Monday, 24 May 2010

How to Read the Bible (No not the Book)


When I was younger and I started having doubts about TMS I went to talk to a kiruv Rabbi about it.I was pretty haughty at the time and I said to myself "If he can answer my questions then I'll stay frum, if he can't I'll go OTD" I guess I was kinda figuring he would be blown away by my questions and would admit that he was living a lie. I blasted him with DH and anachronisms and everything I had up my sleeve and .....

lo and behold he had answers! But oh what bitter answers they were because they were all kvetches! Dirty stinking kvetches. Almost every "answer" he gave was preceded by the famous words of any self respecting kvetcher "It depends how you look at it" It was fairly annoying that this guy didn't take off his kippa and say "YOU'RE RIGHT!" I was hopeful for about two seconds that this guy had anything worthwhile to say and then gave up.

but I did learn something very important which made the whole thing worthwhile. You can always explain all the problems away. No self respecting Rabbi doesn't have the "answers". However the question is does he have GOOD answers or BAD answers. ALMOST ANYTHING IN THE WORLD CAN BE "INTERPRETED" TO FIT YOUR VIEWS!


So with this all in mind how should you read the Bible?

When one gets to a troublesome verse one can kvetch till one's lips are blue but it still will not be an honest approach. What you really have to do is say if I was reading say the Odyssey and I came to a passage like this how would I read it? Would i seriously apply kvetches or would I read it LIKE IT SOUNDS? That's the key to accurate Bible reading drop your preconceived notions (as the Shadal advises) and read it the way it SEEMS. Thats the difference between how skeptics read the Torah and believers read the Torah. The skeptic (at least an honest one) reads the Torah simply and says what do these words mean? The believer reads the Torah and says what do I want these words to mean? Its all about realizing the simplest most obvious explanation.

Of course if you have a good reason (besides emotional attachment to TMS) to change the simple meaning then by all means do! But then you also have to explain why the Biblical author expressed it in such a strange way and THAT is what almost all kvetches fail to do!

"But the DH also has preconceived notions", says the believer. Yes it does you're right don't just follow everything Kugel and Friedman say. However one must be equally devoid of preconceived notions when evaluating Mosaic authorship. In my next post I'll try to tackle specific examples of things that although they are kvetchable read simply suggest non-Mosaic authorship and also maybe the DH.

19 comments:

Garnel Ironheart said...

"It all depends" is actually quite a valid answer. In my field of work, it's actually quite a standard intro for most answers.
Think about it: was Obama's financial stimulus a good idea? Well it all depends on how the money was used and if it wound up creating jobs. Is penicillin the best treatment for a sore throat? Well it all depends on what's causing the sore throat.
In fact, I would think that someone who thinks that complex questions should have simple answers that avoid "it all depends" doesn't understand the complexity of the question.
It's the same with Torah. Torah is incredibly complex and obviously the questions you asked weren't simple so for the Rav to preface with "it all depends" seems to have been completely appropriate.

Shilton HaSechel said...

It wouldn't have been so bad if he had had anything good to say after his prefaces.

Me: Why is the Torah not written from Moshe's perspective if he wrote it
Rav:Because God wrote it
Me: But its not from God's perspective either
Rav: Well it depends what you mean by perspective
Me: O yeah explain
Rav: Says some vort about monotheism and how this convoluted way of writing teaches us a lesson in something or other
Me: Wouldn't it be simpler to say neither Moshe nor God wrote it?
Rav: Well it depends

And round and round we go

Garnel Ironheart said...

Me: Why is the Torah not written from Moshe's perspective if he wrote it
GI:Because God dictated it to him and he wrote it as he was told. However, if you look at the book of Devarim, things are different. 90% of the book IS written from Moshe's perspective in the first person because he wrote that one, not God. So there is consistency there.
Me: But its not from God's perspective either
GI: Yes it is. After all, He was the only one present for many of the events and other times the only one who could narrate what was going on behind the scenes unknown to the main characters (like the whole Balaam thing). Are you troubled by the third person narrative when it should be "In the beginning I created the Heaven and the Earth"? Don't be. Remember that the Torah is mean to be the constitution of the Jewish people, not a testimonial from God. Therefore He wrote it as one.
Me: Wouldn't it be simpler to say neither Moshe nor God wrote it?
GI: No, because it's not true. God dicated the first four books to Moshe and he wrote them faithfully down. Moshe wrote most of Devarim and God dicated the rest except for the last 8 verses which Yehoshua added in at the end.

