It is said that the Passover seder is based on the type of Greek banquet-symposium described in Plato’s writing: dining at leisure, dinner companions explore ideas, rhyming philosophical and physical appetites and satisfactions. Each conversation is different, owing to the participants, yet all focus on the same epic of slavery and liberation.
At our second seder on Sunday night, guests raised questions about the exodus story which they’d found troubling: why must God cause the Egyptians to be drowned? Why not soften Pharaoh’s heart instead, enlighten the Egyptians toward a bloodless end to oppression?
That question triggered others others not directly related to the seder: one friend wondered how anyone could “sign up for” a faith in which (in a text from Genesis known as the Akeda, studied during the High Holy Days) Abraham follows divine instructions to bind and ready his son Isaac for sacrifice, even laying the knife to his son’s throat before a reprieve from the unbearable command is granted. Why, people asked, is God so cruel?
There are so many possible answers, my head feels like a jumble when I try to organize them into some logical form. Neither my own limited knowledge nor the limitations of this medium permit anything like complete or exhaustive answers. Indeed, as discussed below, no accumulation of answers, no matter how extensive, can exhaust such questions. But I would like to try to address the underlying issue, however imperfectly, because it looms so large in some friends’ heads and hearts.
First, I want to borrow a felicitous phrase from Sandro Portelli’s description of oral history: “Many of the most important stories are true but not accurate.” Did Jonah survive in the belly of a giant fish? Did the waters of the Sea of Reeds part allowing escaping slaves to flee on dry land? Was Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son like an animal? Who knows? Are the miracles of the Koran accurate? The tales of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu? The Sutras?
Personally, I have my doubts about the accuracy of miracle or supernatural stories, but I don’t think about it much, as I don’t really care if they are accurate or not. The Hebrew bible is not a documentary (even though some people would like it to be). All sacred texts are teaching stories, and the primary question engaged by most who study them is what they are trying to teach. The great spiritual teachings of the world center on texts that can be revisited and re-experienced countless times because they bring us face to face with the eternal search that seeds all spiritual inquiry and practice, the mystery at the heart of existence: what are we doing here? How shall we live?
I do not know if a supernatural voice commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. What I know empirically is that the presence of that story with its powerfully disturbing resonances has sparked volumes of argument and centuries of spirited debate over questions I find essential, such as the limits of faith, love and obedience. In an age of suicide bombers, bombers of Planned Parenthood clinics and white supremacist “armies of the Lord,” this is a spiritual question “ripped from the headlines,” as fresh as today’s news. Generations have used the story to explore these questions: like all effective teaching stories, it distances a question from daily life, enabling us to engage it without being snared by superficial detail. It offers enough ambiguity to constitute an open invitation to explore our own spiritual and ethical values.
One reason these stories persist in their continuous opening into meaning is that (when the focus shifts from distracting questions of accuracy) they match the real world in which we live. People are presented in all our complex conflicting motives, both base and glorious. There are obstacles and helping hands, there is both injustice and mercy, each force and its opposite, just as we see every day. In reflecting on them, we uncover teachings that can help us craft our personal (if provisional) answers to the questions of purpose, relationship and meaning that shape a conscious life. If instead of these sometimes troubling texts in which blood and love are both shed freely we were given a steadily rising narrative of goodness in which everyone is softened and healed and every story has a happy ending, I don’t think I could find much to relate to, let alone to help me navigate the challenges of living.
My own belief is with Gandhi’s, that there is “one religion, but any number of faiths.” As he said, “My religion enables me, obliges me to imbibe all that is good in all the great religions of the earth.” So I am not a recruiter for any particular spiritual path, but for looking deeply into the meanings of these our lives. I am grateful for the particular path on which I was born, because it so perfectly suits my character to be engaged with Judaism, in which disputation is a form of worship. The aim is not to achieve agreement (our many volumes of commentary and debate are not exactly consensus documents), but to pursue the holy act of engaging with meaning. For this purpose, to encompass life in its totality, rich, challenging and sometimes disturbing — even repugnant — stories are all required, and to my knowledge, they are part of every faith, whether portrayed as emanating from deity, demon or ordinary human being.
