What did you find out wasn’t true?
The instant answer that comes to mind is the Torah. But that’s not really the answer to anything. No, of course the story that’s told in there isn’t true. We know that. Ask any non-Orthodox (and even many Orthodox) rabbis if it’s a true story, if it’s history and they’ll immediately tell you it’s not. But, if they’re smart, they’ll tell you it wasn’t meant to be in the first place. It’s far more than a document of prescriptions of law and it’s more than simply literature. It’s the history of a people. But it’s not a history in the modern sense — mostly, I suspect, because the modern idea of history simply didn’t exist when it was written, when it was experienced, when it was spoken. And the people who were meant to be reading it (or hearing it, as often would have been the case) didn’t expect it to be true. They expected it to be something far more important than being true. They needed it to be illuminating.
In the beginning, we understood stories to be told for a purpose. Now, we expect there to be a sharp dividing line between truth and fiction — between journalism and artifice. Which is why we get so angry when someone at the New York Times leads us in a direction that we don’t feel is accurate. It’s why when someone on Fox (as often is the case) spins a story to favor an interpretation that isn’t simply misleading but genuinely racist and xenophobic — I’m not really sure just how much Fox News hates Mexicans but it’s staggering to me just how much they hate the Chinese. It may be more apparent to me, though, as I know few Mexicans, all of who are completely apolitical, but many Chinese. And I’m a wholehearted communist. Not the Maoist variety but at least it’s a lot closer to my idea of how a state should function than the populist mob mentality of contemporary Trump-land.
We scream about fake news and on the other side of the coin whine about cultural appropriation when a piece of self-proclaimed fiction hits too close to home. We talk about journalistic integrity when a reporter speaks accurately instead of telling a story in the way that provokes the intended response. Or the other way around. People complain regardless. It’s what humans do lately, complain and whine. Whining is the new breathing. Perhaps we can start breathing again soon. I don’t hold out much hope for it.
That being said, though, we have to keep a few things in mind. One is that language is fluid. Another is that knowledge is not just cultural but contingent and relative. Perhaps more important than these two, though, is that you can teach something to someone or you can tell someone the truth but you can rarely do both at the same time. If I tell a child that two and two is four, they will soon forget. If I, instead of telling them, give them two blocks and two more, letting them practice, I haven’t told them the truth. I’ve told them a far more complicated story about blocks and counting. But they’ve learned the right answer. That’s the Torah. It’s a teaching tool for how to live a better life.
I know, you’re going to ask me what right I have to talk about this — today or any other day. As a committed secularist, you’re going to say that I shouldn’t be criticizing religious texts. But while I’m committed to secular expressions of ethics and thought, I’m a huge proponent of traditional expressions of understanding those ethics and thoughts. There is very little in western civilization worth keeping. This scroll, however, I would propose as one of the high points.
Let’s start at that beginning. Not Bereshit. I mean, where did it come from? We think of Biblical Hebrew in the same way as we think about Vulgate Latin and Attic Greek. Dead languages, things that aren’t spoken anymore. Things that have structure and form and meaning that never changes. But that’s not even slightly the case. No, the words and grammar don’t change. But the meanings certainly do. I’ll give you an example. Let’s take a word you think you know the meaning of. I’ll use Latin transliteration for anything I’m talking about here to make it easier to read. Adonai. In Latin, that is usually rendered Deo, in Greek Theos. That becomes, in English, God. And that seems altogether simple.
Which is where you’ve become so lost and confused. First, Hebrew, like Chinese, Japanese and many other languages of the near and far east, is a contextual language. That means that words have no meaning outside of their present situation. English is a non-contextual language, like Latin, French, German or Spanish. That’s not the most important differentiation at this point for this example but it’s something to keep in mind. It means that there’s no exact meaning in the mind of the writer that we can pin down for the word Adonai when it’s put on the paper as each time it is written (if you’ve counted them, you’re doing far better than I am). But when you cross the linguistic boundary, things become even more confused. Taking the Hebrew, contextualized version of a word and translating that into English, which has fixed, dictionary-style definitions, then using those translations for each time the word appears, means that you are losing the overtones and context. The flexibility of the language is lost in that programmatic interpretation that takes away the necessity of understanding the place and time it was written, implying that there is a fixed nature to the text.
Beyond that, though, there is a far larger problem. The definition of “God” in the first century of the common era is different from that of the sixteenth century, different from the nineteenth century, extremely different from today. Your definition of it is different from mine is different from my mother’s and yours. So which version is it that you’d like to use. Words don’t remain fixed in their meanings. This is an example that I have selected because it’s hugely obvious that there has been a shift in definition over time. But almost all words have this temporally-contextual quality, even in languages that aren’t inherently or time-independently contextual. In tribal times (I am getting at, in tribal Hebraic times, in the pre-Moses days), any notion of a universalized deity would have been completely anachronistic. Even in the time of the First Temple, such an idea would have been remarkable — the Hebrew God was certainly powerful in their eyes but that didn’t preclude the existence of others. By the time of the revolt of 70CE, such was still much the case in some ways. But the whole notion of deity had been shifted in much of the world — some may say thanks to cultural innovations from India that were permeating the Roman world, some saying that it would have happened anyway. But the notion of deity was dying in the intellectual classes and really only kept around to serve as a placeholder for the masses as a reason to be ethically minded.
