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?

an official review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright

The Evolution of GodThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An ambitious and comprehensive work. He gets a little too caught up at times, as most biblical scholars tend to do, particularly around p. 157 where he claims that the hebrew word for ‘moon’ (yareah) actually refers to a ‘moon god,’ with the sole evidence that a canaanite god was named something similar (yarih). Not like close languages never even slightly overlapped, but whatever. Oh, and the best part…what’s the explanation for this? Why can “yareah” only refer to a moon god, not the moon itself? Because “inanimate hunks of orbiting rock aren’t the kinds of things you generally converse with” (157)! (He kind of reminds me of Glenn Beck; using humor and a ‘lite reading’ tone in order to cover up the fact that he just ran up 4 pages on a theory with no evidence!)

The annoying part is when he uses little “insider clues” like this to formulate entire theses.

I did like the fact that it was an easy and thorough read in which he actually allowed a few opinions other than his to show through…however, I was disappointed that (as usual with this subject) the JEDP/”Josiah re-wrote everything” theory was underlying the entire theory, without it being mentioned outright save for in one footnote (even after having ironically mentioned that Wellhausen’s theory has lost traction in recent years).

I mean, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, and his biases don’t show through as openly as do some other authors’. Although his motive is noble (showing that violence isn’t necessarily an inherent part of Abrahamic religion), he indulges a little too much in his own whimsies on the basis of his (scant?) hebrew knowledge for my own taste.

I have a friend who once said “An Old Testament scholar isn’t the same as a Torah scholar.” His theories may make perfect sense within his own circles, but remember that scholarshave their own biases and limitations, too. (For instance, while he was talking about asherah being “a part of the israelite pantheon being absorbed into ykvk” I had to wonder whether he knew or cared that asherah is also mentioned in the talmud, circa like 1000 years after the fact, and surely after all the “editing” he claims to have happened.

Everyone’s got their “insider codes,” and biblical scholars aren’t immune to this.

Man-Based Religion; or: The Female Pollution

Please note that -ism’s are not confined only to religion. It’s just most noticeable there cause I guess we “expect” more of religion, while simultaneously knowing that they can get away with it in the name of religious freedom and/or tradition.

For instance, we see classism when it’s necessary to be a synagogue member and participate in its various paid events, like Hebrew school, to get any religious rites or recognition. We see racism when the gabbai asks Russian-looking me if I want an aliyah, and doesn’t ask my German-English blonde friend. (I’m starting to see that this could likely be a defense mechanism since apparently so many Christians are flooding Jewish spaces lately trying to connect to their Jesus roots, and are often manipulative about it.)

And we see sexism when 1.) Women are expected from the outset to do less than they are obligated, and (or because) 2.) We see things like this:

180: That semen is ritually unclean and causes defilement. It is in effect in every place and every time. However, now that for our sins we have neither Sanctuary nor holy offerings, we do not need to be careful. Nevertheless, Ezra instituted the rule of ritual immersion…but for our time we have the ruling in the Talmud that the Sages nullified immersion. Hence a man need not refrain now from praying and studying, or even from putting on tefillin, on account of a pollution. Even the practice of washing, the Sages nullified. (But it is praiseworthy to do so.)

181: That a woman with the menses is ritually unclean and defiles others. It is in force in every place and every time.

182: That a woman with a discharge is to be ritually unclean and a source of defilement…the matter of keeping distant from them and their uncleanness is on account of the illness in them, which is greatly injurious to people.

183: That a woman with a discharge should bring an offering when she is healed, etc. This is in force when the Temple exists. (Sefer HaChinuch)

Now, let’s look at this. I know that medicine at that time was probably compatible with the idea that menses is an illness. And TMI, I’m not exactly disagreeing with the previous statement “no woman sees blood of the menses without her head and limbs being heavy on her” (§166). But earlier, the author writes that menses is indicative of an “excess” being present, and same for the uncleanness after childbirth. It’s interesting because the previous theory that I heard came from my Protestant Biblical criticism teacher, who said that niddah was a way of being “hyper-ordered,” so that’s why you couldn’t go near holy (i.e. ordered) things.

But who couldn’t notice the fact that different things get an emphasis? I don’t know why the Sages nullified immersion. But I find it pretty uninspiring that people are today claiming that women, for example, shouldn’t wear tefillin, because of guf naki, because they “don’t know when they will be niddah,” or because of “other discharges,” when men have no such concern, because of the Sages. Now, for something that no one really knows what it is, how does a ruling by the Sages, to advocate for male leniency, eliminate the need for guf naki, or more specifically, eliminated the need to think of male discharge as ruining a guf naki, when if you ask me seminal discharge seems pretty unclean (and is indeed unclean enough to warrant hand-washing in the AM anyway). Why? I don’t know.

