Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Religion Is Essential For The Left: Reading Scripture Deeply Instead of Just Watching the Movie

It was my intention to post before Passover about this discussion between Krista Tippett and Avivah Zornberg about Zornberg's fascinating reading of the story of the Jews in Egypt and their liberation from the book of Exodus.  I began going over all the interesting points Zornberg made about small details of the text that I'd just passed over to get to the action parts of the story.   That's the typical, superficial, way that scriptures are read.  Which is responsible for both the kind of superficial Biblical fundamentalism that so frequently misses the point entirely, the moral meaning of the text, the more profound implications of the relationship of people, each other and God.   Which increasingly unsurprisingly ALSO leads to the atheist fundamentalist conception of the scriptures and religion.   Those two fundamentalisms are joined at the .... well, "hip" by their superficial and naive conceptions of religion.   Here's a passage that points that out perfectly.

Ms. Tippett: I wonder when you see a movie version of the sea parting. The Israelites coming out triumphant. And maybe you’ve just answered this question too but what is missing for you in that great climactic moment which does result in the freedom of the Israelites. What is missing for you in a kind of simple portrayal of that?

Dr. Zornberg: Well, I think, again, it's the question of The Particulars of Rapture. In other words, I'm always looking for the particulars.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. "The Particulars of Rapture" is the title that you gave to your book about Exodus, so I wanted to ask you what you meant by that title. So, good.

Dr. Zornberg: All right, so we'll try to touch on both. It seems to me that it's a kind of storybook story, that Cecil B. DeMille story, in which there are the bad guys and the good guys, and the bad guys get it. You know, they get their comeuppance, and the good guys rejoice. And, somehow, it doesn't seem to me to be, that’s not a story for adults. What you find in the midrashic versions, many multiple narratives, is an emphasis on the complexity of the Israelite experience and the fact that, immediately they land on the other side, they begin to complain and sin, essentially to doubt the whole story of redemption. In other words, nothing is absolute. And the fact that the Israelites are witnessing the deaths of the Egyptians, that is something, according to a very famous and beautiful midrash, that means that the angels in heaven are not allowed to sing a song of praise. God stops them singing, because 'the creatures of My hand, the work of My hands, are dying in the sea. How can you be singing a song of praise?'

Ms. Tippett: And God is speaking of the Egyptians.

Dr. Zornberg: He's speaking of the Egyptians, at least in certain versions of the midrash. In other versions, He's speaking of the Israelites, who are also on the edge. So there is a sense here of the pathos of the human condition. And the Israelites are very aware of that. Their song and their dance — the women play a special role, again, in this story; they sing separately — has to do with the kind of faith that is required to live in a condition in which rapture doesn't usually come unalloyed. It comes with a sadness and a tension involved in it. So "The Particulars of Rapture," that wonderful line from a poem by Wallace Stevens, I had in mind the subtleties and the complexities of all the many stories, like the stories that are hidden within the apparent grand narrative.

There is the grand narrative which can be told very simply, and you could say it's a kind of children's story, and then there are all the details, which really make the experience, even the details that one isn't totally aware of oneself and which emerge sometimes only on retelling.

Since I have little time today and I really would like you to listen to the podcast or read the transcript,  here's something relevant to yesterday's post, pointing out the importance of  exactly this story of God liberating an enslaved People, how God did that in human terms, through imperfect, difficult and unwilling human agency with all of the messy complications involved.  In short, it is a story that gives the real why and how of abolitionism and why this story has been so important, not to free people living in American style middle-class comfort, self-satisfied and contented, but to people living in slavery more crushing and oppressive than the typical readers of Alternet or going to a mega-church can conceive of.   I will go so far as to say that I'm skeptical of any struggle against slavery and oppression that doesn't learn the same things that this story tells.

Ms. Tippett: The great theme of the Exodus — and this story has been used by other people in other situations also. African-Americans, slaves were very inspired, and in the civil rights movement, were very inspired by this Exodus story. There's liberation theology. It's been empowering for all kinds of people in all kinds of bondage. But tell me, when you think about the theme of human freedom, human liberation. I mean, what are the layers of the message that this narrative tells about that experience?

Dr. Zornberg: Well, I think one of the important issues is one we've touched on, and that is the need for those who have to be liberated to achieve in themselves some sense of the possibility of change. I think there comes a situation in totalitarian regimes of all kinds in which there is what Vaclav Havel, the Czech leader, calls in one of his books  a kind of automatism, in which everyone somewhere becomes the system. People don't just accept their role, they almost become that role. There are no choices involved anymore. Nadezhda Mandelstam writes about the Russian situation under communism also as one in which no one believed that there could possibly be any change, nothing would ever change again. And this is not only those who are imposing the regime, but also those who suffered under it. So it seems to me that the story of the Exodus is one in which, in a quieter way, but I think in a very real way, one of the most important themes for liberation is the need for a process of growth within the persecuted if they are to have a history.

Notice how Zornberg finds in the hardships of the story during and after the escape from bondage how, in order to truly be free, to be a free People, there had to be the most profound transformation of The People, merely being dis-enslaved wasn't enough to become free, that was what the decades of wandering were about.  I think that we in the American left could learn a lot about why our own choices as much as the backlash of our opponents have kept us from coalescing into a governing coalition.  This program provides a lot to think about as to why religion can't be divorced from public discourse and the political struggle for justice.  We got the very concepts we struggle for from the Jewish scriptures and tradition, they present an enormous range of human experience with those ideas and the difficulty of making them manifest and real in human history.  To pretend that the history of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement and, yes, the feminist movement, is to abandon what has worked for what has not worked.  If there is something that is obvious, the alternatives, the show biz spectacles and ego feeding spectacles of fundamentalism and the vapid and nihilistic materialism of the intellectual variety have never worked.


  1. One of the main problems with reading scripture is that, like everything else, it has to be done within a community.

    What is midrash, except the commentary of the community?

    Everything is read within a community, of course. People who love Joyce are inexplicable to those of us who just find him ponderous. Lovers of poetry are lost to lovers of only sports (I find sports fanatics particularly inexplicable). People who are trained in music find people with no particular knowledge of the field impossible to talk to.

    And so on and so on.

    I'm convinced trying to use scripture outside the community for whom it means something, is an abuse of scripture as much as trying to read "The Waste Land" to engineers is a waste of time (or to read an engineering text to English majors, for that matter). But it's not really, in other words, an argument against scripture to criticize it without any understanding or knowledge.

    Indeed, my position should be an argument for entering into the world of scripture, much as we train people to enter the world of law, or literature, or the fine arts, or science and engineering: as an area which has much to teach you, if you are willing to learn.

    But scripture should no more be used simplistically than science should be used to say there is only one way to understand the universe, and that is via quantum mechanics; or super-string theory; or all biology reduced to "selfish genes."

  2. BTW, what you are arguing for is sophia: wisdom.

    A very scriptural approach to understanding, and to life.

  3. I'm always interested in hearing scholars who specialize in understanding scriptures talk about it, while even people like me who are quite unequipped to find that depth of meaning in it can see a lot, there is a lot we miss. Especially as we are dependent on translations, not all of which seem to be made by similarly equipped scholars. And, as with the abolition and civil rights struggles, sometimes that reveals the deeper meaning of the text in the lives of those people.

    I once know a priest's housekeeper whose name was Sophia. He was a nasty old Jansenist trained in the bad old days at that infamous seminary in Quebec. She was much nicer than he was.