Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lines In The Sand

Following the fast-paced and stirring narrative of the first half of Exodus, which gives us the familiar story of Moses and the flight of the Israelites from Egypt, the Torah changes pace and tone. The next three-and-a-half books, which constitute the balance of the story of Moses and his followers, alternate between narrative episodes and long, detailed expositions of the Law.

I’ve been wrestling for the past month or so with how I want to discuss the Law with my Bible study class. I read A.J. Jacob’s funny, surprisingly spiritual memoir, The Year of Living Biblically; I moved on to Karen Armstrong’s study of fundamentalism, The Battle for God; I dug into archaeological studies and literary analyses; I dipped a toe into Spinoza and Teresa of Avila; most of all, I pored over the legal passages of the Torah, taking notes and pondering the implications. And I’m not really any closer to a coherent approach than I was when I started thinking about it.

People have been interpreting the Law, arguing about it, trying to follow it, questioning it, going to war over it for more than 3,000 years; I’m unlikely to come up with anything new. I have learned a lot about biblical history and varying interpretations of the Law, but what I face my class with is a collection of topics rather than a single story.

That’s okay, I think. The Law as documented in the Torah is such a vast and varied set of affirmations and strictures, covering everything from ritual sacrifice to sexual behavior to skin disease to inheritance of property, that a coherent summary might be more problematic than my scattershot approach. Well, there’s self-justification for you.

Among the many, many things that it is, the Tanakh is the story of how the Jewish nation came to be. The Law is, of course, central to that, defining in extraordinary detail what it means to be a member of this community and what sets Jews apart from their neighbors and non-Jewish kin. Presented as it is, interwoven with the narrative of the Israelites wanderings in the desert, we can see the Law as the ”lines in the sand” that define the boundaries of Judaism in terms of behavior and belief.

It’s a brilliant construction. The Jews lay down their lines in the sand literally and literarily through the final 3-1/2 books of the Torah. As they make their errant way toward the promised land -- the property that God has promised to them -- they learn the regulations of propriety that will secure their physical and spiritual nationhood. Anyone who doubts the place of the Bible in the canon of great literature need only ponder the sophistication with which this story is presented – the way the narrative strain etches physical lines across the Levant landscape while the legalistic strain etches moral boundaries – to understand the high level of artistry in this text.

Funny thing about that expression, “line in the sand.” We generally use it to designate an absolute boundary, a limit beyond which we will not go. But, in reality, is there anything more impermanent than a line traced in the sand? Winds, water, the shuffling of subsequent feet, all act to muddle the line that has been demarcated; the line may shift, widen or disappear under even minor external pressure.

That, of course, makes it a perfect metaphor for the Law. There is arguably nothing that has caused more strife, internal and interpersonal, than the question of where the boundaries of the law reside. Which laws do we need to observe today? Which are timeless, and which are time-bound? Should they be interpreted literally or do they contain a deeper meaning that can only be understood through probing, questioning exploration?

Although the first ten commandments have been privileged in western culture, the Torah’s list of rule by no means stops with them. The traditional number of commandments, or Mitzvot, recognized in Judaism is 613 (for a concise list of them, see A.J. Jacobs, who took a more expansive approach to the Law in The Year of Living Biblically – looking beyond the Torah to the rest of the Tanakh and even the New Testament – came up with more than 700 that he attempted to follow for a year.

Among the things I learned from Jacobs was the term “cafeteria Christianity”, a derisive label used by some fundamentalist Christians to describe those whom they see as selective about which of the biblical laws they attempt to adhere to. At the end of his book, having spent time with fundamentalists and more liberal believers, both Christian and Jewish, Jacobs makes the – I think accurate – observation that, “everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. Otherwise they’d kick women out of church for saying hello.”

Although Jacobs’ efforts to follow biblical law are a stunt designed to generate a best-selling memoir in the vein of his earlier book that focused on an attempt to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, Jacobs found himself surprised by the spirituality that emerged as he became more conscious of his behavior and its consequences. Even the most puzzling of laws – an early one he deals with is the stricture against wearing clothes made of more than one kind of fiber – forced him to confront himself, his preconceptions, his wilfullness, his snarkiness. At the end of the year, he found himself a more thoughtful, tolerant person, and bit reluctant to loosen up his behavior.

