Monday, February 18, 2008


This blog is one of a number of blogs connected to a class on Scripture in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that I taught Wheaton College in the Fall Semester of 2005. This blog contains my posts, but please read the blogs of the students in the class organized by name in the links to the right, to get a full sense of the reactions, insights, and observations prompted by the readings and experiences of the course. In a sense, aren't we are ourselves creating tradition and "scripture" by referring back to earlier interpretations of the same texts and subjects? Tradition is a conversation of a community of interpreters of scriptures that crosses the barriers of time, space, and even our own mortality.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Preaching as Christian Scripture: "How Shall They Hear?"

Preaching of Christian Scripture especially exemplifies for me William Graham's observation that "Scripture" is a relational concept. It seems to me that Scripture isn't really Scripture, that is, the word of God, in Christianity unless it has an observable effect on its audience. The Gospel as Christian scripture has to be "heard." That's why I think Samuel Proctor's question "How shall they hear?" exemplifies to me what is so crucial to understanding Scripture in Protestant Christianity. How do you say it, that is preach it, in such a way that it does visibly affect your audience? It's got to come from an experience you've had and has to resonate with, or evoke an experience in your audience. So that's what I've tried to do in the sermon I composed for our class (adopting the style of Protestant Christian preaching), touching on the four crucial points that the late Rev. Proctor says most audiences want or need to hear. But in order for you the class of "Scripture in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" to hear my sermon, I felt I had to connect Proctor's 4 general points to specific experiences we shared as class - to "make it real." I also wanted to use this sermon as an opportunity to bring some closure to the class, to sum up what I think are the most important things we have learned from the class. So here's my attempt to practice what Samuel Proctor preached:

My sermon
Jonathan B-Kraus Rel 204

It is with great trepidation that I take on the task to today to preach the Gospel. I've got two strikes against me. One - What does a rabbi know from preaching the Gospel? Two - what business do I have a preaching the Gospel in a critical study of religions class at a non-denominational liberal arts college? I should be teaching religious diversity at the university, not witnessing the Good News in the church pews! But the most important point I want to make is a bit of a paradox. Critical, analytical comparative study of religions is for me, and (I hope) for you a source of hope and inspiration, as it says in the Book of Lamentations, as the abandoned wife of the midrash says over her ketubbah, "This is what I call to mind, and therefore I have hope."
It's not only what you learned, but that you learned, despite your insecurities that you couldn't memorize a passage from the Qur'an in Arabic or that the midrash was so foreign that it made no sense; Despite my second guessing that I didn't do everything I could do to make this a better class - organizing the promised field trips so that everyone could attend, making every reading on the syllabus, every class discussion so fascinating that no one could imagine skipping class, spending more time on Christianity, less on Judaism. Yet as I read your web journals, I couldn't help but be struck by how much you did get - how you put things together yourself and made connections to your own experiences, how you asked the right questions and more often than not, answered them yourselves later in the course. Or I was amazed that so many of you got the point of the meaning of the Dome of the Rock though I feared I hadn't conveyed it effectively. See - “our carnal package of drives,urges, [fears and doubts that hold us back] can be contained, restrained, and reconciled.”This is what I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
It's not only what you learned , but how you learned. When I taught the class before, I assigned a Surah from the Qur'an that played on the image of reed, that is used both in musical instruments and in old-fashioned pens, to make sounds and letters. We have been a grove of reeds, in whom other people's songs and words have been sounded, penning new ideas and new experiences. To paraphrase the Qur'an Surah 96, though our origins are humble "created from a mere clot of congealed blood, we have become signs (ayat) that proclaim
"Thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who taught by the reed,
Who taught [us] that which [we] knew not.
Where did the breath come from that let us sound these new words, whose hand guided our writing? Who really taught us that which we knew not? Not me. I felt like a reed too, a hollow vessel, conveying something to you that I got from somewhere, Someone else. Our experience of learning, of going beyond what we thought we were capable is indeed palpable proof that there is something more than “our space-time frame of reference,” that there is a generous Power beyond us at times revealing to us that “the universe is a friendly place.” Jewish tradition recognizes this in the Sayings of the Fathers (the Oral Torah), when it says, "Wherever two or three are gathered to engage in words of Torah, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is also present." Or as Jesus puts it, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Mt.18:20). Though the three traditions have their own way of putting it, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recognize that the experience of learning, especially with our fellows, is more than the sum of its parts. This too I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
This brings me to the last feature of the Gospel Rev. Proctor wants me to proclaim “genuine community is possible?” We have learned from each other. As Paul said so eloquently in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:2,8-9),

