Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet).  That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves.  In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory.  They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.

All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation.  The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself?  Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself?  And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?

The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind.  The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.

Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature.  It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless.  What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it.  But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it.  Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.

After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils.  In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.


Will Herberg poses a situation in which a man is forced to choose between killing one man (an enemy aviator) or letting that man destroy an entire town by taking no action — both result in responsibility for death and violation of the sacredness of every life.  “Why is it he is compelled to violate the divine law?  The compulsive factors are obviously not of the natural order…” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 217)  To answer, he brings up that (often problematic) line of Scripture: “The Lord visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generations.”  His use might be more commonplace than I realize, but I find it fascinating nonetheless:

“What men have done at other times and places, what men do elsewhere in our own time, what we ourselves have done in the past, enter into the conditions that compel us to take life, to live by exploitation, to eat while others go hungry — just as what we do now adds to the burden of sin that will beset the men of time to come and cruelly restrict their freedom of action.  […]

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children not merely in the sense that one generation has to bear the consequences of the deeds of another — ‘Our fathers have sinned. . .and we have borne their iniquities’ (Lam. 5:7) — but in the far more important sense that the sins of the fathers create a situation in which the children, too, do evil, if only because, in the concrete circumstances, no course of action is open to them that is not to some degree infected with it.  There is no escaping the solidarity of sin because there is no escaping the solidarity of mankind.” (Judaism and Modern Man, p. 218)

Doubt, Faith, the Bible

March 3, 2009

Rod Dreher linked to this article by way of Biblical literacy, but what I found truly striking was Plotz’s confession of his struggles with God and the idea of God during and after reading the Bible:

“I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn’t really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God.”

Then he ends by noting something important:

“As I read the book, I realized that the Bible’s greatest heroes-or, at least, my greatest heroes-are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon demanding divine proof before going to war, Job questioning God’s own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them.”

Those Biblical figures called heroes, and pillars, and faithful, and righteous: they doubted. They struggled. Faith did not preclude that; those titles that they earned — could they have earned them without doubting? Would Abraham have been Abraham had he not negotiated for Sodom and Gomorrah? Moses, lost in the desert, doubted and struck the rock in his own name when bringing forth water.

There is an argument to be made that the struggle with doubt is among the most important aspects of faith. I think I would believe that, though I don’t harbor any presumptions about being the one to make it. But we oughtn’t confuse faith with mere belief — the one is a component, an aspect of the other, though integral to it.

“or are forbidden to sing or play songs that explicitly refer to Christ”

And then Ivan Kenneally gives me an off-topic (or is it?) flashback: Eighth grade, I think, outside during gym class. OK, that’s what it was – we were doing our end of year “Olympics”: the various jumps, relay races, etc. (I was not particularly good at these.) So there was a lot of still time, and I turned around and saw/heard one of the guys in my grade (who I really couldn’t stand) swaying and singing, “Jesus Loves Me,” while two girls were talking next to him. No big problem, except he and I are both Jewish, they’re Christian and more religious than either of us at the time, and he’s singing it in a sort of asshole-like tone.

I don’t remember what transpired in detail, but the short of it is: I wanted him to stop, because it was pretty clear that he was mocking them; one of the girls – exceptionally sincere and one of my favorite people from then – said that she didn’t mind because it was true. At the time, I was mostly frustrated by the fact that her letting him go on like that would probably make him more insufferably obnoxious elsewhere.

I didn’t really understand any of what she meant until four or five years later — and part of it is something I am capable of understanding as distinct from Jesus though she (if I were talking to her right now) might tell me that she understands it as indistinct from him, but also understands what I mean.  I think it has something to do with this: that even if they’re not any more effective, smiles are at least more beautiful than hellfire.

