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There is an entire school of philosophy on knowledge called epistemology. While most of us go through our lives without thinking about the nature of knowledge (at least I do), there are geniuses around the world who spend their days trying to answer the question of what knowledge is, where it comes from, and if we can truly know knowledge at all!
The Hebrew Bible has an interesting take on this, and it all begins with death, sex, and ends with loyalty.
The first time we hear about knowledge in the bible is the Tree of Knowledge, more specifically, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We’re told in this story that if Adam (representing humanity) eats from this tree he will die (Genesis 2:17). So the narrator in this story is setting up an interesting problem for Adam: if you want to be fully human, that is, to be filled with knowledge, you will die. Adam is also very childlike in this story — and as anyone with children will tell you, saying to children that they can have anything they want except one thing will always drive them toward that one thing!
And that’s exactly what happens to Adam.
In the next scene, Eve is talking to the serpent, who says “God knows that in the day you eat [the fruit], your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). If a person becomes a god, they cease to be their mortal selves. In this way, a person dies when they have the kind of knowledge that a god would have.
But something odd happens. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t become gods at all. It turns out that in Eden there is a tree of immortality, and if Adam and Eve had time, they could have eaten from it, but God stops them and drives out Adam and Eve from the garden just in case (Genesis 3:22).
From this we learn the Biblical author’s idea about godhood: what makes a god is the knowledge of good and evil combined with eternal life.
Adam and Eve pass on the knowledge, a god-like knowledge, to all of humankind. Their sin is ultimately our victory: being truly human instead of the child-like garden creatures Adam and Eve started their lives as. Human beings have knowledge of everything that makes life worthwhile, including sacred suffering, such as laboring for our basic needs, sexual tension, emotional dynamics and giving life to future generations (3:16-20). In this moment, God is telling the first human family that for all the suffering they will encounter, these sufferings will lead to great moments of rapture, and, in the end, while they are mortal, they will live on through the generations that will come.
Side note: isn’t it amazing that we take this story and only make it all about fruit and sin? It’s insane.
Anyway, I digress.
There was a tree of knowledge. God’s creation ate from it and gained knowledge, becoming fully human. And what did they do next? They had sex.
“And the man knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 4:1). The same word for knowledge, daat, flows through the entire text. Adam, humanity, knows Eve, whose name means life.
So this story connects the essence of being human, a creature that knows the whole of good and evil, with death and sexuality.
And it ends, sadly.
The next time that knowledge is brought up, the child that Eve conceives (Cain) has murdered his younger brother Abel. When God asks what has happened, Cain replies, “I know not” (4:9).
And the last time we hear of knowledge in this story is when Cain knows his wife, and together they have the child Enoch (4:17).
In summary: Humanity is human because of the experience of death, sex, creating life, more death and more life. Knowledge is more than intelligence, it’s about experiences. It took ‘earth people’ committing sins to become human. They needed the experience of being expelled, of experiencing sex, life, death and more life, in order to become what we are today.
We are a part of this story, as the children of Adam and Eve: of Earthling and Life-Giver. Why? Because the writers of the Genesis story want us to know that we are connected to the earth, to each other, and to life itself.
There are reclusive people in the world. There are people who are racked by emotional turmoil, fear, anger, resentment and the many other feelings which trap us in a prison of our own design. There are people who have turned their back on life, feeling like they have been punished too much to keep dealing with other people. Some people choose not to have friends and family. The world they live in is entirely of their own design. And even if they believe that world to be perfect just as it is, they secretly want something better, something real. In order to avoid suffering, they choose another kind of suffering.
So we learn that knowledge is about the fullness of life that comes from experience. But what of it? We can have all the experiences we want, but that doesn’t mean we truly know anything. Dumb people go through life all the time.
And that’s when the Bible introduces the second half of knowledge: loyalty.
Everything in the Bible is about relationships.
The Book of Hosea tells the story of a prophet who is married to a prostitute named Gomer.
Side note: Gomer?! Really?