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing...Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For now we know only in part, and we know only in part,"
It takes a community of learning to realize this. We could not have done it without each other. When we really care what others have to say, in order to make room for them we have to know only in part. At moments we've been just that sort of community. If the comparative study of religions is words and ideas theoretically geared to appreciating the diversity of religions, what we have accomplished as as a group over the last semester is to become those words made flesh. You have been a terrific class! This is what I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Midrash and Myth

While I think those of you who've commented on midrash understand what midrash is supposed to do, you're still having trouble articulating exactly how it does it, though Aidan's comments were definitely on the right track. What the midrashim in Exodus Rabbah and in the Passover Haggadah do is make the past story of the Exodus present! They do so in several ways. By "updating" the details of the stories and adding conversations between the characters in more contemporary idioms, or even by speaking directly to the reader in rhetorical questions and imperatives, it makes the story seem less archaic; it kind of collapses the gap in time between the Passover then and the Passover now.

Or as Marguerite put it,
"The idea of time is broken down into ‘Time-Past, Time Now, and Time to Come. At first glance one would think that they were three very distinct in separate times, but the Midrash and the sacred myth can take something that happened in Time Past and relate it to something in Time to come."

The Haggadah, by having its participants not only retell the story but re-enact it by eating the symbolic foods - matzah, bitter herb, wine - that convey parts of the story - the joy of redemption, the bitterness of slavery - in sensual, affective, immediate experiences, gets them virtually to hear and to "taste" the story of the Exodus, internalize it in a very real, more than merely cognitive way. A myth like this is felt to be "really real" because it is not just passively heard, but actively, aggressively experienced and reinforced on a variety of sensory levels.

Also, the particular strategy of the petichta (proem) style midrash on Ex. 1:1 about Jacob and his sons, emphasizes the paradigmatic and recurring patterns of the Israelites' story, namely, the "fathers are a sign for the children" creative historiographic strategy of the midrash. The interlocking chain of midrashim go through the generations showing how each new generation re-enacts what its parents did. The present readers of the midrash intuitively recognize themselves as the latest link in the chain of the recurring pattern of God's interaction with the Jewish people. That sense that we're acting out the same paradigmatic old story is another important, distinctive quality of myth.

I'd like to go so far as to say that if it weren't for the midrashic interpretations and ritual performances of the Exodus story, it would be just an interesting story of antiquarian interest, but not the powerful sacred myth of the Jewish people. As I said at the beginning of the course, it's what people do with a text that makes it a sacred scripture, not necessarily anything inherent in its form. If the Torah contains the sacred myths of the Jewish people, it seems that it requires something like the process of midrash to activate their potential as myths, that is, their symbolic power, experientially self-evident truth and relevance in the life of the community.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"It's hard to do the laws of Leviticus in modern times"

Bailey Leonard-Fritzmeier made these good points on the Leviticus readings in her post of 9/15/05 here:
"This kind of sums up the whole idea that each law may seem really specific but its really telling us a general idea or moral. It seems that the detailed laws that the texts of Genesis and Leviticus share with us are meant to be interpreted by the readers and the general idea of them is meant to be expressed in some way. One can still express the emotions and connections these laws represent without following each one exactly, which would be hard to do in modern times."

Here's my take on what she said. It's as if the interplay between specific laws and general moral principles that you observed in the text sets up a "space" for interpretation. But there are two ways to take your point that these laws would be "hard to do in modern times."

(1) It could be that it's hard today because it's inconvenient or burdensome, or even not quite in keeping with our moral or aesthetic tastes. But even then, ancient Israelites might have found these laws hard to keep for the same reasons.

(2) It could be hard because we no longer have the institutions in which we're supposed to perform the sacrifices - no Temple, no hereditary priesthood that remembers exactly how to perform the sacrifices; these were pretty much destroyed and lost in the wars with the Romans in the 1st-2nd century CE. Yet the rabbis who survived the destruction of Jerusalem and and the exile from there still felt obligated to do the "commandments of God," so they were in quandary. But not all modern Jews feel obligated in that way.

Most modern Jews, confronted with the difficulty of doing these commandments would say (and have said), it's my choice; I don't really have to do them, so I just won't do the ones that seem hard, pointless, or impossible to do.

But others, like the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple, would say, I still have to do them, or God still wants me to do them, so I need to find a to do these commandments in a new, different way that still sticks to the word of God, but takes into account the new situation I'm in, and the fact that I don't have the Temple, priests, and other institutions needed to do them.

In this case, interpretation is not just an option; it's a necessity! That "space" for interpretation between the specific rules and their more general moral/ethical purposes starts to look really good; it becomes increasingly, crucially important.

