We were also told that the Bible was the literal word of God, and that only the ministers and those with a ‘converted mind’ could truly understand it. It was their interpretation of Biblical text that I grew up with, and the fact that I had a problem with the women’s role in the world (She was to be a helpmeet to her husband, a man is the head of the woman just as Jesus is the head of the church) indicated that I had not received God’s Holy Spirit. When I asked my father why my sisters and I had to do the dishes and mop the floors and do all of the "girls’ work," he replied, “When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, did he ask why? No, he didn’t, and I think we could all learn from his example.”
I had no desire to emulate this passive patriarch. I was mystified as to why Abraham ventured not the smallest protest when commanded to leave his homeland or when ordered to sacrifice his son. Though I truly aspired to developing perfect and unquestioning faith myself, my rebellious nature couldn’t help but press up against the strictures that were the basis of this religion.
My year in Israel, during which I studied at university, was a shock. I studied the Bible and my old nemesis, Abraham in a way that I had never studied them before. The Bible was not “the truth”, according to one professor, but “a truth.” The Mosaic Law, he asserted with great relish, is a ‘mosaic.’ It had been put together over a long period of time and much of it could be read as a polemic against the world around it. I was deeply unsettled by this approach to sacred texts. I thought the entire Bible had been written down in pretty much one fell swoop. I thought it had dropped from the heavens, exactly as is, not edited and patched together over thousands of years. However, I would begrudgingly admit, this did a lot to explain why I’d often felt that God was schizophrenic. One minute full of fire and fury, the next protecting you under His wings.
Over the course of the semester, I became enchanted with the story of Ruth, the strong, young, bold, Moabite woman who followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel, with the immortal words, “Where you go, I will go; where you die, I will die; your God will be my God; your people, my people.” Without a husband or sons to support herself or Naomi, Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz, a wealthy relative, who says to Ruth, “A full reward be given you of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you are come to trust.” Toward the end of the harvest, Ruth, following Naomi’s advice, goes down to the threshing floor and “uncovers the feet” of the sleeping Boaz. Boaz awakens and Ruth says, “I am Ruth your handmaid. Spread your skirt over your handmaid for you are a near kinsman.” Although clearly a euphemism for sexuality, this image was striking to me: it is Boaz’s wings, his protection, she is seeking -- not God’s.
Ruth is often compared to the patriarch Abraham. Both crossed political and religious boundaries -- Abraham is known as the ivry, he who crosses over -- ,leaving behind their families and homelands when they embarked on a journey to Israel, an unknown place. But where Abraham did so following Divine command, what impelled Ruth, other than love, loyalty, and determination?
By the end of my time in Israel, I can’t say that my quest for Abraham was successful, but I had crossed an important personal boundary: I had given myself permission to question what I had grown up believing to be the Gospel Truth. Perhaps this church did not hold all of the answers to unraveling the mystery of life or of God’s plan for humanity. And maybe -- I hesitated to even posit this possibility to myself -- Jesus was not the son of God and had not died for our sins, and I was responsible for them myself. I allowed myself to consider the possibility that belief in both God and Jesus might be antithetical to Monotheism. For, if both exist within the same being, then when Jesus was on the cross and calling out to God, was He talking to Himself?
More than the usual problems with the Trinity, though, I think my problem with Jesus was one of boundaries. Jesus blurred boundaries between heaven and earth, between the human and the Divine. I preferred the notion of God as separate from me and my petty, human concerns. I preferred to imagine God’s wings sheltering us, hovering over us, fluttering atop the text of the Torah. I liked to envision God insinuating Himself or Herself into our lives, slipping inside our borders, without our necessarily knowing it.
Boundaries didn't mean distance, though. Reading the text of the Torah during my year in Israel, it seemed that God was always hanging around, if one did but watch and listen. Abraham is not recorded as fasting or praying or chanting – all of those various paths we use these days to try to get to God. Rather, Abraham listened to God’s words, lech lecha, “Go!” Those words might also be interpreted as, "Go for it! Take a risk, push yourself beyond your "comfort zone" and go."
Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005
Jews on Stage
Out of Bounds
Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
Our 640 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Spring 2005 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
Why We Still Need Beethoven
The Art of Enlightenment
How Jewish is Modigliani?