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Celestial Notes: Biblical Re-mythologisation

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The sceptic hesitates to accept the literalism of the biblical stories but he cannot reject the lessons they educate. He will abandon the anthropomorphic verses as metaphorical references. Removing the human-like aspects or literal translation ascribed to God or demythologization is not a new phenomenon exploding in the Middle Ages but has only reduced in the modern era. God has become an abstraction instead of a personal being. Despite the skeptical inclination to remove the mystical features, there is a way to have your cake and eat it too.

The Maimonidean demythologization needs to recorrect to invest more rigor into religious commitment. Heschel’s goal in reverting to the biblical prophets re-energizes the power of God and the life of the prophet. Yet, he too concludes that anthropomorphism is biblical imagery and prophetic language. Still, his mystical inclination does promote a spiritual overwhelming divine experience instead of a more rationalized intellectual approach. Heschel would say God spoke to Moses, while Maimonides would argue it was metaphorical. Even a modern rationalist like Berkovits takes issue with Maimonides radicalism. This difference relates to the division between rationalists and mystics. I understand Maimonides’ position in light of reason but it is too far off. I think Gillman best articulates a nuanced version where the supernatural is not so much, metaphorical but mythical. Myth here means the patterns that make up the memorial legitimacy. Myth is less about falsehood and more about influence. Instead of trying to rationalize it into an educational lesson, recognize the synchronic power. What does the story mean to the overarching narrative? Spero pinned this in his article on the early Genesis narratives

Beyond Maimonides, Sagi demythologized Judaism. He constructed a theory akin to Leibowitz and Goldman. Leibowitz went further than Maimonides in reducing the mythical features. Maimonides terms redirection away from pagan rituals (Guide 3:32), and Leibowitz says Judaism exists to fight off idolatry. Sagi titled one of his chapters Judaism without theology and placed Leibowitz centerstage. Leibowitz’s Halakhic-centric model erodes celestial motifs in the traditional sense. His agnosticism about Sinai is revealing. Goldman figures a similar vision calling it non-illusory faith. It’s full reasoned faith; science aligning with faith. Although Soloveitchik sees halakha as retreating from biological desires, he adds a theocentric component.

Reason cannot mitigate ancient lingo. Maimonides acknowledges the paganistic vibes but does affirm a diachronic approach that Berman elucidates. Contra Maimonides, the biblical language is intentional. Synchronically it affirms a linguistic heritage. When the Vilna Gaon argued that Maimonides was brainwashed by philosophy or others accused him of following Aristotle, there is some evidence of this (Biur HaGra YD 179:6 n. 13). Maimonides was on a mission to preserve Judaism against external attacks. His dogma is an accurate depiction. Yet, as Wyscholgrod argued, this is untraditional. Literality is manifest in the codex. The inability to disprove the lofty illustration does not negate its plausibility. Even more so, reason must remain behind biblical lessons. It is not to be disregarded, it is to be respected. 

For Gillman, there is a notion of mythologizing. Even if deconstructed rationally as Strauss assumed, the genus remains as a valuational core. Wyscholgrod chastised Maimonides’s version as unbiblical and dangerous. Some anthropomorphic literality is essential. In a similar vein, there is a mythic proportion clinging to the human-oriented terminology of God. Divine speech and emotion can be treated as potential rational aspects. Yet, this is not about literalism or mysticism. The rabbinic model must be reassumed in line with a biblical understanding. Reason has too far attempted to overwhelm the Bible with historical inconsistencies and philological misconceptions. The historical school has nearly enveloped the bible in atheistic domination. This is not to rule out the potential inaccuracies but phenomenology disorients this problem. I have no refutation for the archaeological findings. Though Sommer may be correct in the inconsistency of modern scholarship, but even if they are correct, Jewish history remains strong because it is led by lawyers and judges, not historians. Assumptions can be made about historical influence, not definitively. Historicity lies in capturing history but lies beyond the frame. 

