Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Anthropomorphisms continued

The most amusing counterargument I received during last week's discussion of God's attributes went something like this.
Cmon DovBear look in the bible. You'll see its black and white. God has physical attributes and emotions.
To which I might reply, OK look in the bible. It's black and white. If someone knocks out your eye you  get to knock out his eye. Also its black and white that the goat that gets sent to Azazel is set free, not thrown off a cliff. Look in the bible. In fact you'll find dozens, if not hundreds of instances where the halacha contradicts the plain meaning of the text. You'll also find that several of our cherished and beloved current practices are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

How did this happen? Simple.

Like it or not, Judaism is a living, evolving religion, which means that the way we think about the theology and the way that we practice the rituals are both able to change over time. And in fact, they have changed.

Over the last several thousands years we've phased out ideas that no longer work, and replaced practices that are no longer tenable. We've also introduced new theology, new rituals, and new understandings of old rituals.

  • Ideas that no longer work: God appearing to people in human form as he did in the Bible; replaced with the idea that He is omniscient. 
  • Practices that are no longer tenable: Animal sacrifice, Jubilee debt cancellation; 
  • New theology: sefirot, Nitzutz kedusha; 
  • New rituals: upshurin, hats
  • New understandings of old rituals: Shavuos transformed from harvest festival to zman matan torataynu
So when I point out that great Jewish thinkers such as Rambam and Sadiah Gaon embraced apophatic theology following their encounter with Greek philosophy via the Muslim world, it really is quite pointless to respond that the Bible's paints a different picture of Gods attributes. Jews haven't really cared about the literal meaning of the Bible since at least the days of the first Pharisees. For more than 2000 years we've been far more concerned with what James Kugel calls the Interpreted Bible. After all, halacha as well as our understanding of Biblical events and personalities are based on the Interpreted Bible, not the Literal Bible. And as I reported both Sadiah and Rambam had ways of interpreting around Biblical anthropomorphisms in defense of their apophatic theologies, just as other Rabbis from both earlier and later eras have interpreted their way around whatever Biblical passages they found inconvenient to theologies and/or practices they wished to support. 

In a comment Avi adds a bunch of other untenable, discarded Jewish practices

Other untenable Biblical practices we don't observe today as written in the Torah: ribit, shmitta, not owning chometz on pesach, not carrying on Shabbat, techum Shabbat, polygamy, monarchy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, tribal land ownership, Amalekite genocide, basar b'chalav as written, and not adding commandments to the Torah (ex: second day Yom Tov outside Israel, which contradicts the explicit number of days each holiday is commanded to last).

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