So I gave the dvar at shul today and I'm reproducing it here. For those unfamiliar with Judaism and related terminology, I'm putting in a few definitions before the dvar itself. Of the people mentioned in the talk (other than the famous ones), Carie is my rabbi and the others are congregants. I was very pleased with how the dvar was received - people laughed at my jokes (always important) and lots of people had very kind things to say about the talk afterwards. The dvar itself is behind the cut. Readers of my fiction will notice the obligatory Shakespeare and Whitman references.
Torah - the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, in the form of a parchment scroll. The text of the Torah when in book form is usually called a Chumash or Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses.
Parsha - the Torah is divided into sections called "parshiot" (singular is parsha). One parsha is read each week. It is chanted directly from the Torah scroll.
Tanakh - the whole Hebrew bible. It's an acronym for Torah, Neviim (Prophets) and Ktuvim (Writings - all the books that are neither Torah nor books of the prophets)
Dvar or Dvar Torah or Drash - a speech given by a rabbi or congregant that usually draws on the weekly parsha. The person who gives the dvar learns something and then shares that learning with the congregation.
Shabbat shalom - traditional greeting for the Jewish sabbath (shabbat). It means "a peaceful sabbath."
I think the rest is self-explanatory, but if anything is not clear, ask in comments and I'd be glad to explain.
Shabbat shalom. Today's parsha is Beshalach. It concerns Moses, whom you will all remember from last week, and G-d, whom you will remember from the week before.
I've always wanted to use that line. It's from an old routine by a comedian named David Steinberg. But I do have some serious things to say today. I'm going to talk about the Song at the Sea, about two different approaches to biblical study, about James Kugel's book How to Read the Bible and about Martin Luther King. And I'm going to try to pull them all together and to do all of that without going on long enough to have to rush through Musaf or delay Kiddush. Let's see how I do. It's my first time doing this - please be gentle.
A key part of today's parsha is Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea. It's one of only two sections of the Torah that are visually distinguishable as poetry. These two poems are laid out on the parchment completely differently from the rest of the text. The Talmud says, in tractate Megillah, that the pattern of Shirat Hayam is one of "a half-brick over a brick and a brick over a half-brick." It's a very significant segment of our sacred text. It appears in the daily liturgy; we stand up when it is chanted. And even though it is not in the first part of the parsha we chanted it today. It's one of only two times in the year that we at PSJC break with the triennial cycle. The other is the Ten Commandments.
So clearly Shirat Hayam is significant. What is the significance? What does it mean?
In order to begin to answer that, I looked at Shirat Hayam through two different lenses, lenses provided to me by James Kugel in his book How to Read the Bible. I think it's a really good book and I recommend you all read it. It's enlightening and interesting and also really fun to read, just full of Fun Facts to Know And Tell. Carie has my copy and Sara Sloan has dibs on it afterwards, and anyone else who wants it is welcome to borrow it, but for now I want to share the main thing I learned from this book.
What Kugel – a biblical scholar and an Orthodox Jew who used to be a professor at Harvard – explains in the book is that there are two very different ways to look at the Tanakh: that of the ancient interpreters and that of modern biblical scholars. He goes story by story through the Hebrew Bible comparing and contrasting their approaches.
By "ancient interpreters" he means not only the early rabbinic commentators but also early Christian theologians. As Larry Magarik taught us in a dvar a couple of years ago (and it's always stayed with me, because it really did change how I viewed history, so thank you Larry): Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are two distinct religions that arose from the Israelite/Jewish religion as practiced in the time of the Second Temple. That insight is implicit in Kugel's work, too. The ancient Jewish interpreters and the ancient Christian ones came to different conclusions but their approach had some things in common. In particular, Kugel delineates four key assumptions they made that guided their interpretation and that largely guides Jewish religious interpretation of sacred text even to this day.
The assumptions are:
- That the Bible is perfect. Seeming contradictions or errors are not really mistakes. We need to figure out what is intended by them.