Via PhDiva, a headline I didn’t quite expect to see —  Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Is Surprise Christmas Hit.” (Though since this is in Britain, I’m reminded of Cohen’s quip that he had always appreciated the support he received from music labels for American promotion — Various Positions, on which the original version of “Hallelujah” appeared, was not released in the US until it came out on CD in the 90s.)  Even though they’re not buying his version(s).  As much as I prefer the inclusion of the full original lyric (as he’s been doing in recent shows, apparently), the live version from the aptly titled Cohen Live is phenomenal.  Maybe he’s an acquired taste, but then again, I am a member of the Facebook group, “If I Listen to Anyone Singing ‘Hallelujah,’ It’ll Be Leonard Cohen.'”  (Take that, Buckley-promoting-Facebookers!)*

But then there was this sentence:

Some may argue that “Hallelujah” is an inappropriate song for Christmas since it is represented in the dolorous lyric as a cry of sexual climax, and romantic failure.

What makes the stunning Positions triad of “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will,” and “Night Comes On” so stunning is that Cohen is talking purely about sex just as much as Donne was ever talking purely about sex.**  (Or, to quote Cohen quoting Faulkner talking about Keats, “He’s talking about a girl” — “Well, he had to talk about something.”)  The redeeming aspect of the song, religiously speaking, isn’t that it’s educational, but that it is about God, belief, and faith.***  Take the final verse of all versions of the song:****

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Understood without any consideration of faith, it’s hardly understood at all.  It’s praise for the fact of life amid disaster; from a more religious perspective, I suppose, one might say for being created because even when the Creation does not seem or appear good, he knows that it is good and to be a part of it is good and worth thanks.

*I should eventually admit that Buckley’s version is wonderful, and that Cohen’s (lack of) singing voice does hamper him, especially on the Various Positions version.  But someone has to be a Cohen partisan when it comes to this song, and I’m more than willing to fight losing battles.

**This also probably applies to “Coming Back To You,” but it’s just not on the level of the other three.

***I should point out here that Cohen’s  never been one for orthodoxy; from what I can gather, he’s a Reform Bu-Jew who, even in the phases more Bu than Jew, made sure to light candles on Friday night.  This is mostly irrelevant, but worth pointing out when talking about religion and the man, I suppose.

****Firstly, WordPress needs to give me a footnoting function.  Secondly: HOLY SHIT: the Buckley/Wainwright version of the lyrics drops this verse.  Don’t know how I hadn’t realized it/forgot this.  Let me retract the word “wonderful” and replace it with, “is much prettier than Cohen’s/is (possibly) the prettiest.”  OK, so that version the Brits are buying up maybe is really about sex, but that’s beside the point.  Just a general bone to pick here: yeah, you can probably sing it and arrange its music better than Leonard originally did.  But leave the lyric alone.  You’re not going to make it any better.

And even though I’ve posted this before, I’ll do it again as a (relevant) Chanukah/Christmas treat: Leonard Cohen singing his song, his way, this summer:

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas, everyone.

Men, Women, Religion

December 21, 2008

While reading this piece (h/t Andrew) on religion and families, I found this curious link.  It, like its mention in the other article, has less in the way of answers than befuddlement, but it was still the most interesting part of Gottlieb’s piece, even though it was merely incidental.

I don’t have much in the way of thoughts; merely pointing toward them.  But I had noted from time to time that — outside of the Orthodox minyon (which I presume is roughly equal; I’m not certain), women outnumber men at services at school on Fridays and Saturdays.  I just thought it was a curious bit of student-body demography, but now I’m curious about whether it’s indicative of anything else.  Not that it’s going to stop the, “What do you mean we have a minyon?  There are only three men here!” jokes on Saturdays, just to see whose skin we can get under at 10 am.

There’s probably a correlation between higher religiosity in women and religious egalitarian movements.  And when you need ten men to hold the full service, and if men are dropping away but women still showing up, that may have something to do with it.  (I wonder if it got going faster/sooner in places with exceptionally small Jewish communities… I should try looking this up.)  Or, you know, it could have been feminism and equal rights and all that jazz.  Though in Louisville, it reputedly had a lot more to do with the older women simply deciding one day that they were not going to climb the stairs into the balcony anymore.  I think that service may have concluded in someone getting arrested; but this was sixtyish years ago, so I wouldn’t have been there.