Sunday, February 20, 2005

verbatim et litteratim

While reviewing this (or, more accurately, last) week's parsha, I came across a commentary by Rabbi Shimon Felix called "The multiplicity of meanings." In it, Felix cite's the Ramban's preface to Genesis in which he states
the Torah is written with no punctuation, no sentences, just letters in a row, and therefore could, in theory, be divided up into words and sentences in a way other than the way we traditionally divide it up. The Torah would then be read in a way that is substantially different from the way in which it is traditionally read, communicating other meanings, other messages, other truths.
The order of the Jewish Bible (TANAKH) is different from the Christian OT (TAKHAN). As such even if the original text were a literal representation of G-d's word, it's easy to understand why there could be different interpretation to actual intent. To further exacerbate the situation, there have been changes made to the text through copying and translation (some intentional to change meaning and some creative to make the book more "poetic"). One's belief in the inerrancy of the bible is dependent on a personal understanding of what's being referred to as complete and error free.

The context matters. If you know I uttered the words "the sky is blue" but you don't know the full context, you can make some assumptions about the meaning and why I made the statement, but you don't know if I'm really trying to show an example of the color blue to someone, commenting about whether it looks like it's going to rain, saying what a lovely day it is, or if I was singing along to a song and there was no actual meaning behind my use of the words.

There are different bibles, different interpretations, additional religious texts to accompany scripture (and different interpretations of those), different religions/denominations, lack of religions, spirituality outside the constraints of organized religion, monotheism, polytheism, atheism, animism, etc. We all think our own understanding is the correct one (well, maybe not all of us, but a good many do) and, in a country with no "State Religion" how do we legislate based on scripture we don't all subscribe to? Those who think this is a Christian country, which would allow us to legislate on some non-denominational Christian scripture, ignore the fact there are vast differences of understanding of what is right and what should be legislated not only between denominations but often within them.

So, whose god is right? Between the monotheistic religions, there isn't a "which" G-d; there are different interpretations of scripture and it's intent, differening ideas of whose concept is right, but that 1 god is the same regardless of our different understanding of him. There are atheistic religions and polytheistic religions as well, but again, the "which" god or gods really doesn't matter because it's our (human) understanding of that we ascribe to a god or different gods. Does everyone who has ever encountered you describe you exactly the same way? Unless you're Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life. . .

God has three sorts of servants in the world: Some are slaves and serve God from fear; others are hirelings and serve for wages; and the last are children, who serve because they love. (F. G. Marchant, The Preacher's Homiletic Commentary, Joshua)

Those who following blindly or out of fear are missing out on so much that the world G-d gave us offers as they are threatened by anything requiring thought. Those who co-opt religion for their own political purposes and financial gain have obvious and ulterior motives.

Those who choose to believe after considerable thought and are comfortable with ourselves and our faith have no fear of challenge to our own beliefs. We feel no need to impose our religion on others and do not rail at those who reject our beliefs. As such we have no difficulty with tolerating and extending respect to others. Respecting the lives and beliefs of others does not mean we personally agree with them or even condone all their actions, it just means we realize that we have no right injecting our personal beliefs into the lives of others. People like us from all faiths & denominations (including rational Evangelicals) need to band together with each other and non-believers alike to forge a bond of mutual respect, develop consensus on issues to reach common goals, and to ensure the United States remains a country in which those in the minority are not subjected to the tyranny of the not-too-moral majority.


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Faithful Progressive said...

What an interesting post. I think your comments stand for the idea that we have to continue to use reason and history as a measure of where our faith takes us, and what its implications are for us and the world. The many Bibles question is one that always used to baffle me-how could any be inerrant when they were all translations to begin with?

On the question of how we believe--in a moment of doubt I once asked my wife so all this God stuff--do you really believe it? "I willfully choose to believe," was her answer...Like all really serious thing it is a matter of choice.


Ol Cranky said...

Mine was a conscious decision as well, as was being Jewish (I was not only born that way but it turned out to be the religion that resonated with me and I actively rejected major tenents of other religions with similar ideas to Judaism).

I really don't understand blind faith at all. Any time I'm told to trust without thought or question, red flags go up. I have to question, analyze and challenge, it's my nature (I could never be in the military b/c if my commander told me to jump, I'd start asking questions like "how high?", "where should I land?").

It strikes me as odd that those who don't want their beliefs challenged and have strong reactions to questions/statements of disagreement tend to go on the offensive against those questions. This makes me wonder how strong their faith really is that they are so easily threatened by those who don't agree or those living lives they don't condone. I tend to challenge my own views by researching those of others and asking questions (I also ask because I'm inappropriately curious as well), things that resonate with me are frequently incorporated, things that don't are tucked away for informational purposes.

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crazyquilt said...

I don't get blind faith, either. In fact, that was what initially led me away from Judaism, because it was presented to me in a static, unchanging, essentially unquestionable fashion. It was many years, and much spiritual journeying, later that I looked again at the religion of my ancestors, and while I don't feel comfortable saying, "I am a Jew," because many of my beliefs are rather heterodox, to say the least, I realized that I'd been very mistaken in my youthful assumptions about Judaism. That almost physical need to question (especially "why") was a cornerstone of my ancestral tradition.

I think that you have a very solid point about the relationship between faith that arises from active grappling with the hard questions, and faith that is simply assumed. Often, it seems to me that those who claim -- loudly -- to be rock-solid in their faith sound an awful lot like a little kid sticking their fingers in their ears and crying, "La, la, la, la! I am not listening to you!"

For myself, I like the Buddhist saying that effective practice comes from great faith, great doubt, and great effort.

Ol Cranky said...

Ironically, what makes me most comfortable with Judaism is a discussion I had with the Rebbe from my childhood congregation (an Orthodox Rabbi in a Conservative Shul). The most telling pearl of wisdom he provided was: "Judaism is a living religion." He also made a big deal about how we are expected to challenge our beliefs and that G-d's none too big on blind faith - he doesn't want you to do things because he said so, you should do something because you have thought through the situation and do what you think is inherently the right thing to do. What was right 5 years ago with some information, may not be right now if you have additional information that would change the decision; Judaism doesn't exist in a vaccuum and we shouldn't pretend that it does. [Kind of funny coming from a guy whose family was tight with Schneerson].