While the author was so prudent to include that “we do not need to be careful because we don’t have the Sanctuary,” it still stands that women during Their Time still just as well “defile others”? Defiling others, I think, has to do with the ritual cleanliness that is connected to the Temple, and during a time when, niddah or not, we are all ritually unclean, what is the purpose of keeping this? I don’t entirely understand the idea of niddah with regard to intercourse either, in the sense that niddah-uncleanness is somehow different from all other types of uncleanness which we don’t worry about due to not having the Temple. But it stands.

It’s even explicit in §183 that a woman brings a sacrifice in Temple times when she has a discharge, and the discharge is connected to the menses itself (§182 “so the matter remains: after the period of menstrual uncleanness, she has eleven days in which she can become a woman with a discharge. After those eleven days, she can never become a woman with a discharge until she has passed through seven days of menstrual uncleanness”). And so how does it make sense that “we do not need to be careful” about male discharge, but we do need to be careful about female discharge, and it follows then that we also need to be careful about menstrual uncleanliness? And how did it come about that women are therefore barred in some circles from doing certain things during their “pollution”?

In conclusion: If male discharge is connected to ritual cleanliness, and female discharge is connected to ritual cleanliness, and female niddah is connected to female discharge, and ritual cleanliness is connected to the Sanctuary, how does it follow that we no longer need to be concerned with the effect of male discharge on everyday life, but we still must be concerned about female niddah in everyday life? What is different about niddah? Is it really still about “excess” or “illness”? To be clear: I am mostly concerned with the everyday effects of this, rather than the intercourse prohibition during this time. People really do say women can’t read Torah or touch a Torah because of this. Women really did once refrain from praying because of niddah. People really do tell women they are prohibited from tefillin because of a vague sense that “they are unclean.”

Rava Say Relax

You know, the internet can be a pretty dangerous place. I’m pretty certain most of my readers know by now what I’m referring to, so I won’t recount the details cause I don’t think it needs another trackback. But I’ll admit that I’m naive and never thought something could blow up in such a way. And suddenly, everyone was taking sides! Making accusations! Making statements about how they weren’t making accusations! Even I’m slightly embarrassed by the fact that I’m partially connected to the wreckage by, like, three degrees. My first inclination was, like human nature I suppose, to get involved and argue in the comments and things like that. But as it went on, and as more blog posts were written as commentary, fueling the flames (this one included now lolol)…I started to realize that it’s really, really easy to get off track.

I’d been doing it myself…I’d been doing exactly what people on the other side had been doing; latching onto what I don’t like about other denominations and writing polemical essays based solely on a mélange of found examples. And using unwitting individuals as paradigmatic pawns. And worse, turning a small, semi-private affair into a big public spectacle for no good reason. And as I saw the implosion go down, and I saw how much anger and derision and explicit sinat chinam went into a simple blog post, and I thought to myself “I can’t become this person.”

I know that the writer of that post supposes the “exposure of Orthodoxy” (a common theme) is beneficial in the end, but in that post, into which so much effort was exerted, I saw a kind of coarse hatred and revulsion I’d never seen before, thrust suddenly into the limelight. It’s been really affecting me since it was posted, and not only in all the mitzvos broken in order to tell the story the writer wanted to tell. But because it spun off into such a thing, and because it was so hard not to look.

When you’re online, it’s too easy to start naming names and saying things like “I know I shouldn’t say this, but…” “I’m saying this because this information will help expose the general practice,” or “So-and-so shouldn’t have said thus-and-so, he shouldn’t even talk cause he once did this-and-that.” I was appalled by how many people spoke lashon hara while simultaneously claiming to be against someone else’s lashon hara. I know I’m no better, and this whole affair was probably the primary reason I decided to start trying to study more. Cause, frankly, I’m wondering if THIS post isn’t lashon hara.

Someone made a wise comment on the importance of tznius in these kinds of situations, and not throwing your business and your gripes out into the street at the expense of others. Even if you’re entirely in line technically (which according to my current read, sefer hachinuch, I believe I am when I criticize Reform cause I feel it’s bringing people away from Torah but not always so I admit I have to think about that too), you still have to ask yourself: Are you embarrassing someone? Are you causing someone distress? Are you publicly shaming someone whom you know won’t heed your well-intended suggestions? Are you publicly shaming someone who is like a tinok shenishba and doesn’t know any better? Is this a chillul hashem; are you making Torah look bad? Is what you’re saying actually helping anyone? I think one reason that post affected me so much was because I know–honestly–that I’m not above that kind of spiteful rhetoric quite yet, though I suppose I thought I was. I thought there had to be something that sets apart my actions from someone who doesn’t feel guided by mitzvos.

