In his usually precise and incisive way, critic Adam Kirsch tackles a thorny issue: should Christians read their Bible like Jews read theirs? The occasion is a new book–"The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book"–by Case Western religion professor Timothy Beal, who is also the child of evangelical parents.
According to Kirsch, Beal argues that Jews have traditionally treated the Bible as a divinely written text that is nonetheless "primarily as a subject for interpretation." Jews know what it says, and God may have said it, in other words, but we’re allowed to fight endlessly over what it means.
But Christians are less critical, Beal reportedly says. They view the text not only as the Word of God but also as a straightforward how-to manual. There is nothing to interpret for them, for within its pages are all the answers to any problem there ever was, and anyone there ever will be. Accept it and be saved.
Beal has no patience for this mentality. And as a scholar and believing Christian, he apparently argues that Christians today should "find insight from Jewish tradition’s understanding of Torah." If they accepted the Bible as a much more ambivalent text, brimming with multiple meanings, as the Jews do, then, perhaps, a more humane and less doctrinaire Christianity would develop.
As a Jew, it’s nice to get a compliment like that. But I’m glad Kirsch didn’t fall for it. As Kirsch rightly points out, Jews have just as long a tradition of literal minded readings of the Torah as Christians do. Beal might think that the rich Talmudic tradition epitomizes the plurality of views that Jews are accustomed to living with, but the truth is that the Talmud is nothing more than a how-to manual for religious Jews who read it seriously.
In fact, the entire corpus of religous law would have no basis whatsoever if the laws pronounced in it were not backed up by the literal Word of God–the original Hebrew Bible, or Torah. What Beal really is asking for is a liberal theology that accepts the text as divinely inspired but still written by humans. There is a rich–and, historically, only recent–tradition of this view in Judaism, and no doubt there is one in Christianity too.
Beal may not realize it, but his book is a part of it.