Shilton HaSechel said...

When I mean perspective i mean like first person perspective and third person perspective.

>90% of the book IS written from Moshe's perspective in the first person because he wrote that one, not God.

These are the words Moshe spoke
[begin quote]MOST OF SEFER DEVARIM[end quote]
and moshe died

its one big quotation brought by someone else if Moshe wrote it should have gone "these are the words I spoke"

using your line of logic Odysseus wrote the Odyssey because he speaks in it

>Are you troubled by the third person narrative when it should be "In the beginning I created the Heaven and the Earth"?
Yes thats exactly my point

>Don't be. Remember that the Torah is mean to be the constitution of the Jewish people, not a testimonial from God.

Say what? Its one big story with a few laws here and there not a constitution. And Im timze lomar it is a constitution how does the US Constitution start again.....

O yeah "We the people" not the "The People of the United States" WRITTEN FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WROTE IT!

Why do you think a constitution is immune from the conventions of writing

But hey I'm not a professor of literary history so I'm willing to give this a chance. My challenge:

Find me a precedent of an undisputed case in world literature where an author writes about himself in third person

>GI: No, because it's not true.
Cummon you're smarter than that that's the whole discussion whether it is true or not. You don't need to repeat the prevailing Orthodox view trust me I know it. My point was we have two possibilities (for argument's sake) Torah written by God through Moshe OR non-Mosaic authorship. Does it not make sense to choose the simpler less convoluted story (a bit of an Occam's razor)

MKR said...

What you really have to do is say if I was reading say the Odyssey and I came to a passage like this how would I read it? Would i seriously apply kvetches or would I read it LIKE IT SOUNDS? That's the key to accurate Bible reading drop your preconceived notions (as the Shadal advises) and read it the way it SEEMS. Thats the difference between how skeptics read the Torah and believers read the Torah. The skeptic (at least an honest one) reads the Torah simply and says what do these words mean? The believer reads the Torah and says what do I want these words to mean? Its all about realizing the simplest most obvious explanation.

As tempting as such a comparison is, I think it is oversimple. Suppose that I ask you what the words "Put money in thy purse" mean. That would be a somewhat odd question, as there is nothing particularly puzzling about the words, to anyone who knows English (including the antiquated "thou" form). On the other hand, if you recognize the string of words as a line spoken, several times, by Iago to Rodrigo in a certain scene in Othello, you might take me to be asking a question about what Iago is up to at that point, which you could answer by explaining his motives, how he manipulates Rodrigo, and so on.

At a minimum, we have to have a conception of where the words come from, including who wrote them (at least under some description, however indeterminate: e.g., "some English playwrite of the Elizabethan period") and in what kind of work they occur (in my example, a play, i.e., a fictitious dramatic representation -- by a human author, needless to say!). In the case of the Torah, these basic defining features of the text are precisely what is at issue between the believer and the skeptic. The skeptic takes it to be a human-made work like any other text; the believer takes it to be something that God dictated to Moses. Each one proceeds (or at least may proceed, I think) in a fashion that is reasonable relative to that starting point. (Isn't it? Or are you arguing that "kvetching" is not reasonable even on the assumption of TMS?)

Shilton HaSechel said...

>Or are you arguing that "kvetching" is not reasonable even on the assumption of TMS?)

Yup exactly! because presumably God doesn't speak Godese in fact he probably doesn't speak at all. The Torah is written in a West Semitic Dialect called Hebrew and it is written the way a human writes. It uses Hebrew idioms and Hebrew expressions. It was obviously comprehensible to the people who first read it. Otherwise why did God decide to write it in Hebrew he could've written it in Chinese or English or maybe even Godese! (of course Chareidim think that Hebrew IS Godese but we'll just ignore them in light of philology) Rather it must be it was intended to be UNDERSTOOD and therefore you can't just throw out textual analysis because "God writes differently"

MKR said...

I guess it all depends on what you take to be built into "TMS" -- which, by the way, I have seen construed to stand for "Torah to Moses at Sinai" as well as "Torah Min (ha-)Shamayim." I assumed that the idea that Hebrew is "Godese" (ha!) was built into that idea.

