Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

I have not written here much, this year. My blogging has been pretty much limited to the writing I do on learning for my employer. But I had a thought today at Torah study and I want to share it.

I am meeting more and more people who identify as non-binary in gender. I happen to like identifying as a straight male and my difficulty with understanding non-binary gender identity probably has its root there. I respect people with different gender identities than I but I do admit I’m struggling to get my pronouns right. No matter. I’m trying.

Today it occurred to me that perhaps non-binary gender identity is more appropriate for humans than I thought. Consider this:

Genesis verse 1:26 begins: “Let us make a human in our image…” Most people I know answer the question “who are ‘us’ and who is ‘our'” the same way. Literal or allegorical, most people I know say something like “maybe God was asking the angels to help”. But, what if God was not asking other entities to help. What if God was identifying as having no particular gender, or being a mix of genders, and speaking of themselves in the plural just like my non-binary friends do? Food for thought, anyway.

I also have been pondering this:

Genesis verse 1:27 says “And God created the human in his image. In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” What if “male and female he created them” really means that all of “them” (humans) were created to be simultaneously male and female? We know that anatomically we share some interesting commonalities – like men can get breast cancer because they have breast cells and women have a clitoris that has aspects of the male organ; and we know we have psychological traits that vary from one human to another. So, maybe Genesis 1:27 is really acknowledging our dual nature. If God is dual gender and we are mad in God’s image then perhaps we are to. After all even if we don’t all agree on translation (which we don’t) we can all agree that biblical Hebrew has no punctuation. The same words can mean vastly different things depending on sentence structure.

I really don’t know why but I feel better now.

Shabbat Shalom.


I am clearly the product of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of my first political views came about while running around Telegraph Avenue in 70’s Berkeley. But, over the years, I moved very far toward the center from the positions of my youth. In some cases I have to admit I moved right of the center point.  One of those areas was that of constitutional interpretation. I used to read both the Cato Supreme Court Review and the constitutional analysis from the American Constitution Society; only the former was anything I could really relate to. Even though I’ve become more tolerant of those who broadly interpret the constitution, I still read the Cato Supreme Court Review every year and I think it’s the only solid annual summary of the supreme court year. But, my mind is much more open than it once was.

A digression (But not really)…..

One thing I really dislike about organized religion is dogma. I admit that I have very little tolerance for fundamentalist Christians, Muslims  Jews, or anyone else who will set aside science and rational discourse purely because they believe every single word of their holy scriptures. For example. when someone denies the science of evolution through random variation because their old book says the Earth was created in 6 days, I really don’t get it at all. Some of the smartest people I know fall into that group and I don’t understand how. I love studying Torah. But, I can’t take a single word of it as anything but multiple layers of meaning. Jews don’t study the bible as if it has only one single literal meaning. We look at it as being a beautiful text of manifold layers. In particular, there are 4 distinct layers of meaning in Torah study. They are:

The P’shat Layer

P’shat level is the plain sense of meaning of the words. We read that G-d created Eve from Adam’s rib and we understand the story. This it the level where my fundamentalist friends stop.

 The Drash Layer

Drash is the first interpretive level in which we try to understand what the story means, even allegorically, to us personally. This is the level that I am most interested in. What does “6 days of creation” mean? Six Earth days? Six “God days”? Six increments of geological strata? What? And what can we learn from it? This is what I like to do.


The Remez Layer of a story provides deeper hints about what the story might be telling us if we analyze it closely. For example, Remez might consist of understanding the  gematryia (or numerical value) of each letter or word. I’m not saying that I believe this, I’m just saying it’s a technique. Here we look for deeper meaning.


This is a level of mysterious and coded meaning. It is generally a mystical interpretation that I have to admit I enjoy discussing but which I don’t believe has all that much relevance for myself.

A Return…

So, here I was: acting like a strict constructionist about the US Constitution but constantly getting visibly agitated by those who take the same hard-line toward scripture. And the realization of that hit me like a rock. All of the sudden Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s interpretive method made sense to me! By no means does this mean arbitrarily rewriting the constitution. I love it too much to believe we can do that. But it does mean that I need to be willing to accept that some very smart people can, should, and will try to adapt its words to the 21st century. I don’t have to agree with them when they try to use the commerce clause to justify all manner of legislation that they feel like trying to pass, for example. But I do need to respect them even if they don’t think what I think they should think. My rationale is simply that I can’t be intolerant towards people who want to take a hard-line stance on a document like the Bible and then take the same hard-line stance on other documents, myself. It’s just not in my nature.

Perhaps we can learn a lot by applying religious texts to our modern life and, perhaps, we can learn equally much by applying the words of our founders to that same modernity. Unless, of course, you want to assume the infallibility of either document. In the latter case, we know it’s not perfect because we have an amendment process born of the inherent compromises in its creation (unless you think the 3/5 rule, for example, indicates infallibility!). In the former case, my opinion is that no religious document is infallible because I refuse to believe that only one group of the world’s people is “right”. That too is not in my nature.

