|Maybe I'll answer you with a "laser" instead of with a voice. Wouldja like that?|
The story of mass Divine revelation started out as a small scale, untrue, but plausible story. After is [sic] was accepted, it evolved and grew imperceptibly into the full blown version we have today.CLARIFICATION: Kornreich is not referring specifically to my argument, as he was not aware of it at the time he wrote the above-quoted part. My point is that the view articulated by Kornreich is supposed to represent the kind of argument that I make, an argument dependent on the "evolutionary myth hypothesis." I apologize to Dovid Kornreich and my readers for being so unclear in my language as to mislead.
Unfortunately, the summary misses the mark widely from my position. I do not, for example, have much of anything to say about how the Sinai story "started." Indeed, I wonder if "started" even captures the nuance and complexity of what might have actually happened.
Stories in transmission are like hills. Just as we are hard-pressed to identify precisely how many grains of sand may be taken away before we no longer have a hill, so too are we hard-pressed to identify the moment in time when a particular story, as we know it, truly starts. With the Sinai story, we have the compound problem of trying to identify not only when the story began but also when it became interpreted in such a way to distinguish Judaic religion and community. The story could have been around a long time before someone said, "Don't you realize what this means? God spoke to our ancestors and so to us. God and all of us are bound together in a compact!"
In addition to voicing an origins claim I don't actually make, Kornreich's summary presents the "evolving myth hypothesis" as a progression. The problem with this presentation is the same as in other "ladder of progress" models:
|Rudolph Zallinger's "March of Progress"|
Scientists such as Stephen J. Gould have rightly criticized images such as Zallinger's "March of Progress" (1965) for implying that human biological evolution happened in a linear, sequential fashion. Human evolution is not a movement toward a predetermined “ideal form." The march of progress idea, then, can be misleading to the non-specialist.
Similarly, Kornreich's summary of the "evolving myth hypothesis" erroneously implies that the development and acceptance of "the story of mass Divine revelation" progressed in a linear, sequential way. I do not hold that Sinai was once a simple story that slowly changed and became ever more fantastic until it acquired all of the characteristics we find in Exodus. What's more, my own words do not imply such linearity and sequentiality:
Someone did not make up the Sinai story complete and unalterable at one time, for this is a modern sense of how stories are made and circulated. It was more like many people communally developing and interpreting back-stories for already existing rituals and practices.... The Sinai story was not a conspiracy but the ongoing evolution of culture. And it was not just the evolution of culture but the evolution of cultural texts.The key difference between what I actually say above and what Kornreich thinks I am saying boils down to the idea of "growth." I am not talking about growth; I am talking about re-interpretation. I suspect, and it's only a suspicion, that Sinai changed not so much in context but in the approach people took to it and in the meaning people attached to it. I've never been talking about a true story becoming false or a false story becoming more fantastic: I've been talking about a story--who knows how true--gaining new significance.
This type of re-interpretation happens often enough. The battlefield at Gettysburg gets dedicated by Abraham Lincoln and becomes a symbol of both the Civil War's bloodiest battle and the very principles at the root of the conflict. William Shakespeare gives Henry V a speech that consecrates the Battle of Agincourt as a signature of one phase in the Hundred Years' War. Woodstock becomes romanticized as three days of peace, love, and music--the legacy of peaceful, dope-smoking kids who wanted the world to be a better place. Watergate becomes a lasting symbol of the US government's covert activities and its friction with America's stated principles. We know all too well that later interpreters and nationalist interests co-opt events; co-optation and re-interpretation hardly make up the implausible scenario that Kornreich suggests.
And we know that at least some of the Torah derives from a narrative matrix common to societies and civilizations of the Ancient Near East, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. I'll list only a few points of similarity:
- The Ipuwer Ammonitions, an Egyptian text going back to 2345-2181 BCE has analogies to the ten plagues.
- The Egyptian god Atum/Atom has conceptual similarities with the god of Moses.
- Sargon of Akkad's myth of origin has many parallels to that of Moses.
- The story of Sinuhe matches the Midianite adventures of Moses in several spots.
There's a world of difference, then, between the position Kornreich ascribes to Kuzari critics like me and the one I actually hold. Indeed, I'm not even sure we can responsibly grant his assumption that "millions of Jews have come to believe the truth of Traditional Judaism." Which Judaism is the "Traditional" one, hmm? Is it the Judaism of the Chabadniks? The Judaism of the Charedim? The Judaism of the American reformers? The Judaism of the Karaites? The Judaism of the Modern Orthodox? The Judaism of the Reconstructionists? What about the Judaism of Jacob Frank?
Contra Kornreich, I see no monolithic truth and no monolithic Judaism. What's more, Sinai (Exodus 19:17-20:18) remains a story with an uncertain interpretation:
With Moses and then Aaron seemingly as the sole exceptions, all Israel keeps its distance from Sinai and remains “far off.” The people see smoke and feel shaking, as if they are before a volcano. What did Israel hear? Certainly, they heard the shofar. What of God did they hear? Only sound. Moses later reminds Israel that when they encountered God at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).Torah interpretation, too, has a history. In my ongoing blog series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible, I have mentioned the centuries-long transition in the approach to reading the Bible:
While Jewish tradition has maintained that God spoke the first two commandments directly to Israel (but see Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II.33), this seems to be an interpretation that is not explicit in the text itself. In abject fear and standing from afar, Israel pleads to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." We might suppose that the Israelites actually hear nothing directly from God, if we accept the speaking Moses as being literal:
The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said, "I am the Lord your God . . ." (Deuteronomy 5:4-6; emphasis added)In this regard, the biblical claim of God's direct interaction with Israel is like later miracle accounts, such as the risen Jesus appearing to a few followers. The singularity of Sinai, in other words, may be highly exaggerated.
This traditional way of reading the Bible and understanding what it really is, says Kugel, derives from the efforts of the Bible's earliest interpreters:With Sinai as with all, plurality abounds. The persistent claim of Kuzari proponents is that Sinai is a different kind of story, a story that because of its content could not have arisen and developed the way that other stories do. This argument is bunk. I have shown that it is at least plausible that the Sinai story arose and developed just as other stories do, despite its grandest content. What seems obvious to me is that resistance to the idea that Sinai is just a story derives from a combined bias for theism and against any idea perceived to threaten orthodox religious belief.
[T]his whole way of approaching the Bible is the product of its ancient interpreters. There is little in the biblical texts themselves to suggest that they were intended to be read in this fashion. Nevertheless, that is how they came to be read, and it was this way of reading that made the Bible what it was for so many centuries, a divine guidebook full of instruction and wisdom, yea, the word of God....Disquieting as it may be, one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came to full flower in the closing centuries BCE.
Perhaps what's needed at this point is a better understanding about how stories and legends begin. Stay tuned....