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.

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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?

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