Drop out or look again?

A look at the Holy Book: A new series

The Jewish Family Identity Forum with Candace R. Kwiatek

The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek

In May 2012, U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski proposed eliminating the first four of the Ten Commandments when displayed on government property in response to an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Reading about this case reminded me of the joke about Moses who, coming down from Mount Sinai, faced the Israelites and said ruefully: “My people, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is I have negotiated with the Lord and brought him down from 20 to 10. The bad news is adultery is still in.”

Both reveal a larger truth: That which we don’t like, agree with or understand, we tend to dismiss, reject, or eliminate.

In a similar vein, one of my Bible students challenged why all of the Torah text is read aloud.

The ethical parts about how to care for the land, treat strangers, and set up courts of justice are interesting and meaningful compared to descriptions of sacrifices, lists of names, specifics about the order of encampment, details of the Tabernacle’s architecture, and obsolete practices which are seemingly quite irrelevant and boring. What is the rationale?

The Torah’s status as a holy text, a sefer kadosh, is argument enough for some. Kadosh may be understood as “written by God” or divinely inspired, or it can mean “lofty, raised or elevated.”

Certainly religious and secular alike can agree that the Torah’s impact is elevated far above that of any other literature, if just by the measure that the Bible is by far the bestselling book of all time.

The classic response is that the Torah reflects the history and culture of the Jewish people. The Torah is like an old picture album from a parent or grandparent: we can find both the contemporary and the outdated in both.

But while we might quickly flip through the photos of unfamiliar people and places, we don’t rip them out of the book because they’re part of the family story. It’s amazing what treasures you can find when you take the time to look; and you often discover something only after returning to the same pictures or texts again and again.

The Torah is a contract. This document is a formal agreement between God and the Jewish people. You’ve all signed contracts. Can you pick and choose which parts to follow? Can you claim some sections are invalid because you didn’t read them before signing? Do you want your contract partner to arbitrarily decide which clauses are suddenly no longer important?

Whether we’re at the bank, the car dealership, or the Torah reader’s table, we’re obligated to read the convoluted language, the unfamiliar terms, and especially the fine print, because that’s often where the most important details can be found.

The Torah is the foundation of Western civilization. While the Romans and Greeks are the primary sources of the Western world’s government and law, the Hebrew Bible is its cultural foundation. In it we find the Ten Commandments, the concept of the world’s linear history, human rights, the belief in change and progress, a major impetus for scientific exploration, nearly all art through the Renaissance, expressive language such as “land of milk and honey” and “the apple of his eye,” the impetus for the university system, and the universal moral rule “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

These ideas aren’t often stated outright, but are woven throughout the texts. Maybe there’s something to be learned, even in the parts that seem the most obtuse?

Spirituality is both personal and demanding. Looking over some of the more difficult texts, a contemporary expression comes to mind: “Different strokes for different folks.” While sacrifices may have been the priestly high, the artisans of the Tabernacle were spiritually elevated by their craftsmanship. In some cases, ordinary people crossed from mundane to spiritual heights through nazirite vows or purification rituals while others danced and sang.

Perhaps those difficult texts are important to read in order to remind ourselves that there is a wide range of spiritual experience, and that spirituality isn’t bestowed upon us like pixie dust. Rather, it is the result of personal engagement in holy tasks — study, prayer, greeting the stranger, feeding the hungry — we choose to undertake.

The Torah is filled with hidden treasures. I learned the following idea from Dennis Prager: When the Bible and I disagree, or when I find something incomprehensible in it, I don’t dismiss it as unimportant or drop it as unworthy.

Rather, I take the position that I am wrong, unlearned, or not paying attention. That challenges me to dig deeper and figure out what I’m missing. In those detailed or boring passages, what hidden treasures can be found?

The issue might become clearer by applying the same “dropout” standard to other disciplines. Shall we revise Huckleberry Finn or Gone With the Wind because of parts we don’t like, or eliminate the lengthy descriptions in Dickens or Michener novels because they are boring?

Should we remove the art museum’s Salvador Dali paintings because we don’t understand them, or its ancient fertility sculptures because they offend our sensibilities, or the medieval German woodcuts because, well, how relevant are they anyway? Should we eliminate the “purposeless” repetition in Bach’s fugues or ignore the dissonant works of Mahler and Debussy because we don’t “get” them? But wouldn’t we lose something, some of the richness of our experience, if we did any of these things?

Instead of advocating dismissing, rejecting, or eliminating from the Bible, perhaps we should take another look.

Family Discussion: Find one of the more challenging biblical texts. What’s your first reaction? If the text seems obtuse, boring, or irrelevant, what might be its rationale or hidden treasures?


Literature to share

Inconvenient by Margie Gelbwasser: Realistic, gripping, and sometimes a bit dark, this young adult fiction weaves friendship, immigrant life, teen romance, and parental alcoholism into a believable and well-crafted story. A 2011 Notable Book for Teens, Inconvenient’s well-crafted characters, adult issues, and fast-paced story line make it a recommended late summer read for the older teen set.

Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck by Joshua Prager: An all-star baseball player, aspiring doctor, and senior writer for the Wall Street Journal, Prager’s life was turned upside down when paralyzed by a traffic accident. His painful, humorous, and always insightful reflections about the aftermath make a compelling case for perseverance, positive attitude, and hope. Available only in electronic form, this book is highly recommended.

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