The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, September 1997, Vol. XXXIV, Number 2

Colloquium ‘97.  It will be an extraordinary event. Eleven Jewish historians of international fame are coming to the Birmingham Temple to spend the Simhat (sic) Torah weekend with us. They will speak, dialogue with each other and open our eyes to the realities of the Jewish experience. 

We Jews are an extraordinary people, with a saga that continues to fascinate even our enemies. But the story of our past has been in the hands of a religious establishment that chooses to hide or distort the truth to serve a messianic ideology. Unlike the story of most nations and civilizations Jewish history is presented as sacred history. Sacred history is no longer a tale of human striving and human ambition. It is the story of gods, supernatural miracles, divine interventions and holy missions. It is the revelation of divine reward and punishment and the rescue of chosen peoples. The normal standards of scientific inquiry are never applied. Faith and tradition are the final judges. And they are supported by centuries of propaganda. 

In such an intellectual environment the stories in the Torah , the Tanakh and the Talmud are assumed to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The legitimacy of traditional Judaism rests on the presentation of Jewish history.  If this presentation is not true – and if ‘believers’ come to believe that it is not true, the foundations of traditional Judaism will crumble.   

A credible Humanistic Judaism in the end rests on the real experience of the Jewish people.  But its perception of that experience is quite different from that of tradition.  Fortunately, modern science, archaeology, textual criticism and naturalistic approach to the human experience have produced a radically different version of the Jewish saga.  Unfortunately, most of this information is locked up in scholarly journals where it never reaches the general public.  Because of this ‘seclusion’, even the most liberal congregations continue to present the ‘old’ version of the story. 

Colloquium ‘97 will be one of the first opportunities for the general public to come face to face with the new evidence and the new story.  For those who are not familiar with the ‘discoveries’ of the last century, encountering them can be mind-boggling.  The Jewish experience takes on a radically new human dimension.  Familiar tales are no longer credible.  Familiar interpretations are no longer viable.  We are liberated to embrace a new vision of Jewish evolution. 

Our eleven historians will explore at least nine areas of Jewish development where ‘mythology’ prevails. 

  1. The origins of the Jewish people: It may be the case that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the presentation of the Torah at Sinai are invented tales.  The Israelites may have been a hill-country Canaanite people who did not emerge onto the Near Eastern stage until shortly before the time of King David. 
  1. The origins of the Bible:  If God did not write the Torah who did?  Was the author Moses? Or were the Torah and Bible put together some seven or eight hundred years after the death of Moses by writers and editors who projected their contemporary issues back into ‘ancient’ times? 
  1. The Greeks and the Jews: The common vision that the Maccabees stood against Greek culture and rescued Judaism from the insidious influence of Greek paganism may be a distortion of the truth.  The Greeks profoundly altered Jewish culture, provoking an internal debate that set the defenders of reason against the devotees of faith.  The Jewish world was divided into many religions and political parties.  The roots of a humanistic Judaism can be found here. 
  1. The origins of Orthodox Judaism:  The rabbinic establishment maintained and still maintains that Orthodoxy is a reflection of a continuous tradition that can be traced back to Moses.  All other versions of Judaism are newer and, therefore, less authentic.  But it may be the case that ‘traditional’ Judaism is less traditional than it pretends to be.  The historical vision of the Talmud may not accurately reflect what really happened. 
  1. The experience of the medieval Jew:  The connection of the Jews to money, commerce and the beginnings of capitalism is often an ‘embarrassing’ subject for many contemporary Jews.  They are more comfortable viewing the Middle Ages as a time when Jews were the primary victims of religious persecution.  A large slice of the Jewish experience and of Jewish creativity may be ignored in the process. 
  1. The legacy of Hasidism:  In modern times the culture and spirituality of the Hasidic movements have been romanticized.  They are often equated with the new spiritual search of the contemporary Western world.  What is often neglected is the assaultive politics and the cruel superstitions of Hasidic daily life, which have nothing to do with either human dignity or spiritual serenity. 
  1. The significance of the Enlightenment:  In the contemporary world it has become fashionable to blame the revolutions of science and reason for the decline of Jewish identity and for destructive assimilation. Modern secular culture becomes the enemy of Jewish fulfillment. But this critique misses the positive transformation of the life of the Jew through personal freedom, female liberation, secular education and the openness of a democratic society.  
  1. The origins of modern anti-Semitism:  The terrible Holocaust has riveted Jewish attention on the phenomenon of Jew hatred.  Most commentators find its beginning in the hostility of the Christian world.  Others see the beginnings in the unique economic role which Jews assumed in the Western world.  But the truth may be different from either speculation. 
  1. The significance of Zionism:  There is no doubt that the establishment of the state of Israel is the most important Jewish achievement of the twentieth century.  The founders of the state imagined that Zionism would provide for a liberal and secular future for Jewish nationalism.  But recent developments can easily lead us to a different assessment. 

Jewish history is no fixed story which ‘tradition’ presents to us for study.  It is in the process of being re-created (sic) and re-conceived.  If you want to experience the ‘cutting edge’ of this debate do not miss Colloquium ‘97. 

October 23-26.  A unique and wonderful opportunity.