My mother told me this story about my grandfather: During Israel’s war for independence, my grandfather found himself in the States. His soul was nevertheless joined with those of his Zionist counterparts, who were trapped in—what was then—a dismal little strip of shell-bombarded Levant, several thousand miles away. (It is still a relatively apt portrayal of things.)
Among the more subtle things my grandfather did at the time was to help his friends, who purchased munitions in Mexico, hide their contraband around Philadelphia. They were later shipped from Philadelphia to Haifa for collection and distribution by the Haganah. Mom said that Popop wanted to assist the neophyte Israelis by providing them with, in Popop’s words, “a means by which to defend themselves.” Judging by the family pictures, Isadore was a ridiculously suave looking smuggler.
I believe this story. I believe that it happened. Not only are the events in this story important, but so is the fact that they are historical. This story serves as a proud and personal demonstration of the Medrashic adage: ma’aseh avot siman lebanim; the notion that past generations foreshadow the circumstances of future generations. (It’s the Jewish brand of inductive logic.) I see myself in my grandfather’s place in advancing Zionism, if by other means. You likely have a meaningful, historical story of your own; a story that you did not observe, but it had an effect on your life nonetheless.
Though telling stories to inspire, or using stories as pedagogical tools, is not unique to Judaism, it is certainly a Jewish schtick. There are other distinctly Jewish stories I believe. For some time now, however, many Jews have been slowly eliminating the historic elements from those other distinctly Jewish stories. Consequently, they have been abrogating the value of their heritage. This is both a naïve and a bad thing to be doing.
Some of these stories, for instance, can be found in the Hebrew Bible and it’s accompanying Oral Law (collectively known as the Torah). Among the more conventional things the Torah tells me, I am told that there exists a God, that He created this phat and funky uni/multiverse and that He is worthy of my awe and even my love. While all of these stories inform the way I live, stories of this latter sort, however, do not sit well in the kishkas of many other Jews. It seems that the dominant reason why these stories fall short of informing their lives is because they cannot be so informed whilst keeping themselves in line with reason and with logic. That’s the story they tell me.
Were such people to say, “Let each independent and critically thinking woman go her own way in such matters, without prejudice,” I might reluctantly agree. But this is not how many of those folks tend to behave now, is it? Notable skeptics of religion often seek to contrast the “superstitious,” the “medieval” and the “foolhardy” with the “wise and learned,” the “civilized” and the “women of sense.” Frankly, these are very confused notable skeptics. This debilitating pretense has influenced much of the Jewish community.
It is a confusing and unfruitful effort to logically argue that some stories—like my grandfather’s—may be accepted as having happened, while other stories—like those related in the Bible—should be discarded as fiction. For this student of logic, it is a long and tiring story. There are logicians more prestigious than I who agree. Why, then, are many of us so quick and hasty to relegate to mere mythology the biblical accounts of the great flood, or of Moses’ frustration at Israel’s incessant complaints in the Sinai Desert, or of Deborah’s foretelling the peculiar downfall of general Sisera?
Religious readers, try the following experiment: When next you see your Rabbi, or a religious mentor, corner them and face them like a lawyer approaching a suspect on the dock. Make sure they cannot escape from responding to your simple inquiry. Ask: “Did our God bring our national ancestors out of Egypt?” Don’t forget to ask if it was done with signs and with wonders, too. Ask if God took us out to serve Him and to be a nation unto Him. See how they respond. Pay particular attention to the “yes” part.
Will they attest to the historical reality of the Exodus story? I see no reason why they should not. The Exodus story is arguably the least controversial story to be accepted as historical within Judaism. It is also one of the most difficult for devotees of biblical criticism to chop into itty bitty etiological theses. A simple, historical affirmation of our Torah should serve as a profoundly compelling act that enables us to take the Torah’s content very seriously.
Our skepticism, however, can often prove to be as resilient as our beliefs. Contrary to what many like to think, skepticism for its own sake is not a wholly good thing. The assumption that we accept this tacit, secular tenet of a “rational” age is an easygoing and agreeable one to make. That doesn’t mean it’s not naïve and stupid. It is stupid if we don’t also consider the rational justifications for believing in divine and miraculous stories. It is certainly naïve, at least, if we care a whit about the continuity of our Jewish identity.
A story will illustrate what I mean. In some anonymous Hebrew School, this anonymous kid asked a Rabbi, who coincidentally remains anonymous, whether the stories in the Torah actually happened. The Rabbi responded that we don’t believe the stories actually happened. Adam and Eve, even Moses, could have been monkeys, for all the Rabbi knows. Upon hearing this “enlightened” and very dispassionate answer, the kid followed-up with a simple question: “If we don’t believe these stories actually happened, then why do we consider them to be holy?” The Rabbi told the kid that he was too young to understand.
It should be obvious who in that story was the sensible one and who was the real child. That kid has been told by a religious authority that the actual history related in Jewish stories does not matter. The kid reasoned that if the events do not matter, then they’re not so special. The merits of a Jewish story can be exchanged along with some other myth. The Rabbi’s evasiveness was a mindless acquiescence for a Young Adult Book Club in place of Hebrew School.
The Rabbi needs too keep his job, though. He must strive to keep the mythical, moral driven stories he is familiar with relevant and entertaining. You can find similar jokers and entertainers for hire, some of whom can also be found within the clergy. There are ample anecdotes relating how Jewish kids, and their parents, turn down opportunities for Jewish education in place of other pursuits, like ballet or basketball. In a juvenile, almost apelike mimicking of secular rationale, that poor Rabbi validates the sentiments of religious critics who argue that religion is nothing more than a transient byproduct of culture. I fear that many of us are still blind to how embarrassing this irony is.
This is a real problem. It is a threat that has yet to be unearthed from cultural and academic trendiness. While my grandfather was rightly concerned about the immediate, physical wellbeing of the Jewish people, we can now afford to concern ourselves more with our metaphysical wellbeing. To that end, I offer some satire: did ever an individual (or an entire religious movement, to boot) once believe in the reality of miracles and religious stories, and then not believe? That change of heart is founded on faith, not on reason and logic. This is an irony we cannot afford to remain smug or tolerant about.
Don’t misconstrue this polemic as a broad condemnation of secularism or modernity. An informed, rigorous syntheses of Judaism with contemporary culture is a worthwhile enterprise. It is a good thing. However, if the latest development of Judaism is for its teachers to disembody the historic reality from the Torah’s stories, then that age is predicated on a Judaism that will surely wither and fade away.
If we acknowledge the sanctity of our national history (both mundane and divine) we provide a means by which to preserve our identities. The choice before us is whether we continue to shy away from seriously considering the Torah’s historicity, or we engage it, and address the shallow negations raised against it. These objections rely more on myth than rigorous reason. Do we have the courage and patience to address this issue? This is a story that needs to be told.