How to Attack My Religion (and How Not To)

This post is being cross-posted at The Philosopher’s Stone, a fascinating blog which has gone from hosting Robert Paul Wolff’s full autobiography (!) to hosting an interesting discussion on the future of the left.

King James Bible

Jews are sometimes called "People of the Book"; fine, but it's not this book.

In a recent post on religion, Professor Wolff argues, “the religious beliefs of serious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are vile, absurd, and totally incompatible with even the least evolved secular moral sensibility.” Nor should religious people reinterpret ugly texts using tortured hermeneutics: “If… [Leviticus] is the Word of Almighty God, then it is for us to obey it, not to interpret it until it conforms to our modern sensibilities… It is the book burners, the woman stoners, the homosexual killers, who are truly religious. Theirs is the real face of religious faith.”

I do not speak for “serious” Christians or Muslims; frankly, I don’t even speak for many Jews. I do think Wolff is wrong about my Judaism, so I will defend forceful, non-literal biblical interpretation. But I have a problem: whether literalism is right or wrong, it’s certainly faster than the alternative. Citing a verse takes a moment; subjecting that verse to rigorous theological, historical, textual, and literary interpretation takes years. As a full-time student, I do not have that time. For that reason, and because I’m less interested in religious polemics than in neat textual quirks, I’ll argue indirectly, giving a tiny example of how the Jewish religious tradition can work. At the end I’ll explain the implications of my exegesis; if you’re unsatisfied, leave a comment (on my blog) and I’ll defend myself more explicitly.

Let’s start, somewhat arbitrarily, with what 4 Maccabees thinks of Joseph. The text, which probably dates from between 100 BCE and 100 CE, is a panegyric on martyrdom and reason’s control of the passions. Framed by Antiochus Epiphanies’ persecutions of the Jews in the second century BCE — which are recorded with debatable historicity in 1 Maccabees – 4 Maccabees interprets a variety of biblical texts to its ends. Here’s what it says about Joseph:

It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime, by his reason he nullified the frenzy of his passions. Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of sexual desire, but also over every desire (4 Maccabees 2:1-4, cited in James Kugel, In Potiphar’s House, 21.

In the biblical story (Genesis 39), Potiphar’s wife unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Joseph and then frames him for attempted rape. How does 4 Maccabees approach this text?

First, it uses Joseph as an early example of a tradition of Jewish resistance to outside gentile temptation; the book is framed as a discussion between Antiochus and several Jews, whom he is trying to sway to eat non-kosher food, thus deserting their religion (as Potiphar’s wife – in this telling – encourages Joseph to do). But just like Joseph, these later Jews resist: “Why do you delay, O tyrant? For we are ready to die rather than transgress our ancestral commandments.” 4 Maccabees turns a number of biblical figures into precursors for its own ideology of martyrdom, self-restraint, and strict adherence to tradition. This typology isn’t present in the biblical text: rather, it’s a narrative the exegete uses to make sense of the text in terms of his own life and world.

4 Maccabees radically opposes Hellenization, following the original Hasmoneans – i.e. the Maccabees – who, if we wanted our own inexact, secularist typology, would be the precursors to the Taliban, imposing religious law and smashing idols. On the other hand, the paradigm with which the book approaches Hellenization, in which the rational intellect opposes base material passions, is cribbed more or less directly from Stoicism – that is, from Greek philosophy. Stoicism, a sophisticated ancient philosophy, contained a system of metaphysics, logic and ethics. In its popular form, it preached the rule of reason of the passions and taught that a right-thinking person could be as happy being tortured on the rack as sitting at a feast. These ideas permeate the exegesis of Joseph from this period, as another bit of Jewish exegesis reveals:

Not even in my mind did I yield to her [Potiphar’s wife], for God loves more the one who is faithful in self-control in a dark cistern than the one who in royal chambers feasts on delicacies with excess… For when I had been with her in her house she would bare her arms and thighs that I might lie with her. For she was wholly beautiful and splendidly decked out to entice me, but the Lord protected me from her manipulations (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Kugel 24).

The idea that the religious life to aspire to takes place in a dungeon does not come from the Hebrew Bible. Think of the famous Psalm 23: religious trouble for the Psalmist is represented physically as “the valley of the shadow of death,” the life with God, thus: “You prepare a table before me / in the presence of my enemies. / You anoint my head with oil; / my cup overflows.” That theology is all throughout the psalms: spiritual trouble is physical trouble, religious fulfillment, material happiness. The idea relates closely to the basic bargain of Deut. 11:13-21: obedience to God results in material prosperity, disobedience in famine. Sin is death, virtue life. Later, Jewish exegetes were exposed to – and convinced by – Stoic and other Hellenic ideas about the uncontrollable, intemperate nature of physical desire and its proper subordination to reason.

