Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Can the Bible's Every Word be a Moral Guide?

Not long ago, I attended an unusual Jewish ceremony – five adults were officially converted to Judaism in a b’nai mitzvah. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, so conversions are infrequent. The reading of the Hebrew Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament, is the central feature of the ceremony, as it is in every Jewish service.

Each person prepared a commentary on the passage to be read in the synagogue that week, which contained rules for the ancient priesthood from Leviticus. There was a sentence about how adulterous women should be put to death, Leviticus 21.9: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” But the words I keep thinking about excluded various kinds of handicapped people from full religious rights as Jews. In Leviticus 21.18-20, the Lord tells Jews that the following people were not allowed to make offerings to him: “a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye”.

The rabbi, Barry Marks, like the other participants in the service, wanted to be clear that he disagreed with these idea, because they represent attitudes which have caused untold grief in this world and which we have recently learned how to get beyond, if not yet fully successfully. He also offered a way of understanding the very different people who lived under those rules and what they might have been thinking so long ago.

There are many passages in both the Torah and the New Testament which represent ideas and beliefs that I reject, and that American society for the most part rejects, officially and personally. For example, in Deuteronomy, God demands that Jews kill anyone who tries to entice them from proper worship of Him as the only God. That seems to contradict His other injunction, “Thou shall not kill.”

In my course on the Holocaust, which I will teach again in the fall, I quote this passage about Jews from John 8.42-47, said to be from the mouth of Jesus: “If God were your Father, ye would love me . . . Ye are of your father the devil . . . ye are not of God.” For centuries Christian leaders, Catholic and Protestant, defended antisemitic practices by pointing to that and similar passages in the New Testament. Only after the Holocaust, in which Christians all over Europe participated in the mass murder of Jews, did Christian religious leaders finally reject their validity as representing truth.

Transforming social assumptions is a long and contentious process. Until just a couple of centuries ago, slavery was taken for granted as a normal organizing principle of human society. Many passages in both Bibles describe slavery as a matter of fact. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to question the morality of slavery in the 18th century. They also developed new ideas about government which inspired our Revolutionary American founders. Although many early American leaders disapproved of slavery, legal inequality was so deeply integrated into American society and economy that the continuation of slavery was written into our Constitution. Slavery’s presence in the Bible allowed its defenders in America to quote scripture as proof that God accepted slavery.

Judgments about slavery are one of many areas where fundamental moral understandings have changed since the Bibles were written. In contemporary America, we see this gradual process of emancipating society from ideas written down thousands of years ago in the controversy about how to think about homosexuality. Both those who accept homosexuality and those who condemn it can find Biblical passages to support their social ideology.

There are many Biblical passages which reflect ideas that modern people find abhorrent. Disagreements about how to understand the Bible are often arguments about which passages are to be taken as moral guides and which ones should be ignored. Arguments about how to understand religious texts divide every religion. Jewish fundamentalists assert that words in the Torah prove that Jews should control parts of the Middle East where other people live. Muslims argue about whether the Koran tells them to kill all “infidels” or not.

I don’t understand the argument that everything in the Bible should be taken literally as a moral guide. I see that argument used to support many ideas that lots of people have. I don’t hear it used to support ideas in the Bible that few people have, from burning adulterous women, to having slaves, to the difficulty of rich people getting to heaven, as Jesus is supposed to have said. I see people who claim that the Bible should be our literal moral guide adopting very different stances toward passages which fit their social ideology from other passages which contradict their economic self-interest. The Bible is a sprawling document full of contradictions. So-called literalists choose which passages they want to follow on the basis of principles which are very modern, far from the ideas and attitudes of Jews and Christians thousands of years ago.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 26, 2011

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