Tuesday, August 6, 2013

So you think you're a Jew

Biblical History is presenting a challenge for me.  I'm beginning to feel like the title of the course should be "So you think you're a Jew" or "Things your Sunday school teacher never told you." It's as though the identity I had as a Jew before coming here is disintegrating before my eyes, like old papyrus, and falling away. The more I struggle to hold onto it, the more it falls apart.

I never believed that the Torah (or the Tanakh for that matter) was the absolute word of God, but I also never realized what a heavy hand the writers of the Bible had in its creation. I still remain one who advocates for tradition, but sometimes I seriously wonder if the Tanakh is too outdated in certain ways. To take it literally is certainly not conducive to a modern lifestyle, because Jews don't live in isolation like we used to. But neither can we throw it out, because there's obviously something in it that's still relevant for us today. I guess the problem I see is when people try to prove that something did/did not happen in the Torah. Here that takes the form of archeological digs.

In no other country in the world does archeology take on such political overtones as it does here in Israel. There are those who see the Tanakh as our deed to this small plot of land here in the Middle East, but its a serious problem when the archeology presents evidence that comes up short. Although I firmly support Israel existing exactly where it is now, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the Tanakh argument because it's predicated on a basis of historical truth in the Tanakh, of which there is very little. People wonder why experts have so much trouble dating things in the Torah and now I know that its for two major reasons: first of all, people in biblical times did not have the same relationship to numbers and figures that we do now-a-days (Israelis still don't. When you ask for directions from someone and they tell you 'just another five minutes' be prepared. That means about another twenty). Combine that with the fact that whoever wrote the Tanakh and compiled it didn't do so until hundreds of years after many of the events supposedly took place, and you're in for some real headaches if you think it's an actual, historical account. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the lack of historicity in the Torah and Tanakh has profound implications for political arguments (as it does for spiritual issues as well).

For example: I will never be able hear the song 'David melech Yisrael' in the same way again. A simple translation of that song is as follows: David, King of Israel, is alive and well. Even though he's a prominent figure in the Torah, there's little to no archeological evidence to suggest that he actually existed. Besides that, upon close inspection of his description in the Tanakh, he no longer seems like the beneficent ruler everyone makes him out to be.

The other day in class, I jokingly turned to my friend, Chelsea, sitting beside me and said, in an undertone, "I swear to God, when I have campers next summer, I'm going to tell them 'No! We're not singing that song because King David was a big jerk -AND he didn't even exist!'" Chelsea gave me an admonishing look and said "Malka, you're going to make your kids cry." I laughed, but all joking aside, this does present a problem. Why? Because the Messiah is supposedly a descendant of the House of David. When this realization hit, I couldn't help but feel like I'd been lied to all my life.

It's not that I believe the Messiah will rebuild the Temple (as some Jews do). In fact, given my way, I wouldn't ever bring the Temple back. Temple Judaism (from either the first or the second) is not something that resembles the Judaism I've grown up with and love. Reform Jews have our own opinions about what the Messiah will entail, and I feel like its a little too nostalgic to pray for a literal return to Temple Judaism. Of course, there are those that disagree.

We were forced to grapple with this issue upon arriving here about a month ago, during Tisha b'av (the holiday that commemorates the Destruction of bothTemples). I remember going to the Kotel on the eve of Tisha b'av. I drifted through the crowded streets like a ghost, gaping at the constant stream of people traveling to and from the Old City. With the Women of the Wall service I'd attended still fresh in my mind, I was overcome with a sense of deep discomfort. I felt foreign and out of place, almost like an impostor.

We sat on a patio over looking the Kotel and discussed the meaning of Tisha b'av. Is it our duty to mourn the loss of the First and Second Temples? How do we mourn the Temples and to what degree? Is this morning process reserved only for those who want the Temple restored? I've never read the portion Eicha (from Lamentations) so many consecutive times in my life.

Now I begin to wonder why would I grieve if I don't want the Temple back. Does that make me irreverent to the point where I can't, in good conscience, call myself a Jew? I tend to fall into the Zionist camp on this issue, I think; they rejected the so-called 'festival of grief' that some people engage in leading up to Tisha b'av. I want to commemorate, but I don't want to get caught up.

I guess life goes on, whether or not I want it to, or am even paying attention, but there is still this dichotomy in my mind, and I'm still not sure how to deal with it.

1 comment:

  1. Malka, thank you for this very thoughtful post. It certainly makes me think about my own relationship with my Jewish identity as well.

    Hope all is going well over there; take care, best wishes, and I look forward to reading your further thoughts and discoveries.