Thursday, April 24, 2008

Experience versus theory

Suppose the following. A wonderful village has been found in a remote part of Greece. In that locale the inhabitants still speak pure ancient Greek. Oblivious to the influence of Christianity, these folk still honor the Olympian gods, to whom they offer appropriate sacrifices. They tell each other the old mythological stories, including some not previously recorded. From time to time, it is said, simple theatrical presentations, complete with masks and a chorus, are given at a hillside location.

What classicist in his right mind would not want to spend some time in this magical spot? Alas, it does not exist, and our knowledge of ancient Greece must still be pieced together in the traditional fashion, by pouring over the texts and examining archaeological finds.

Some hold that when it comes to the culture of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, we do have the equivalent of such a village--in fact many such villages. These are the communities of Jewish Orthodoxy, where one can immerse oneself in an ethos and an atmosphere preserved without change from ancient times.

This is a fantasy. Not only are the dress and customs of today’s Orthodox Jews quite different from those revealed by texts and archaeological finds, but many other things as well. While the inhabitants have a book knowledge of Hebrew, they generally prefer to speak Yiddish among themselves. The pronunciation of their Hebrew is quite different from the ancient one, and they seek to clarify the meaning of terms with dubious etymologies. Most important of all, their understanding of the text of the Hebrew Bible is overladen with a vast amount of accretion. Much of this is not easily cast aside because it is held to belong to the Oral Torah, which counts as equal in authority with the Written Torah. So extensive is the new material that the sages and rabbis who created it have in essence rewritten the Bible.

A recent posting of mine offers a case in point. If one asks a rabbi at random about the attitude of Judaism to lesbianism, one is likely to hear that sexual relations among women are forbidden by the Torah. How can one know this? Well, the Sifra says so. As I indicated in my posting, the Sifra shows no such thing, Our hypothetical rabbi is simply wrong.

To be sure, another rabbi, more enlightened, might provide an answer similar to the one I have given. The point, though, is that one cannot know in advance whether one is getting an accurate interpretation of scripture or a later gloss.

In relation to my current task, the following would be the problem with the project of prolonged immersion in an Orthodox community. One would first have to take on an enormous amount of information, much of it doubtless of considerable intrinsic interest. At a second stage one would have thoroughly to flense this material in order to remove the mass of later accretions. Through this laborious process, possibly, one could approach the core of ancient Judaism.

There is an easier way. Since the middle of the nineteenth century scholars have labored, with much success, to find out what the ancient texts really mean. More recently, archaeology has supplied much precious information. It is this record that guides me in my effort to find the organic links between the Hebrew Bible, on the one hand, and the daughter collections known as the New Testament and the Koran, on the other, In order to do this, I need to study the original Hebrew Bible, as revealed by modern scholarship, and not the elaborate new construction devised by rabbinical Judaism. The latter has its own interest, but it is not the text that influenced the New Testament, with the two together influencing the Koran.

That being so, why should I trouble myself in any way with the material generated from the neo-Judaic religion that prevails among the Orthodox today? There are two answers. First, as seen in the case of the supposed prohibition of lesbianism, this later material has a way of intruding. The second reason is that the additional deposit of interpretation is sometimes of genuine, though tangential interest. It is new, but not altogether new. After all, the sages and scholars who created it were seeking to understand the texts as best they could. It is not their fault that we now have better tools. All things considered, though, the findings of modern scholarship are eminently preferable, especially if one is concerned, as I am, with an accurate delineation of intellectual history, eschewing anachronism.

PS A Jewish friend asks why, since I am interested in many things, I do not seek to increase my knowledge (clearly imperfect) of modern Judaism for its own sake. I trust that I will not give offense if I remark that, in my current mode, I am seeking to DECREASE my knowledge of modern Judaism. Such shrinkage is required for the purposes of my project, which looks to displaying ancient Judaism minus the accretions of the centuries.

To those who find that I am temperamentally incapable of understanding the Judaism of today, this intended abstention may count as a blessing. The question is whether I can keep to it.


Post a Comment

<< Home