In the Pentateuch, deserting god is a physical act: one strays from god and goes away from the centralized temple cult, to the “high places” of other gods. One couldn’t be “in the house” of Hellenism, clinging to an inner consciousness of God: God is associated with particular geographical parts of the physical world. The whole 4 Maccabees paradigm depends on a dualistic attitude that just isn’t in the Hebrew Bible. Later Jewish exegetes interpret Joseph the way they do, as a resistor of Hellenism, only in light of Hellenistic ideas. Neat irony, yes?

Well, it gets better (I think). I’ve drawn these selections from In Potiphar’s House, one of James Kugel’s excellent books on early biblical exegesis (midrash). If you’re suspicious of my picture of a Stoic Joseph, look at the first chapter of Kugel’s book in conjunction with some sources on Stoicism: there’s a lot more where these sources came from. But interestingly, Kugel never mentions Stoicism. He’s interested in midrashic form – what exegetical rules midrashim follow and how they works as logical structures, not what themes they engage. Only once does he seriously engage thematic questions, in an unscholarly moment in his introduction:

… [T]he book’s title, In Potiphar’s House… obviously comes from the group of essays concerning the story of Joseph which make up the first part of the volume. But there is another sense in which it might indeed apply to the material as a whole. For ancient Jewish biblical exegesis, however much it may have drawn on tendencies and actual material developed earlier in the biblical period, first appears in distinct literary form during the Hellenistic period. Hellenistic culture… was an extraordinary human achievement… [which] presented strong temptations to the Jews during their centuries-long encounter with it… And so, in considering the Jewish biblical exegesis of this period – midrash at an early stage – one cannot but think of its bearers’ position within the surrounding cultural environment as similar to that of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Like Joseph, they were deeply impressed, and no doubt influenced, by their contact with that house’s inhabitants… And yet: if Joseph was changed and, in the story, likewise tempted in Potiphar’s house, he nevertheless remained, in another sense, profoundly true to his origins. So one might say of rabbinic exegesis that, while many of its concerns and formulations were undoubtedly influenced by Hellenism, it is nonetheless also an expression of the survival and continuity of elements that go back to biblical times, elements that are often prominent in the very biblical texts which are the subject of so much rabbinic contemplation and creativity. In this sense, then, these essays are all concerned with tracing the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Indeed it is my hope that, through them, an old rabbinic topos discussed below will likewise acquire a certain metaphorical dimension, suggesting how, amid the vicissitudes of the late- and postbiblical period and in full-face contemplation of an understanding of the world so different from their own, Jacob’s children nevertheless managed to keep the image of their father’s face ever before them.

4 Maccabees used Joseph as an example of how a Jew ought to resist Hellenism; Kugel uses Joseph as an example of how midrash resists the temptations of Hellenism. But in doing so, he uses a paradigm for temptation that’s drawn from Stoicism — the Hellenic culture itself. Of course, the paradigm of Joseph’s faith probably seems quite natural to Kugel: the myth of the faithful Jew in the midst of wondrous, secular intellectualism could easily seem appealing to the “Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University” (from the book’s dust jacket).

How does all of this refute Wolff? Well, I contend that Jews have often, and significantly, read their bible in the manner of 4 Maccabees and Kugel, using ideas from outside, not totally conscious of the lines between what’s in the text and what’s outside of it. Perhaps they would not accept the distinction, but even when they do imagine a dialectic between tradition and the new, the terms of that dialectic are themselves part of that dialectic. This happens not just when the texts are read as philosophy or stories, but also on a legal level. Authoritative, normative halakha – even, perhaps especially, that of the most Orthodox – depends heavily upon “tortured,” not-straightforward readings of texts. A metaphorical reminder to keep God’s word with you all the time yields the obligation to bind leather amulets on your head and arms; the commandment to live by God’s laws becomes permission to break them in the case in which they threaten death; the law of the rebellious son is simply read out of existence … the examples are endless. This complex, historically determined, agenda-laden reading is not a modern invention; it’s my tradition.

Talking to American Protestants – who are often suspicious of traditional interpretation and privilege “plain, common-sense meanings,” I often hear the question, “do Jews read the Bible directly, without any assumptions?” I take that to be Wolff’s challenge (he is a Protestant atheist), and I don’t understand it. What does it mean to read a text directly? A text which is 2000 years old, in a foreign language, from a culture long-lost, one which is unconsciously built into my language, one which has been endlessly translated, reworked in art, commented upon, ad nauseum – how could one have the chutzpah to imagine a “direct” reading of such a text. And why should one want such a reading?

