For some time now I’ve been variously confused, surprised, and even amused by the vehement if sometimes uninformed war of words between what I call the professional atheists and people who study religion and the Bible. To help sort things out, I’ve created “The God Confusion“:
Here’s an excerpt from the welcome post:
At a recent dinner I had with friends, an ardent atheist and a member of the clergy rehashed an argument that most of us are familiar with:
Believing in God is an inexcusable lapse — said one person — a blatant retreat from the obvious advances of science. So religion and God properly belong with superstition in the trash-heap of history.
The other countered that such a position is based on a naive misunderstanding of God and religion. There is no conflict between God and science, or between religion and modernity. It’s ignorance that makes some people think they have to choose.
The first person retorted that he knew exactly what God was. It was the clergy member, he said, who was trying to redefine God in a last-ditch effort to salvage religion.
And so it went: God isn’t a white-bearded magician in the sky. No, it’s worse: God is a vindictive and petty tyrant. God is the source of morality. Atheists don’t need God to be moral. That’s because atheists learned about morality from religion. Religion is the root of all evil. What about Stalin? There are evil priests, too. And on, and on.
I hope you’ll stop by and add your voice to the conversation.
Though I started working at Vassar Temple five years ago, I first heard about the place two years before that from my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shoshana Hantman. “They’re a really nice group of people,” she was fond of saying about Vassar Temple.
With only a few exceptions, she was absolutely right.
And I say that having observed or consulted to hundreds of schools on five continents (soon to be six!). In fact, when I would tell my colleagues where I was working, the single most consistent response mirrored Rabbi Hantman’s remarks: “That’s a nice congregation,” frequently followed by a kind reference to Rabbi Arnold and Rabbi Golomb, and, most recently, Rabbi Berkowitz.
As I look back on five years, I certainly don’t want to minimize our technical accomplishments together. We built a thriving Hebrew school that draws members from neighboring congregations. We quadrupled the size of the post-bar/bat mitzvah Wednesday evening program. We grew the overall school by eight percent year over year when most religious schools are losing students.
Those feats, noteworthy in themselves, are also good for the financial heath of the congregation: good for the Jews and good for the bottom line, one might say. Or, as Rabbi Stuart Geller observes: the religious school is the financial engine that pulls the synagogue train.
So I don’t want to make light of bringing in new members or of increasing enrollment. But neither are these statistics the things that stand out most in my mind.
Rather, I remember non-tangible manifestations of a holy community.
For example, when our last Hebrew-school session of the year for grades 5-7 came to an end at 6:00pm on the Wednesday before Passover, the nearly 20 students in attendance refused to leave. Instead of bolting out of the school — as children so often do in other settings when class ends — they stayed behind, savoring a few final moments with each other and their Hebrew teachers. Surely this is what the Rabbis had in mind when they inserted the line into our morning liturgy, “make the words of your Torah sweet to us.”
When four Sunday-school teachers called in sick at the last minute last year, the remaining, healthy teachers jumped into action to run a constructive program together. One high school-aged teacher offered to teach a different class, improvising as she went. Another agreed to teach alone, though she had planned to work with a partner. And so on down the line. Though extreme, that day was hardly atypical, as teachers regularly volunteered to help each other out, never losing the smiles that came to symbolize our time together on Sunday mornings. What better way could there be to realize the Rabbis’ hope that we serve God together in joy?
The list goes on: Sixth graders who eagerly anticipated their opportunity — though at least two years away — to teach in the school. Middle- and high-school students who insisted on starting each class with, “How was your week?” Grade-school students who were so proud of their work that they begged me to come into their classrooms for a closer look. Students who complained when I canceled class for snow that never arrived. Teachers who focused not just on what we were teaching but even more on who we were teaching.
In Pirkei Avot — “The Sayings of the Ancestors” from almost 2,000 years ago — Rabbi Shimon declares that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, service to God, and kindness. Later, still in the spirit of groups of three, he enumerates three crowns: the crown of monarchy, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Then, having listed three, he adds a fourth, a crown that outweighs the other three: the crown of a good name.
More than a millennium later, Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura wrote about this, suggesting that the crown of a good name refers specifically to a good reputation for doing good deeds.
Taken together, Ovadiah and Shimon tell us that being known for the right things is more important than royalty, more important than religious leadership, and even more important than Torah itself.
And this is what I will remember from my five years running the school at Vassar Temple: students, parents, teachers, leaders, and rabbis who in overwhelming majority are deservedly known for the way, through personal example, that they model the three things upon which the world stands: Torah, service to God, and great kindness.
Blessed is God, who crowns us with glory.