And also, when you say stuff, I recently realized, there are larger considerations. When you publicly denounce something the “Orthodox” do (needlessly, that is), obviously you never know what lost soul is hearing what you say and thinking “You’re right, Torah sounds dumb and outdated.” That’s one reason I really dislike when rabbis tell their congregants things like “Don’t listen to Rashi, he was into magic.” “Urim and tumim, that was put in by the priests so they could tell people what to do.” “It’s OK if the mezuza scroll isn’t kosher, *some people* are just neurotic and will pay $50 extra for one.” “Gemara is just nitpicking.” “Don’t read that; it’s Orthodox.” Do you think that will get people to want to learn Rashi; into being interested in urim and tumim; into being likely to have a kosher scroll; learning Gemara?

But I also know, as far as I’m concerned, that I’ve also been drawn into the indignant observer role, and it’s good for some things, but it’s also pretty consuming. You can spend your time gawking as others go down in flames or you can spend your time improving yourself. Just like how you can study Torah and use what you know to denigrate others, or you can use it to save the world. Pick one.

“Rava said in Berachot 17a, “The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that one should not study Torah and Mishnah, and then despise his father and mother because of their ignorance…”

Hanging Out With Rashi series: I. Preliminary thoughts

I can’t help but compare this to the Torah study at the Recon synagogue. Every time I read something, I think about what they would say it means. So obviously, all you have to do is read the first line and already the first word has a problem, which I don’t know how I didn’t see it before. But I’m just imagining if the people at the Recon synagogue found out the first word is a construction, they would probably say “oh, translation error. Scribal error.” My Protestant Biblical criticism teacher, not surprisingly, would say “scribal error” for sure, as well. But behold, look what happens when you don’t go that route, which is a really easy route if you ask me, you get something like this. What happens what you don’t say “oh scribal error”? Three pages of answer.

Lol “scribal error”…

Identity crises

I’m having a couple of identity crises at the moment.

The first one is happening because of that freaking You’re Not Crazy (for Converting to Judaism) blog which is upsetting me because 1.) She’s starting to talk about things I don’t know about (mostly holiday stuff which I like to avoid), and 2.) I don’t like to admit that I don’t know these things, so 3.) I put up a bunker in defense and decide that “nobody actually does all that crap, don’t fence me in,” which worked for a while but now I’m starting to see that this is a pretty intense case of really bad self-understanding.

But at the same time, most people don’t do all that. By “all that” of course I mean selichot and not tearing TP on Shabbos. But then again I also thought that no one kept kosher every day of Pesach, and it turned out I was totally and shockingly wrong. So who knows what Catholic Israel is doing anymore? It annoys me to think that I might have to re-enter that “I’m converting; I’m learning new things” stage that I’ve grown to so dislike. Who ever had to be thrown into this demand for  all this knowledge and practice which I’m still not actually sure anyone does all the selichot? “Ask your rabbi if you don’t know which day to start on,” she writes. This is where it started. I’m under the impression that only prospective and new converts would care enough about how many selichot their minhag is or whatever to actually take time out to ask. Then I thought about how I just do whatever Koren tells me to do. But then I think about how that is no better than these Reform people whose rabbi lights their Shabbat candles well after shkiah. And then I get confused about my place in life.

The second identity crisis is kind of an offshoot of the first one—I’m getting really annoyed at a friend who seems to behave as if either believing in or saying or thinking the wrong thing will take her chance at Judaism away. I used to be that way, but I soon realized that complaining when things aren’t right is in my soul. I am quite committed to the idea that there is one mainstream to adhere to, and that creatively going astray is good and beneficial:

In my 20s, I discovered that many Jews were involved in the punk rock culture of the 70s and that artists I had looked up to, were Jewish themselves — Joey Ramone of the Ramones and Fat Mike of NOFX. Intrigued and empowered by the Jewish foundations of punk rock, I began to desire a real connection to my Jewish heritage. “Real” meant fulfilling, interesting, and on my own terms.

…Although usually characterized by loud and fast music, the essence of “punk” means to stand up for what you believe in, which is evident in every one of the chronicles in “Punk Jews.”

…Young Jews today are certainly not at a loss. On the contrary, we have the power to decide who we want to be, a privilege of which many of our ancestors were deprived. We create culture; it does not create us. We want “Punk Jews” to excite and draw young people by imparting a vital sense of freedom and ownership over their Jewish identities. To do so one must take the initiative. Young Jews cannot rely on large institutions alone to engage us, nor can institutions expect to reach every single young Jew. The goal of “Punk Jews” is not to provide answers but to start a dialogue, an exploration, a call to action if you will that will bring together people from all walks of life, who share a common heritage and ask the same question:

“What does Judaism mean to me and how can I bring it into my world?” [Algemeiner article on the Punk Jews documentary]

What is Judaism to me? I think I still remain pretty biased by the first books I read on this subject were all about the importance of mitzvot and the infallibility of the Torah so now those two things for one reason or another are totally indispensable to me, so that I really and truly can’t understand how someone can call hirself Jewish without worrying about mitzvot, and I myself havea  weird relationship to mitzvot in that I tend to believe that if I stop doing them I will get sucked into a void.