On the other hand, I can see a point on your side that might be put this way: The idea of TMS is not a well-defined hypothesis in its own right from which, given the contents of the Torah, specific consequences can be derived with a high degree of deductive or inductive legitimacy. Rather, the phrase vaguely denotes the core of a big, fuzzily defined lump of crazy (with little rabbis sticking out of it all around the outside?), within which certain consequences get drawn in accordance with standards of reasoning that have some resemblance to those of common sense and science but are otherwise peculiar to the lump. In other words, there's nothing reasonable about the contents of the lump by any independent standard of reasonableness.

Would that fairly express your view? I rather like the idea myself.

MKR said...

Nasty muddle in my previous comment! "The idea of TMS is not a well-defined hypothesis in its own right from which, given the contents of the Torah, specific consequences can be derived with a high degree of deductive or inductive legitimacy." Ugh! The last bit should read: "can be derived with deductive validity or a high degree of probability."

Shilton HaSechel said...

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have no idea what you just said.(You lost me when you started discussing lumps) Could you explain? it sounds interesting

I'm going to have to discuss this in further detail in my next post but for now
The following needs to be considered
Assume TMS (whatever it means) and assume Mosaic authorship then we have a few questions

1. Is Biblical Hebrew different than regular languages (i.e. Hebrew=Godese)

2. Did Moshe record ad verbatim what he heard from God

3. Does the Torah use an incomprehensible or at least a radically different literary style

4. Does answering any of the above negatively fundamentally undermine the traditional Orthodox concept of TMS

stay tuned!

OTD said...

Garnel: >After all, He was the only one present for many of the events and other times the only one who could narrate what was going on behind the scenes unknown to the main characters (like the whole Balaam thing).

I thought theible wasn't a history book, and that most of it is metaphor, and many of the stories are not true. If it's all just fiction anyway, why would God need to write it, don't you think Moses or any idiot with some basic writing skills today could do the job?

Lisa said...

http://torah101.blogspot.com/2006/05/another-introductory-essay.html

Take a look at it. Basically, among other things, it talks about the method used by Chazal. Terseness, to maximize the amount of information in a small amount of text. We didn't come up with the technique on our own, you know. There are cultures all over the world that have used the riddle as an educational tool. Not lame "why did the chicken cross the road?" riddles, but the kind that make you think. That force *you* to figure out the answer, rather than spoon feed it to you like baby food.

The Torah works in a similar way. It isn't The Odyssey. It isn't Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird. It isn't The Stand or Cujo. It was written with intent, and the intent was to convey way more content than a simple text would ordinarily be able to contain.

If I give you the statement "Uif Upsbi xbt hjwfo cz Hpe bu Tjobj", and tell you that it's to be read by replacing each letter with the one that precedes it in the alphabet, what would you do? Judging by your blog posts and your comments elsewhere, I imagine you'd say, "But it's gibberish!" A simple code (not that the Torah is simple), with a simple method of being read, but unless you go ahead and read it the way it's intended to be read, you will never see anything in it but gibberish. And you'll congratulate yourself for refusing to waste your time reading it by instructions that you think are a crock.

And again... you keep harping on the Moses in third person thing. I've read stories and novels that are autobiographical, but in which the author uses third person for everyone, including themselves. It's entirely normal to write that way. But I don't think that's really a reason for you to reject the Torah. I think you just want to reject it, and that's one in a long list of arguments that make you feel a little better about your choices.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>>It was written with intent, and the intent was to convey way more content than a simple text would ordinarily be able to contain.

Who says? Even if God wrote it who says it's not a simple text?

>>>but unless you go ahead and read it the way it's intended to be read, you will never see anything in it but gibberish.

Once again you assume that the Torah is a code. Why do you assume that? I think its reasonable to assume that the Torah is means pretty much what it says.

>>>But I don't think that's really a reason for you to reject the Torah. I think you just want to reject it, and that's one in a long list of arguments that make you feel a little better about your choices.

*Sigh*

I really hate it when people say that because of the terrible inner struggle I went through trying to believe in it all. I literally cried to God and prayed for hours every day to find faith. But I did not find it. Even if you think my reasoning is faulty please don't insult that struggle which I lost. Thank you.

Lisa said...

