Culture Clash

I had an interesting experience this morning. I took part in a panel discussion with author David Michael Slater. The program was part of the adult education program at Temple Beth Israel. David and I spoke to the question of how being Jewish affects what we write.

Some of David’s comments really intrigued me. His Sacred Books series assumes alternate versions of Bible stories. What if the Garden of Eden was a library and the Tree of Knowledge a book? (Wow! These are books that I absolutely have to read. I bought the first book in the series, “The Book of Nonsense,” and had David autograph it for me. Click HERE if you’d like to learn more about David and his books.)

David describes how his books have caught flack numerous times from Christian fundamentalists. In some cases, it reached the extreme of having the books challenged and creating pressure to cancel invitations for him to speak at schools.

This left me stunned. Here is a perfect example of a cultural collision. Some scriptural literalists may not like the idea of what David is doing. However, within Jewish traditions, what David is doing is not only normal—it’s expected.

There’s a whole body of literature called the Midrash which expands and explains the biblical text. In most instances the midrashim are as old and as respected as the Bible itself. Did you know that God created several worlds before this one and that they all ended in failure for various reasons? Did you know that Adam had a wife before Eve—Lilith—who was by no means subservient to him? Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? It wasn’t because of  free sex, as the movies would have you believe. It was because of injustice and oppression of the poor by the rich. It’s all in the midrashim.

Every Jewish child learns these stories from an early age in such detail that we’re often surprised to discover when we’re older that they’re not part of the Bible. The Garden of Eden as a library and the Tree of Knowledge as a forbidden book of wisdom. Freaky! But no freakier than Adam’s first wife or the giant Og who tricked Noah into letting him ride on the roof of the Ark. Or Solomon’s dealings with Ashmodai, the king of the demons. There’s nothing sacrilegious here. It’s alternate way of trying to understand a religious text. Jewish traditions are filled with similar efforts. We have 2,000 years worth. It might also be said that all Jewish literature, from Moses to Philip Roth, is an effort to deal with the question of humanity’s place in the universe and how it relates to the eternal divine. Gregor Samsa the cockroach of Metamorphosis could just as easily be Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt.

The Jewish religion does not require us to believe the Torah or Tanakh. In fact, worshipers are not required to believe anything except possibly the Oneness of God. At no point in any form of ceremony or worship are we required to say, “I believe…” There’s no confession of faith, as in Christianity or Islam. Judaism, it might be said, is a culture, a way of life,  not a faith or belief.

What is required is study—making the effort to understand how God works in the world. You can ask questions. You can point out scriptural contradictions and inconsistencies, even absurdities. You don’t have to believe or accept everything you read. You don’t turn off your brain when you open the Bible. You’re SUPPOSED to think.

It’s easy to see how conflict would arise when people who believe that the Bible is complete, perfect, inerrant, never to be challenged, encounter others who believe that they have the right and even the duty to ask questions. The story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel (whomever that angel was) is an archtypical story for us. We’ve been wrestling with God since the time of Abraham.

It gets freakier. David told us that his books were called “satanic” and “kabbalistic.” That’s really absurd! First of all, we have no Satan. Jews don’t believe in a devil. Oh, there’s a tempter, an adversary, perhaps. But he exists because he fulfills part of God’s plan. God has no adversaries. Both heaven and hell are vague notions in Judaism. As the rabbis have pointed out throughout the ages, we serve God out of love; neither out of hope of heaven or fear of hell. And why would a compassionate, merciful God create a place of eternal torment? According to the Hasidim, even the worst souls only stay in hell for a year, to be purified and cleansed in preparation for taking their place in heaven. A spiritual laundromat, perhaps. In other words, a Jewish writer is incapable of writing a Satanic book. The concept doesn’t exist for us.

Linking Kabbalah with Satanism is even more absurd. Making a statement like that reveals a profound ignorance of the Jewish religion. Real Kabbalah—not the Madonna, Britney Spears variety—is the Jewish mystical tradition. It’s the equivalent of Sufism in Islam or Pentacostalism in Christianity. Kabbalists have traditionally interpreted the Torah in unusual, even strange, ways. Hebrew letters have numerical values. If words and phrases have the same sum, kabbalists assume there’s a connection between them. Castles of mystical speculation have been created out of the association between numbers and words. Kabbalah, based as it is in the deepest form of Torah study, is sacred. To call it “satanic” is deeply insulting.

So who’s right? Well, we are! Why should a Jewish writer kowtow to Christian doctrine? They’re our scriptures. I can read them in the original Hebrew. We created these writings. We’ve been studying and interpreting them in these ways long before Christianity existed. You don’t have to like it, but neither do you get to have an opinion. I’m sorry if it offends you, but guess what? Your views offend me. Either get over it or learn to live with it. If you want your own views to be respected, you have to respect those of others who disagree with you, especially when they are operating out of a cultural tradition different from your own.

That’s enough for now. I’m going start on the first book in David’s series right now. It’s called The Book of Nonsense. I sure it will be anything but.

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