This is what is later called "midrash" (what we'll be studying next ) - the quintessentially Jewish way of interpreting Torah - both its laws and its narratives. But it seems that this need, this place for midrash (a later historical innovation of the rabbis) was already "built in" to the Biblical text. That's the phenomenon I think you discovered in these Leviticus passages

Strangeness, archaicness of torah in Leviticus

I made this comment to Ivy Challis' post of 9/13 in her blog for the course here

Even though you didn't find the word "torah" in these passages, or maybe precisely because you didn't, I think you're raising the right questions. It was kind of a trick question, since the word "torah" appears only in the Hebrew of those selections from Leviticus, not in the English translation. It's translated in a variety of ways - "law," "ritual," "instruction", as I mention in the formal version of the assignment that I sent out later.

You're intuitively picking up on an important issue - how can these rules for performing bloody sacrifices be something meaningful and spiritually uplifting, not to mention authoritative, in the way we ordinarily understand "scriptures" to be - especially for us modern people? I mean in a sense, isn't it a bit weird that what are basically recipes for how to prepare meat are treated with awe and respect as scripture?! They're read as part of the weekly Shabbat ritual in synagogue, may be "performed" to mark a girl or boy's becoming an adult in the life cycle event of a bat/bar mitzvah rite of passage, are chanted according to special melodies, are painstakingly inscribed in Hebrew calligraphy by special scribes on scrolls made of specially prepared parchment, etc., etc. What's so special and relevant about these - at first sight - rather archaic sacrificial practices?

Are they laws that we're supposed to do, or instructions that have some kind of symbolic importance beyond what they literally say?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Biblical Law as Scripture in Back to the Sources and Leviticus

I posed this question to the members of my Scripture in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam course:

Is Torah law, ritual, instruction, or narrative?
What does the Hebrew word "torah" mean in the book of Leviticus? The Hebrew word torah is the word translated into English as "law" in Lev. 6:8, 6:14, 6:25, 7:1, 7:11, 7:37-38, and 11:46 in the Oxford Study Bible. In those same verses, the new Jewish Publication Society Bible translates torah as "ritual" in Lev. 6:8, 6:14, 6:25, 7:1, 7:11, 7:37-38, and as "instructions" in 11:46?

What hints in the context of these verses does the text of Leviticus itself provide for how to interpret the word "torah?" What kinds of things "count" as torah, and what is (are) their purposes? Who is to speak these examples of "torah" and to whom are they addressed? Is it the same in all of these verses, or not, and if not, does it matter?

Do the Biblical narratives in Genesis that we read, and the rules that we read in Leviticus have anything common – so that it would make sense to call both "torah?"

Here's what I'm trying to get at. The literal translation of the Hebrew word torah is "instruction" or "teaching." So why does the OSB translate it consistently as "law" in these passages in Leviticus, while the the NJSP version sometimes translate it as "ritual," sometimes as "instruction?" It seems to me that Leviticus' choice of the word "torah" to label the sacrificial and dietary laws or rituals suggests that they are first and foremost intended to teach something. In other words, they are not just commandments that one is supposed to do because God said so. After all, only a small minority of people, the priests, are directed to do the sacrificial rituals, though all the Israelites are required to follow the dietary laws forbidding some and permitting other animals as food to eat - yet both sets of ritual laws are called "torah." Why? they must have something essentially in common. It may be that both are supposed to set examples of important values for other people.

Greenstein argues in his chapter on Biblical law in Back to the Sources that the laws of the torah are a sort of "symbolic body language" expressing the deepest values of Jewish Biblical religion. So when Leviticus says "Tell the sons of Moses and Aaron [i.e., the priests]" or "tell all the Israelites" that this is the "torah of the whole burnt offering, the grain offering," (Lev 6-7) etc., or "this is the torah of the beast and fowl" (Lev 11:46) - is it a commandment to do the rules and rituals described, or is it a commandment to teach the rules and rituals of the sacrificies and kashrut - that is, "the instruction" about, rather than "the law" to do them? There is a further ambiguity in these expressions. Does "the torah of the whole burnt offering" or "the torah of beast and fowl" refer specifically to the instructions about how to perform the whole burnt offering and which specific beasts and birds can or cannot be eaten, or are the sacrifices and dietary rules practices designed to teach us something else, and does "torah" refer to that "something else," and if so what is that something else? Respect for life, a theory of reincarnation, the distinctiveness of the Jewish people, e.g.? Or is it in a sense saying all of these things together - that by doing, one teaches (and presumably learns) some important lesson? Or by teaching, once one knows how and why to do them, they will do them? Later Jewish tradition answers yes to both possibilities. And I think that is already the connotation the comes with the word torah that the Bible uses to name these laws, rules, or rituals - whatever we choose to call them.

So it seems that the Jewish word torah refers to a text, a type of scripture that is meant not just to be read or recited, but to be performed. and it is to be performed mindfully, knowing what one is doing and why one is doing it. It is far from blind obedience to mindless rituals! So much for Biblical law. But what about Biblical narrative? Is that supposed to be performed, too (in this same sense of torah), and if so, how?