Monday, December 16, 2013
Torasophy: A Biblical Humanism (Part I)
Prequel to the world as they knew it
Reading the Hebrew Bible is a bit like entering a time machine to travel back a few millennia. Imagine people wearing sandals and clothes somewhat unlike yours, but strip away the styles and the trends, and you see that they are concerned in their own ways with the same issues that concern people in your day and in your town: place, property, power, privilege, position, passion, poverty and all the games people still play today. Even when the text as we know it was being compiled and edited, it was already an attempt to recall an ancestral time. These were the stories the ancient Israelites told of the primordial world and of their ascendence to their present day. Fast forward, and even with all of the advances in technology and science, we are still concerned with many of the same essential themes and questions.
The Torah, as the first five books of the Bible are known in Hebrew, opens with a dreamlike inception of time and space. After a brief introduction to light and matter come the profiles of archetypal characters. The story quickly moves from the Big Bang to Mesopotamia to Canaan, from Adam to Noah to Terah. Everything in the history of the world leads to Abraham becoming the first Hebrew. There is a lot of traveling down to Egypt and back up to Canaan, and along the way the focus on Abraham and his children is further narrowed to the descendants of his grandson, Jacob. Some sections read like a genealogical archive of heroes and their arch-enemies, but the lists of dry details give way to compellingly detailed accounts of some exemplary human beings and their deplorable human failings. Oppression, emancipation, liberation, and the epic journey comes to fruition with People of Israel on the threshold of the Land of Israel.
That is the story as painted in a sweeping arc with one long stroke of a broad brush. At first there is nothing but an empty canvas. Then there is light, and soon after that the world is full of everything good. Humanity appears early on in the biblical narrative, when the clear skies—having just recently been separated from the water—are still carefree. It is a beautiful day and the reader can imagine Adam and Eve wishing it would never end. Look more closely and you can see a great deal of detail along the route from Eden Garden to the River Jordan—intrigue regarding all matters of personal, inter-personal and political relationships. These are the three areas of investigation in the biblical narrative. Adam is at first free to roam about the garden, naming everything he sees. He is then suddenly faced with rules, choices and dilemmas. The scene begins filling with moral ambiguity as the creator-spirit rumbles into the garden on a late afternoon breeze. The story grows dark.
The Potential to Become
Eve and Adam are concerned with covering up, but not merely in the simple way they are depicted in mediaeval paintings. The cover up is not so much about nudity, which is barely mentioned in the text. It is about tasting the fruit of knowledge. So, the question is not who ate the apple or if it was actually a fig or a pomegranate, but rather: What did they know, and when did they know it? The real attempt at a cover up comes when Adam, who had been instructed to follow exactly one rule, tries to get Eve to take the fall for breaking it. She in turn blames the shrewd serpent, described as somehow even more naked than any of the other unclothed creatures in the garden, and it works. The serpent speaks the naked truth—that tasting a bit of knowledge will not kill you—and then takes the fall for the humans who are sent on their way to be fruitful and make a living for themselves.
Look who become creators now. Our heroes are at liberty to do as they see fit, and they become responsible for their own well-being. They got the same 'punishment' (or reward), which so many of us seek as we grow into adulthood. We want to become knowledgeable, venture out and become independent, and we quite often choose to create and raise our own families. Even though we do not know what lies ahead, regardless of the challenges we will face, who would really choose to stay in the garden forever?
Like Eve and Adam, Noah, Abraham, Sara… Miriam, Moses and everyone else, we all venture out of the garden. At times we find ourselves faced with unpredictable circumstances, desiring a return to simpler days. Though we may revisit our proving grounds, we are never capable of traveling back in time, even and perhaps especially when we are at our most unbecoming. We are never merely who we once were; we are always the layered stories of who we have been and who we have the potential to become.
Is there a Creator of this Creation?