There was a shift from active deity as creative force and existing object to archetype and notional entity as a collective representation for all life. This is the Buddhist notion of “all living things” as a collective. In Second Temple times, we could see this as the new secular (the wrong word, as it’s completely anachronistic, yet it’s definitely a good description of cultural life with no more need for deity intervention and the use of temple worship and sacrifice becoming completely culturally motivated rather than belief-focused) version of God. When Christianity three centuries later was grafted onto Roman cult worship, it broke with this trend and that is something that I am happy to discuss at a later time but suffice it to say at this point that I’m going to look at this from a purely linguistic perspective and not pay particular attention to what is or is not useful to take from scripture. (If you’re curious, I believe there is an incredible amount to learn about ethics and history from scripture of all faiths but you may feel free to agree or disagree as you desire.)
I had a discussion today about the problem with Orthodoxy. It’s an interesting issue. Most people have a serious problem with the idea of not doing work on the Sabbath. Not even making music or driving a car. Not that you usually think of those things as doing work but music is, of course, a creative act. A very narrow reading of the Torah prohibits work on the Sabbath, sure. But that is all dependent on a few things — one is your definition of work, another your definition of creation, still another on what the purpose of that prohibition is and whether it is relevant in this environment. If you define work as creation, every act of speech becomes prohibited. Every thought is prohibited. We can’t speak or think on the Sabbath. Which means we have to die after only six days of life. That doesn’t seem sensible. If you define it more broadly, is music any more or less a creative act than speaking? Can you drive if it’s not work? What about reading? While it may not have been two thousand years ago, many school-aged members of society certainly think of it as work now. But this is certainly not my large problem with Orthodoxy.
Nor is it the notion of gender segregation. My problem with that, of course, as I have discussed at length in writing many times is not that people believe that woman and man should be separated. It’s that people still have the notion that there are actual things such as woman or man that are not simply defined by the culture that has created them. Biological sex is a definite thing, although it’s only one (and often a very unhelpful) way of dividing members of a species. When looking at something other than reproduction, it’s often more misleading and not a source of anything useful. But the segregation in an Orthodox shul is no more troubling to me than the identification of one person as “he” and another as “she”. It’s the same problem — division of humans by an arbitrary and silly procedure.
The real problem that I have with Orthodox belief is in the fixed and defined nature of scripture (or of anything). This is certainly not restricted to Orthodox Judaism — it is true of fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, for example, among other things. The notion that the meaning of a text is fixed, unchanging, even if the words themselves are not fluid, is nothing but a misinterpretation of how language works.
We use language as a shorthand for the communication of thoughts and understanding. If you are speaking to someone, you can say the same words on ten consecutive days and they will hear ten different things. You could record yourself saying them so the source would be identical and they would still hear ten different things. The context is important. So if you are reading a passage — let’s take the first verse of both the Torah and its inclusion in the Christian Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I know, there are many different versions of this but this is probably the one most of you know best so I’ll use that. Taking the important words here just to start, we have “beginning”, “God”, “create”, “heaven” and “earth”. There are some interesting things to be said about words like “and” and “the” but we’ll leave that aside for any of you who want to take one of my classes on the theory of translation.
I’ll just ask you a few questions to show you where this is going and what it has to do with truth. Is beginning the beginning of time, the beginning of earth’s existence, the beginning of God’s existence, the beginning of recorded history or simply the beginning of the story? Is God a deity or an archetype, the sum of all life, all sentient life, all life current alive or all life that’s ever happened or something else altogether? Do you create simply by making something out of material or by giving it name or by thinking about it or speaking of it or some combination of these? Is heaven a place or an idea, an ideal state of life or something that happens when life disappears? Is earth a planet or a state of being, a place or a period of time? You have answers to some of these, perhaps all of them, in your mind, I suspect. But I can promise you that your answers won’t be the same as everyone else’s. If you aren’t sure the person who wrote those words the first time, the person who spoke them, the person who translated them, the person who edited them (and I say person but I mean the hundreds, thousands in many cases, of each there were) held exactly (and I mean really exactly) the same answers to all of them as you do today, you don’t know what the meaning of that sentence is. One sentence. Out of millions in scripture alone, not to mention all the studies and sermons. Do you really understand this line at all? And if you do, when your understanding of the nature of God or earth or heaven changes, even slightly, were you wrong now or wrong then? What about everyone else? Is everyone wrong but you?
Language is flexible. Truth is a matter of understanding and is contextual, time-dependent. My truth isn’t yours and yours isn’t mine. It can’t be. We can try to understand each other and I certainly hope we will continue to. The Torah is a stunning example of how a teaching tool can be relevant for thousands upon thousands of years to untold generations. As long as we don’t forget that it’s a teaching tool.
The point of faith isn’t to answer questions. It’s to ask them. We will only ever understand the world around us and how to live better by asking the right questions and hoping that our answer in this moment is better than our answer yesterday. Of course, tomorrow we must search for a better answer than today’s. That’s what life is for. To ask a better question and search for a better answer.
Perhaps a better truth?