Artifacts, Data, and Academe: Learning How to Be (Real)

AARThey streamed through the corridors, carrying their tote bags – thousands upon thousands of venerable scholars, aspiring academics, graduate students. Skywalks and lounges and restaurants in each of the three Atlanta hotels – the Hyatt, the Marriott, and the Hilton—were packed. The conference book was over 500 pages long, listing hundreds of panels and discussions and receptions for award-winning authors.

SBLI was there to deliver a paper as a member of a four-person panel exploring ritual items in Jewish practice. I chose panels to attend during my free hours and happily imagined going home with accrued knowledge of some sort or another.

I like evidence and data.

I teach in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte. Each semester, I engage in helping my students understand that honest, academic text study requires that they drop their theologies outside the classroom door. We must encounter texts on their own terms, I explain. That means understanding their context, their history, and the culture(s) which produced them. That means learning about how to construct our arguments and conclusions on the basis of verifiable data.

We are limited. We know very little of the priest who offered sacrifices in Dan before the Assyrian conquest of 722 BCE; we have no evidence that Abraham or Moses were actual, historical persons.

We accept a measure of humility: What can we really say for certain about these texts, about the mindsets of those who told and retold and revised the stories we encounter?

It is hard work. My students discover that monotheism is not a feature of most biblical texts and that God’s omniscience and omnipotence is highly overrated by modern readers. They find out that neither Jesus nor the devil can be found in Hebrew Bible.

Week in, week out, they practice thinking in academic terms: They are being asked to understand God as just one of many characters in a diverse library. The study will be unnerving, upsetting for many of the young people in my classrooms.

But there is a secret bonus.  My students will discover that the texts we are to explore invite profound encounters with the purpose and the meaning of human life.

When we consider the story of Saul, students will rightfully wonder if that hapless king deserved to be chosen, then rejected, by the God he had tried to please. My students will read Lamentations and recognize it as a text that could be written in their own time. The Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem in 585 BCE are the Yazidi of Sinjar in our time, after all: human beings forced to endure terror and violence, seemingly abandoned by God.

When I was at the AAR/SBL conference, I attended a panel reviewing Michael Fishbane’s new commentary of The Song of Songs. One of my library bookshelves is almost wholly inhabited by Fishbane’s work, including, among others, his Sacred Attunement, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, The Kiss of God, The Garments of Torah, and the magisterial Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.

Towards the end of the discussion, Michael Fishbane told us a story. He was talking to a famous Israeli archeologist – a colleague and teacher. The archeologist told him: “You and I, we do the same thing.” Fishbane, he said, dug in texts the way he himself dug into the earth – looking for artifacts, for evidence.

Then Michael Fishbane informed us: After decades of contributions to the field, this is no longer his work. This is: exploring historical theology of past ages and doing so as a pathway to constructing theology now.

“We must ask,” he asked, “‘what is the goal?’ Can we read for the sake of the humanities? What is the goal of teaching texts?”

Academics are taught to dig for more evidence, for artifacts left behind by peoples. With objective data, we make sense of the past, of peoples who left them behind.

But to read for the sake of the humanities, and for the sake of being human, we must study in order to learn how to be.

We should acknowledge our preconceptions. But then, knowing ourselves, we may encounter and experience the intersection of divine and human – in the data before us, in the artifacts we discover, in the words of the past.


Our Parents’ Legacies – Our Teshuva

Legacy flameThe scene is terrible, traumatic. Jacob is about to deceive his father with his mother’s help. Isaac, who can barely see, questions Jacob again and again. Is he really Esau? He doesn’t sound like Isaac’s eldest son, but he does smell like him, and his hands are hairy, as are Esau’s. Despite his doubts, Isaac eats the meal. He gives Jacob the blessing he had intended for his firstborn, beloved child.

Esau returns and discovers his loss. Bitterly, he asks whether Jacob got his name due to his naturally duplicitous nature. Ya’akov comes from a Hebrew root that means ‘heel,’ but may also describe the worst sort of sneaky behavior – coming up from behind, crushing the enemy under your heel, circumventing, overreaching. Jacob is, means, “crooked.” Esau cries out in anguish: “Father, have you no blessing for me?”

The Zohar teaches that when a soul is about to be born, it chooses its parents. And then, the Zohar explains, we are to go through life doing teshuva, facing and resolving not only all our failings from previous lives, but even the failings we experience at the hands of our own mothers and fathers.