I have noticed that some people insist on a literal reading of biblical texts (the kind of engagement we may have had as children, when we asked if Jonah could really survive in the fish’s belly) even when they would never settle for that form of engagement with art, with other faiths’ sacred texts, or with each other’s life stories. Sometimes they assert that the purely literal reading is more authentic, that other interpretations are mere evasions or spin-doctoring. Often, I think, the underlying reason for this stance is that the literal reading is easier to reject: if it’s not accurate — if the belly of the fish thing doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny — you can dismiss the entire text as egregious nonsense, perhaps turning your attention to study of a different faith tradition, one that doesn’t evoke the hypocrisy of your parents, the constraints of your childhood or the boredom of your Hebrew school experience.
This is our right, of course, to find our own paths. But literalism is a straw man: let the choice be based on something more solid.
The idea that Hebrew sacred texts have multiple layers of hidden and revealed meaning is grounded in many centuries of study and writing. Some ancient teachers have posited 13 or more levels of interpretation. But two simpler systems are so integral to the tradition that one who enters into serious study will soon encounter them.
First is the idea, especially common to Hasidic and mystical traditions, that the entire saga of the bible should be read as a metaphor for the internal struggle that is every person’s, between the yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Or to quote Reb Gandhi again, “The eternal duel between Ormuzd and Ahriman, God and Satan, is raging in my breast, which is one among their billion battlefields.” So while the literal reading of Abraham’s binding of Isaac raised questions of cruelty for some of my friends, viewed through this lens, it is a story of relationship between submission to what is more powerful than oneself and the voice that chooses life; or between the ego that knows best and the acceptance of reality; or between trust and fear; and so on.
Second is the quartet of interpretive levels known by the mnemonic PaRDeS, which means “orchard” in Hebrew. P stands for pshat, which refers to surface or literal meaning. In a pshat reading of Exodus, Moses, Prince of Egypt, is suddenly consumed with empathy for his people, striking down the overseer who has been beating a slave.
R stands for remez, which means hint. In traditional interpretation, hints can be found in things embedded in the text, like the specific associations or numerical values of letters. It also means embedded allegory: in family terms, for instance, Moses is severing his identification with the father.
D stands for drush, which means search or investigation, referring to the underlying philosophical meaning of a text. There are extensive collections of midrash, backstories and embellishments to the literal texts. At this level, texts may be read as parables. This level of meaning emerges from investigatory analysis and discussion, taking context into consideration. When Moses strikes down the overseer, he is committing an irrevocable act of class suicide, symbolically severing his association with the oppressive house of Pharaoh and joining his own fate to that of the oppressed. In context, an act that cannot be undone must set a reluctant Moses on his path: sometimes in the cause of liberation, we must set a course that moots our reservations.
S stands for sod, meaning secret or hidden. This often refers to mystical meanings. The text says that when Moses was grown, he went out to his people and witnessed their hard labors, which is the context for his killing the overseer. He would have seen slaves toiling every day of his life, but on this day, he truly saw their suffering. One mystical interpretation is that this seeing was a vision — a life-changing experience of oneness — in which he glimpsed not only the people’s collective suffering but its intrinsic relation to redemption, and that’s when everything changed for him.
None of these is definitive, none precludes the infinite multiplication of meaning. It seems to me that the act of interpretation, of grappling with these stories in all their implications — both their delight and difficulty — is what this particular practice is about. In fact, so far as I can see, the only approach that is restrictive or damaging is literalism, whether adopted in pursuit of a fundamentalist agenda or a rejectionist one. For reasons we can never fully grasp, we have been given these big brains, and we honor our lives and spirits by using them to engage deeply, even with whatever troubles us.