I don't think it's so much that you think it's reasonable to assume that the Torah is supposed to be read as a simple text. I think you just want to read it that way, because then it's gibberish, and has no hold on you.

Back in the 1970s, Rabbi Chaim Brovender was running a yeshiva in Jerusalem. People used to stop in to daven with them in the morning. One morning, this hippy walks in, and procedes to put on tefillin. When he gets to the shel rosh, he slides the bayit down so that it's on the bridge of his nose. Right between his eyes.

When they were done davening, Rabbi Brovender walked over to the hippy and asked him, "How does it feel?" The guy looked puzzled, and asked, "How does what feel?" Rabbi Brovender said, "How does it feel to be the first person in three thousand years to figure out what the Torah *really* meant?"

You remind me of that kid (I never met the kid; I'm too young for that) in the way that you take Judaism so lightly that you think you can figure everything out from scratch, and ignore any context that preceded you. I have no problem with arrogance, as I'm sure you've noticed. But I do have a problem with unjustified arrogance.

I'm sorry if what I said makes you feel bad. But I have a very strong feeling that the "faith" you were looking for was a mistaken expectation on your part. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out what people even mean by "faith". From some of your discussions on the OPR blog, it looks like you think there has to be some sort of glowing spirituality. That that's the ideal. And I don't know, maybe it is for some people. But I'm 47 years old. I started getting frum when I was 19. And in all that time, I've never had the slightest feeling that could be considered spiritual that was connected with Judaism. But it isn't necessary.

Also... whatever inner struggle you once had, you don't seem to be interested in revisiting it with an open mind now. You have the zeal of a convert. And I think it's such a shame that your mind and your energy have to be wasted on a wrong direction.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>I think you just want to read it that way, because then it's gibberish, and has no hold on you.

I want it to have a hold on me (or did I'm not sure what I want anymore) My life would be a HELL of a lot easier if I had just towed the line and not had any doubts. Trust me.


>I'm sorry if what I said makes you feel bad. But I have a very strong feeling that the "faith" you were looking for was a mistaken expectation on your part.

All I mean by faith was believing that God existed and he gave us the Torah and the Torah She b'Al Peh too. Not glowing spirituality lol.

Just like you've come to certain conclusions which you are rather adamant about, so have I and I believe they are extremely logical. (of course you think the same of yours)

>you don't seem to be interested in revisiting it with an open mind now.

Well are you interested in revisiting (or visiting for the first time) my position with an open mind?

The only reason I'm not "revisiting" is I've heard all or most of the things you're saying and they didn't convince me back then and they won't convince me now. But I always keep my eyes open (believe it or not) for new arguments and new approaches.

>You have the zeal of a convert.

Lol it's just the way I write in real life I'm much more mellow. (And also most of my readers are OTD'ers so I usually don't tone things down as much as I should but I'll try to in the future iy"h)

OTD said...

>I'm 47 years old. I started getting frum when I was 19. And in all that time, I've never had the slightest feeling that could be considered spiritual that was connected with Judaism.

>Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

-Albert Einstein

Lisa said...

OTD, that would only apply if I were looking for something spiritual. I'm not. Fact is, I'd be a lot more comfortable if I could believe what you all believe. I like the idea of a mechanistic universe. It's less threatening, and resonates with my science fiction fannishness.

Shilton HaSechel said...

In that case I consider an act of kindness to try help free you from your inconvenient beliefs ;)

>Fact is, I'd be a lot more comfortable if I could believe what you all believe.

Incidentally I say that all the time the other way around.

OTD said...

>I'd be a lot more comfortable if I could believe what you all believe.

Well, there's plenty of room on this here bandwagon!

anon said...

OJ has a long tradition of giving non answers to skeptics questions. OJ is a perfected Cargo Cult.There is not anything anybody can say that can disprove it.There are so many different rabbinic opinions plus anything and everything gets reinterpreted as needed. Example: 6 days of creation. Well is it really 6 normal earth human 24 hour days ? Maybe it was 6 days from the point of a speeding god (relativity)? Maybe a day was not 24 hours but billions of hours ? OJ cites science when it fits their purpose, but if it does not then the OJ cargo cult says well it is only a theory. Or they find an obscure scientist with a degree in an unrelated disipline wiyth a quack opinion.

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