This is one of those days when I need to turn off my computer! I’ve gotten myself into a little blogging feud, which you can read in Who or What is a Biblioblogger? By Dr. Hector Avalos, Iowa State University and Prometheus Books is the Premier Atheist Publisher in Our Generation, where, granted, I get a little loopy (though I’m not drunk). This can consume my mind if I let it, and, as long as my computer is on, the temptation is there for me to get the last word. So I’ll write this post, translate some Philo, read Stone’s Fence, pray for some people, and turn off my computer!
This week, I’ve been reading a lot of articles online. I think I’m going to get offline and read a Neusner book, while watching a movie. I’ve taped a bunch of movies, but I haven’t had the time to watch them because, well, I’ve been reading articles online!
Here’s a little write-up on the articles I read today:
1. David Daube, “Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric,” HUCA 22 (1949) 239-264.
I had a hard time getting into this article, but one thing that stood out to me was a story in a footnote. I’d read it before, by it hadn’t stuck in my mind, for some reason! A Gentile comes to Hillel (a first century rabbi) and offers to convert to Judaism if he only has to keep the written law, not the oral Torah. Hillel accepts him and teaches him the Hebrew alphabet. The next day, Hillel reverses the order of the letters, and the Gentile protests! Hillel responds that, if the Gentile trusts him on the alphabet, why not trust him on the legitimacy of the oral Torah?
This stood out to me because it’s centered on relationships: it says that the Gentile should accept Hillel’s religion because of his trust in Hillel. There’s lots that can be said about this. Just because Hillel’s right on one thing, does that make him right on other things? On what basis should the Gentile trust Hillel on the Hebrew language? Is it just on the basis of Hillel’s say-so? Not exactly, for, if Hillel teaches him wrong, he won’t be able to understand the rabbinic discourses or participate in them. So there’s a way for him to determine if Hillel is right: his application of Hillel’s teachings on the alphabet, as he sees their effectiveness in the world around him.
I wonder if this can be applied to religious foundationalism. Some Christians have told me that they believe the entire Bible is inerrant because parts of it make sense to them, like love, joy, peace, etc., so shouldn’t they trust all of it? But many things have truth and error. Shouldn’t there be a way to validate things, rather than accepting them merely on blind faith?
The rabbinic passage still inspires me, though, because it’s about a relationship, a religion in which a convert trusts his kind master. A lot of my religion is about reading books and evaluating ideas. Mentorship isn’t there so much, maybe because I’ve been afraid to entrust myself to dogmatic fundamentalists. But there’s something touching about looking up to a spiritual person and learning to be like him, to have what he has.
2. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, “Who’s Kidding Whom: A Serious Reading of Rabbinic Word Plays,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55/4 (Winter 1987) 765-788.
Eilberg-Schwartz mentions a rabbinic passage (Genesis Rabbah 8:5) that offers a unique interpretation of Genesis 1:31, which says that God declared his creation very good. The Hebrew word for “very” is me-od, which consists of the letters mem, aleph, and daleth. Those are the same letters in the name “Adam,” man, only they’re in a different order. So Genesis Rabbah 8:5 says the passage should be read to say that God declared man to be good.
Eilberg-Schwartz uses analogies to figure out what was going through the rabbis’ minds then they made these sorts of exegetical moves. He says that, for them, Hebrew was the original language, spoken by God at creation, so everything in it had a deep and sacred (if you will) purpose. He also likens the Hebrew letters to elements: even if the letters are in a different order, they’re still the same letters, so they produce the same chemical reaction. What puzzles me is this: Did the rabbis believe that every use of me-od in the Hebrew Bible referred to Adam? I don’t remember if Eilberg-Schwartz directly answered this question, but he seemed to say that understanding the combinations of the letters can help us comprehend certain passages. So maybe me-od doesn’t always equal “Adam,” but knowing that it can sheds light on Genesis 1:31.
Personally, I prefer to believe that God considers all of his creation to be very good, over the notion that he only has a high regard for humanity. The same goes for that one rabbinic view that God created the heavens and earth for the sake of Israel. Why would God make everything if his love were so limited (though, granted, rabbinic views are more complex than I am presenting them!)?
3. William Scott Green, “Romancing the Tome: Rabbinic Hermeneutics and the Theory of Literature,” Semeia 40 (1987) 147-168.
I also didn’t do too well following this article, but, if anything stood out to me, it was Green’s statement that the rabbis lacked a sanctuary after the destruction of the Temple. The Qumran community in the desert didn’t have this problem, however, for many of its members hoped to be reinstated in the Temple as priests. The Qumran community was around while the Temple still stood.
But I wonder how it coped without a holy place? Even if the Temple still stood, the people of Qumran had excluded themselves from it, so what good did it do them? I checked one of Lawrence Schiffman’s books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and he says that the Qumran community viewed purification rituals as a substitute for animal sacrifice. Apparently, it didn’t set up a separate altar but respected the Jerusalem Temple, even if it thought it was somehow illegitimate.