Tag Archives: ein mukdam um’uchar

The Bible Is Fiction

I once remarked that some of Freud’s work should be filed under F, for Fiction. “Oh,” replied my hearer, “One of my professors does that with the Bible.”

I was wrong and the Bible professor was right – but for an unobvious reason, a reason with deep consequences for the life of the spirit.

Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth.  “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”

“Once upon a time” (like fiction in general) goes beyond concerns for the truth or falsity of what really happened. Fiction is like drama, where the historical accuracy behind, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III is not the issue. Richard wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare portrayed him, but so what? Shakespeare’s point is moral, not historical – moral in the sense of providing a lesson about the human condition. Both fiction and drama are presentational modes of communication. They are works of art. They have a presentational point to make.

By contrast, Freud’s Totem and Taboo is not presentational. It is written rather well, even artfully, in places, but its artistry is beside the point, whereas the artfulness of fiction is not. However well Freud wrote it, Totem and Taboo is an altogether specious account of the way ritual developed historically. Freud meant it as science, and its problem, therefore, is that it is bad science, not that it is fiction.

The Bible, however, is fiction, because, overall, its authors meant it as presentation, not as science, or even as history, which is a form of science with its own scientific rules of evidence. Sometimes they accepted the truth of the stories they used, but sometimes, they did not — Job and Esther describe personalities who never lived, and the authors knew it. Some of it reports historical fact, of course: there was a King David, as there was a Babylonian invasion. There was also a prophet named Isaiah, but his prophecies were included in the Bible to give us lessons of morality not of history. The same is true of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges and all the other books, some of whose characters really lived and some of whom didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Fiction can be chock-full of characters who really lived, with a story line of things they really did – and still be fiction.

“Fiction,”  says Eagleton, “is a question of how texts behave and of how we treat them.” The question is what we are invited to do with the biblical text.

Until relatively recently (the invention of printing) The Bible was read and studied, usually out loud, for the moral lessons within it. But then came printing, along with reading as a personal pastime and fiction as what people liked best to read. Fiction was falsely viewed as private entertainment about nothing substantive, hardly the moral equivalent of history, philosophy and science, which were public truths.

The Bible now seemed fictitious because it wasn’t “true” in the way that history, philosophy and science are. Supporters of the Bible bristled at this claim because fiction was considered paltry, hardly what you would stake your life on. The Bible is history, these defenders insisted, fact not fiction.

But that judgment misses the point. Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life, and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: the fiction that is the Bible.


God’s Second Book: The Most Valuable Jewish Value

Why be Jewish – other than the fact that you like it, of course? The most common answer is, “For its values.” But what exactly are Jewish values? I don’t mean grand generalizations like an affinity for justice and an insistence on learning – although these are not irrelevant. I have in mind something very specific, some single teaching that elucidates the Jewish outlook on the world.

My choice for today is ein mukdam um’uchar batorah, “There is no chronological order to Torah,” a teaching used to explain the fact that some things in Torah seem out of order. Implicit in this principle is an insightful understanding of the role of sacred scripture.

Scripture has become problematic in the modern world. On the one hand, acknowledging something as sacred writ is enormously enriching. That is why so many people insist on it even though they no longer believe that it was dictated by God. Scripture provides us with spiritual ballast, connection to times past, a text around which to ritualize a community’s present, a vocabulary for intergenerational discussion, and a sacred story that becomes the center of conversational gravity generation after generation.

But Scripture can also be a problem. Much like a national constitution, it serves its believers as a foundational document, but unlike a national constitution, it cannot be emended. It is, by definition, canonical, and, therefore, unalterable through time. It easily becomes a rival to such other sources of truth as science and reason.

The Rabbis, moreover, believed scripture came from God, making it all the more unalterable by mere human beings. Yet they knew also that some of its claims couldn’t possibly reflect the divine will. Stoning a “stubborn and rebellious son”? Extracting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? Impossible. So they erected the legal fiction of an oral law, a commentary that had come down from Sinai alongside the written Torah and been passed along as an interpretive guide to each successive generation. Jews could now read Scripture selectively.

The Bible’s most morally reprehensible elements, they held, had never actually been acted upon — they were there for other lessons they contained. Even the chronological sequence of the Bible was not actually the way it presented itself: ein mukdam um’uchar batorah.

I understand that as (among other things) a subtle recognition that Scripture cannot collide with science, not even the soft science of history, let alone the hard sciences like geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Maimonides (among others) affirmed that understanding. Accepting the consequences of ein mukdam um’uchar batorah allows me to lead my life with the certainty that nothing science finds can conflict with what Judaism has to say.

Galileo said, of his own scientific curiosity, that he was simply investigating God’s second book, nature; the first book, of course, was the Bible. I, similarly, see Torah (my Scripture) as God’s first book, and the universe as the second one — each of them created and revealed in its own way. It seems, at the moment, that the universe was formed from a cosmological singularity that brought time into being; it seems also that the Bible evolved from a historical process conditioned by that very flow of time. If opinions change on either of these realities, so be it. Since both “books” are by the very same author, they cannot contradict one another. I can rest secure that as new scientific findings arrive, my reading of Torah need not conflict with those findings.

In no way does that make Scripture irrelevant. Scripture was never intended to define scientific reality. It provides other benefits, like the ones outlined above. When I want to know how the world works, I go to science. When I want to know what the world means, I go to Torah. We need them both, and ein mukdam um’uchar batorah prevents my having to choose one at the expense of the other.

This insistence on a dual source of truth has been a Jewish hallmark through the ages. In an age of renewed insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, and a time when reasonable people can easily find religion antediluvian, I nominate ein mukdam um’uchar batorah as the most valuable value in the Jewish lexicon.