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12 Responses to How to Attack My Religion (and How Not To)

  1. Yair says:

    Exactly right. Any serious scholar of Judaism (i.e. with any prolonged exposure to the Talmud and the ensuing legal literature through the centuries) knows that Jewish biblical interpretation is non-literal in the strongest sense, and heavily influenced by outside intellectual currents. This tradition tracks through codes, conflicting midrashim, rabbinic tactics in medieval disputations and right into modern responsa literature. Any Jewish studies professor will tell you this (and I’ve thankfully had the opportunity to learn from many of them).

    There is incredible irony and hubris in the common tendency of new Atheists (and some older ones) to set themselves up as arbitrators of true religion – the self-proclaimed religious rejectionists setting the standards of proper religious piety. I too can refute almost any position if I define it in advance divorced from its understanding by its own adherents and any attending history that is inconvenient to my argument. But this is not intellectual discussion, it is intellectual inanity.

    Now, it’s quite possible to avoid this pitfall when voicing opposition to religion. I have a tremendous appreciation for the atheism of Philip Pullman precisely because he is aware of how much he does not know, and limits his (highly enthusiastic) criticism to the slice of religion within which he was raised. In his typically elegant words: “I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I’m an atheist, I’m certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist.”

    Would that more atheists expressed similar humility. What a wonder it would do for our public discourse on the subject of religion.

    • Yair says:

      Oh, and I should have mentioned: one of the best books on the reciprocal interpretive dynamic between simple texts and their intellectual (and historical) context is “People of the Book” by Moshe Halbertal. If you haven’t read it, I suspect you’d really enjoy it.

    • Thanks for reading; I appreciate your kind words. The Pullman interview is quite wonderful–I didn’t love the later two books, but it’s fascinating to hear what he thinks. Especially nice were his thoughts on Narnia and Tolkien, which I found quite enlightening.

  2. dsk says:

    Raffi, Loved the last paragraph!

  3. Terry says:

    Mr. Magarik:

    Interesting article, but you are picking and choosing, aren’t you? 4 Maccabees is open to a wide range of interpretation, but there’s lots of troublesome stuff that really isn’t — Leviticus’s injunctions come to mind.

    • Thanks for commenting. I think your comment is a little unspecific; do you mean to object to my use of an un-canonical text, a moral (as opposed to legal) text, or an an unambiguous text? In any case, it’s not clear to me why Leviticus’s injunctions are not open to a wide range of interpretations. You could see my earlier post homosexuality (though that was a Talmudic example) if you’re interested.

      The condition of being human and relating to the divine is a condition of picking and choosing; how could it be otherwise? Our understanding of God’s will is imperfect; we will always have to wager everything against the possibility that we have chosen wrong. That’s the difficulty and the glory of being human…

  4. Terry says:

    Dear Mr. Magarik:

    I’m sorry if I was being unspecific. I should also add that I am not Jewish nor a Talmudic scholar, so if I am missing some crucial idea, please relieve me of my ignorance!

    The earlier post on Halakha and homosexuality was very interesting. But, doesn’t it prove my point? Whether or not ancient Hebrew has a word that corresponds to “homosexual sex,” it seems clear that the author of Leviticus thinks male-on-male sodomy is bad. If you think there is nothing wrong with it (as I do), you are forced to conclude that Leviticus is wrong on at least one issue. If Leviticus can be wrong, then God probably did not have a hand in making it.

    Sorry if my “picking and choosing” comment was vague. Of course, you are right that life involves picking and choosing. What I meant to say is that you have chosen an ambiguous and allegorical story to corroborate your claim. But, you are being too easy on yourself. Modern people don’t object to the mysterious allegories, which could, as you point out, mean any number of things. They do object to the Torah’s apparent embrace of slavery and stoning and (much less seriously) arbitrary dietary restrictions, which are stated about as clearly as possible.

    • Finally, to respond to another argument here:
      1) There are prohibitions in L that are morally wrong
      2) God would not command us to do something morally wrong
      3) Thus, God did not “have a hand in writing” Leviticus.

      Now, I’ve attacked 1)–but suppose it were right. Still, 3 does not follow from 1 and 2. 3a might, being *God did not unambiguously reveal the discrete words and letters of Leviticus to Israel,” but there are many ways in which God might be a part of the revelatory even without being the only participant therein. Now, (roughly speaking) I agree with 3a, but I don’t agree with 3. I say roughly speaking, because at times I am tempted to fold the difference between them into my theory of hermeneutics, which is one that’s skeptical of unambiguous statement in general, but for the purposes of this argument, we can set aside whether 3 is even a coherent hermeneutic possibility, and just treat it theologically. Then a lot depends of your view of God — if you think of God as personal, transcendent, omnipotent and omniscient, you’re likely to have to depend on 3, but there are many, many theological positions, which I take to be valid alternatives open to Jews, that don’t involve such a conception of God.