And worse, I have a secret but serious fear that if it is proven that the Exodus never happened or something like that my world would collapse. I said this before:

I was just reading some The Search for God at Harvard by Ari L. Goldman, and he wrote that he apparently took some classes in the Documentary Hypothesis, which is something I really fear doing. It’s not like his rabbi in the book, who picked up an acorn and said, “Now, it doesn’t really matter that this great tree came from this acorn, right? It’s only important that we can appreciate this tree now.” That would be true if the Torah is entertaining light reading for you or something, but we get laws from this thing. If the Documentary Hypothesis is right…then the laws aren’t obligatory. And if they’re not, what’s the point? … Why not just say “Well, this was real, but I’m done now”?

And now I really am taking a class on the History of Ancient Israel, which basically seems to be a textual criticism class, and for example for Friday I have a paper to write analyzing some paper that says Judges lied and David never existed or something similar. Which, fine. That isn’t my fear; I don’t know why we have Judges in there anyway; I actually barely ever read the NaCh. My fear is the whole “The Torah is a lie” thing that seems to be popular these days, and it’s especially worrisome because I’m in college to learn some freaking life truths and I can’t be chugging along on apologetics because that’s such a cop-out.

Patrilineal descent: Before Deut. 7:3

I just read a great book. In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah by Judith Antonelli makes an interesting anthropological case for how the Israelites lived in their Near Eastern context. I think the author is Orthodox, but in any case she made it clear in the introduction that she intends to show that the [divinely revealed] Torah is not sexist, but it is later commentators who are.

In doing so, she unearthed a bit of evidence that I am loading into my expanding patrilineal arsenal. (I’m converting no matter what I uncover about this; this is fun to me anyway, so?) And it’s about incest.

Further indications of the matrilineal definition of incest are found in the statements that “a Noachide was permitted to take his daughter” (Nachmanides) and “idolators do not recognize paternity” (GR 18:5; San. 58a). Only with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai did patrilineal definitions of incest become operative. p. 45

So this is saying that incest was only defined then by matrilineal relationships, and only with the giving of the Torah were patrilineal relations also made incestuous. She makes the argument that this is why the categories of “forbidden relationships” are the way they are. It seems like a good, albeit preliminary, proof to me that the Israelites weren’t using matrilineal descent/and everyone else patrilineal. So at the very least, we’re not going to argue that matrilineal descent is miSinai.

Shlomit’s son from the rape is the subject of the second passage (Lev. 24:10-11); he was later stoned to death. The subject of the quarrel was his matrilineal descent: he went to pitch his tent with the tribe of Dan and was told by an Israelite man that he had no right to be there because tribal descent was patrilineal. Shlomit’s son took the case to Moses, who judged that he was wrong (Rashi). No wonder he was so angry! He was Jewish, because his mother was, but the Israelites rejected him—as Dinah’s brothers had rejected Asnat—because his Jewishness was not patrilineal. p. 144

Here’s another interesting case, where even though Antonelli says “He was Jewish, because his mother was!”, this statement wasn’t part of the story. The Israelites were actively rejecting Shlomit’s son because he didn’t have patrilineal tribal status (regardless of matrilineal status). I also find odd the argument that makes the case that the Israelites were using matrilineal descent while keeping patrilineal tribal lineage (and don’t say there was no intermarriage and it didn’t come up).

With regard to incest again:

Before the Torah was given, only maternal relatives were described as incestuous. Thus, a man could not have sexual relations with his mother, his maternal sisters, or his maternal aunts. p. 291

It seems like, if anything, the giving of the Torah initiated the recognition of patrilineal descent by describing such relations as incestuous.

Last one:

Sarah could marry Avraham because he was her paternal uncle, and Amram could marry Yocheved because she was his paternal aunt. After Sinai these relations, too, became incestuous.

That Isaac, Miriam, Aharon, and Moses came from relationships that we now rightly view as incestuous is startling, but no more so than the fact that Lot’s incest with his daughters generated the lineage that will culminate in the Messiah.

Feminists should therefore champion, rather than criticize as “male-dominated,” the Torah’s emphasis on patrilineal descent, for the lack of a patrilineal incest taboo in the ancient world is precisely why the Levitical sexual code placed so much emphasis on the father—not because a “patriarchal God” sought to validate male ownership of women.  p. 292

Even if her argument is that patrilineal emphasis is only a temporary concession to get people away from incest (which she doesn’t say explicitly so it may very well not be), the sudden departure by the rabbis because of that one prooftext is still strange, given all this.