A packed Torah portion this week—The Malachim visit Abraham and promise Sarah will bear him a son. Abraham negotiates with God. Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed. Lot’s daughters are offered up to placate the mob, and later have sex with their father. Isaac is born. Abraham is commanded to bind Isaac for sacrifice. If they had only spread the dramatic stories out a little more, they could have livened up six portions during the dry part of the year.
It’s week four of twelve weeks reading Bereshit (Genesis) in Yiddish. I again find that after our reading group, I end up thinking more about the Torah content than about the Yiddish language. When you do religious stuff with a group of Jewish people, you inevitably end up thinking about the Jewish religion. Being a Jewish atheist, it turns out, cuts both ways.
How is that? The Christians I know who are atheists do not call themselves Christians, nor do mainstream Christian churches think of them as such. But the Jewish atheists I know almost all still consider ourselves to be Jews. Judaism is not just a religion, but is also a nationality, and a cultural identification, and for some people, an ethnicity. And the religion embraces this multiplicity. You can become part of the community by birth, or by choice. If you’re born of Jews, you are a Jew. If you believe, and want to become a Jew, you can, but there are no belief tests, and there is no codified creed that everyone is supposed to endorse.
When our group reads together, there is a range of familiarity, and interest in, the Torah, and a also range of beliefs and levels of religious observance. Some read the word יהוה as ‘hashem’. Since ‘Adonai’ is not the pronunciation of God’s name, יהוה, but just means ‘Lord’, this means they aren’t just avoiding saying the name of God, but won’t even say the word ‘god’. This carries over from Hebrew to Yiddish. But they have no such compunction in English.
Religion is not intended to be rational or consistent. I would go farther and say that it cannot be rational or consistent. It is a system for appealing to the emotions, and to our yearning for meaning beyond what we can rationally understand. It is precisely about (as the Taoists put it) the Name that cannot be named.
So my avidity in pointing out logical inconsistencies is not always appreciated. The cry over Sodom and Gemorrah has reached the Lord, who says, “We better go down and check that out, and see if it’s all as bad as the cry would have it.” What’s the mechanism of that? (I ask). How does the cry reach up? Does God really have to come down (so now he’s located in space…) and see for himself?”
“The stories are to benefit us,” says T. “If they wrote it from God’s point of view we would not be able to understand.” I agree with her that it does benefit me. Because I like to be skeptical and cynical, these inconsistencies in the text make me happy. She rolls her eyes.
Then we come to Abraham bargaining with God to save the cities. Abraham asks whether, if there are fifty innocent people in Sodom and Gemorrah, God would really destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Halayleh dir tzu tun aza zakh. Strange of him to say, “God forbid” that you do such a thing, to God. But that’s the whole point. The argument Abraham is making is that there should be moral consistency. Zol der rikhter fun der gantzer erd nit ton gerekhtikayt? [Shouldn’t the judge of all the earth do justly?]
“We are meant to question God,” says T. And then she turns to me she says, “And that’s why you are welcome.” She is pleased with the story and with herself.
And rightly so. She is a great resource to the group because she knows her Torah and because she has complete command of the Hebrew. When we’re not sure why something in the Yiddish is worded the way it is (bay Sarahn hot oyfgehert tzu zayn der shteyger vi bay veyber, “For Sarah was no longer in the manner of women”) we can ask T what the Hebrew original does. But she has also has just demonstrated the two features of a healthy (as opposed to fundamentalist) person of faith. First, with the bit about God coming down to check, she asserted the obvious – that the stories are not meant to be taken literally. Second, she is relaxed with unbelievers and with challenge because her belief does not require that other people think the same way she does.
These widely-held attitudes among Jewish believers are a big reason why Jewish atheists stay Jewish. The Torah needs interpreting, which means that it can change and improve as human understanding changes and improves. Argument is not merely tolerated, but welcomed.
When I started by saying that being a Jewish atheist cuts both ways, this is what I trying to get at. Recently I quoted Kaplan’s definition of Judaism as the religious civilization of the Jewish people. I said then that this means the stories belong to us (secular Jews) too. But it would also be accurate to say, “we (secular Jews) belong to the stories, too.” The community will engage flexibly and will welcome the skeptic. Their openness to contradiction, the toleration and even celebration of dissent and argument, exerts a pull. The stories themselves are terse, open-ended and dramatic, and can be looked at from many different points of view, including the idea that there has to be some moral consistency and the idea that we shouldn’t expect literal or logical consistency.
Even so, the stories of Lot’s daughters and of the binding of Isaac probably strain modern morality and rational argument past the snapping point. I will just say something brief about the binding of Isaac here. The other is a much deeper problem and will have to wait for now.
No God worth worshipping would command his prophet to sacrifice his son. Yes, in the Torah, Abraham’s hand is stopped. But no entity that could be described as ‘good’ would suggest such an act, even as an object lesson or a test of obedience.
But here’s where the open-ended nature of the stories, the encouragement of retelling them in a living tradition, and the tolerance of skepticism make our heritage such a treasure. In the 1980s, I twice had the privilege of hearing the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai read his poetry. At the second reading, I remember he talked about the binding of Isaac as an elaborate piece of theater, where Abraham was in the know the whole time. With a wink at Isaac, he brought him to the mountain for this rite of passage. See how Amichai’s poem turns the narrative on his head, and see how one cruel story can give birth to a new story, whose retelling becomes a new lesson about compassion:
The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.
I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.
–Yehuda Amichai. Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch