time for a champion (unofficial review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright)

I’m torn between having this blog either be completely objective, throwing myself out into the world and seeing what happens, and documenting everything, including things that people might not like; or censoring certain things because I’ve had some surprising readers so far and who knows who might read it next? I don’t need the wrong person taking something completely out of context and getting the wrong impression.

Well anyway, that’s one of those decisions that I’m probably going to ignore anyways. I guess I don’t have much of a filter.

I’m getting pretty excited about my autobiographical graphic novel, which is currently in its planning stages. It’s supposed to be about 200 pages when it’s done, but it’s also my first one so who knows how it’s going to come out, maybe like five pages for all I know. And unlike with novels, where it’s like “Oh, here’s my autobiography even though I’m not famous,” I feel like if you have a decent story, autobio graphic novels are pretty standard fare. Anyway, the whole motif will be middleness and “losing everything,” as it were. It’s going to be pretty dramatic as soon as I decide how to dramatically end it. I have super high hopes. The working title is Get Ready for Love, after the Nick Cave song with an eerily similar theme.


It’s weird, you know? A couple of weeks ago I got this book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, because now that I’m “over it” I wanted to get the very kind of book I’d been avoiding for the past two years. It’s all about the sociology and development of religion, from  “hunter-gatherer societies” to Christianity and Islam (not much on Judaism past the point where Christianity starts, no big surprise there). Of course, he spells out ykvk approximately 30 times per page, which I hate, and he just got done talking about how Josiah invented monolatry or whatever, which I already heard about and still hate, and I started to wonder. Why do I hate it? Why am I even resisting? Why am I writing passive-aggressive comments in the margins?

So much for being a non-biased reader.

I originally got this book (And God: A Biography by Jack Miles) because I wanted to make a clean break and I was already feeling myself being all “Oh, it’s not so bad, I’ll just be religious again,” and getting pretty nervous about this, and I’m also reading Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor, which is reeeeally bringing me back. (“The ‘hesitation click’ is a linguistic feature of Orthodox Jews.” I laughed when I first read that.) And I wanted to be like, “I should know the truth anyways, why should I be scared of the truth?”

I did take History of Ancient Israel taught by the biggest heretic ever, but lately I’m kind of into the idea of God evolving. I’ve had this cycle of questions for a while now: How can we say that God is so nice and forgiving and actually cares about us, when that’s not exactly in the texts at all? Can whatever we invent to be true of God actually come to be true? Does he react to whatever our conception is of him? These questions, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty pressing, and I’ll gladly get my answer from secular sources if need be.

The Evolution of God seems more like the usual JEDP explanation of historical events though, rather than anything too original, but then again I’m only halfway through the book. Maybe I’m just bitter because I just read 200 pages of how the Torah was written by Josiah. I had to keep reminding myself to be objective. Realistically, of course, I shouldn’t be taking it so hard. I’ve heard it all before. And, after all, “progressive Jews” believe in the JEDP theory and know all about the “multiple authors” over “many generations” and they’re fine with it. And somehow, they think the Torah is still an “inspired document,” even, rather than the result of political factionism and rebellions and whatnot. (Interestingly, Wright says the oft-quoted “light unto the nations” phrase was referring to aggressive takeover, not “gently helping the other nations learn from the Israelites,” as some would have it.)

But I’m also not about to get down with Wellhausen just because he’s in vogue. I just don’t know who to believe these days.

I don’t know how they do it–if God was invented out of El and Baal and had tons of consorts until the upper echelons decided it was tearing the country apart, and meanwhile the Israelites were only rebelling against other gods because the other nations kept putting them into vassalage, how could take it out of its political context and say, “OK, THIS text is divinely inspired (by a god invented out of El and Baal), even though it was changed to fit the different ideologies of different kings, and just happened to evolve into monotheism, even though that wasn’t exactly the point of it at all and it’s all a mistake and a huge coincidence.”

I can get into the idea that the Israelites were polytheists. But I don’t love the idea that polytheism was the actual doctrine allllllll the way up to Josiah, nor do I love the idea that devarim was a political strategy. In theory, I’m following the idea that “God works through the political strategies,” as progressive Jews say, but I am just feeling really resistant to a lot of it. (The El and Baal thing is an example.)

Because, he works through political strategies to…what? The usual line is to be a “light unto the nations,” but…I’m with Wright on that one. I don’t really think the Jewish mission is martyrdom. The whole idea sounds kinda Christian, if you ask me. But what is the mission? What is anything?

I’m feeling so 22 right now. I can feel everything crashing down to be built up again. On what? Who knows?

Is Conservatism moving leftwards?

So I said my final farewell to the Conservative synagogue. I feel like everyone was depressed this morning. I was having a good time though, taking your advice to stop letting them ruin my world. However, it kept getting interrupted by the fact that the rabbi kept trying to lead the davening through a loud, loud microphone.

But that still didn’t get me down. I also entertained myself by reading some of the Hertz commentary on Leviticus, and its traditionalism surprised me. “The Failures of Biblical Criticism” was the topic for a good three pages. If I’m not mistaken, Hertz was kind of a Conservative ideological leader, so it’d be safe to say that at the time of writing that sort of idea was popular. He wrote about the obviousness of Mosaic authorship, complete with bibliographical references. So that was then.

