Two New Works of Biblical Scholarship Demonstrate the Plausibility of Ancient Convictions

Dec. 26 2017

Reviewing two recent books on the Hebrew Bible by distinguished Jewish academics, David Wolpe explores their implications for religious readers:

In The Exodus, Richard Elliott Friedman seeks to answer, once and for all: was there an Exodus from Egypt? In The Great Shift, James Kugel responds to the perennial Sunday-school question: why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?

Kugel draws on [the philosopher] Charles Taylor’s notion that the premodern self was “porous”—or as Kugel puts it, “semipermeable.” People did not experience themselves as fixed, bounded individuals, but as continuous with the natural world. . . . The heart of the book contains evidence from the biblical text that not only were human beings more permeable, the Deity was different too: far less abstract and distant than in later conceptions. God was periodically visible [and] local, choosing to be accessible to select individuals at times.

[For his part, Friedman] insists that the Exodus did indeed happen, just not quite the way the Bible describes. . . . Friedman agrees with [the current scholarly] consensus [that] most Israelites did originate in Israel. But not all of them. . . . The Exodus story, [he argues], is really the tale of how the people we call Levites left Egypt and joined up with the Israelites already in Canaan. . . .

Both books trace the gradual emergence of monotheism from a background of polytheism. . . . Each explains the gradual unfolding of a universal God who is parent to all, who provides a paradigm of liberation and demands not just devotion but ethical action. Both authors succeed in deploying modern scholarship to prove the validity, or at least plausibility, of ancient convictions.

In Moses’ final song to the people, he encourages them: “Remember the days of old/ Consider the years of ages past/ Ask your father, he will inform you,/ Your elders, they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). They still have a tale to tell, those elders. As Kugel and Friedman demonstrate, if we learn new ways to ask, even doubting moderns can trust

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More about: Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times