah.com

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When we push too far, or, a nice reminder

In the traditional Torah reading cycle, we’re coming up on Parshat Vayeishev, which begins the story of Joseph. Over at Torah Musings, Gil Student has a post addressing the documentary hypothesis (the idea that the Torah has multiple, identifiable sources from which a redactor drew in assembling the final text; rundown here in Wikipedia) and one of the areas where there has been substantial scholarly debate over its application: the text of Genesis 37, which relates the story of Joseph’s dreams about his brothers and their decision to…well, it’s complicated.

Student, drawing on several scholarly sources, notes that the “traditional” scholarly view is that the contents of Genesis 37 come from two sources–J (the Yahwist–J makes a “Y” sound in German) and E (the Elohist). Each of these sources is generally considered to use certain ways of naming God (hence the J vs. E distinction), use certain characteristic vocabulary, hold specific subject matter concerns, etc., that help modern critics identify the provenance of particular passages in the Torah. Often, this approach makes sense: it makes sense of two creation narratives, replications and discrepancies in various narratives (the binding of Isaac, for example, and the substantial parallels in the stories of Abraham and Isaac), etc. Identifying source texts in this way often produces smoother narratives.

As Student points out, that’s not really the case in Genesis 37, and modern scholars have noticed this, with some critics arguing that the narrative as a whole reads much better than in its component pieces as assigned under the traditional version of the documentary hypothesis. Student argues, following Gordon Wenham, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and R.N. Whybray, that we ought to cast something of a jaundiced eye at the documentary hypothesis generally because of its breakdowns in areas like this.

There are parts of the story that might be well served by documentary hypothesis analysis; what the heck is going on, exactly, when Joseph is taken out of the well and sold in Gen. 37:25-29? He’s…taken by Midianites, who sell him to Ishmaelites? But the brothers see the Ishmaelites first and want to sell him. And where is Reuben in all this? Reuben only a few verses before discourages his brothers from killing Joseph, which is how Joseph ends up in the pit from which the Midianites take him, but then Reuben is apparently out of the picture.

That said, Student is right to remind us that such hypotheses, pushed too far, can break down. (I’ve long been somewhat skeptical of the use of the documentary hypothesis in all situations–for me, the Noah story made plain the problems with the approach.) This is the reason that newer approaches have come into use: various forms of literary criticism, more politically-minded forms of criticism (feminist, ethnic, economic), etc., have become more common over the last couple of decades, and many of them focus on the text as a whole.

But Student has an ax to grind here–specifically, he’s tagging Open Orthodoxy with this criticism (check out footnote 5 at the bottom of his post), and it’s the “mainstream” Orthodox “heresy”¬†du jour. (Here’s Student’s recent op ed on The Forward’s website defending the RCA’s decision to publicly denounce the Open Orthodox folks.) And that is where his critique breaks down, because he is tagging modern scholarship (or really, one stream of modern scholarship) with circular logic while implicitly proposing another bit of circular logic: namely, that there is no human source (or no significant human source) for the Torah, which we arguably would know because it all fits neatly together and says so by its own terms. Or something.

In this, I think Student could be pulling a fast one on the reader–he conflates evidence with proof, and hypothesis with fact. Modern criticism accepts or rejects the documentary hypothesis because it does–or doesn’t–provide the best explanation for why a text or texts end up in a certain state, and various versions of the documentary hypothesis are critiqued on that basis. The texts are, ultimately, only ever evidence and never proof; all such scholarship is inherently argument.

And arguments pushed too far break down. For those of us who intentionally are not Orthodox, it likely goes without saying that Student’s perspective on the status of Torah as revelation is not, as a complete argument, as convincing as the modern scholarly arguments we have heard.

Just…a reminder for those who criticize arguments.