Mythologizing ancient stories gives way to magnifying their message. The biblical model is exceptional in its linearity. Theology is a method of cultivating a divine image for the believer. The biblical language educates a strict phenomenology and an epistemology that rivals the communal experience. The intellectual does begin to blossom in the rabbinic age but takes a back seat to tradition. The old is, if not more important than logic; it is the memory that empowers traditional persistence. Sacks modeled his Jewish philosophy on biblical theology. Following Soloveitchik before him, he utilized biblical narratives to discuss philosophical insights. Soloveitchik’s Adam I and Adam II, in the first chapters of Genesis, are archetypical presentations of man. Sacks followed suit in his “Alienation and Faith” critiquing the duality of the former with a synthesis of both chapters. The Tower of Babel was a utopian dream then eventually ruptured into plurality, needing a divine plan for salvation. Yet most importantly is his line that the Bible must be read in ancient context, not with modern lenses. Each biblical scholar perceives the text differently, but it is the use of literary theory and renewed interest that empowers the value of biblical narrative. The Adam I-Adam II example derives value from the original text. analogical but literal.         

Re-mythologizing Judaism signifies the terminological legacy of the Bible. It better interprets the narratives and their lessons. The literal mystical elements facilitate metaphorical inspiration. Mythologizing does not necessitate dogmatic textualism but it does inquire a more authentic reading for a more genuine interpretation. The academic realm has sailed off course reducing Judaism to a joke. The mythos are vital to her cultural heritage to invigorate a deep sense of connection to the old. The sceptic may remain agnostic about accuracy but he cannot neglect the narrational intelligence and its underpinnings.

References:

Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History (Middle Village, NY, 1959,) pg. 55. 

Jerome I. Gellman, “Maimonides’ ‘Ravings’” The Review of Metaphysics pg. 324.

Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (JPS: Philadelphia, 1990), pp. 25-30. 

Eliezer Goldman, “Non-Illusory Faith” Faith: Jewish Perspectives, eds. Dov Schwartz and Avi Sagi, Academic Studies Press, 2019, pp. 123-136.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets. New York: Harper & Row, 1962 pp. 285-287.

Bernard S. Jackson, “Models in Legal History: The Case of Biblical Law” Journal of Law and Religion 18 pg. 1.

Alan Jotkowitz, “The Return of Biblical Theology: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and the Theological-Literary Movement” Modern Judaism pp. 27-42. 

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, ed. Eliezer Goldman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), pg. 25. 

Jonathan Sacks, “Alienation and Faith” Tradition 13:4 pp. 137-162. 

Avi Sagi, Jewish Religion After Theology Academic Studies Press, 2009, chapter 4.

Haym Soloveitchik, “Halakhah, Hermeneutics, and Martyrdom in Medieval Ashkenaz (Part I of II)” Jewish Quarterly Review 94:1 77. 

Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith” Tradition 7:2  pp. 10-11.

Benjamin D. Sommer, “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism” The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research 78 pp. 85-101. 

Shupert Spero, “The Biblical Stories, Garden of Eden and The Flood: History or Metaphor?” Tradition 33:2 pg. 16.

Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: God and the Jewish People (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), pg. xiv.

A pluralist, demythologized and this-worldly halakhah | The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:.

“Catharsis” (2): Sanctity and the Body – Elevating Physical Existence | Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Covenant & Conversation | Ki Tavo | A Sense of History | Rabbi Sacks.

Demythologising the Rabbinic Aggadah: Menahem Meiri – The Seforim Blog.   

About the Author
Jonathan Seidel is currently studying government at IDC with a focus on counterterrorism. He is on the debate team and model UN, participating in conferences and expanding knowledge on a wide range of important issues is important to him. Jonathan has a long history working with special needs kids and running programs to ensure those kids have amazing experiences. Jonathan's favorite topic to write about is Jewish philosophy and he hopes to create a space for Jewish students to cultivate similar discourse online.
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