Faith and Change

Why remain Jewish, when all we thought we knew about the past keeps changing--like discovering our ancestors were polytheistic?

 

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Q. With our rapidly changing world--and continued discoveries changing what we know of the past--how and why do we maintain our Jewish commitment?

For thousands of years, for many Jewish communities in the world, nothing changed. People lived in the same villages their whole lives. They knew the same people, ate the same food, spent time doing the same things their mothers and fathers had done.

Suddenly, dramatically, everything changed. Today, we are exposed to people from all over the world, a wide range of choice in everything from paper towels to life's work to religious beliefs is open to us.

Even the past has changed.

Some of you may have read Anita Diamant's interesting and moving book "The Red Tent." It depicts an ancient Israel that was essentially polytheistic. Recently, the magazine Biblical Archeology Review published an article entitled "Pagan Yahwism," which contended that archeological discoveries demonstrate that ancient Israel was anything but monotheistic.

These discoveries are fascinating and unsettling. To be sure, we had some inkling of them before. The prophets are forever rebuking the people for their idolatrous tendencies, and surely the prophets knew what they were talking about: They were angry at Israel for idolatry because they saw their communities worshiping idols. Yet we tend to imagine our ancestors as being more faithful than ourselves, and so we gloss over such prophetic observations. It may be an illusion, but it is a comforting one.

When we are suddenly faced with the realization that statues are scattered across ancient Israel, that our ancestors probably had idolatrous shrines in their homes, we sigh. Where is rock bottom? In what can we now believe? In a world of change, where are we when we cannot predict what the future will bring, or even clearly understand the past?

Those of you who read my last column know that the difference between the solid certainties of the past and anxiety today was my theme then as well. But today I want to propose what seems to me a bottom line: What must we believe as Jews to keep this massive spiritual project afloat?

The real question of Jewish law is not its historical origin--whether it was dictated by God, made up by humans, or something in between the two--but its orientation in our lives. The fundamental Jewish claim is that Jewish tradition is a response.

Many years ago Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an essay called "Toward an Understanding of Halacha," which was subtitled "Jewish law as a response." (Halacha means Jewish law in Hebrew.) Heschel's claim is that we must ultimately see Jewish law, Jewish tradition, as a response to God. No matter how the tradition developed, at the center--the animating spark--must be God's gesture toward human beings.

If God did not at some point take some sort of initiative--whether explicit or more subtle--and if we are in fact the heirs of invented folkways, then for all of its beauty, Jewish law cannot endure.

I believe there is a primary mitzvah, commandment. It is the mitzvah of relationship. One must be in relationship--through deeds--with human beings and with God. Isolation from God, distance from God, is the condition which Judaism, in all of its manifestations, seeks to overcome. We are bidden to draw close. Korban, the word for sacrifice, is from the same root as l'karev, to draw close.

Much of Jewish philosophy, medieval and modern, occupies itself with the exact nature of the Torah's authority. Why should we do the mitzvot (plural of mitzvah)? There are as many theories, it often seems, as there are theorists.

Some take a line of absolute submission. According to the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, there is no reason to do the mitzvot other than God's will. The attempt to justify God's law by any other criteria--that it makes you a better person, or is good for your health, or psychological well being--is a species of idolatry. You are making the mitzvot about something other than what God wants, and therefore putting your needs above God's. It is a pretty austere theory, but it has support in Jewish sources.

Other philosophies are more forgiving. The Talmud says at one point that the purpose of the mitzvot is "only to refine God's creatures." In other words, the mitzvot are to make us better. So perhaps observing the mitzvot is a way of divinely initiated self-improvement.

Still another school of thought suggests that the mitzvot are a language. The mitzvot are how we communicate to God. We are simply not allowed to shut God out of our lives--we are able to, but we ought not. Our human task is to keep faith with the God who created us, even though God gives us the free will to avoid Him.

What all of these ideas have in common is simply this: They all see halacha as a response. If Judaism is nothing more than a human need tossed arbitrarily upward, then it will be hard to sustain, either in theory or in practice. But the fundamental faith statement of Judaism, I believe, is that it arose in dialogue. We are addressed. How the address happened, when it happened, whether it was a gradual process taking place over the course of many generations or a one-time, monumental, thunder-and-lightning theological extravaganza is not the ultimate question.

As we light Shabbat (Sabbath) candles, are we doing so in answer to God's having taken an initiative in the world? If so, then we are part of a chain that began not with Abraham, but with God. If we care, if we practice, if we persevere in our search, then the conversation continues.




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