For many people the answer is a resounding, “Hell, yes, it matters!” After all, if the Bible wasn’t given as we have been taught, with God dictating every word, letter by letter to Moses at Mount Sinai. Why bother with keeping it? There is absolutely no obligation to keep Shabbat, or to keep kosher, sleep in a succah, or eat matzah on Passover.
I hear this opinion over and over.
The problem I find with this conclusion is that it is assuming the ONLY reason to keep the traditional Jewish Sabbath or kosher as well as other halacha is that God commanded it.
For those of you who have been following my radio show and podcast, you will know that these are questions I have been wrestling with very publicly for a while now.
A few years ago I took a course in biblical academic scholarship and archeology. I spent 45 hours in the classroom with Professor Yigal Levin, one of the top archeologists at Bar Ilan University. I also spent several days with him in the field, traveling to the most important archeological sites in the Land of Israel. He guided me through, Megiddo, Lachish, Tel Gezer, Tel Beit Shemesh, and the Jezreel Valley.
I went into the experience as a skeptic, believing that the traditional understanding of the origins of the Jewish People were what I was taught in yeshiva, and as a child, and that academics and biblical scholars where somehow biased and anti-religion.
I ‘knew’, like my father before me, that we are the people descended from twelve tribes, from twelve brothers, the grandsons of one man, Abraham, the descendant of Noah the descendant of Adam. These brothers and their families went down to Egypt in the late Bronze Age, and were enslaved. After the One God, Creator of the Universe, could stand their outcry from their bondage no longer, He remembered His promise to Abraham and with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, He took them from the midst of Egypt with miracles and wonders, split the sea for them and brought them to Mount Sinai where he gave them the Law. The eternal and unchanging written and oral concretization of Divine will.
This People now numbering in the millions wandered for 40 years in the desert, until the One God deemed it time for them to receive their true physical inheritance, the Land of Canaan.
The People crossed the river Jordan and in a lightning conquest uprooted the idolatrous Canaanites from the land and eventually established a United Kingdom, a confederation of the twelve tribes of Israel.
After spending these hours with Professor Yigal Levin in the classroom and walking the land with him, after reading the books he recommended, and after hundreds of hours of research, I have no doubt that the story presented in the text of the Bible is not historically accurate. There was no mass exodus from Egypt, there was no lightning conquest of the Land of Canaan, The Bible as we have it today is a later composition written and redacted sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE in Jerusalem and Babylon.
I am utterly convinced of this, and I believe that any critical thinker presented with the overwhelming evidence that the academic world has compiled, would be convinced as well.
So why be Jewish?
Simple. I remain Jewishly committed because I love being Jewish.
If you asked a dancer why she did all of those exercises, and ate that restrictive diet, and dedicated so much of her time to her practice, and she answered, my all powerful father demands it of me, and he gave me life, and can take that life at any given time, well… You know that this is an abused person.
But if she looks at you like you are nuts for even asking her the question, and she looks you in the eye and confidently answers, ‘I am a dancer because I love to dance’. ‘I feel most alive, when I am dancing’ — that is an answer.
A large part of my day, my life is taken up with the discipline of Jewish life. It is an incredible blend of living mythology, history, spirituality, woven into a tapestry by culture and ritual. It creates the context of my life, and the life of my family. It is our holidays and our wisdom. It is how we celebrate life, and mourn death. It is the strongest human force I have ever seen that has the ability to connect one simultaneously to their present moment, while reliving their past and glimpsing the collective future of our people.
I am Jewish, because what else what else would offer me such meaning and depth in life?
We live in a time when we are truly free. I am free to step out of it at any moment. I choose not to, not because of fear, but because of love.
Check out this conversation from The Mottle Wolfe Show with Biblical scholar Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber.