Friday, February 6, 2015

God, Volcanos and Circumstantial Evidence

This originally ran in HuffPo and is a compendium for this week's Torah portion - Yitro.  Enjoy!

The jurors in Sidney Lumet's classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men were presented with what they thought was an open and shut case. A young Hispanic man with a weak alibi was seen fleeing the murder location and the murder weapon (a knife he claimed to have lost) was found at the scene of the crime. Eleven of the twelve jurors immediately voted guilty in the capital case while Juror Number 8 alone (Henry Fonda) dissented. The remainder of the film portrays the gradual unraveling of the case and ultimate vindication of the defendant. Things are not always what they seem.

This metaphor leaped to mind as I made my way through another classic -- Yehezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel. Kaufmann was Ukrainian born, Yeshiva educated and became a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1949. Unlike many of his colleagues and peers, professor Kaufmann believed that there was very little or no pagan influence or roots in the religion of the Jews. In summation of his view he wrote that "Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism."

What then to make of the many seemingly obvious references to pagan ideas in the text of the Torah? God says "let us make man in our image." Who is He talking to given that He's supposedly the sole Creator? What does it mean that Adam and Eve "heard the sound of God walking in the Garden?" How about references to "the hand of God," "the breath of God" or the description of God as a "man of war?"

Then there is the revelation at Sinai with its dramatic depiction of fire, smoke and the shuddering of the mountain. Doesn't this seem just all too similar to pagan descriptions of a volcanic god? Isn't it clear that this story was adapted from some earlier pagan myth that the Jews preserved and incorporated into their holy book? Isn't this strong evidence that the God of the Jews is really just an upgraded version of one of the many gods who were thought to rule over natural forces?
Actually no, not at all.

Professor Kaufmann was an expert in the (substantial) differences between the pagan and Israelite world-views. In category after category he shows their dissimilarity -- from divination to the notion of morality to demonology and the use of magic -- the religion of Israel had a very different way of approaching these matters. As he wrote:
The mark of monotheism is not the concept of a god who is a creator, eternal, benign or even all-powerful; these notions are found everywhere in the pagan world. It is, rather, the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order and not emergent from a pre-existent realm; a god free of the limitations of magic and mythology.
So back to our volcano. What we see in the account of the Book of Exodus is the reference to fire, smoke, earthquake and thunder, but as Kaufmann writes:
This is hardly sufficient to make YHVH a volcanic deity. Volcanic gods are conceived of as dwelling within the mountain; their element is the subterranean fire that sets the mountain quaking. Thunder and lightning are 'over the mountain'; it smokes 'because YHVH descended upon it in fire.' When YHVH speaks it is 'from heaven.' There is little merit to the view that the presence of storm features in YHVH's theophanies points to his being originally a storm god.
Perhaps this original, uniquely monotheistic, understanding of Divinity is best expressed through Elijah's experience in the Book of Kings whereby the prophet experiences God as "a great, powerful wind, smashing mountains and breaking rocks." This would sound an awful lot like the storm god again were it not for the fact that the next lines are "God is not in the wind! After the wind came an earthquake. God is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. God is not in the fire. After the fire came still, thin sound." That sound was God.

Oftentimes, the smoke and lights obscure the truth rather than reveal it. Sometimes evidence seems so obvious and so compelling that we think it just must be so. How could it be that all of these variables line up so perfectly -- storm, fire and earthquake or knife, witnesses and poor alibi? Case closed. But like Juror Number 8, it's critically important to slow down, ask questions, imagine alternative scenarios and follow the truth wherever it leads. And the truth can only be perceived in the "thin small voice," the one that only comes on the heels of the fireworks.

We are all guilty of this to some degree. We leap to conclusions about what others have said or done without having all of the facts. We imagine we understanding the complexities of science, geopolitics or economics by reading a few popular articles or books and we judge theology largely based on some similarly dermal information we've picked up or been taught. Getting to a topic's true inner meaning (if possible at all) takes time, patience, breadth and depth of knowledge and an abiding willingness to question the "obvious."

God is not in the wind -- or in the volcano.


  1. FYI - No need to respond dear Rabbi

    1) YK was disparaged during his own life and more so now. Example - Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan by Albright 1968 Page 179 "...we can state definitely that it does not support the extreme position of the late Yehezkel Kaufmann, who maintained in his great 'History of the Faith of Israel' that mosaic monotheism was a phenomenon entirely peculiar to Israel."

    2) YK - accepted a version of the Documentary Hypothesis. Since you cite himas your expert will you accept some version of the DH ?

    3) YK is now marginalized and out of date. This because of numerous archaeological discoveries since. See for example The Evolution of God by Robert Wright 2009

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Many thinkers we're disparaged during and after their lifetimes - what of it?

      I most certainly do not agree with everything that he wrote but I do accept the basic premise and I think that he does a remarkable job outlining it. Have you read it? Like all thought, it's possible to separate the wheat from the chaff here.

      It's hard to see what would marginalize it from archaeology but I'd be open to hearing how you think that works.

      I don't know Wright's book but I do like the description "Wright repeatedly overturns conventional wisdom to show how and why religion can strengthen the social order-even in an age of globalization-and explains why modern science is not only compatible with religion, but actively affirms the validity of the religious quest. "