Truth has been withheld from Isaac before. Surely, he knew. He asked only one question on that long walk to Mount Moria: “Father, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Isaac is wiser now, more inclined to question when Jacob – or is it Esau? – arrives at his bedside. Who are you? Are you really? How did you manage to return so quickly? Who am I really talking to?

Isaac was just a toddler when his elder brother was banished to the wilderness. Ishmael, like Esau, is described as an active, physically adept man – sturdy and fleet-footed. Ishmael will not be favored. Isaac will inherit.

Does Isaac see his brother in his impulsive elder son? Does Isaac feel compelled to do teshuva for his parents, who arranged Hagar’s pregnancy, who are responsible for Ishmael’s creation, who later make certain that it is their Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, that inherits all that his father has?

The child of an alcoholic often grows up to be over-responsible, to assure his or her family’s safety. There will not be unpredictable rages, irresponsible behavior. The family’s safety will be protected. Teshuva for the neglect of the parent becomes a lifelong – and worthy endeavor. The child who has been abused grows up to the same insistent responsibility: There will not be a repeat; her children will be guarded, cared for. No harm will befall them.

Does Isaac, the pawn in the story of his near-sacrifice – the helpless inheritor of his father’s legacy – does this man need to redress the wrong against a brother who did not deserve his secondary status?

Isaac does not succeed. Esau pays the price. But so does Jacob. Jacob, who lies and deceives others will be deceived himself – he will be tricked into marrying the wrong sister, forced to work double time to pay the bride price for the girl he really wanted to marry. Jacob’s own sons will deceive their father when he is old, claiming that their brother Joseph died in the desert when they had themselves sold him into slavery. The job of teshuva goes on, and continues, generation after generation.

We are often blind in the face of our own complicated motivations. But Judaism also insists that the world is created anew each day for a reason. We can make up for our parents’ mistakes. We can make up for our own. Teshuva, return, is a choice.

May it be our practice.


A Letter to Mizzou

MizzouEvery semester I spend at least one class session on a wide range of introductions. I introduce course goals, the syllabus and all its accompanying rules, assigned texts, and, of course, assessment tools. There will be so many exams or papers or quizzes, I explain. So much percentage will be awarded here or there.

Then I tell a story. About Debbie.

It was my very first semester. I was a teaching assistant for a large lecture course. I met with the students each week, went over their assignments, graded their quizzes and essay exams, ran study sessions, and the like. The professor lectured; I did the grunt work.

The campus was dominated by white students, though some foreign nationals attended various graduate programs. One hundred and twenty four of my students that fall were Caucasian. One was black: Debbie.

Debbie was an extroverted, verbal student. In the first few classes, she distinguished herself with perceptive commentary and a bubbly enthusiasm.

Within the first two weeks, I gave a first quiz – a short answer question. I wanted to assess writing skills right off the bat.

Debbie failed that quiz.

But she was so clearly able to verbalize, so obviously enthusiastic. I wrote up my comments, noted that it was clear from class discussion that she was doing well, and asked her to come see me so we could talk.

In those days, there was no established writing lab or center for students like Debbie; I would have to help her learn to write, if she would let me. Only three years older than Debbie, I was barely 21 at the time. I was also enormously idealistic, and certain I could help. I was also white, obviously from a middle class background, and in a position of power.

But Debbie did come to see me. Over the semester, she willingly wrote me an essay each and every week for no credit at all. She was learning how to write, and I was learning how to teach.

Inwardly, I thought every session about the courage it must have taken her to be at that college at all. She was the first member of her family to attend university, she told me. Her family was hardly middle class or well-educated.

She could have avoided me; she could have decided not to try and trust my good intentions. She would have had every reason to do so given the heritage bequeathed to us both.

Each and every week as I looked up to the students entering the lecture hall – a stream of European descendants, a wave of white faces – I’d think about Debbie taking a seat among the privileged. She was a member of a people still oppressed, still unfree.

She worked hard all semester. By the middle of the semester she was getting a C or two on her work for the class. By the final essay exam, she was able to write a full-fledged, well-organized essay. Each sentence was complete, clear, and articulate. I was so excited I was jotting down little more than exclamation points as I read and the word “yes” every few lines. With more exclamation points.

Debbie’s final grade averaged out to a C. But she had ended up proving that she was an A student. I gave her an A in the course.

