Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Gold standard

I continue my current interest in critical examination of the Abrahamic religions. Here I offer a review of R. D. Gold’s fine new book “Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit.” Mr. Gold is an American secular Jew, residing in the Bay Area, who is seeking to sound the alarm against the new aggressiveness (as he perceives it) of apologists for Jewish Orthodoxy. These scholars insist that the Torah, with all of its attendant superstition, intolerance, and outright absurdity, is uniformly the word of God. As such nothing can be subtracted from it. In Gold’s view, this doctrine makes these advocates fundamentalists, just as much as the Christian evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.

Some eyebrows will be raised at Gold’s retention of the term “Old Testament,” which most biblical scholars have discarded as imposing a Christian perspective on the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. Perhaps the author is making a valid point, though, because the Jewish Orthodox writers regard their scriptures with the same unvarying reverence as evangelical Christians do. For the Orthodox it is their Old Testament. (The Oral Torah, which I have discussed elsewhere, is the Jewish New Testament.)

Gold is a concerned layman, not a professional biblical scholar. He cites only a few books. Yet he excels in two areas. First, his literary style is outstandingly clear and engaging. The book can be read--with much profit, I might add--in a sitting.

Secondly, and most crucially, he subjects the claims of the Orthodox writers to withering, unremitting scrutiny. His conclusions are stark. “[T[he evidence weighs heavily, very heavily, against the truth of Orthodox Judaism. If we apply the same principles of rational belief that we rely on in everyday life, it is difficult--I would say impossible--to reach any conclusion other than that the dogma of Orthodox Judaism is not true. It is false. . . . Far from being divine immutable law, the doctrines of Orthodox Judaism--like fundamentalist dogma everywhere--are an anachronistic absurdity in this day and age, and they spawn a pious ignorance that subverts independent thought.”

Gold also points out that archaeology has failed to confirm any of the key traditional claims of traditional biblical apologetics. Tellingly, he cites the Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog. “Following seventy years of intensive excavations in the Land of Israel ... this is what archeologists have learned. The patriarch’s acts are legendary, the Israelites did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, they did not wander in the desert, and they did not conquer he land in a military campaign. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” The only thing I would disagree with in this statement is the last. There is no evidence that David and Solomon ever existed.

If God was the author of the texts presenting these fictions, how could he have been so much in error? Or was he seeking simply purveying whoppers to deceive human beings? How naughty of you, Yahweh!

Gold also takes on the Orthodox dogma of the unique survival of the Jewish people, one of their main arguments for the Jews being God’s specifically chosen people. The argument takes this form: No people in history has suffered the way the Jews have. By any reasonable standard, the Jewish people should be extinct by now. Yet, not only have they miraculously survived the Holocaust, but, against all probability, they have returned to Israel and revived their ancient nation. So goes the litany.

And yet, as Gold points out, the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years is scarcely the unique phenomenon the Orthodox like to claim that it is. The Basques, for example, have been around at least as long as the Jews have, if not considerably longer. In fact, the Basque presence in the Pyrenees predates recorded history. Recent genetic evidence indicates that they have survived in place for some forty thousand years, more than ten times the duration of an identifiable Jewish culture. (I am myself probably a descendent of the Basque diaspora.)

And of course there are many other instances of peoples surviving for millennia: the Parsis, the Armenians, the Latvians--to cite just three.

The Orthodox also assume that only the Torah assured the survival of the Jewish people. Yet the Basques, like many other survivor peoples, have no Torah. Rightly, Gold maintains that the Torah is secondary: it is the creation of the Jewish people, not the other way around.

Like me, Gold seeks to chart a middle course between the true believers, who swallow their Scriptures (whichever they are) whole, and such atheist absolutists as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who see no benefit of any sort from religion. In order to recover the inherent spiritual values it is essential to identify and discount the vast quantities of dross--including admonitions that are sheer evil--that disfigure the celebrated texts. This dunging out is a vast undertaking, and one must look elsewhere for more detailed critical exegesis, verse by verse. Yet Gold has written an invaluable study. It is in fact his first book, and I look forward to reading more by him.


Post a Comment

<< Home