And as for now…have you heard? There’s a (relatively) new Conservative chumash called Etz Chaim. Its basis is on Biblical criticism, Exodus as myth, Priestly sources, and things like that. Namely, what all reasonable people should believe anyhow (i.e. “Etz Chaim: What you all really believe anyway, stop lyin'”). I’ve looked at it, and it definitely seems like a Wellhausen fan club. What changed? Something changed. The JEDP theory didn’t get any better, indeed by 2002 there was time for even more criticisms to be published against it. The JEDP theory didn’t get true. Conservative views changed.

According to the Jewish Week article (linked above), now (read: “finally”) the Torah can become “engaging.” I heard that from my Recon rabbi almost every time I talked to him. The article says:

“The fact is, the Conservative movement, and most of non-Orthodox Jewry, lives in a constant state of cognitive dissonance about the authority of our holy writings. And the new Chumash doesn’t release us from that ambivalence.”

The implication is–as I gather from living with and talking to non-Orthodox Jews–not only that Orthodoxy is complacent and living in a delusion, but that this “cognitive dissonance” is a good and freeing phenomenon. I was also a big advocate of “the Struggle” (you always hear about “the Struggle!!”). But, although it sounds good–certainly scholarship is a weighty tenet of Conservatism–what is it, really? What are you struggling with? And what is it doing to Conservative practice? By the looks of it, Conservatism is slowly but surely going the way of Reconstructionism. I know that many, probably most, Conservative Jews accept critical sources over traditional ones whenever they conflict. But I wonder if it is really so healthy for the movement to encourage this view without also addressing what this does to the “halachic” label of the movement. I also wonder if it is really so healthy to unequivocally welcome this “cognitive dissonance” over very basic concepts such as whether entire books of the Torah are post-exilic or not. I’m not saying it should be prohibited to question, but there has to be a baseline somewhere. I still wonder what really, concretely, would make the Torah worth following if it’s a post-exilic “cultural document written for various self-serving motives.”

Nonetheless, I think this is the train that has left the station. I definitely think Conservatism is becoming less traditional, not only in practice but in ideology. When Conservative Jews consider themselves “chained to ambivalence,” the rational conclusion ought to be to go the way of Recon and take up Kaplan’s Conservatism full-time. This ideological development might be essential (it’s practically unavoidable), given how far they’re already shifted in practice. It makes sense; the movement can’t live on “pluralism” forever.

Never mind whether I agree with it; what does this mean for Conservative practice? Can it still claim to be a halachic movement?

There are locusts in my Talmud

I started to ask myself something during my textual criticism (“Torah is a lie”) class. The point of textual criticism is to subject the Bible to the same scrutiny we accord all literature, right? It seems simple enough. It started, I guess, before Wellhausen, with both all those rudimentary techniques and the Enlightenment behind the biblical scholars—they couldn’t lose! But something didn’t seem right, suddenly. I had been sitting in this class for a couple of weeks, feeling like an Orthodox luddite etc. living under a rock etc. not accepting a basic scientific idea as the Priestly source.

But then it occurred to me that my teacher is a Baptist and probably some kind of atheist. His Hebrew isn’t the best (I mean I’m sure it’s OK but it could be better), he says “Yahweh” which already to me means that he’s probably a little pompous in such areas (“I know how the name was pronounced! I’m a scholar!”), his answer is too often “it’s lazy editing,” and moreover he’s not Jewish. “Yahweh” really was that bloodthirsty “cold Old Testament god” to him (Christians can be distant about this). He’s not invested in the narrative. If he could disprove it all, all the better. Show how scientific we are now. Explain away all the wars and violence, because we’re better now etc.

They say they’re just presenting the historical evidence, but everyone has a bias. You know what your goals are.

This probably isn’t a very modern thing to say, but the Torah is a Jewish text (fine, Israelite, whatever). It’s not yours, atheist/Baptist/cloistered ivory tower biblical scholar. It’s similar to how I wouldn’t mind taking the class here that rips apart the New Testament because it’s not my text. I don’t care. In fact, I would enjoy seeing how the New Testament was written etc. and if it was made from different sources, all the better. But look, it’s not mine to rip apart. Maybe you Christians are biased about it, but so am I, and given that, you Christians know a lot more about this than I do. Even if I take graduate classes and learn, I’ll still be on the outside looking in on it. And that actually does make a difference.

I see a pattern where we are very slowly starting to realize that the Documentary Hypothesis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all. I’ve heard it said that source criticism is getting overshadowed with a type of literary criticism that sees the Torah as its own cohesive text for once. That is the Jewish way, and as my Religion teacher from community college noticed, we’re finally realizing that we ought to read this thing as they’ve been doing in Jewish tradition all along. I don’t want to learn about the details of your made-up sources with your weird esoteric ways of coming up with them (but then once you do taking them as axioms). It’s just not how I want to study Torah, OK? That’s the “biblical scholars” nitpicking anal-retentive way—it’s not necessarily the “right way” just because the “scholars” say so. It’s fine for you English major nerds who like that sort of thing, but keep your weird literary deconstruction in your English departments and get it out of my Religion classes.

I recently read that apparently Talmud can also be read using these historical criticisms, and the book in which I read this said that obviously “this isn’t taught in the yeshivas” as if yeshivas are way behind on the times not learning which line was redacted in etc. (Not sure how this destroys religion like apparently they want to do because everyone know Talmud was edited so big deal.) But did they ever think that maybe yeshivas don’t want to use the historical critical method, because their goals aren’t your goals—that doesn’t make yeshiva goals wrong? The fact this escapes critics is unbelievable to me. If these locusts (i.e. biblical scholars who hate/have nothing to do with Judaism) get their Documentary crap into Talmud, I am going to literally huddle and cry.

Get out of my Torah. Get out of my Talmud.