Saturday, January 19, 2013

What's So Special About the "Old Testament?" Who Believes G-d Dictated It?

Nadene Goldfoot
This is my G-d, and I will praise him;  The G-d of my father, and I will exalt him.  EXODUS 15:2, The Song of Moses

Actually we weren't Jews till about 933 BCE when  Israel was divided by the Israelites themselves into Israel and Judah.  The southern tribe of Judah was the largest of the 12 tribes and wanted to maintain Davidic royal lineage for their government.  King Solomon, King David's son,  had just died.  Rehoboam was next in line to be king.  In the division of tribes, most of Benjamin and the tribe of Simeon were  a part of Judah.  They  preserved the Mosaic monotheism in a purer form than did Israel.  Jeroboam became King over the larger Israel, or Samaria as it was often called  and remained so until 912 BCE.  Israel existed for 210 years with 19 kings from 9 dynasties.  Both followed the law of Moses, but Israel suffered from a low level of religious life compared to Judah, where Jerusalem and the Temple lie.  The prophets Elijah and Elisha worked hard to check idolatry and social injustice.

Israelites and other slaves were rescued after 400 years of slavery by the Egyptian, Moses,  who turned out to have been an Israelite baby that was saved from the death decree of all Israelite babies previously.  This lucky baby had been saved by the Pharaoh's daughter, a Princess.  He learned to read, write, mathematics and philosophy as well as the religion of the day in Egypt.  Egypt believed in all sorts of gods, and one Pharaoh even had the audacity to believe that there was only one god-the Sun.  His idea wasn't popular for very long.

Moses in the 2nd millennium felt the call of G-d at the age of 80 saying to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  He reluctantly returned.  How do we know G-d actually spoke to him?  Is this just a tale for children with the burning bush and the canes that turned into snakes?  Is there any way to prove that a one and only G-d was communicating with a man?  Who even believes there's a G-d, anyway?

Here is the universe, a place of orderly wonders where planets follow paths and in which there are black holes which seems to imply a Maker.  It has human life, full of sadness and disaster and DNA, ever so complicated a structure to which scientists are now awed about,  themselves.   Ever since the Stone Age, man has believed in some sort of  higher god.  Egypt in Moses's day was the greatest civilization of the day with students of the arts and sciences, and they were the best in war.  Artists were supreme in architecture and sculpture.  They believed in worshipping idols with obscene rites.  They believed in their childish myths, and their gods were weird half-human, half-bestial monsters.  The people had an obsession with death and magic ruled the land like science does in America.

So we all have the same situation of possibly being genetically implanted  to be awed by our universe so full of bright stars in a black sky, of having wonder within us, and a fear of death.  In fact, geneticists believe they have found the G-d gene, meaning that there's some basic instinct we have that causes us to want to believe in a G-d or G-ds.    There has never been any decisive proof either way about G-d's existence.  It's just that some of us have developed a faith in believing it is so.

Our views about G-d in Judaism differ completely from the G-d concept in Christianity, though there are some parallels.  But first, I find it so interesting that Nazis spent millions to portray Jews to the world as subhumans and attempted to destroy our people, every man, woman and child, and now the Muslims are doing the same thing.    What bothered them so much about a people who did believe in G-d, and that it was a one G-d only?  Muslims are monotheistic, but they were on the side of the Nazis in WWII and say now they intend to complete what Hitler started.

Eliezer Berkovits, Chairman of the department of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew Theological College, which is Orthodox in Skokie, Illinois, stated this:  "I believe that G-d did indeed speak to Moses, as the bible says."  He goes on to say that he couldn't describe the event.  It says that G-d "spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaketh to his friend."  This is one of the cases where the Talmudic dictum applies:  dibbra Torah bil'shon b'nei Adam, or, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings, even when describing events that cannot be described in human language.  In other words, it's hard to describe how these thoughts got into Moses's head to be written down, though it happened.  In those days, Moses, with his limited knowledge, did his best.  What happened was a revelation, which happens to be a fundamental principle of Judaism.

A person can say that he believes in "verbal inspiration," with the result coming from the origin in G-d.  This doesn't make  Orthodox Jews fundamentalists. They believe every word of the Torah and that every commandment has its source in G-d, but the meaning of the revealed word or commandment is given in the oral tradition, the Torah she-be'al peh alone, or is elucidated by its method.  The oral tradition is protection against fundamentalism.  In this oral tradition, it happens to call for an explanation of why some words were important to be included and why we should be informed about it.  Man needs lessons and explanations.  We just can't accept all words without this because we are man and not G-d.  Yet we believe we are all sons of G-d.  We were made in his image. but we don't know what he looks like nor do we draw pictures of G-d.  