[An abridged version of this piece first appeared in the Vassar Temple June, 2016 bulletin.]
The world’s most popular piece of writing may have been written earlier than many people think. And it may have been more widely read.
In 2004, I suggested that the Israelites promoted widespread literacy early in the first millennium BCE, in part or perhaps primarily to help spread Scripture. My analysis, which appears in my NYU Press publication In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, is based largely on theoretical considerations like the ancient Israelites’ contributions to writing.
In 2007, the excellent scholar Karel van der Toorn published a competing theory in his Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. He represents the more mainsteam view that literacy was limited to a very small scribal class. In my review of his work for the Jerusalem Post (apparently no longer available on line), I noted that:
Vexingly, then, we are left with two largely incompatible conclusions [van der Toorn’s and mine], each internally consistent and coherent, but unlikely both to be entirely correct. Puzzles such as these create exciting times for scholarship…
In an article just published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) — available on line here for a fee and summarized here by the New York Times — an interdisciplinary team that includes mathematicians, archaeologists, and historians concludes that literacy was widespread in the Kingdom of Judah as early as 600BCE.
Their evidence comes from 16 inscriptions from Arad, an ancient military outpost south of Jerusalem. The style of the letters in the inscriptions points to at least six different ancient literate writers. The content of the inscriptions suggests that even low-ranking officials wrote things for themselves.
In fact, the authors identify five rungs of hierarchy represented by the inscriptions, starting with the king of Judah and running through a high-ranking commander, a local commander in Arad, and a quartermaster in Arad named Eliashib down to Eliashib’s subordinate. Even that subordinate, apparently, was literate.
The authors conclude that literacy in Judah was widespread far earlier than scholars like van der Toorn have thought.
Combined with my largely theoretical evidence in In the Beginning, we now have even more reason to believe that parts of the written text of the Bible date to the early first millennium BCE.
Additionally, it seems that widespread literacy was an integral part of the ancient Judaean agenda, alongside other more widely noted goals such as monotheism.
My latest book — The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings — goes on sale today!
Here’s the cover copy:
The Bible Doesn’t Say That explores what the Bible meant before it was misinterpreted over the past 2,000 years.
Acclaimed translator and biblical scholar Dr. Joel M. Hoffman walks the reader through dozens of mistranslations, misconceptions, and other misunderstandings about the Bible. In forty short, straightforward chapters, he covers morality, life-style, theology, and biblical imagery, including:
• The Bible doesn’t call homosexuality a sin, and it doesn’t advocate for the one-man-one-woman model of the family that has been dubbed “biblical.”
• The Bible’s famous “beat their swords into plowshares” is matched by the militaristic, “beat your plowshares into swords.”
• The often-cited New Testament quotation “God so loved the world” is a mistranslation, as are the titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God.”
• The Ten Commandments don’t prohibit killing or coveting.
What does the Bible say about violence? About the Rapture? About keeping kosher? About marriage and divorce? Hoffman provides answers to all of these and more, succinctly explaining how so many pivotal biblical answers came to be misunderstood.
I’m excited about this latest work, and look forward to discussing it here.
The evening of January 24th marks the start of Tu Bishvat this year. The name means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, and it refers to the so-called “new year of the trees.”
Why do trees need a new year?
For an answer we turn to the Talmud — that great compilation of Jewish laws and lore from the middle of the first millennium CE. The section called “Rosh Hashana” (“New Year”) starts with the intriguing claim that “there are four new-year days.” And it turns out they fall in the months of Nissan, Elul, Tishri, and Shevat.
The new year with which we are now most familiar — Rosh Hashana — falls in Tishri, which, as it happens, is the seventh month of the year. Certainly the year ought to begin with the first month, so we know we have some digging to do.
The first month is Nissan. Passover falls on the 15th day of this month, and the first day is what the Talmud calls the new year for kings and festivals.
Elul is the sixth month, usually overlapping August and September in our calendar. The first of Elul is the new year for the cattle-tithe.
After Elul comes Tishri, the first day of which is New Year’s Day. As we just just saw, this puts the Jewish new year in the middle of the Jewish year.
And then we get to Shevat, the 11th of the 12 months in the Jewish year. The Talmud advises that some people thought that the 1st day of Shevat was the new year for trees, but the prevailing opinion relegated that status to the 15th day of the month.
Fine. So we have, working our way through the year, the new year for kings (in the 1st month, a couple of weeks before Passover), the new year for cattle-tithes (in the 6th month), New Year’s Day (on the first day of the 7th month), and then the new year for trees in the 11th month.