So many of my students enter UNC Charlotte, where I teach now, unprepared and unready for the demands I will make on them. Like Debbie, they come from difficult backgrounds. This semester, I have a student working third shift – often her hours are longer than the official shift, and she has to work from 11 p.m. until 8 or 9 a.m. the next morning. She sleeps a few hours, then starts preparing for class, and then attends class. Like Debbie, she is a first-generation college student. Also, like Debbie, she is African American.

Debbie must be in her early fifties now. In my mind, Debbie’s story and her struggles should be a relic of my past and hers. It’s not.

More than three decades ago, Debbie was the single black student among 124 students at the University of Missouri-Columbia.


Genesis 22 – No Sacrifice to Platitudes

Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997
Sacrifice of Isaac by Adi Holzer 1997

Topic? Genesis, Chapter 22. “Take your son…”

We sat in a classroom without windows, the students arranged in discussion mode around a U-shaped set of tables. A cousin of one of my students had been shot and killed just days earlier; the two had grown up together – quite literally – in the same household. Two other students have been struggling all semester with depression. Another has been long challenged by a set of disabilities – this semester, they seem to be worsening.

The previous week we had read a number of midrashim on the Akedah. We explored the terse, cryptic language that marks so much of the text. Abraham had already sent one son into the dangers of the wilderness as a kind of sacrifice to his wife’s fears, one student pointed out. Was Isaac (almost) a sacrifice to God’s insecurity about Abraham’s loyalty? If so, she asked, why would God need to test Abraham? Hadn’t he proven a loyal and trusting servant?

Our second day of discussion involved source analysis. Genesis 22 is the work of the E-writer, who composed his narratives sometime between 928 BCE and the Assyrian invasion that destroyed Northern Israel in 722 BCE.

Not everything in the text seemed to fit together, though.

Scholars have long noted that verses 14-18 diverge in style from the rest of the narrative; they have even been called “clumsy additions” to the text. Where so much of Genesis 22 is taut, economic, sparse, these verses are repetitive, poetic in nature.

Academics have also pointed out that verses 11-12 and 14-17 use YHVH for God; the text otherwise refers to God as Elohim (a dominant characteristic of the E-writer’s Genesis stories). They’ve observed that God’s relationship with Abraham is generally notable for being panim el panim, up close and personal. Angelic announcements from on high are not so frequent, they note. God more typically appears in patriarchal narratives as a kind of earthly messenger. It’s hard not to wonder why the text needs to say that Abraham offers the ram tachat beno (instead of his son) when that ought to be self-evident to the reader.

One scholar, Omri Boehm, has pointed out that if you remove the “angelic” verses, a coherent, narrative remains – consistent in style and dramatic development. But it does not tell a tale of an obedient, loyal Abraham. Without those verses, Abraham disobeys God. He almost sacrifices his son, but when he sees the ram, he makes a substitute. Genesis 22 was, Boehm argues, once a story of Abraham’s rejection of God’s test; later writers, who wanted an obedient Abraham, added the angelic intervention. It’s another example (like the conflicting accounts of who killed Goliath) of an intertextual polemic.

We have all sorts of evidence that the various writers of Tanakh disagreed, overrode and overwrote each other’s narratives. But asking whether angels descended on Genesis 22 at the hand of a writer who wanted a different reputation for Abraham was just a first step for our class conversation.

Here is what my students asked: What happens to all you’ve been taught if you imagine Abraham defying God? How could one possibly imagine a God who could or should be defied in any circumstance?

My students have been taught that God is never to be questioned. God knows best. God has a plan. Our job is to do as told.

But in a room where one young man is trying to understand why his cousin was murdered, where two students fight with internal chemistry and social messages that bathe them in despair, in a room where a student finds her capacity to read and write – always slow – getting slower and harder to control given the disabilities of body she must manage, God does not always seem to know best. Nor is it clear how any of that pain could or should be part of a divine plan.

Ancient writers of nearly three thousand years ago offered narratives that permit us to question God’s nature and our purpose. That is a gift.

The student whose cousin-brother was killed must be allowed to honor his anger and his grief even if it means asking where God was when the shot was fired. The students who wake to depression need acknowledgment when they feel lost and alone. My disabled student will not be comforted, I suspect, by claims that her challenges are part of God’s plan.

The “other” Genesis 22, one that features a disobedient Abraham, has granted us the right to question how God works and who we are. We are not asked to sacrifice our pain to platitudes.


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