Bernard J. Bamberger is a Rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform synagogue in NY City.  He said that Reform Jews do not, and need not agree on all matters of theology.  He appreciates the scientific method but feels that it does not help us in dealing with problems of life's ultimate meaning, aims, and values since these factors are eliminated in advance in the scientific method.  He sees that values and purposes are important things in human life.  We all start with the self.  He holds on to a faith-which he cannot prove, but which doesn't seem to be unreasonable, that there is a cosmic root out of which man's values grow.  Man's strivings, above all, his ethical strivings, are not irrelevant to the universe.  He does believe in G-d as a living power.

Dr. Francis Collins, author of"The Language of God"  is head of the Human Genome Project and is one of the world's leading scientists who is at the cutting edge of the study of DNA, the code of life.  He also is a man of unshakable faith in God and scripture.  He believes these can coexist within a person and be harmonious.  He went from being an atheist to a man of faith and can show that physics, chemistry, and biology can all fit together with belief in God and the Bible.  So if one wonders about why we are here, how we got here and what does life mean, his book holds some answers.

There have been other claims by other religions such as the Christians, Latter Day Saints and Islam to have received the word of G-d and they follow that path.  Are they right and only Judaism is wrong?  As I cannot prove that it was G-d dictating to  Moses what to write, I find the other religions are in the same fix that I am.  There is no scientific way to prove such a thing.  What I do is look at what has been dictated.  Moses was special and evidently most intelligent, and what he wrote was above the common man of that period.  It was profound; simple to our ears today but profound 3,000+ years ago to man.  Truly, he had help in his inspiration.

 He must have looked back after writing and said to himself, "I wrote THAT?  How did that come to me?  Wow! But he knew.  He heard.   He continued writing for 40 years until he brought these Israelites to Canaan and turned over the rest of the trek to Joshua.  We don't know where Moses is buried, as he certainly didn't want people to worship him.  The Torah says that he died at age 120, which seems to be quite a stretch of the imagination until you hear of today's black slaves who have died way past the age of 100.  I think that last old person to have died and was documented was 115.  Traditionally, the entire Pentateuch (Torah) was written by Moses.  The Midrash (explanation of Torah and late Aggadah (legends and ethics) tell many legends about him, and different writings were pseudepigraphically ascribed to him.

Little did Moses know that after 200 CE Jews would write two Talmuds; the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud where records of academic discussion and of judicial administration of Jewish Law would be kept.  These were written by generations of scholars and jurists in many academies and in more than one country over several centuries.  Each one consists of the Mishnah together with the Gemara which is both a commentary on and a supplement to the Mishnah.   The Mishnah is the legal codification containing the core of the Oral Law.  All these things are the subjects of study in a Yeshiva.

Jews, as those living in Judah came to be called, had their trials and tribulations in keeping to the rules set by Moses.  He not only wrote 2 sets of the 10 Commandments but managed to write out 613 more for them to follow.  Jews hold that Moses finished writing 5 books, and they are called the Torah, or the 5 books of Moses.  The order may be different than a Christian Old Testament.  In the Torah comes, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  That's it.  However, others wrote what makes up the  Tanach (Old Testament) which would be all the Prophets and writings such as Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Songs of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

The Israelites had been the first monotheists in a pagan idol-worshipping world ever since Abraham had his revelation that his father's idols which he manufactured were not worthy of being called gods, and that there really was only one power or G-d.  He moved his large family out of the city of Ur just to get them all into an environment where he could continue to teach them about this.  The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were written during the Babylonian exile show that the Jews were losing it. They were even more ignorant and closer to extinction than Jews of today outside of Israel.  Luckily, they had a revival of spirit and heart through study.  Their king had to read the Torah to the large audience.

Judaism is not a dead religion.  It just didn't stop growing and improving to fit the people of each age.  An amazing fact is that as a people, we are over 3,000 years old.  We had been a nation and are once again.  We're a people with a special culture and have our own language of Hebrew and had an international language of Yiddish.  .Ladino is used by the Anusim, the Spanish and Portugese Jews.   Almost everyone on earth  have tried to wipe us out.  Yet we remain and flourish, grow and improve.  This is  how we differ from many other religions.

No, the Torah is not just a fairy tale book.  There's something very special and unique about what is written in it.  It has been revered by Jews for 3,000 years.  It's not something to callously be flippant about.  Jews have protected it with their lives.  It had the power to change the world as a light in the darkness.  We keep the faith, and Judaism keeps us.

1. Reference:  Herman Wouk, author;  This is My God
2. The Condition of Jewish Belief, a symposium compiled by the editors of Commentary Magazine; essays by 38 distinguished rabbis and theologians with their contemporary restatement of the basic concepts of Judaism and their relevance to the modern age.
3. The Language of God by Francis S. Collins, PhD-a Christian scientist presents evidence for belief
4. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia

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