Thursday, January 31, 2013

Enjoying the Tree

In The Search for God at Harvard, Ari Goldman talks about a conversation that he had with Louis Jacobs, a Jew who was teaching Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School when Goldman was a student there.  Goldman had just heard Jacobs explain the Documentary Hypothesis, the scholarly belief that the Pentateuch consists of four sources: the Yahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priest (P), and D, who wrote Deuteronomy.  The Documentary Hypothesis rests (in part) on the existence of contradictions and different ideologies within the Pentateuch, and it challenges the traditional Jewish belief that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Goldman wondered what would happen to one's faith and religious practice if he (or she) were to see the Torah as flawed and composed by humans rather than God.  When Goldman asked Jacobs about this, Jacobs pointed to an oak tree whose leaves had fall colors.  Jacobs said: "Do you know how that tree began?  Just because you don't know how it began doesn't mean you cannot enjoy the tree."

As Goldman reflects on his own life, he sees value in some of the Jewish rituals that he has long observed.  For example, he says that the routine and the beauty of Sabbath observance helped him during a particularly unstable time, namely, his parents' divorce.  Wherever Ari was, life would "come to a halt" on the Sabbath, and he could use that day "for attending a synagogue, reading a novel, taking a leisurely walk to the park or reflecting on the week past" (page 58).

The Sabbath was long a special time for me.  Wherever I was----whether I was attending school, or working at a job----I appreciated not having to work on the Sabbath.  Not only is it good to have a day of rest, but it's also good to have a day on which I don't have to prove my worth to others----I can just be.  Nowadays, I've somewhat gotten away from that.  I write a blog post everyday, and blogging can easily contaminate the Sabbath (or any day, for that matter) because I become obsessed with proving my worth, as I try to write good posts and check to see if people like them, feeling affirmed when they click "like" and resentful when they don't.  Moreover, I do research for my dissertation on Saturdays.  But I wouldn't say that I have entirely abandoned the principles of Sabbath.  There are times when I find that it's conducive to my peace of mind to simply turn off the computer.  On Friday, I don't research for my dissertation, but I study a Psalm, and that is usually followed by a nice long nap.  So, in a sense, I follow principles of the Sabbath, even if I don't rest on Saturday and Sunday.  The thing is, though, that I play by ear when I decide to follow these principles, rather than adhering to rigid rules (i.e., I must turn off my computer right now).  I think that approach has its positives and negatives.

Do I agree with Louis Jacobs that I can enjoy the Bible and religious life, even if I'm not sure that they come from God?  I believe that I can, on some level.  I can benefit from the Sabbath and fellowship with others, for example.  I can read the Bible and identify with its characters.  And yet, for me, I need assurance that what is in the Bible is true and from God for me to believe parts of it.  I suppose that I can see some principles in the Bible as true, whether there's a God or not----one who wants friends should be friendly (Proverbs 18:24), for instance.  But, when it comes to statements that God will provide for my needs or that I should live well because of a reward in the afterlife, I need to see those statements as much more than human opinion, for why should I trust human opinions about these issues?  I suppose, though, that, even here, I can have opinions without having to see the entire Bible as God-given and inerrant.  I can hear people's stories about God providing for their needs (even though I wonder about those who die because their needs were not met), or about having some experience with the afterlife.

I guess my problem with what Jacobs is saying is that, in order for me to know what God thinks, what God wants, and what God is doing, I need for God to reveal that.  Human beings writing down their opinions in writings that became Scripture is not enough.  Or is it?  Perhaps they were experiencing God, or getting to know God better, and they were recording their thoughts on that.  Their thoughts may not be perfect, but they offer us some insight.  Besides, even having a Bible and regarding it as divinely-inspired have not removed all ambiguity, for even religious people who are committed to inerrancy arrive at different conclusions.

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