Musings on Historical Approaches to Judaism and Problems of Is and Ought

DovBear has a discussion on his blog today about the implications of a “rational and historical” approach to Judaism. He quotes a question posed about the practice of tikkun leyl Shavuot–staying up all night on erev Shavuot to study–and whether, if someone will be exhausted and “lose Torah” as a result, it is better to “quit while you’re ahead” or stay up all night. The response to the question says, essentially, tikkun leyl Shavuot is only about 500 years old and its origin story with Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of the Shuchan Arukh) is sort of dubious, and none of the rishonim or Talmudic-era rabbis did it. So if you’ll “lose Torah” by staying up all night for the tikkun, the quote says, it’s better that you sleep your ordinary schedule than try to stay up.

DovBear doesn’t particularly agree with this (I’m soft-pedaling his response a bit).  Continue reading

Digging for Gold. Or Brimstone.

Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog picked up a link to an online-only article from Christianity Today, “Searching for Sodom.” The article calls into question the conclusion of an archaeologist, Steven Collins, that the Tall el-Hammam site in Jordan is the location of the biblical Sodom. Biblical Archaeology Review carried an article about this about a year back, as well.

Rabbi Student’s–and Christianity Today’s–agenda is to undercut Collins’s conclusion as to the timeline for the destruction of Sodom. This, of course, is expected; Christianity Today’s focus is evangelical, and Rabbi Student’s approach is Modern Orthodox, which doesn’t much debate with the biblical timeline. (He’s also quibbled with recent conclusions concerning when camels were domesticated in the ancient Middle East and how that might or might not affect our view of the veracity of the patriarchal narratives.)

While I understand the stakes for everyone, I think we’re asking the wrong questions when we engage in this kind of debate because we’re assuming the Bible is reliable historical evidence. That is, we’re begging the question.

If you stop begging the question, you stop trying to say, “Tall el-Hammam is Sodom.” You instead say, “here’s what we learned at Tall el-Hammam.” If you find evidence that this was the site of Sodom–either good evidence from which you can derive a reliable inference, or evidence of a sort that really identifies the place (e.g., large numbers of inscriptions)–then you’ve found it, and we can maybe then start to talk about timeline.

If not? You’ve found a fascinating archaeological site. You’ve gained insight into a time and place long lost that, though it may not confirm or disprove the biblical timeline, may still have much to tell us about what life was like, and can illuminate a historical understanding of the biblical texts.

That is, you’ve done the actual work of history and archaeology–things that, however interesting they may be, the biblical texts were not designed for.

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