A Conclusion…

So, I will still use the Cato review as my gold standard for constitutional review. But, these days, I’m far more flexible when in comes to progressive interpretation. I may disagree with some progressive interpretations but I don’t think it’s “wrong” to interpret.

Then again…….. I could be wrong 🙂

‘Course… That’s not in my nature either.

Steve Bilow’s comments on behalf of the Oregon Area Jewish Committee

Interfaith Council of Greater Portland

How Does Your Faith Practice Social Justice?

An Interfaith Service Hosted By: Hood View Seventh Day Adventist Church

Sunday, September 23, 2012 4:00PM

Many non-Jews think that we Jews get most of our beliefs and practices from the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament”. The Hebrew Bible does, of course, serve as our most foundational set of doctrine. But it is not the entire story. Even more of our teachings come from the rabbinic discourses in Talmud. It also extends far into the domain of contemporary thought and, most importantly, ACTION. For this reason, I want to talk about several sources, other than the Bible. And, I want to do so from the standpoint of what I believe is our major differentiator.

One thing that differentiates the spirituality of Judaism is that it is a spirituality of action. Other paths promote meditation and contemplation; acceptance of an individual as a messiah; unconditional faith; and many other approaches to the God relationship. But in Judaism, our beliefs center on, not just prayer and devotion, but also on “doing”.

You often hear Jews say that they perform “Tikum Olam” or healing the world. This phrase itself comes, originally, from a medieval Jewish mystical tradition.  But I was asked to speak for 5 minutes, not 5 years, so I won’t dive into that. The bottom line is that, forgetting about mysticism, Judaism as a religion, a practice, and a lifestyle is a path of caring for the Earth and its inhabitants through ACTIVE PARTICIPATION. This is rooted in Torah, of course, in places like Leviticus 19:16 where we are explicitly told:

  •  Thou shalt not stand by idly by the blood of thy neighbor.

It continues throughout the wisdom writings like Isaiah 1:16-17 which says:

  •  Devote yourself to justice;
  • Aid the wronged.
  • Uphold the rights of the orphan;
  • Defend the cause of the widow.

It continues into the Talmud, where Judah HaNasi, discussing the relative priority of action versus even our most holy task – the study of Torah, says in Peshaim 3.7:

  •  Action takes precedence over study.

And it continues into our own age where the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel summarized his experience of walking in Selma Alabama with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King by saying:

  • “It felt as if my feet were doing the praying”

So to answer the question of how Judaism practices social justice is really easy: Judaism IS social justice. Judaism takes the approach that the only way to have a living relationship with the divine is to have an ACTING relationship with the world. Even on our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, coming up in just a few days, we learn that:

For transgressions of one man against another”, even God can’t forgive you unless you have taken the ACTION to ask forgiveness from the one you have harmed.

In other words, God is in partnership with us and God needs us to be engaged.

This is not just for us, today. Much more importantly, it is for the generations to come. So let me close with a quick story from The Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a:

Once, while the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked him:  “How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?”  The man answered that it would require 70 years.  Honi asked:  “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”  The man answered:  “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me.  So, too, will I plant for my children.

That’s what we do, we respect what came before us and we work to make things better for those who follow. So, to be honest: Judaism and Social Justice? It’s really pretty easy.

Unless you have read Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” or Neil Gillman’s “Sacred Fragments”, it’s likely that your definition of the word “myth” is something akin to “fiction”, “story”, or “the opposite of ‘fact'”. Conversely, if you have read up on the subject, then you know that the word “myth” is hundreds of times more complex than that. Especially, if you read Rabbi Gillman, then you know that myths are not just stories but are foundational narratives about beginnings, communities, the how and why of rituals and actions, the aggregate of signs and symbols, and the “master stories of societies”.

Frequently, myths involve supernatural beings, function on a cosmological scale, and have some kind of escatological component. All of those aspects of myth can serve as tools for teaching and learning and, because we don’t have to treat them as truth, we can learn best from interpretation. This is where I think the real power of myth lies; especially in Judaism where we acknowledge interpretation and augmentation (Midrash) as valid mechanisms for learning; but for everyone else too, if they decided to follow that path.

If you leave your mind open to interpretation and discussion, rather that taking things literally, then you can view the Bible as a tool for understanding your culture. Instead of thinking that God really made a guy named Adam and a gal named Eve (two DIFFERENT ways – by the way – depending on whether you believe Genesis 1 or 2!!!); or that the penalty for diss’ing your parents is really death; or that 600,000 guys actually ran around the desert for 40 years, eating manna, assembling and disassembling a tabernacle, and leaving not a shred of archaeological evidence; or that the number of species in the time of Noah was so much smaller than it is today that they’d all fit on an ark; you can look at them and try to figure out what they really mean for you in the 21st century.

I think there is value in doing that. I believe that it makes you think and that it makes you wrestle with some very big and important questions. If that is true then it does not really matter whether the stories in the Bible are true. True or not true, they are the master stories of a people and can serve as a unifying foundation. So, to me personally, I don’t believe those stories are “true” but I do believe that they have value. I can question them, study them, and interpret them; and, it really doesn’t matter if they are true. All that matters is that are educational and that they unify a culture of which I’m part.