Hearing Voices in the Bible

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.

4 Responses to Hearing Voices in the Bible

  1. shocheradam says:

    First: “Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God.” Well… I think this is more along the lines of “because of,” rather than “despite.” Authority figures generally don’t like people speaking for a greater authority than themselves.

    The other thing is – yes, they are us.

    As you know, I have a science background, which demands a certain kind and level of literal, empirical proof. Spirituality has never given me that, and it still riles me when people say “Well the Bible says X happened so that’s proof,” because they think of it as literal proof when it’s not.

    But in reading – was it Telushkin? Might have been Telushkin and Prager, but I forget the source – I found something that allowed me to come to peace with some of these stories in Scripture. The point that Telushkin (I think) made about Scripture is this: No, it’s not all literal, and we know that. Many of the stories are “true” in a different way than the literal truth – they’re true because they speak to the human condition on some level, in some way. They are illustratively true, you might say.

    Once I figured out that “truth” comes in different forms, it made it much easier to relax into my Judaism and my Jewish practice. (It also made me realize why I love certain works of fiction; they are illustratively true.)

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Very true, Jeremiah was hated by the authorities because he claimed to speak for a higher authority. I can only imagine how frustrating this was for Jeremiah!

      If you are interested in exploring the various ways in which things can be “true,” I recommend Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory by Josef Yerushalmi. It was required reading at my rabbinical school, and it opened Jewish holy books up for me in an entirely new way. Not easy reading, but well worth the effort.

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  2. survivor55 says:

    That’s one thing I’ve always loved about the Bible — it’s filled with human beings — not perfect people. If all those people were perfect we’d never read it again. I have thanked God more times than I can count for various people in the Bible at various stages of my life because I have identified with them and their humanity. (You remember I follow Jesus.) When I was a teenager I was SO glad Peter always spoke rashly, put his foot in his mouth and when he felt like he had to say something but didn’t know what he’d say the first thing that popped out. Not too long ago with so much bad going on in my life I kept thinking of Job and the first few chapters of that book where we are told what is happening in the spiritual realm that Job doesn’t realize is taking place before the bottom seems to drop out of his life. Remembering those chapters is what enabled me to keep getting out of bed every day, no matter how angry I was or confused I was or depressed I was, no matter how many questions and, yes, even accusations I hurled God’s direction — and later repented for daring to do so — no matter what . . .

    My sister points to David — an adulterer and a murderer and yet he was called “a man after God’s own heart.” Thank God that God looks at our hearts — our heart of hearts in my opinion — and knows what we really desire, how we really want to be and say and think and feel. She uses David’s sins to encourage me, because she thinks I have a pure heart. I think my heart of heart is pure, but . . .

    I couldn’t get through a day without God and not without His people, both past and present!!

    Thank you!! This was incredibly good!!

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      Thank you, survivor55! That’s a good point about David. I once heard Rabbi Michael Oblath refer to David as “the godfather of the ancient world.” I was shocked at first, then realized he was exactly right: David was a spectacular sinner.

      The Hebrew for “pure heart” is “lev tahor.” Tahara is ritual purity, a quality for which we have rules but which is ultimately very mysterious.

      Thanks so much for writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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