Gomer sleeps with another man, but even so, Hosea loves her and forgives her. It is a story that is understood as a metaphor: Israel is the adulterous spouse and God is the forgiving, loving spouse. Adultery can ruin a relationship. The writer of the text new this and understood that this metaphor would resonate with its readers. The powerful connection between humanity and God is felt so strongly that the torturous feeling of two hearts being ripped apart in adultery was the closest way the writer could express what this covenant, this relationship, was between God and the Israelites.
From first-hand experience we know truth. The knowledge of that truth becomes so powerful that we cannot help but cleave to it. The poets of the Psalms understood this when they said:
Guide me in your truth and teach me; for you are the God of my salvation (25:5)
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me (43:3)
Lord, teach me your way, that I may walk in your truth (86:11)
From experience we know the truth. And to fully have truth, we need loyalty.
If you are spiritual, but not religious, it can be hard to know what “capital T” Truth is. Fundamentalists often ask the irreligious the question, “if you don’t believe in the Bible, how do you know what the truth is? How do you know what morality is?” Often the answer is something vague like natural law, or the golden rule, or a counter argument like “if you need a book to tell you it’s wrong to kill, then something is wrong with you.”
But the honest truth is that without some kind of compass guiding you in the right direction. Without some kind of framework for understanding life, you are…well…lost.
Knowledge is possible. It doesn’t come from blindly accepting what some New Age guru says. It doesn’t come from the Law of Attraction or whatever pop-culture theology is hot today. It comes from experiences. And having fidelity to those experiences.
You are smart, and so were the people of the Biblical texts. They were human beings who lived in a depth of reality that for many of us seems impossible. These ancient peoples were connected to the cycle of nature, the rhythm of life and death and constant emotional connection to the universe in indescribable ways. And those very real moments of their lives, and a fidelity to those experiences, gave them the knowledge that they passed down to us generations later.
Not bad, huh?
Written by Rabbi Patrick
The Bible is filled with tiny, mundane details that are boring at best and that frankly don’t apply to our lives today. Why would someone read the Bible when most of it is about people “begatting” each other and about a bunch of animal sacrifices?
Well, details, details, details. It turns out details are somewhat important.
Some Assembly Required
Have you ever tried to assemble something from a set of directions? Say, like Ikea furniture? A baby’s crib? A light fixture?
It’s horrible, isn’t it?
You have this stuff; these elements that need to come together to form whatever your project is with a set of instructions, usually in Chinese, that will lead you down the road to completion. And sometimes you have another person watching you, hanging on in anticipation for the glory that is the whatever-your-making.
And it stinks.
The instructions are ridiculous. They don’t make any sense. Even if they are in English, it’s like a secret code you have to deconstruct in order to do the simplest task.
“Insert widget A into slot B by turning dial C.” What? Are you kidding?
It doesn’t help that widget A, slot B and dial C are these things that you have no other frame of reference for. It’s completely alien to you as to how any of this works. This is the first, and likely last, time you will ever be called upon to build this thing, but the process of creation makes you feel like it will never end.
Between the Exodus from Egypt and the settlement of the land of Canaan, the Israelites were commanded to build a portable religious building we call the Tabernacle. I talked about this in an earlier blog post, specifically about the connection between the priests, their clothing and the building. But let’s take some steps backwards and talk about the building and how boring the Bible is.
“This is the offering which you shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.”
Cool, this seems easy.
“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it. And they shall make an ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length, and a cubit and a half the breadth, and a cubit and a half the height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without, and you shall make upon it a crown of gold. And you shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in the four feet thereof; and two rings shall be on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. And you shall make staves of acacia-wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the staves into the rings on the sides of the ark, wherewith to bear the ark” (Exodus 25:3-14).
Bored yet? Thought so. And that’s only eleven verses!
So why the details. Why not, “and you shall figure it out on your own. Yea, for you are smart enough!” God it turns out does not work that way.
Is it simply that religion is filled with rules that have no application today? That it’s just a bunch of made up nonsense designed to torture you?
