Drive along any main street of an American town. You will pass a building with a sign in front: “Read the Bible!”
I can guarantee you — that building is most likely an evangelical Protestant church. It is certainly not a synagogue.
Here is why. Jews might be a “people of the book,” but the Bible is not a book that we read.
Jews don’t read the Bible. Jews study Torah, and Jews hear sections of the Bible in synagogue.
This assertion surprises many Jews. But, think about it.
As a rule, most Jews do not sit down and read the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, cover to cover. I know some very sincere people who tried, but they barely got beyond the first round of “begats” in Genesis.
When Jews encounter Scripture, it is in synagogue, when they hear the Torah read and interpreted, or in Torah study groups, which have become increasingly popular over the last few decades.
They will also, most likely, hear the haftarah, the sections from the historical and prophetic literature.
On the festivals, they will hear the five scrolls (megillot): Song of Songs on Pesach; Ruth on Shavuot; Lamentations on Tisha B’Av; Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.
They will also hear and recognize snippets of the Psalms that appear in the liturgy.
But, that’s pretty much it. There are entire books of the Hebrew Bible that never make a formal “appearance” in synagogue. There are entire books of the prophets that we never hear — Nachum, Habakkuk, and Haggai, for example.
As for the later writings, we encounter Proverbs and Job in snippets.
For the vast majority of Jews, the later books of the Hebrew Bible — Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and First and Second Chronicles — is terra incognita.
Our lack of biblical literacy is a shame, because there is so much treasure there. That is why Edward Feld’s new book, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah, (JPS) is such a spectacular resource — so much so, that I confess that I could not put it down.
Sometimes, people will ask me: Who wrote the Bible?
The answer to that question is: It’s complicated. Richard Friedman wrote a book with that title, and he has done a great job of putting flesh on a controversial modern scholarly theory — the Documentary Hypothesis.
Here goes. The Documentary Hypothesis, invented by a pair of German scholars, posits that the Torah is a patchwork of different sources: J (in which God’s name is YHWH, or, in German, Jehovah); E (in which God’s name is Elohim); P (the work of priestly authors); D (the work of the author of Deuteronomy), and finally R (the final redactor, who put it all together).
Once thought heretical, the Documentary Hypothesis has even found a home in modern Orthodox scholarship. Check out Thetorah.com.
Rabbi Feld goes one step further. He suggests that the each of the Torah’s various law codes has a rather unique origin.
Each of these codes — the Covenant Code in Exodus, the law code in Deuteronomy, and the Holiness Code in Leviticus — is the product of revolutions that took place in biblical times, and this book describes the cultural and political background that defined each of these cataclysmic biblical moments. One of these revolutions was accomplished through a military coup, another was instituted after an assassination and a regency, and the third was a quiet revolution made by outsiders whose ideas proved persuasive.
In other words, move over Game of Thrones. There is far more intrigue here than we had ever imagined.
Rabbi Feld takes us on a whirlwind tour of biblical history. He shows how of these historical moments created a different way of understanding God’s revelation and how to respond to it. That leads to numerous contradictions within the biblical text itself, which many have found frustrating, but which I find to be human and exhilarating.
My favorite material in the book is about the geography of the ancient land of Israel — the differences between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah — regional differences that even preceded the spit of the unitary kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.
First, by which name do we call God? The “northerners” called God El or Elohim, a derivative of the ancient Canaanite god of the same name, which makes sense, because that territory bordered on the remnants of the ancient Canaanite kingdoms, and was highly susceptible to foreign influences.
The “southerners” called God YHWH or Adonai. At a certain time, those two gods became merged together — which gives new meaning to the Sh’ma — “Hear, Israel, Adonai is Eloheinu, Adonai is One — which I might mischievously translate as: “Adonai and Elohim are the same.”
Second, who are our heroes? The stories in Genesis about Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca take place in the south — Hebron, Beer Sheba, etc. Therefore, these were “southern” figures.
Not so with Jacob, Rachel and Leah; their narratives have a way of occurring in the north. The same is true with Joseph. At a certain point, these stories have to merge together, in order to create a coherent national narrative.
It made me think of the United States, and its geography. As Colin Woodard makes clear in American Nations, the United States of America has never been unified, and has never had a common story. Regional differences are crucial. They create culture. Austin is not Boston, though it probably feels more like Boston now than it ever did.
It turns out that such divisions, and contrasting and competing narratives, were present in biblical times as well.
What Rabbi Feld teaches us is this: The Bible, as we have it, is a mess. A sacred mess. A collection of disagreements and divergences.
This is beautiful:
The Five Books of Moses seems to have triumphed in the Jewish community that survived precisely because it did not resolve contradictions but instead incorporated the theologies of numerous traditions and parties. In holding on to its internal contradictions, it preserved a certain mystery, and a profound understanding that contradictory viewpoints and a variety of beliefs provide insight into truths beyond single-minded formulations.
But, herein lies the challenge. The Torah presents itself as a unified, straight forward law code: “This is what you do.”
Then, generations later, the Mishnah does the same thing. “This is what you do.”
Ah, but then come the sages of the Talmud — and they re-introduced the multitude of voices and arguments that had always been there. That is basically what the Talmud is — a cacophony of voices. It reminds me of the time I took a Georgia politician around Jerusalem and we stopped in at a yeshiva and hear the students studying Talmud.
“Rabbi,” he said to me, “You got yourself a very noisy religion here.”
Centuries later, Maimonides and other codifiers quieted down those voices. All those arguments had gotten confusing. He re-introduced that sense of clear, unified, straight forward law. “This is what you do.”
So. this is amazing. Judaism, as we have it, is the result of a constant tension between a fixed tradition, and complex conversation about those traditions. A unified voice, and many voices.
The cool thing about this? We might be living in a time of the triumph of many voices — in which we must be able to say that there are many approaches to living in covenant with God. Which is why Jewish life, even and especially outside the yeshiva world, is so noisy.
And that will even mean that there will be contradictions within each of us, as well. Rabbi Feld writes personally:
There are moments when I understand the performance of a religious act as following a command….at other times I sense that the obligation occurs because of my initial agreement to enter into this Jewish religious life, and because the benefits I now experience…necessitate that I undertake participation in all its facets, even those whose meaning is not immediately obvious to me… at other moments, I perform the same act thinking that it brings me closer to the Divine, that the behavior transforms my life so that I experience myself as entering a holy realm.
One last thing. I resonate with those signs: “Read the Bible!”
Perhaps we all should.
Especially the parts about economic justice and that thing about everyone being created in the image of God.