- That the Bible is cryptic. This relates to the first assumption. Often something is not said plainly and those apparent mistakes, repetitions, or contradictions are clues that something different is meant than the plain meaning.
- That the Bible is in some sense a unified whole. Yes, it's in different books and yes some of them were written at different times and by different people (for example, traditionally all of the Torah but the last 8 lines are deemed to be written by Moses, the Psalms by David, etc) but the right books are there in the right order to form a unified sacred text.
- Lastly, that the Bible has something to say to us today. Of course "us today" when we're talking about the ancient interpreters can mean the rabbis of the Mishnah, but the point is that the text was assumed to have a message that was relevant in different places and at different times.
Certainly those same four assumptions – perfection, difficult to understand without explication, a unified canonical whole, and meaningful to us today – guide much of Jewish thought and expression even today.
Okay, so what's the alternative? How do biblical scholars in the modern academic sense view the bible? They use techniques of biblical archaeology, of comparing our texts to other ancient texts, of comparing differing versions of our texts (like those in the Dead Sea Scrolls), of linguistic analysis, of historical analysis to come up with a very different view, often, of the same text. And they do it by stripping away every one of those four assumptions.
What if the bible isn't perfect? Then maybe contradictions with what we know of history are really mistakes. Let's take camels, for example. Breshit is chock full of camels. Remember how Rivka impresses Abraham's servant by drawing water for his camels? And in that line that Carie loves, when Rivka arrives at the encampment, Isaac looks up and sees camels but Rivka looks up and sees Isaac. Or Joseph getting sold to a camel caravan of traders. But we know now the patriarchs could not have had camels. They hadn't been domesticated at the time of the patriarchs.
If we don't assume the bible is perfect, we recognize those anachronistic camels as a mistake. I have this image of some guy writing down these stories at a time when nomads and camels went together like - you'll pardon the expression - ham and eggs, and saying to himself, "You know what this story needs? Camels!" And throwing some in. My hypothetical scribe would have no way of knowing that domestication of camels had only happened a few hundred years before his time.
What if the bible is not cryptic or not always cryptic – what if in some passages that we find puzzling we consider the possibility that it is saying what it seems to be saying?
What if it's not a unified whole? Then maybe things like Noah having one pair of animals in one verse and then seven pairs in another happens because two different versions of a story were smooshed together, as Wellhausen and his followers have taught us, although I sincerely doubt Wellhausen ever said "smooshed."
And what if it wasn't written for a people to come but for the people at the time it was written? Then maybe it reflects a very different view of G-d and the world, of our relationship with G-d and our place in the world than we have now.
So those are the two different approaches:
Perfect, cryptic, unified, speaking to us now
Imperfect, plain speaking, disjoint, written for people in a different time and place.
I'm going to try applying them to the Song at the Sea. As I said, the Talmud talks about Shirat Hayam in terms of bricks and many modern commentators pick up on that and talk about building a house of prayer or devotion. Rabbi David Rosenberg (no relation, I just like what he had to say) says "the song teaches us that we can use poetry and telling of our stories to make a house and home in which future generations of Jews may flourish." Others look to Shirat Hayam as a celebration of freedom. In general, in the traditional view the Song is a musical and poetic tribute to our G-d, the singular deity, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent – the core view of G-d in Judaism. Ismar Schorsch says of the Song at the Sea: "This is a drama with but a single actor, bespeaking an overwhelming sense of G-d's active steadfast presence."
Okay, what if we strip away all those assumptions and look at the text itself without the lens of our view of our sacred text? I found when I did that that this is one weird poem. At least it's weird when looked at through our modern theology.
