"If you were presenting a one-hour lecture on 'Biblical History and Civilization' to a group of generally well-educated, but Jewishly less knowledgeable adults, what would you say?"
That was the first question posed by Reb Leila at the end of the first part of ALEPH's two-semester Biblical History & Civ class. (I've posted a couple of times about some of the reading for that class.) She asked us to limit ourselves to ten pages of double-spaced text, and to write without recourse to footnotes, as though the product of our labors really were going to be delivered aloud to a lay audience. It was a fabulous exercise for me. I found that as I went back over my notes in preparation for writing the essay, the themes of the course coalesced into (what felt to me like) an integrated whole.
I titled my paper "What We Talk About When We Talk About Biblical History" (a nod, of course, to the Raymond Carver story of almost the same name.) So what are we talking about? Everything from archaeology to theology. We're talking about history, and also about stories which contain deep truth though they may or may not be factual. We're talking about the era in which a disparate collection of tribes—sometimes known as ivrim, "boundary-crossers"—coalesced into a religious community with shared theology and a shared central story.
My intention was to offer a sense for the sweep of events and ideas from Abraham through the end of the first Temple period, and to touch on the major ideas and shifts that arose during that time within the community we now call ancient Israel. I began with the patriarchs, detoured to questions of Torah's historicity, spent some time on the Exodus and Sinai and our covenant with God (and how it parallels other covenants of the region and era.) The conquest of the land, the relationship between Israelite tradition and other traditions of that place and time, the establishment of the monarchy (pretty radical in its day) and the rise and fall of the united kingdom of Israel.
And then I closed with some reflections on what the study of Biblical history means to me. The rest of the essay isn't really blog-appropriate material, but I'll include those last few paragraphs below the extended-entry tag for those of you who might find this interesting. (If you're also in the class, I trust you'll refrain from reading this until you've handed in your own work!)
What I love about studying this period is my growing sense that for all of the differences between then and now, the ancient Israelites wrestled with some of the same questions we do. They struggled to define the boundaries of their community. They told stories about who they were and how they came to be a community—including a central story about freedom from constriction, and the concomitant cementing of an intimate relationship between themselves and the Source of All Being. They tried to figure out how to make war ethically. They endured periods of anarchy, and periods of growth. They wondered what makes a good ruler, and how to appropriately balance worldly power with spiritual humility. They strove to create a point of connection between themselves and God. And when they were scattered to the four winds, they somehow maintained enough of a sense of community—a sense of collective peoplehood, based in that story of liberation and covenant—to remain a cohesive people.
It seems to me that what mattered to the ancient Israelites was commonality of belief and custom, and the shared story they collectively cherished. As a writer, I love the idea that we shape ourselves into a community by telling the same stories about who we are and who we long to become. As a rabbi, I'm awed and delighted that we're still telling these same stories together.
In Jewish Renewal we often turn to the four worlds teaching to understand the multilayered nature of existence. In the world of assiyah, action and physicality, we can relate to Biblical history through studying the archaeological record and through close examination of our texts.
In the world of yetzirah, emotions, Biblical history offers us a rich tapestry of stories which often reflect the contemporary emotional realities of our modern lives. When we resonate with Abraham's ethical struggle, Joseph's emotional rollercoaster, David's incandescent dance as the mishkan entered Jerusalem, we're connecting with Biblical history in yetzirah.
In the world of beriyah, thoughts and intellect, we can relate to Biblical history as scholars. Here the great ideas of this sweep of our history—chosenness, peoplehood, liberation, revelation, covenant, drawing-near to God—allow us to connect with this period of our past.
And in the world of atzilut, essence, we can aim to integrate this learning into our lives. As we become part of the stories, the stories also become part of us. What really matters is the meaning we derive from our history, and the way we recognize that even our most distant ancestors—and even our most challenging texts —have something to teach us if we are ready to learn.