There are many beliefs once cherished in childhood to which we bid farewell as we store away our unfledged optimism and move into maturity: the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Prince Charming, cooties. But there is a strange sort of belief which I, a self-identified rationalist, held dear well into my adulthood, only substantially coming face to face with it here at the University of Chicago. This is the belief that G-d dictated the Bible to Moses, and the Bible is thus an authentic history, not myth or legend. This may sound unremarkable to other University students, but for me it is difficult to articulate without sounding like a heretic to the Orthodox angel nestled on my right shoulder. Since birth, I have been inculcated with the notion that G-d spoke to Moses, who then wrote the five books of the Torah, and his disciple Joshua wrote the few bits after his death. This wasn’t a question; I basically took it as fact.
Upon arriving here at an American secular college with a tiny Orthodox community, I first suffered from Jewish withdrawal; I’ve been auditing classes at the Divinity school to fill the void.
Last week, in one of these courses, we read the various biblical accounts of Passover in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16, and the Books of Chronicles 2 as a nod to the approaching holiday. I have parsed these passages countless times before, but only this time were my eyes opened to countless inconsistences and incongruities. There are different commandments on acting, celebrating, remembering, cooking; different recitations, different rituals across the various descriptions of the holiday. Deuteronomy 16 tells the Hebrew to “roast” the Passover sacrifice, specifically the mode of cooking that G-d prohibited in Exodus. There is no mention of the Jews having to rush out of Egypt sans time for their bread to rise during Exodus, while there is in Deuteronomy. I was shocked to hear my yarmulke-wearing professor explain that the Passover sacrifice and accompanying rituals were probably written for later generations and this ritual probably did not take place in Egypt at all.
“HERESY! HERESY!” was my instinctual reaction. But the account of Passover in Leviticus begins with a list of festivals, among which the Sabbath is incongruously mentioned—it does not belong under the aforementioned category. Why the inconsistency? According to my professor, Shabbat was a particularly important ritual for the Hebrews of a certain period and so they probably inserted it in this passage. But conscious of these and other problems, the midrash (stories supplied by the Jewish sages) and biblical interpreters worked to resolve them within the traditional framework of unified Mosaic authorship. So I turned to Rashi, a traditional Rabbinic commentator to see how he solved the conundrum.
“Why does the Sabbath appear here amidst the festivals?” he asks. “To teach that whoever desecrates festivals is considered as if he desecrated Sabbath, and whoever fulfills the festivals is considered as if he has fulfilled the Sabbath, [and his reward is as great].” A few months ago this would have been satisfying, yet now this homiletic anecdote—among many others—barely moves me. I once would go through the Bible searching for conundrums, also believing that these inconsistencies were purposefully inserted by the author for moral or instructional value; but what if history proves otherwise?
Sitting in Plein Air Café, a Jewish friend who teaches Hebrew school told me that he treats the Bible just like any other ancient book; but I can’t. Isn’t it holy? I’ve grown up kissing it each time I open a page, making sure nothing rested on top of it, never sitting on a table upon which it rests, always making sure I was on my best behavior before the ancient Hebrew book, as if it were a majestic person with eyes and ears—G-d’s emissary on earth.
But if it’s just like any other ancient Semitic book, not distilled by G-d but written by humans, how is it any different than the Epic of Gilgamesh? How can it be holy? Contrary to where this piece seems to be going, I won’t be ripping off the shackles of religion and gorging myself on bacon sandwiches this Passover. Because the historicity of the Bible is irrelevant to the moral and practical import it bears for me.
What is history, after all—an assortment of real occasions or of subjective memories? In historical truth, is what happened differentiable from, or really more valuable than, what we believe happened?
The Bible is not just another Semitic book. Not only the accounts of divine experiences, but also the unique conscious changes made by various authors to ancient tales have made it both distinct and sacred. At UChicago I’m surrounded by some of the sharpest minds in the world, a culture where the sky’s the limit. We soak up information and can comprehend anything if we put our minds to it. Accustomed to this way of thinking, religion is the one field in which comprehension stops, where perhaps the relationship between historicity and truth is more complicated than I can now fathom. How can I ever comprehend G-d, who enigmatically notes in Exodus 3:14, “I am what I am”? I must bow humbly to the unknown greater than myself.
Eliora Katz is a first-year in the College.