Loathing, Longing, and Leviticus

One must be at least a little meshugah to study history.

Historians suppose themselves to be in search of data, evidence they can use to (re)create something of the past.  Instead, they find themselves mere interpreters, functioning with limited vocabulary and with incomplete understanding.

If a historian doesn’t sense why his or her work is inadequate, never fear.  A rival historian will be sure to explain.  Pointing out others’ failings is called scholarship.

I don’t want to be scholarly just now, even though my summer reading (call it “Classic Volumes in Biblical Research”) is pushing such triggers big time.  The stack of books currently on my kitchen table feature gold lettering and many thick pages.  Such books have authority, magisterial language, and stains on their book covers.  I used to balance books such as these on my head when I studied ballet.  They were excellent tools for demonstrating poor posture.

I spent a part of July reading one of the great books of biblical studies, Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, published in 1878.  Wellhausen is mostly known as the father of the Documentary Hypothesis, which quite correctly posits that Moses did not author the whole Megillah, that a number of hands and agendas can be discerned in the Torah, and that these various authors can be ascribed identities as southern or northern or priestly or pre-or post exilic.  (The exile referred to here is the one that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, not one of the other multitudinous exiles in Jewish history.)

Here is what Wellhausen is not so remembered for: The actual thesis of his master work.

Wellhausen argues that ancient Israelites reveled in a personal relationship with God.  Along came the big bad priests of the post-exilic period and replaced spontaneity and individualism with fanatical devotion to law and the practice of the same, sucking the very life out of that old time religion.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and their ilk were followed by the equally small-minded and legalistic Sadducees, Pharisees, and rabbis of later eras.  The priests were, according to Wellhausen, unimaginative, dogmatic, opinionated, mechanical, cancerous, and parasitic.  Read Leviticus.

Wellhausen’s tome makes for exhausting reading, and not just because there are hundreds of pages of contempt for the priests and the Priestly Code.  It is exhausting because it smells of the nasty polemics of centuries.  Judaism was and is a dying religion of a narrow-minded, legalistically inclined people who are preoccupied with form, not feeling, with trivial details of ritual rather than grand connection with the divine.

Well.  Slander and cliché are hardly unknown in academic circles.

I must also admit it: Julius Wellhausen’s work is brilliant, imposing, overarching.  There is plenty to be learned from it, even now.

I know, too, that he was born into a culture that most often dismissed Judaism and Jews as petty, grasping, small-minded, and parasitical.  Teaching contempt of Jews is a typical practice in Europe from early church fathers on.

To what extent can I blame men and women who were the products of centuries of intolerance toward my people?  I too am a product, and I carry assumptions and prejudices of my own time.  Where does my right to judge, to evaluate, begin and end?

There’s this, too: In significant regard, historians are actually explaining themselves.  Wellhausen hated all ecclesiastic authority and praised any hint of spontaneous and individual religious expression he could find in Hebrew Bible.  He valued myths and tales that revealed a deity who talked and walked with humanity.

In this regard, what Wellhausen loved, I also love.  What he sought, I seek.

I like to revel in texts that express the all-so human longing for what is sweet and loving, transcendent and ineffable.  If you look in Torah, you can see the reflection of that longing slipping through the verses, framed even by the words of slaves.  “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me?” Hagar asks, wonderingly (Gen: 16:13).

The Torah’s authors marveled at existence.  Each of their authors attempted to make sense of a mysterious and magical world that deserved reverence and awe.

Even the priestly writers.  Even in Leviticus.

I wish I could convince Wellhausen of that.



2 Replies to “Loathing, Longing, and Leviticus”

  1. Barbara, I love reading your blog, even when I have major deficiencies in understanding, as now. When I read the section, “The priests were, according to Wellhausen, unimaginative, dogmatic, opinionated, mechanical, cancerous, and parasitic”, I thought, yeah that sounds right. But you know me. I do wonder at biblical scholars who seem to make sense of their research into the writings of profoundly ignorant white men. Even when they weren’t running down Jews, they seemed to me to fit the above definition. But keep up your work. Someday I may actually learn something.

  2. Here’s the deal, as I see it. Wellhausen and other scholars are interpreting history in a way that cements existing prejudices. We can blame early Church fathers for the creation of a dogma that insisted that Jews had lost their way because they became so enamored of the Law. In this view, Christianity (and Jesus) come to show us the “true” meaning of the Law. The Law, the argument goes, was never intended literally, and Jewish blindness to that fact has lead to that religion to stifle itself and its people in meaningless ritual. This argument has been used for centuries to dismiss Talmud, rabbinic codes, and Judaism itself as a “dead” religion of a small-minded people.

    But the Law is understood by Jews as a way to sanctify and give meaning to life itself, to sanctify and make life sacred in all its aspects. Halakha (Jewish law) is constantly unfolding, open to revision, and available as a means for understanding who we are and who we need to be even today (see halakhic discussions on, say, anything from how we are to interact with our environment to the status on gays and lesbians in the rabbinate).

    Why discuss how late in the day the Shema can be recited (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One)? To give as much time as you can for people to remind themselves of the existence of divine unity, to spread wide the net for spiritual space and spiritual action over as much time as possible. Why spend so much time defining gossip and the dangers of inconsiderate talk? To help people become mensches. The stringent guidelines on this matter, if followed, would never permit the kind of bitter and unseemly discourse that it part and parcel of this country’s political discourse.

    Ritual and law are not deadening things, they are a means for making meaning. When Wellhausen rejects all things priestly, he rejects sincere attempts to make sense of the world. Such efforts are as human and as flawed as any, I imagine. Because he does so in a way that only exacerbates stereotypes about Jews, his work sometimes really saddens me.

    Does this make sense? Hope so! 🙂

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