Sunday, April 5, 2009

Pesach- 1: Miracles

It has recently become my custom, friends, to browse through the library closest to where I stay on ערב שבת for something to occupy my mind (outside of our never-ending and unceasingly interesting Torah and Talmud) while sitting on a chair for a long while. This past Friday I picked up, among other things, Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”. I was particularly interested in Kugel because I heard he had become somewhat popular among Modern-Orthodox (Chana Wiznitzer spoke of him for example), and I figured that seeing what he had to say on the Exodus narrative would give me a beginners idea of what he’s all about. Well, for someone who didn’t even read the cover sleeve, I was pretty surprised, I felt like I thought I was reading Gemara, but the content turned out to be pornographic. So for the uninitiated: It’s basically just a compendium of the ideas and conclusions of Modern Biblical scholars (critics), though it does mention some of the more traditional explanations, and on what premises they were formulated. Now, not that I feel all Biblical criticism books should be burned, but for a book with such an unassuming name I was a bit surprised. I did find a few of his points insightful, and it’s sort of easy reading because of its surprisingly colloquial style (probably because he’s Israeli).

One penetrating point he made that I recall off hand is a theory that many (including myself) have been puzzled by greatly; there were many British rationalists in the past 200 years who consistently tried to explain the miracles of the bible (especially those mentioned in Exodus) in a naturalistic sense, with the premise that the laws of nature cannot be changed). These are well known ideas, and new ones always appear, and traditional theologians and lay people of religious sensibilities usually quickly dismiss these ideas, and Kugel mentions the obvious reason for this. To paraphrase; if one does not feel that G-d can change nature than the entirety of religion must be manmade, and therefore somewhat bogus, for if G-d cannot intervene in nature, He cannot inspire prophesy to anyone, and prayer to Him is obviously also useless. Obviously the entirety of religion is based on the concept of prophesy, and prophesy is based on the premise that the creator of the universe somehow communicates His will to actual human beings, and listens when they speak. Now, while it is true that the Bible usually indicates that some form of natural means are generally employed to carry out salvation for His people (like the east winds in this case) it is obviously impossible to have a “theologian” who does not believe that the miracles of Exodus did not and could not have veered from the course of nature in any way (….unless they’re some sort of Humanist theologian or something).

In the past though, I thought the only purpose in hearing what the Bible critics had to say at all was because it was included in the general goal of expanding knowledge (especially in the field of religion). There’s a book that slightly changed my mind about that though; Lonely Man of Faith. In it, Rav Soloveichik, through a knowledge of the early form of the Documentary Hypothesis developed by the early German Bible critics that Genesis 1 and 2 (for example) were written by different groups (J and E, respectively), takes advantage of them by using them to explain those chapters in a very novel way, while not necessitating that the chapters have different authors, but rather (obviously) one author discussing different themes.

I would take advantage of this kind of theory to use a word I love so much; “post” (you know, like “post-modernism”). In other words; originally there was Biblical scholarship. In the eighteenth century “Modern” Biblical scholarship was started, and now, I feel, is time for religious people to confront Modern scholarship and create a “post”-modern Biblical scholarship, one that does not necessarily always refute modern scholarship, but uses it to further understand the bible based on our own, Divine inspiration premises. For the modern scholarship itself, I feel, is only the outcome of a simple premise, founded by a simple conclusion (which is not necessarily lacking in logic); namely that the Bible was not of any extra-human inspiration. All the critical theories are obviously a natural outcome of that premise. Yet we too have a simple, logically based premise, and there is no reason not to take advantage of the type of study for our purposes, just as we would use the result of any other discipline (such as archeology and anthropology) for our own “purposes”.


Jesica said...

I go to the library before pesach too! I'm actually heading to the library later today to get some pesach reading. During a 3 day yom tov you need something other than your haggadah to read.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Ha. Libraries are pretty damn limited sometimes (especially in regards to Judaic material). Theoretically a book store is better...but then again, who wants to spend money on a book (buying and returing is out of the question!).

...anyway, come to think of it, you're probably occupied enough by your child.