OK, let’s go with that for a moment. Well, not the torture part. Let’s just assume that religion is just made up.
If it’s all made up, why bother making up the part about the tabernacle and its exact construction? There are more worthwhile things to make up, like plagues and worldwide floods. Holmes On Homes in Hebrew is just ridiculously bland.
Or is it?
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Rabbi Ron Herstik. Ron’s a sweet guy, very Zen. He’s one of those people you meet and you think to yourself, “damn, I will never know as much as he knows in ten thousand lifetimes.”
Ron held Shabbat services once a month in the community room of his suburban neighborhood. On one such occasion, he was delivering a sermon (dvar torah) about the particular Torah portion that talks about this temple construction nonsense. At a certain point in his sermon Ron asked the crowd if they had any questions, and a delicate woman’s voice responded “why all the details?”
If I had been in his position I’m not sure I would have known what to do. The benefit of age and experience is having answers to things like this in your pocket.
Rabbi Ron answered by saying that he has a hobby which is woodworking! From the perspective of someone who works with wood, he understands the need for details. The writer of this text is insisting we read all these minor points because of what it does to us as the reader. The text, through its intricate retelling of how the tabernacle was assembled, is meant to deeply involve us in the experience of the construction of the temple.
It’s not that we need to know how the temple goes together. We’re not rebuilding it any time soon. We read the text so that we enjoy each and every part of the temple construction. Anyone who works with their hands, someone who enjoys their craft whatever it may be, finds a certain kind of peace and completeness when putting something together.
In his book “It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It,” author Robert Fulghum talked about his teen years when he learned the proper way to iron a shirt. He connected the detail-oriented approach of washing, drying, and pressing a shirt to zazen, the activity-as-meditation he would later learn in his spiritual explorations.
When we read the construction of the temple, we are being asked to be part of something. We are invited to the peace that comes with doing one thing really well, whether it’s woodworking in your garage like Ron or ironing a shirt like Robert.
Details Are Eternal
The Temple in Jerusalem was sacked many times by foreign armies. Each time there was some kind of construction project to rebuild it, until 70CE when the Romans destroyed the Temple and thus ended the priesthood and the sacrificial system.
What came out of this destruction was the rise of a group called Pharisees, or rabbis. Their approach to religion was slightly different. These rabbis deemphasized the sacrificial system and instead focused on ethical behavior, prayer, and a great attention to law, specifically how law was going to be applied in a new era and outside the land of Israel.
If you want to understand these people and their beliefs, the most comprehensive way to do it is by reading a series of books called the Mishnah. The Mishnah, surrounded by commentary, makes up a much larger series called the Talmud. Imagine a series of Facebook dialogues about the Jewish religion over a period of hundreds of years. That’s pretty much what we’re talking about here. Every minor detail of every aspect of life is brought up in this voluminous series. Scholar Ari Elon called the Mishnah the “theology of tiny details.”
Why the annoying rules?
Great Art Requires Suffering
What we call Judaism today is the aftermath of a great tragedy. The Israelites had a Temple, a priesthood, and a text that backs it all up. When that went away, God went away.
The Mishnah was a way for the Israelites to come back into relationship with the Divine, even if it was a shadow of what they once had. Like someone lingering over photos of their lost love, the Israelites poured over every letter of texts looking for the God that was once there, then gone.
Details are about creating a deep relationship between yourself, the person writing the sacred text, and the eternal message they are trying to convey. The more details, the more opportunities there are to experience the sacred.
What About Us?
When we allow ourselves to dance with the details, we become part of the story. We become Moses, the priests, the Israelites. We become part of their communion with God, and in that way, God is released from the bounds of time and history, and dwells amongst us again.
Religions have details. These details are like a code: an operating system for the spiritual technology that is the human spirit. We need the details, because we need the transcendent.
Guess the Bible isn’t that boring after all.
Written by Rabbi Patrick
This week is all about Kosher Vegans, Tu B’Shvat and a big OneShul announcement!
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