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.


  1. Here's possibly my most extreme thoughts on such things, I don't necessarily subscribe to them, but it seems to me we should feel free to rehearse such things, try them and see how they feel, and not be immediately censoring our ideas to what we 'ought' to think, or else!

    Yes, James, and even people 'filled with the Spirit' have different ideas about things! Anyway, it looks like not just Adam, but Abraham and Moses (and the invasion of the promised land), were non-historical. It just apparently got into the Jews' consciousness that God was specially concerned about them and had given them the land, and that there was a sort of contract between them that if they behaved they would be blessed ('prosperity gospel'!), and if not they were for it. It looks like Jesus came into this situation, as a Jew, thinking it was a critical time between the Jews and God and went around pushing his ideas, certainly to the effect that the Jews had to buck their ideas up (I tend to think Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, who had a powerful experience at his baptism, which these days would be called being filled with the Spirit, but which was rather stunning to Jesus and which he took as a call to go around saying and doing this and that). I reckon it may well have been fairly obvious, at least to insiders, what Jesus was pushing. But, it then looks like those who thought about what it was all about after his crucifixion (which needed quite some explaining) had various ideas as to what it was all about, which were more like reinterpretations of what Jesus had been saying and doing, there also being powerful experiences they were having that needed explaining. It doesn't look crucial exactly what 'theological' things they (including Jesus) did think it was all about. The upshot, I think, is that God is acting in the world, but not necessarily to help us in the things we would like help in, and is not explaining in any detail what agenda he has for us now. Whatever God is organising now, and has been about from the beginning, and through our physical and mental evolution, there are rather nicer things awaiting after death (though not necessarily much more explanation). And how come I think I can think such things, in that I am saying people have not generally been dependable when expounding on such matters? Well, just like them, I'm making the best sense I can of it! I think the Bible and Christian thinking through the ages is a good jumping off place. Other literatures and customs don't grab me the same, or even outright put me off.

  2. I agree with your last line. The thing is, for me, even the apocrypha does not particularly grab me. Only what's canonical in the Palestinian Jewish OT and the NT do so. Why, I'm not sure. I think it has to be more than that I was raised to accept that particular canon.


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