Monday, November 3, 2014

The Lies My Religious School Teacher Told Me

Rabbi Sonsino
In the mid 70s, a Canadian-Jewish movie called “The Lies my Father Told Me” became popular. It dealt with the relationship between a kid and his father and grandfather at the turn of the century and about what he learned from them-most of them not true.

Inspired by this movie, I submit that we are still teaching a bunch of lies to our children and students. Here are three examples:

1.    How did the Israelites get out of Egypt?

According to an old Jewish joke, a youngster tells his mother that after the Israelites walked safely through the Red Sea on pontoon bridges, the Egyptians followed, and Moses used his cell phone to radio for air cover! His mother asked: “Now, did your teacher really teach you that? “No,” said the kid, “but if I were to tell you the way he said it, you would never believe it!”

Biblical scholars tell us that the Israelites did not cross the “Red” Sea but, perhaps, the “Reed (suf in Hebrew) Sea.” Besides, we are told that the family of Jacob came down to Egypt with 70 people (Deut. 10:22), and after 430 (some say 400) years of captivity (Ex. 12: 40) the Israelites left with 600,000 men plus women, children and others who joined them (about 2 million) (Ex. 12: 37). This is impossible! Some critics today argue that not all the Israelites went down and left Egypt, maybe the Levites were the only ones. It appears that, years after, as the Israelites remembered the freedom they gained when some of their ancestors departed from Egypt, the whole “story” of their liberation was projected back into ancient times, and greatly exaggerated.

2.    Is the Story of Noah historical?

Very often the story of Noah, with all the animals saved on a single ship, is taught as if it were historically accurate. In reality, the Bible contains two different (but parallel and integrated) Noah stories. Besides, as most scholars recognize, the legend of Noah was taken into the Bible from a popular ancient Near Eastern literary source, where the hero is called “Gilgamesh” in Akkadian or “Ziusudra” in Sumerian. At most, it may have been based on a local flood that was magnified many times over.

3.    Hanukah “the miracle of oil.” Really?

Most school texts state that the reason why Hanukah lasts eight days is because of the so-called “miracle of oil” (found in the Talmud. Shab. 21b) when the oil that was sufficient to light the Hanukah candles only one night miraculously lasted eight days. In reality, ancient Jewish texts are not unanimous on why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days. One rabbinic source states that “upon entering the Temple, they (Maccabees) found there eight rods of iron which they grooved out and then kindled wicks in the oil which they poured into the grooves” (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 1). On the other hand, the Second Book of Maccabees (10: 6-8) says, more plausibly perhaps, that Hanukah “was celebrated for eight days…in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles” (that is, seven days of Sukot plus Atzeret on the 8th; see Lev. 23: 33-36).  Why then do we need to center the holiday on an unbelievable “miracle” when there are other, more realistic, interpretations?

Lessons to be learned:

a.    The fact that a story is popular does not mean it is historically correct.
b.    Texts that mention miracles often stress certain religious values, and are not concerned with historical truth. In the examples cited above, the Exodus teaches us, among others, about the importance of freedom; Noah reminds us that life is precious and, like Noah, we too must save lives whenever possible; and Hanukkah teaches us the values of Jewish pride and loyalty.
c.     We should not teach anything that will need to be unlearned later on. When I discovered the historical background of the stories mentioned above, I felt as if my religious foundation was cracking up, and I lost all trust in my religious school teachers.
d.    Where can you find reliable information? Not in the daily press or in popular books but only in serious studies and encyclopedias that are written from an historical/critical point of view.

We need to teach our children and students self-reliance through critical thinking and not dependence on “bubbe meises” (i.e., Yiddish for old wives’ tales!!!).

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 2014