It presents a view of G-d very different from the one we usually espouse – very anthropomorphic, and special but not singular. "Adonai Ish Milchamah" – Adonay is a man of war – language doesn't get much more anthropomorphic than that. And however much Etz Haim tries to hand wave it away, the plain meaning of "mi chamocha b'elim adonay" is "Who among the gods is equal to you, Adonay?" which presupposes a pantheon. If we bring in other evidence besides the internal textual evidence we find out that there are other similar texts in Ugaritic – an extinct language related to Hebrew. And that much of the language as well as the story is eerily reminiscent of "The Boating Party" – an Egyptian text from around 1800 BCE that tells the story of a princess who loses her ring in the water and a magician calls upon a god – one of many – to part the waters, making walls on either side, so she can walk through and retrieve it.
Generally, modern scholars view Shirat Hayam as one of the older sections of the bible, although some of the language suggests it was updated later on. It dates from a time when the Israelite people were likely not monotheists – an idea that shakes some of our sensibilities when we encounter it. I know that, because I'm taking Meah, and a whole bunch of us first encountered this idea in class, and the whole room was shaking.
Monotheism, modern biblical scholars tell us, is a concept that developed over time but the people who wrote and sang this song originally were likely not monotheists, but monolaters. Monolatry is the belief and practice of only worshiping one god among many. As my teacher Barat Ellman says, they believed there were other gods but they were married to this one.
So, is one of these interpretations – the historical/academic one or the theological Jewish one the right one? Are they completely in conflict or is there some way to reconcile them? Can Shirat Hayam at the same time be a militaristic paean to a triumphant anthropomorphic deity existing within a pantheon and a song of freedom sung in tribute to the one G-d who exists everywhere and nowhere? Can it be a song of victory in war and a building block for peace and freedom at the same time? Yeah, I think so. And I think so because I think text doesn't exist in isolation at a point in history. It exists along with its history and what everyone has brought to it and continues to bring to it, and it exists along with what the community does with it.
Text can have meaning well beyond "original intent" as the phrase goes in constitutional law. It is incontrovertible that the people who wrote the US Bill of Rights never intended it to give reproductive rights to women, but for many of us – and for the Supreme Court in 1973 – that right to privacy is there in the text, in spite of or in addition to their intentions. Or, as James Kugel says, "Societies change, circumstances change and then no matter how hard you try to stifle it, the Merchant of Venice has a completely unintended resonance with the whole history of anti-Semitism and Othello with modern racism."
Which brings me to Martin Luther King. I'm older than some in this shul and I remember Dr. King. I remember seeing him on tv, not in some retrospective documentary, but while he was living and speaking and exhorting Americans to change an unjust system. And since I'm younger than some others in this shul, I remember him with the eyes and ears of a little girl.
I was absolutely mesmerized by him. I found him inspiring, charismatic, persuasive. And also totally unlike anyone I'd ever heard speak. His style was – to my childish ears – completely original. My father explained to me that the things I thought sounded like no one else – that musical cadence of his speech, the repetition with expansion of the same phrase (as in "I have a dream") were all part of a tradition of preaching by black Baptist ministers, a tradition he was taking beyond the church.
I was disappointed to hear that and kind of mad at my father for telling me. I felt like putting Dr. King's (to me) individual way of speaking into that context somehow diminished it. Well, I'm sure I didn't say "diminished." I said whatever an eight-year-old would say at the time, the equivalent of the current term "dissed" although I can't remember what we said then.
In any event, my father corrected me. It doesn't diminish his impact to know where it came from – it elevates and enhances it, he explained. Here Dr. King took a tradition from a venue where it would not touch people like us at all and he expanded on it, moved it, transformed it into something that could affect us, too. Something that could move a nation.
And that's what I think we do with our tradition, too, and with our sacred texts. We don't have to close our eyes to where our texts came from, to their hodgepodge origin, to feel their power or their holiness. We make them holier through understanding their origins while expanding on their meaning through adaptation, interpretation, and transformation.
I'll end by quoting Whitman. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large - I contain multitudes."
Surely our Torah and our tradition are large enough to contain multitudes.