He says this about picking and choosing amongst the biblical laws: “Cafeterias aren’t bad per se. I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias. I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours. The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.”

I think everything Jacobs says here is right. We all cherry-pick the Bible, whether in reading the Law or the stories, focusing on the things that support our own beliefs and conceptions. The Bible has often been used as a weapon, a blunt object with which to beat on opponents, and no part of the Bible is more easily weaponized than the Law. I am guilty of it; so, most likely, are you.

As much as I love exploring this amazing text, I know that I am much more likely to focus on something like the Sermon on the Plain or the Antitheses or the story of Ruth, which I find support my political and moral views, than I am on the apocalyptic Olivet discourse. I may find it troubling that others focus on the prohibition of homosexual behavior but don’t call for the public stoning of those who choose to wear cotton-polyester blends, but in essence we are doing the same thing. I like to think that I’m cherry-picking those things that stress inclusion and love, as opposed to exclusion and hate, but so be it.

In terms of the Law as defined in the Torah, I smile each time I read about leaving the grain at the edges of the field for the poor, or welcoming and comforting strangers; I want to rush past the passages that place restrictions on the diseased and the maimed. I may find it troubling that others focus on the prohibition of homosexual behavior but don’t call for the public stoning of those who choose to wear cotton-polyester blends, but in essence we are doing the same thing. I like to think that I’m cherry-picking those things that stress inclusion and love, as opposed to exclusion and hate, but so be it.

But it’s important to understand, I think, that even some of the Laws that seem harsh to us today may have advanced compassion and humane behavior in their time. Exodus 21:23, for example, gives us the famous formulation, “And if there is a mishap, you shall pay a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” Tit for tat. But, of course, what this law does is put limits on retribution – taking an eye for an eye also means that one cannot take a life for an eye, or an entire city worth of lives in retribution for one life. If one compares this law to the vengeance that Simeon and Levi took on an entire city over the rape of their sister Dinah, on e can see it as perhaps a necessary setting of bounds (of course, this interpretation doesn’t do much to explain the various slaughters that take place with God’s apparent asset later in the Bible, but that goes back to that shifting sands thing).

The laws of the Torah include things that almost everyone can agree on – “Thou shalt not kill” seems like one of these, although, again, God seems not to mind taking some liberties with that when it’s convenient – and some that make almost no sense to us today, such as the many regulations around animal sacrifice, or the fact that it’s forbidden for a farmer to plant two kinds of seed in one field. But whether they adhere to our contemporary common sense or not, all of the laws serve to set boundaries, to define what is allowed and what is not, what is good and what is not.

The British scholar and author Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, suggests that the Bible’s documentation of the law – which historically almost certainly did not happen in the time of Moses but during the decline of the southern kingdom or even during the Babylonian captivity – was a “response to the dislocation of exile … the text of the Law had become a new ‘shrine’ in which the displaced people cultivated a sense of the Divine Presence. The codification of the world into clean and unclean, sacred and profane objects, had been an imaginative reordering of a shattered world.”

I know that many, many people believe that biblical law was handed down from God to Moses, just as described in Exodus. My own belief is that biblical law is a searching, heartfelt attempt by humans to define what God would want them to do, to set down an ideal of human behavior as well as to describe a set of rituals that might help them move closer to that ideal. Although at their best and most inspired, the laws are timeless and transcendent, they are often not at their best and most inspired. Many are time- and culture-bound.

I often say that one needs to read the Bible at multiple levels: Historical, Cultural, Ethical, Spiritual. Reading at any one level distorts the meaning. This is nowhere more true than in the documentation of the Law.

The lines in the sand that these early Jews set down have been blown around, distorted, trod upon, hidden, exposed and reformed for 3,000-plus years. The history of Judaism, that most intellectually challenging of faiths, is one of probing, digging, teasing, challenging, questioning the law in order to expose deeper and more eternal truths. The Bible is not a closed book designed to be thumped on and used as a weapon; it is an open-ended text, inexhaustibly rich in meaning, but dense and defying of an easy understanding. It’s worth the challenge of wrestling with it.