The Book of Genesis opens with Elohim envisioning the sky and the land. It is a wondrous and thunderous time as the plan for the world comes into focus. The creative force is obviously portrayed as a dominant interactive character throughout the narrative. In this respect, the narrative seems to diverge quite widely from our lived experience. At face value, there is no room for a purely humanistic reading of Torah, but this creative force is portrayed in many ways, with several names that are much less definitive in Hebrew than many translators have rendered them in English. This is no simple story.
The essential complexity of the content and the structure of the biblical narrative suggests three ways of understanding the text. The reader can imagine different roles for Elohim: On the narrative level, Elohim is an actual intervening deity and perhaps the main character on the story. On the level of moral justification, even if the Elohim is no longer intervening in the affairs of the world at some point after the vision is in place and set in motion, the source of natural law remains the same. On the conceptual level, the purpose of the biblical characters and their particular actions is to represent some of the common external challenges with which we are confronted, as well as some of the more perplexing internal struggles we face. They are powerful literary devices to be explored and to assist us in our exploration of the world.
Studying the ancient Hebrew prose and poetry of the Torah enables us to connect deeply into the root network of a vast forest of ancient wisdom. The possible existence of an unknowable creator is but one of the ideas we can discover there. The richness of the text, the wordplay and the intentional ambiguity of the language allow for this question to be left to interpretation. The question of the nature of what we call creation is so expansive that it seems at least highly probable that there is no definitive answer. Literary quests and scientific investigations each provide us with the possibility of understanding our questions with greater depth and nuance. As we become increasingly knowledgeable, we may be tempted to conclude that we have arrived at a final answer. Great learning teaches us to resist that temptation; searching for the right answer simply for the purpose of closing our books or closing our minds to further learning is the essence of a failed examination. Surely there are answers to be found along the way, but exploration is about arriving at the right questions to ask for the purpose of opening new venues of inquiry.
I begin an exploration of literature by taking an interest in the characters, their circumstances and the way they face their predicaments. I often see myself reflected on the pages and in the lives of the people I am coming to know. Captivated by a great story, I can retreat for a time from my physical surroundings to enter an imagined world. I naturally find myself wondering how my moral fiber would hold up under their conditions. What would I have said to the serpent? Would I have tasted the fruit? How would I have related to my partner afterwards? Could I have stopped Cain from killing Abel? What act of violence might I be capable of committing in a rage? Could it be that anyone is capable of such violence under certain circumstances? How will I respond if I am attacked or when I am a witness to injustice perpetrated upon another? I see that I have withdrawn from the story just as easily as I found myself drawn into it. As I re-engage my own reality, I pause to consider that perhaps I have not entirely left the scene I was studying. I subtly understand how—impacted by what I read and what I was thinking during my retreat—this is now my story. I can see that I will be writing the sequel.
The way from the imagined nothingness at the moment before the opening of the Book of Genesis to the intricate context of ancient Israel is related by braiding multiple strands into one storyline. The engaging adventures are rather simple to grasp on the surface. The morals of the stories are embedded in the idea of divine reward and punishment. At the same time and in the same text, there is a humanistic examination that sheds light on the essence of humanity: creativity, struggle and liberation. This way of conveying complimentary messages—story telling, moral justification and conceptual inquiry—creates a plot that is more complex than might initially seem to be the case.
The power of a compelling narrative propels us to speculate and to investigate the nature of the human condition. These activities are not best left only to philosophers and theologians. Inquisitive children are quite capable of exploring abstract ideas, and so is everyone else, especially when given a bit of moral ambiguity in a well-crafted story. When we are able to recapture the spirit of discovery and wonder, of naming everything in the garden, stories begin to flow off the page, into our minds and deep into the collective consciousness of society. And the time is well spent, because the ongoing conversation of interpreting and reinterpreting our cultural heritage is a way of searching for the right balance between preservation and innovation in our lives, and it is a way of preparing to face the decisions we may need to make at any given moment.
Posted by Joshua Yarden at 12:02 AM | Permalink