I’m going to try to get back to my original goal for this blog: citing and commenting on interesting articles that should have some resonance for Modern Orthodox education. You may have missed these two excellent Pesach themed Op-eds if you were busy burning your chametz this past Friday morning. Joshua Berman’s Search for the Historical Exodus was published in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a condensed version of the more detailed essay he published in Mosaic on March 2. David Brooks wrote a piece titled On Conquering Fear that was published in the New York Times. Why did I find these important?
Maybe I just liked the irony of the liberal newspaper having the conservative Dvar Torah and the conservative paper having the liberal Dvar Torah, but that was actually just an added bonus. I appreciated his message of how to address fear, but more interesting to me was his description of the power of storytelling.
“Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.”
The best teachers are the ones who can tell the best story. Brooks reminds us why.
Berman’s article addresses an issue that is more controversial. In the fuller treatment in Mosaic Berman explains why seeking historical support for the Bible’s account of the Exodus is religiously important and he presents some brilliant lessons that can be learned from comparing the account of the Exodus in the Bible to contemporaneous Egyptian texts. Berman reaches some conclusions that are untraditional but that take the account presented in Chumash very seriously. It seems to me that his novel understanding of אלף though untraditional, may be a more religiously serious interpretation that what we are used to. By seeking to understand how a population of some 2 million people, roughly the size of Houston, could have exited in such a quick and seamless manner, Berman takes the Chumash seriously. He wants to understand what God is really communicating to us. I feel the same way about taking the account of the Flood seriously. If you don’t ask questions about kangaroos and the the Flood, then you’re not taking the Torah seriously. Is it possible that Noach had a male and female kangaroo hop to the Middle East from Australia to survive the flood, then hop off the ark afterward and hop back to Australia without having any offspring on the way? If you don’t ask questions like this then it seems to me that you’re not taking God’s Torah seriously. It seems to me that we have to encourage our students to ask these questions and that we as educators had better be prepared to answer them.
A final point about the controversial role of the study of history in supporting traditional Jewish thinking. Professor David Berger’s book length essay “Judaism and General Culture in Medieval and Early Modern Times” (published in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration, and in a collection of Berger’s essays titled: Cultures in Collision and Conversation) contains too many gems to enumerate. He makes a sharp point about why one could view studying history as being more controversial than studying philosophy: “Philosophical Truth was not based on the authority of Aristotle; it rested on arguments that Aristotle may have formulated but were now available to any thinker in an unmediated fashion. It was reason, not Aristotle, that required the reinterpretation of whatever rabbinic text was at issue. History is different. Although reason is very much involved and the decision to follow a gentile account instead of a rabbinic one does not result in a simple preference for Tacitus over Rabbi Yosi, the fact remains that on some level, one is accepting the testimony of gentiles rather than that of the Talmudic sages. This may be a legitimate extension of the medieval precedent but it is hardly a straightforward one.”
I’ve never understood the search for answers when historical accounts differ from Rabbinic ones. Either one is incorrect or the Rabbis were talking conceptually. We don’t need to come to a conclusion on every matter, our Sages told us to be ready and willing to say, “I don’t know [yet].”
We can tell our students that there are a number of possibilities to answer conflicts between Rabbinic tradition and historical/scientific accounts of biblical episodes. I don’t think we need to have an answer to what happened to all the baby kangaroos on the way back to Australia. I think we need to teach our students a methodology to figure out the possible answers. Teaching our students that just as scientists and historians don’t have all the answers – yet still trust their methodology and the overall system – Torah scholars also don’t have all the answers, and that is an important lesson in itself.
I’m sorry I never knew about this blog before. I look forward to reading more entries. Thanks for educating the educators.