One Shabbat, I was sitting around talking about how the Bible often tells conflicting stories about the same event, or just doesn’t give us any clues about anything at all. For example:
Which version of the Creation narrative is correct: version one (Genesis 1) or the story in Genesis 2?
What was the Urim and Thummim, magical dice? A forerunner to Pokemon?
And why are there so many censuses in the Bible, and why do the numbers not always add up?
Side note: can you believe that “censuses” is actually a correct word? You’d think it would be “censi”, but that just sounds like a cool karate master. I digress.
At a certain point a friend of mine had a completely bewildered look on her face. She said, “how can there be things in the Torah that we’re not 100% certain of?” I answered, “we just don’t know. Scholars and sages made educated guesses, but that’s just it.” She did a double take, “but we’re Jews! We’re brainy! How come we don’t know everything?”
How come we don’t know everything? Because the Hebrew Bible, just like life, is filled with uncertainty.
I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first, let’s talk about not wasting time in Maryland.
For a year, I traveled the country as part of The G-d Project, a video series where we asked Jewish folks questions about God, the meaning of life, the nature of reality…you know…just your average everyday theological stuff…no big deal.
What I found fascinating was not the answers I received from the people we interviewed, but the number of people who did not want to take part in the documentary, people who were hostile to the very idea of The G-d Project (including rabbis), and the bewilderment on people’s faces when I said that a Jewish organization wanted to talk about God.
The last place I filmed was the Pearlstone retreat center in lovely Reistertown, Maryland, where I just happened to be taking part in The Jewish Week’s conference called The Conversation. I figured if there was ever a place where I would get to meet some people with cool ideas about religion, it would be there.
Funny enough, the person who impacted me the most was a guy I had never heard of, Rabbi Nathaniel “Nati” Helfgot, a professor at the modern Orthodox yeshiva Chovevei Torah.
Sitting in a room just the two of us, I asked Rabbi Helfgot why he thought so many Jewish folks were unwilling to even engage in a discussion about God, even if it’s pro-atheism. His reply (which I’m paraphrasing) shocked me:
Jews love experts. And you can’t be an expert on God.
That’s it. We love experts. We love scholars. We love people who know a helluva lot about everything.
If you can’t get a Ph.D. in God, then why even bother talking about Him/Her/It?
It all goes back to uncertainty.
You’re wondering, when am I going to defend my “the Bible is dumb” statement?
OK, here it goes.
The Bible isn’t actually dumb. Sorry.
What I think is dumb is trying to use the Bible to uphold the idea that life is filled with certainty.
A few passages from across the Tanakh would lead you to believe that life is pretty simple and straight forward.
And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if thou say in thy heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?’ When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him (Deut 20:19-21).
Translation: there’s lots of false prophets out there. If you’re not certain if a prophet is legit, just wait to see if any of the stuff they are saying comes true. If it doesn’t happen, then it was a lie all along.
But what if you die before a prophet’s prophecy comes true? What do you do in the meantime? And how long do you wait?
Here’s another one:
Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and He will sustain thee; He will never suffer the righteous to be moved. But Thou, O God, wilt bring them down into the nethermost pit; men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but as for me, I will trust in Thee (Psalms 55:23-24).
Translation: bad things happen, but throw your worries over to God and remember that only good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people
Apparently the Psalmists never read the Rabbi Harold Kushner book When Bad Things Happen To Good People
Here’s another oldie but goodie that should make you very comfortable with life:
The righteous and the wicked God will judge; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work (Ecclesiastes 3:17).
Translation: everything happens for a reason and it all works out in the end.
Unless it doesn’t.
When I said the Bible is dumb, what I mean is that we know bad things happen to good people, that the righteous suffer, and that when you’re certain someone is a liar, it might just come back to bite you in the rear end.
It’s dumb to think that life is well ordered and put together neatly, because frankly, the experience of life tells us that life is uncertain and often too difficult for a reasonable person to bear.
So the next question is, how do we deal with uncertainty, if not from our sacred texts?
The answer is simple: finger painting.
Do you remember as a child how fun finger painting was?
Why is that, anyway?
I think it’s because finger painting is raw. It’s emotional. There is no intermediary between you and the canvas. Whatever you are, whatever your fingers can do, is what makes your art.
Finger painting is like life. It’s messy. It’s rough. It’s fun. It’s a blending of so many elements together that make the haphazard.
Yet, at the same time, it’s orderly. You control in the most intimate way how the paint moves. You can’t blame the shape of the brush on any mistakes you make in the finger painting process. For as chaotic as finger painting looks, it’s actually the essence of control.
And that’s what the Hebrew Bible is, too.
The Hebrew Bible is messy.
In one moment, we’re reading out sacrifices. Then all of a sudden, like a Tony award winning musical, the narrative breaks into something completely different, like a song.
The Bible talks about blood, wine, birth, death, sacrifice, families, armies, God, people, tribes, the “in” group, the “out” group (and how the “in” group will find themselves out, and the out group eventually finds their way in). It’s not a scholarly manual for understanding the universe. It’s about here and now. And the here and now is a mess.
The Hebrew Bible looks certain, but isn’t.
How many animals were on that ark? Depends on which page you read.
Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons? Who cares?! The biblical writers certainly didn’t.
How did Cain know that murder was sinful, if God never gave the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Does it matter?
Do the righteous win in the end? Yes.
Do the righteous lose in the end? Yes.
Do bad things happen to good people? Yes.
Do good things happen to bad people? Yes.
Does it all work out in the end? Yes. Unless it doesn’t, in which case, no.
The Bible is not about God. It’s about humanity and our experience of God. And that experience is filled with uncertainty. The Biblical writers thrived on that uncertainty.
You could say that, in a way, the Bible is the collective finger paints of one human family, the Jewish people, coming to know themselves in a way that no family had ever known themselves before. That collection of raw, emotional art, was so true, so powerful, that it not only inspires the Jewish people today, but it inspired the development of Christianity, Islam, Unitarian Universalism, Bahai, Ethical Monotheism, and countless acts of non-religious social justice.
How do we deal with uncertainty? We finger paint, like prophets.
We get into life, we get messy with it, we complain about it, we praise it, we worship it, we admonish it, we wrestle with it, we dance with it, we get so wrapped up in life that we find ourselves bound up in a straight jacket, only to find ourselves released again.
And when we simply are too tired to do all the heavy lifting on our own, we can look to the finger paints of the Biblical writers, and we can live through them and their texts. We can embrace life through their words, their thoughts and their actions.
While doing that won’t give us certainty, at the very least, it will give us a way of working out our frustration. Sometimes, that’s just the best we can do.
Who wants to finger paint?
Written by Rabbi Patrick Aleph, Executive Director of PunkTorah