One of the worst things we ever did was invent the word religion. There is no such thing as religion. There are only cultures, which is a broader and looser term, much less loaded with preconceptions than religion is. By inventing this word, we have set up a bogus conflict between religion and science, and we have prevented ourselves from facing the real issues.
Call something a religion and we make assumptions about its beliefs about God and life. We automatically assume that it teaches God is all-knowing and all-powerful. We assume all religions believe God dictates and man’s duty is to obey; and when he doesn’t, God punishes. But anyone who reads the Torah honestly would have to admit that none of this accurately captures its depictions of God and human beings. There, the relationship between man and God is hardly ever straightforward.
I would not call the frequent debates, for example between God and Moses or God and Abraham, a simple matter of God proclaiming and man obeying. Sometimes God learns from them. He agrees to debating what truth is instead of proclaiming it. He accepts Moses confronting him about an appropriate punishment for Miriam and, in fact, reduces a lifetime of leprosy for Miriam to seven days. There is an implication that God makes or is capable of making mistakes. He agrees to reason with Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He practically begs Abraham to teach him. None of this fits what religious dogma is supposed to say about who God is and what he wants.
A better description of ancient Jewish culture, like other cultures, is that it wrestles with the existential problems of life. Existential problems never change. They are there in so-called religious culture and they are there in scientific culture. That’s what we should pay attention to, that’s what ails us, and not the manufactured, bogus conflict between religion and the secular. Existential dilemmas, often the exact same ones, remain in every culture, and calling them secular or religious does not change a thing. Verbal gamesmanship never solves anything.
The existential themes of life have been around forever. The ancients were as much concerned with them as we are. They were just as sophisticated, just as rational, just as historical, just as sensible and foolish as we are in attempting to figure out what is what. We are not superior. We have nothing over them. They too struggled to understand human nature, where we fit in the scheme of things, where we come from, and whether we can tolerate diversity or do we have to force everything into one mold. Their answers are comparable to our answers and as good as ours. Their mistakes were just like our mistakes. The grammar of their wrestling with these questions may have been different than ours, but I can assure you that they were no less rational than we were.
It is arrogance to think we secularists or scientists are superior in any way. We are still not sure if we can accept the diversity of human life on this planet or does everyone have to fit the mold of western civilization with all its devotion to technology and consumerism. We have our gods too. We have our Towers of Babel.
Just to switch over to Greek culture for a moment: In the play Ajax by the very ancient Greek writer Sophocles, Ajax enters the scene completely mad. The goddess Athena, visible to the audience but invisible to the human characters on stage, mocks him and enjoys her act of having driven him crazy. But if we pay attention, we realize that Ajax has gone mad because he had always considered himself to be the number one warrior in the world and now he has just lost a contest with Odysseus. For the first time in his life, he is now the second best fighter in the world. His self-image has been shattered. He cannot adjust or bend, so he breaks. He goes mad and then commits suicide. Ajax could not accept that he could be more than one thing.
When Odysseus appears later on, he tries to convince the authorities to give Ajax an honorable burial despite the shame of his suicide. Odysseus, we realize, has the flexibility that Ajax lacked. The rules of tradition are pliable for him. He would rather bend (including bending his attachment to tradition) than break. (I owe this interpretation of Ajax to a great philosophy teacher I had at Queens College in New York, Professor Henry Wolz—one of the great teachers who become more unforgettable as time passes.)
It reminds me that the Talmud points out that copies of Torah are made with the pliable reed, and not a more rigid implement, to teach us that to study and learn Torah you have to be as bendable as that reed (Taanith 20b). Torah in each verse is more than one thing. Only the man or woman who bends can fully appreciate what Torah has to tell us.
I am not here to proclaim that this is the central message of Torah or that love of the stranger and immigrant (alluded to so often in Torah) is the central message. There is no one final lesson. The Bible, like the writings of Darwin or the essays of Wallace or the varied output of Constantine Rafinesque or the plays of Shakespeare or the plays of the Greeks, has no one theme. Any great work has multiple threads running through it. ‘God don’t like empire or oneness’ is one theme of Torah, not the ultimate theme.
The problem of one versus many, autocratic rule (in personal or social life) versus the flexibility of diversity, goes back for ages. We are just as capable as the ancients of letting irrationality intrude into our system of knowledge (science) and they were just as sophisticated as we are in finding rational answers. We are not superior, better, wiser. If Darwin came up short in some respects (in his anthropological opinions of the inferiority of native peoples), it is a far more serious problem that we have come up short in discussing what he said. It is nothing but arrogance to misrepresent his complete views. It is arrogance to treat him or any modern figure as superior to previous accomplishments. If we are serious about defeating arrogance and if we truly (as opposed to hypocritically) believe that this is one of the purposes of science, then we had better learn this—learn it well and learn it fast—that our “advances” are just travels in a circle.
© 2105 Leon Zitzer