Is the Torah true? Does the God of Exodus really exist? And if the answer is no, is it a theological catastrophe or business as usual?
These existential questions underlie the striking range of newspaper commentaries on the Conservative movement’s impressive new Chumash, Etz Chaim, its first new publication of the Torah and Haftorah readings since the 1930s.
A sampling: A New York Times reporter said that the new book was essentially forced upon the movement by recent discoveries in archeology, philology and the like, which collectively hold that major biblical events like Exodus were likely literary creations. A Conservative rabbi, on the other hand, wrote in the Jerusalem Report that the old-time view of God was still very much present in Etz Chaim, a theological liability at a time when people are seeking a more personal, less traditional, kind of deity.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel, noted in a letter to the Times that the Conservative leadership, by publishing biblical scholarship along with the Bible, has now "reject[ed] the Jewish religious tradition." And a columnist for the Northern California Jewish Bulletin noted that the academic essays shredded all belief in the historical basis of Judaism, and their authors were therefore partners with Arafat in the dismantling of the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
It’s clear that, across the religious spectrum, it’s difficult to find a language, and a context, to talk about Torah and Revelation. This is especially so within the Conservative movement itself, which contains within it a broader range of views of ideas on God and Torah than other movements.
Take, for example, the extraordinary response, both positive and negative, to Rabbi David Wolpe’s sermon last Passover at his Los Angeles synagogue noting that Exodus was almost certainly not historical fact. The story became national as congregants sparred with each other in print over Rabbi Wolpe’s "liberating" or "destructive" idea, depending on one’s view.
For me, Rabbi Wolpe’s comment is akin to saying the world is round. And I would have assumed that most card-carrying Conservative Jews believe the same.
But the volume of the response to Rabbi Wolpe’s comments, and many of the critiques of the new Chumash, seem to be the result of making explicit (in print, and on the bima) what is usually discussed sotto voce.
The fact is, the Conservative movement, and most of non-Orthodox Jewry, lives in a constant state of cognitive dissonance about the authority of our holy writings. And the new Chumash doesn’t release us from that ambivalence. For instance, Rabbi David Lieber, Etz Chaim’s editor, tells us in the introduction that "the Torah is the foundation sacred text of Judaism," and the language of the text is traditional in terms of the terms used to explain God. At the same time, the essays in the back are rigorously historical, and some note matter-of-factly that the Torah was likely written by many people over many generations: the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. So we read about a traditional God who brought Jews out of bondage in Exodus in the parsha, then study the essay that says that the story can in no way be factually true.
The central question is: Should history and analysis belong on the pulpit, during the reading of Torah, or should it be segregated only to study, maintaining the cognitive dissonance that so many Jews have? Was Rabbi Wolpe wrong in what he said, or should the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly have put an ad in the New York Times supporting his position? Should the editors of Etz Chaim have left out the historical essays, or should they have said straight out that the Torah is a spiritual guide, but not a record of actual events or people?
From my perspective, cognitive dissonance and ambiguity makes for good literature. And the Bible is the best literature we have: complex, multilayered, mysterious, frightening, comforting and shocking all at once. Like a great novel, the Bible is untrue in its literal particulars, but so true to our spiritual potential as to make any historical inaccuracies irrelevant.
The most one can ask from a new edition of a Bible, I believe, is the opportunity to see it anew, with all its insights and contradictions intact. My rabbi, Stuart Kelman at Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, explained that when he reads from the new Chumash before the Torah reading, a congregant’s response to either the unadorned translation or a particularly insightful interpretation has sometimes been "an audible gasp."
It is that gasp, I believe, that will keep Conservative Jews connected to their new Chumash, and to the creative ambiguity that makes modern Jewish theology so engaging.
Daniel Schifrin, whose column appears the fourth week of the month, is at work on his first novel.