  5. Terry–

    Thanks for specifying. I’d like to start by saying everything here is a little provisional, because I haven’t studied those 2 verses in depth. But here are some things you may not have thought about:

    1) There’s a good possibility the prohibition only applies in cases of idolatry–note a) the situation of the prohibition near verses about Moloch worship and b) the discussion in Judges (I think) of the qadesh, the male ritual prostitute, and the bans on that (thus indicating male homosexual sex was part of other idolatrous cults).

    2) Sodomy is a broad and ambiguous term. “Conceptions of a woman” (mishkevei isha) is also an ambiguous term–it’s not clear they line up. For instance, does this include intercrurral sex–the rabbis of the Talmud clearly thought not, and I don’t see why we need be more inclusive than they were.

    3) Further, note that the whole line is a simile–you may not lie with a man as you lie with a woman. Similes, not being literal, can certainly not be said to be unambiguous. This led at least one Rabbi in the Talmud (I’m forgetting the reference) to conclude that these verse referred to sex between a man and an androgynos (I don’t know what the best English word for this is, so I’ll leave it alone), a person with both male and female sexual organs, who counts as a man halakhically, but has “mishkevei isha” because he (talmud’s pronoun, not mine) has a vagina. That may seem silly to you, but it’s a part of my religious tradition, and I consider it valid interpretation of the Bible.

    4. There is indeed a very nice homiletical interpretation of the verses, propounded (I think) by Zalman Shacter Shalomi, in which he points out that gay men often struggle to embrace a new identity, and may continue to fully realize their difference. Thus, the verse may simply mean, “don’t sleep with a man and pretend that you’re sleeping with a woman, or fool yourself into thinking that you’re actually heterosexual and this is just a lapse, or continue the perpetrate the dominant code of gender relations even in your non-heteronormative relationships.” I find this a beautiful reading.

    There are indeed, a 5, 6, 7, and on… and indeed, I could (and do) do this with you other examples. The reasons I didn’t in the blog posts were a) I find it to be a dull polemical discussion when had with people outside the faith community, and I found my little story to be much neater but more importantly b) it is an enormous process. It involves scrutinizing each layer of a 3000-year old tradition in turn on its own, placing each one in dialogue with each other and our own moral intuitions, and generating hosts of interpretations on the road to the best one.

    It’s important to stress that Jews do not see the Bible as binding — except through the mediation of an interpretive oral tradition! We just don’t look at the bible “head-on”; we look at it through the ways it has been historically interpreted (often in what outsiders see as far-fetched way), and we reinterpret it ourselves.

    I hope I’ve answered your doubt… also, please note that the way contemporary Jews observe kashrut has pretty much nothing to do with the bible verses in question (your arbitrary dietary restrictions… I’m not sure I agree they’re arbitrary, but that’s another question), so that’d be an example against you.

  6. Terry says:

    Dear Mr. Magarik:

    Thank you for your fascinating and thoughtful response.

    The interpretations you mentioned are very interesting. But consider the following thought-experiment: Imagine a friend were to write an interpretation of Jewish Holy Texts in which she argue that they actually repudiate several central Jewish beliefs (that God exists, that He is good, that keeping kosher is important, etc.). In doing so, she engages with the Talmud, the Mishnah, the modern responsa literature, etc. Do you believe she would still count as a Jew (theologically speaking)? On one hand, she is immersing her self in the tradition. On the other hand, it does seem like that are some limits to how creative you get with the tradition.

    Keep up the good work. Good luck in your studies!

    • I think the person might very well be Jewish. Now, in the first place, I don’t get into the game of deciding who’s Jewish and who’s not; if someone considers herself Jewish, at least as far as identity goes (whether I count them in my prayer quorum is another, more difficult question), then more power to her.

      But there is one consideration your thought experiment is missing: the Jewish community today. That is, regardless of what doctrinal beliefs a person holds, if she is so far outside the Jewish communit(ies) that exist(s), then functionally, she is not a Jew in the sense of not being part of a Jewish community.

      And as, for me at least, Judaism is all about a community’s relationship with texts, that means her Judaism is not a very big deal (of course, she is free to repudiate this too, but that’s just as it is).

      So I think there are pragmatic limits on doctrine, which are communal… but even those are very soft–there are many practicing Orthodox Jews who theologically don’t believe the things you have our friend denying, and they still (seem to be or behave like) real Jews…

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