I have been reading Torah Queeries, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer. In Judaism, the Torah, consisting of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is read in its totality every year. The material is broken up into weekly sections of Torah, and there are additional portions for holidays such as Passover. This book has commentaries on each of the weekly portions by rabbis and academics, taking a queer perspective.
One of the fascinating things about reading Jewish material is how the approach to Scripture is completely different from that of certain sections of Christianity. In Judaism, the meanings of Torah are inexhaustible. There is an infinite number of meanings and so it speaks to each individual and to each time and always has new depths of meaning to explore. In Judaism there is no concept of having ‘the right’ interpretation of scripture – there is no single right meaning.
Even though Judaism and Christianity share Scriptures, how those are understood and interpreted is fundamentally different. Different in a way that would make some Christians very uncomfortable. After all, how can they understand ‘The Word of God’ if there are infinite meanings?
An even more difficult question for some Christians would be ‘how would they know if what they understand the Bible to mean is wrong’? No, the answer is not to go to the minister and get the ‘official answer’, the answer is windows.
Allow me to explain, starting with a quote from Menachem Creditor commenting on Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18.1 – 20.26).
Most mornings, in order to help me decide what to wear, I look out the window, thus engaging with the world as it is, grounding my decision in the context of the outside world.
I remember learning during a midrash class at the Jewish Theological Seminary that, if I were a ‘real’ rabbi, I would not have looked out the window to help me make a crucial decision. Instead of drawing on the world around me, I would have taken a volume of Jewish text from the shelf and poured over its pages in order to truly know what was going on in the outside world.
We test our understanding against reality. Torah might say what is suitable for a rabbi to wear or not wear, but we need the reality of a window to make the right choice now. We may make a different choice tomorrow – do we need that raincoat?
Christians have been very reluctant to use windows to help determine reality, often preferring interpretations of The Word and anything that conflicts with that is a result of sin and the brokenness of the world. Sometimes that means that we teach what is wrong and call it ‘from God’. Let me give an illustration of that.
Joshua chapter 10 was used for centuries to teach that the sun went round the Earth. The idea that the sun would stop in the heavens seemed incontrovertible proof that the Earth was the centre and everything orbited around it. It took literally centuries of careful, daily astronomical measurements to finally convince some Christian authorities that this interpretation did not match reality. Eventually the weight of data became indisputable. The effect of this was twofold. It meant that the church had to teach a different model of the way that the universe was structured, with the Earth no longer at the centre. It also meant that there had to be a different way of interpreting scripture that did not take the literal surface meaning as true. If this passage of the Bible was to be consistent with the reality of the universe, then it had to be understood at a deeper level.
For some this means that there is an inconsistency between the way that descriptions of the universe are understood in the book of Joshua and the way it is understood elsewhere, for example in the book of Genesis. Reading Genesis chapters 1 and 2 in the literal way gives the age of the Earth as just over 6000 years old. The window of scientific evidence gives an age of billions of years. Yet despite the scientific evidence, some are reluctant to look for the deeper interpretation approach that was needed for the book of Joshua.
‘How old is the Earth’ is as much a question of science as a question of Biblical interpretation.
A reality window check is harder in terms of ethics-based interpretations. For example, the question of being left-handed. In contemporary society left handedness is simply seen as part pf life’s rich variety, with no ethical judgement. Provision is routinely made for those who are left-handed, by providing appropriate scissors, golf clubs etc. But that has not always been the case. Being left-handed was once regarded as being a sign that someone was ‘marked with the sign of the devil’. Nowadays we find ideas like that ridiculous or insulting. But they were based on Biblical interpretation that was normative for being right-handed. Mistaking what is common with what is mandatory is a common religious ethical mistake. Just because most people are right-handed does not mean that everyone has to be.
We need to have ways of checking our understanding of the Bible to make sure that we do no harm. We cannot impose beliefs on other people when those beliefs do not match reality.