The Talmud explains why kings need their own new year, starting with a cryptic answer: “on account of documents.” It turns out that documents such as mortgages were dated according to the year of a king’s reign — as in, “during the second year of the reign of King So-and-So.” The question is when that second year commences. Is it on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne? No. It’s on the new year for kings. So along with each first day of Nissan there begins a new year for reckoning time according to the reign of kings.
What about the cattle-tithe new year? It used to be that people would pay yearly taxes of a sort based on how many animals they had. To implement this system, an arbitrary cut-off date for counting the animals was required. For instance, you might have 15 heads of cattle on one date, and 20 an another. At what point would you pay for the additional animals? The answer is that the 1st of Elul was the cut-off date. You paid taxes each year on however many animals you owned on Elul 1. (The IRS uses the same principle in calculating income tax. Tax on money earned up to December 31 of one year is due by April 15 of the next year.)
Similar reasoning applies to the new year for trees. Taxes were paid on fruit trees. A tree whose fruit was fully formed before Tu Bishvat of a given year was taxed in its entirety during that year; if the fruit formed thereafter, it was taxed in the next year.
Of course, we no longer reckon our years by kings and no longer pay tithes on the animals or on the fruit trees that we own. (And in any event, my animals number zero each year.) So why should we care?
Beyond the interesting if now-irrelevant details, and the spotlight on our history, we find meaningful customs that have come to accompany the different new years. On Tu Bishvat, for instance, we now pause to honor trees and nature in general.
In addition, we learn that our lives have more than one yearly cycle. Natural patterns commence around Passover, with the onset of spring, just as things like school calendars begin in the fall, and our official American calendar resets in the middle in winter. And thanks to a long sequence of interpretation, January 24 marks yet another fresh start.
Happy new year.
Thinly disguised, my ancestors and tradition visited me earlier this week. There they were on the Broadway stage of Fiddler on the Roof — hiding in the shadows, animating the props, and permeating the set — barely masked by actors, lights, costumes, dancing, and song.
I love musical theater, and of course I’ve seen Fiddler before. Many times.
But for me Fiddler on the Roof is different than other shows, because this one is about me, about my people, and about my journey. Like most of my recent ancestors, my grandfather — the only grandparent I really knew — came from the kind of Eastern European shtetl in which Fiddler is set.
To be sure, my grandfather’s life was both more mundane and more extraordinary than anything in Fiddler. He didn’t marry off a daughter to a man in Siberia, he didn’t dance with cossacks in taverns, and he didn’t (I don’t think) have a mysterious fiddler variously serving as companion and nemesis.
Equally, my grandfather didn’t leave his village as part of a collective exodus. He left alone. Then most of his family perished.
But my grandfather did light shabbos candles. He treasured his heritage. He lived his life as a stranger in a foreign land. And he grappled with the balance between tradition and modernity. For that matter, so do I.
When the on-stage characters welcomed shabbos with candles, wine, bread, and blessings, I saw more than just generations past. I saw a snapshot from my childhood and a mirror of my life today. When Yenta announced that she was moving to the Holy Land, I heard more than a mere desire for new scenery. And when Tevye (played masterfully by Danny Burstein) quarreled with God, I felt his pain.
Interestingly, as much as the plot in Fiddler is about tradition, the musical itself is replete with its own traditions. So any new production both depicts and exemplifies the difficult task of balancing what was with what can be, of preserving the past while still addressing the present. This new rendition struck me as masterful in this regard, so I felt particularly privileged to head backstage and meet some of the people who created it: the director and a handful of the actors.
Then the stage manager told us how drab and mundane the area backstage is. There’s nothing exciting about it — at least, not to judge by appearances — in contrast to the on-stage magic that brings the past vividly to life. Yet if the stage depicts the timeless reality of my people, it’s the quotidian reality of the present backstage that makes it possible. Which is real, and which the real fiction? Past and present, extraordinary and commonplace, grandiose and picayune — life is apparently woven from a disparate and mutating mixture of threads.
Fiddler ends on a precarious note of uncertainty as the inhabitants of the fictitious Anatevka leave their village. Does their journey lead to a brighter future? Or have they left behind what they value most? They don’t know. In the storybook of my own life, I know that both are true, because I know what the characters do not: the glory of America, the unprecedented tragedy of the holocaust, the miracle of Modern Israel, the rumblings of renewed fear in Europe, the promise of the future, the lessons from our past.
My personal chapter in that storybook has yet to conclude, of course, and I obviously wasn’t around before it began. So it was a treat to look back a few chapters and revisit my place in an ever-unfolding adventure that, I am still convinced, is graced by light and joy and happiness and honor and God.