Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Tough Questions - How can you pick and choose from God's words?

Dear Rabbi,

I am still trying to clarify in my own mind why, when the Talmud homiletically interprets the more mystical texts, you seem to reject them?  I notice that the Zohar (mystical text) seem to get used on occasion in the UPJ Parshat Hashavua (Commentary on the weekly Torah portion). You quite clearly do not reject the Talmud as I have heard it quoted too many times but I am yet to fully understand how and why certain sections are accepted and rejected? How can you pick and choose?

Also, do you believe the Aleph-Beis is divinely ordained? Is seeing it as divinely ordained orientating it to the concept of Moses receiving the Torah word for word at Mt Sinai?



Dear Simon,

To try to respond about the Bible, Talmud, Zohar and other texts - of course they all, often, have useful things to say to us, or seem to have to the writers who use them (exegesis) - and sometimes we can use them to make a point that we want to by reading into them things that they don't really seem to say (isogesis - less often acknowledged of course!).  In fact, I think that often the teachers quoted in the Mishna and Talmud use them in this latter way - knowingly.  They find a 'hook' to hang a decision on.  It is almost like saying ' this is the way it is because this is obviously the right thing, the logical understanding, the ' natural justice'.  But if you really want a 'biblical proof', we'll find you one!

So for example they soon realised that, in a rabbinical discussion, they would not all agree (nothing changes!).  How could they make a decision amongst equals - or against the leading authority?  By majority vote.  But where was their authority for doing this? Exodus 23:2 warns 'You are not to follow the majority in doing wrong'.  The Rabbis had no compunction in taking off the first and last words, being left with the 'Torah injunction': Follow the majority!  Which is really not what it said in its plain meaning.

All writers and commentators pick and choose.  But, from our clear position that the texts may be 'inspired' by God (whatever that means), or come from a human position of trying to understand what God wants of us, we can logically, honestly and comfortably reject or deny some texts, or some of the things they are claiming or saying.  

So we do not reject any complete texts (though the Zohar is dated to 13th century Spain rather than the claim it makes of itself to be from 2nd century Palestine, 1100 years earlier!).  Rather, we review the internal and external evidence, sense, context and consonance with Jewish teaching before using a quoted part of a text.

Critics say we are picking and choosing for convenience.  We say this is the process that has always been used.  We are just more frank about it.  Others say 'either it is all true, or none of it is'.  We don't agree.  You could say exactly the same about science.  Just because a long-held hypothesis is disproved or overturned (eg the earth is flat), we don't reject all of science.  That would look pretty stupid!

Does this mean none of it is from God?  We believe there is eternal truth in our texts - such as that there is one unique power of the universe, that we should not murder, that we must provide justice, love the stranger... lessons that have stood the test of time.  Equally though, there are concepts of their time and 'need', such as to destroy the Canaanites, or to stone the rebellious child to death.  Since over and over again, Torah emphasises that God is the God of all Creation - and that God is 'just, loving, caring, forgiving', then these instructions cannot be from God!

Isn't Progressive Judaism just an easy option?  Judaism Lite?  On the contrary, it takes study, consideration, dedication, discussion to start to decide for yourself what rules have the ring of eternal truth.  Until you are equipped and confident, ask guidance from someone who you respect, whose world view you share, and has done some of this work.  Well that really is an easy option!  No, it isn't.  But anyway, where does it say Judaism must be difficult?


I am not sure what you mean about 'Alef-Beis'  (this is ashkenazi hebrew which suggests it comes from a different direction to start with - we'd call it the alef-bet) being divinely inspired - but I'd say it is every bit as divinely inspired as the Greek, Roman or any other alphabet - and no more.  In fact I was looking at the development of Hebrew and sister scripts at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem just two weeks ago.  The original 'hebrew' was proto-Canaanitic - that gave way to an early Hebrew script - and early Aramaic.  At some point the Hebrews jettisoned the early Hebrew and switched to the Aramaic, from which the very similar current Hebrew scripts were developed.

Edmond Fleg wrote a powerful poem which includes 'I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind'. You'll find it quoted in our prayer book (page 41).  To me it is absurd to deny the evidence of philologists and archaeologists and hundreds of scholars and experts about the development of hebrew (and other languages) and simply contend, as an 'act of faith', that the writing (or, similarly, the language) we today use for prayer is 'divinely given'.

Finally, you are of course, always, welcome to come to services at Leo Baeck if you are in Melbourne, or at one of our other synagogues across the region, on your own or with interested friends etc.  Please introduce yourself to the person on duty, and ask if there might be someone who can help you with pages and a bit of guidance if possible (if you'd like).  We'd be delighted to try to assist.  And do bear in mind that you don't need a Rabbi to lead a service, and that they may be lead by lay people, but of course there are still services.  You should however be aware that sadly we do need to be careful about security, so it is a good idea to call the office in the week before the service and get details, and it is a good idea to have your passport or other proof of identity with you to avoid problems in getting admitted.  Preferred dress is fairly smart and tidy.  Women do not need hats, but men are expected to cover their heads (and women are invited to) and kippot (head coverings) will be available to borrow.

Hope it is all beginning to get a bit clearer!


Rabbi Jonathan

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