An Atheist Reads Torah

There is no God, and there is no moral order to the universe.

Something changed when my wife, who was the best person I knew, died young. It became important for to me to say this out loud. Before, I had believed that it was helpful to live ‘as if’ a benevolent God created the world, and ‘as if’ good were rewarded and evil punished, and I was happy to tacitly let believers have the stage and microphone and say what they would.

After, how disappointed I was in myself! I had grown up in a world in which the holocaust was a fresh memory, in a world of agent orange and of mass starvation in the third world. As an adult I had seen so many disasters, both natural and human-made, kill so many millions of innocents. For example, just two years before Leslie was diagnosed with cancer, the Christmas tsunami killed over a quarter of a million people. But it was only her individual suffering that caused me to reconsider my moral stance. What a colossal failure of empathy!

Whatever my past failings, be they of empathy or of courage, I live now the best I can, according to what I think and feel. Many people assume that religious people have a moral compass, with a set of clear values to live by, while atheists ‘only’ have cold logic.
Rather than cede the floor to those with the dominant religious beliefs, I now say openly that morality begins with telling the truth.

The truth about The Book we are the people of is that it is… a book. It was self-evidently written by human beings of over two thousand years ago, based on their experiences and on the knowledge of the world they had at the time.

But equally obviously, it’s not just a book. Many people cite it as Truth and as the basis of all moral decision-making. The stories in it are fantastic. Its language is marbled into every aspect of our culture. It’s really not possible to know Jewish literature or understand Jewish life without knowing some Torah.

This fall I will be reading Yehoash’s great Yiddish version of Genesis, in synch with the weekly Torah readings of synagogue-going Jews. Why? The first reason is my friend Esther wanted to, and I traded her for reading Yiddish poetry together in the spring semester. Esther is remarkable (organized, deep, and endlessly enthusiastic) and was indispensible in my getting a group of Yiddish students together to read my grandfather’s Chelm stories with me. So I owe her, and I delight in studying and learning with her.

As a political lefty and a committed atheist, I think it’s good to read the Torah because the best ammunition against the hypocrisy of fundamentalists is to know the texts. But also, a secular Jew is a Jew. There have always been Jews who questioned the official version of events. I agree with Mordechai Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as “The religious civilization of the Jewish People.” To me, what that means for secular Jews is that these are our stories. They belong to us, too.

But this blog is not about faith per se; it’s about learning Yiddish, and there are also good reasons for reading Torah in Yiddish, specifically. First, Biblical language has been used, sometimes reverently, sometimes cynically, sometimes ironically or mournfully, but always used again and again in Yiddish literature.

I’ve already encountered this. When “Hillel, the cleverest man in Chelm” (Gimpel the Mayor in the English version), stocks the river with salted herring so that they will fruchtparen un meren (be fruitful and multiply), in order that all Chelm have plenty to eat, it’s not only his ignorance of natural forces that is being lampooned, but his hubris in thinking he can imitate the original Creation. For very different reasons and with very different tones, twentieth century Jewish poets quote the language of Torah in their responses to the cataclysms of pogrom, displacement, and holocaust, in propounding socialist utopianism, reacting to the founding of the State of Israel, lamenting the disappearance of the Yiddish language, and so on. The characters and poetry of the Torah comprise a shared, indispensible vocabulary.

There are linguistic reasons too. Reading a translation from Biblical Hebrew into Yiddish is different than reading an original Yiddish work. Translation can contort language, revealing what it is capable of, and what it is not. Plus, as a learner, reading stories I already know can help when the words themselves are a struggle for me.

Finally, I have personal reasons, too. Yehoash’s Yiddish version of the Tanach formed the basis for some of my grandfather’s work. His Chumash far Kinder is an abridgment and simplification of Yehoash’s Chumash. (note: Chumash is the five books of Moses, or the first five books of what the gentiles call the Old Testament). On occasion, when I have enough time, I will try to compare what my grandfather chose to leave out, and what language he chose to change, to make the text accessible to young Yiddish-speaking children.

So this blog post introduces a subject I’ll be dealing with a lot over the next twelve weeks, and also stands as a kind of disclaimer. I’m reading Torah, not so much to learn Torah, as to learn Yiddish, to learn more about the way my grandfather’s mind worked, and to provide myself with background to better engage with Yiddish poetry and literature. I expect I will be at least as interested in form as in content. As for the content, there too I will share what I think, and I will be frank. But not in order to convince anyone of my world view. On the contrary. This text is our common ground. If we sometimes meet here in disagreement, at least that gives us a place to meet.

Happy Simchas Torah. Tomorrow I will post a few comments about the Yiddish text of the first pages of B’reshit.

Title pages of Yehoash's (Solomon Blumgarten's) Yiddish Tanakh, and of Solomon Simon's "Khumesh far Kinder (loyt Yehoash)".

Title pages of Yehoash’s (Solomon Blumgarten’s) Yiddish Tanakh, and of Solomon Simon’s “Khumesh far Kinder (loyt Yehoash)”.

One thought on “An Atheist Reads Torah

  1. Pingback: Loosely Bound | Tongue's Memory

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