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Archaeology, history, the enlightenment, Torah and where did I screw up


This is going to be a bit of a long post so strap in, and I appreciate anyone who reads through the whole thing.

I’m a young adult in my early 20s who graduated college two years ago. I was raised modern orthodox – I went to Jewish day school through HS, including a well known Jewish HS and even did the now “standard” year in Israel after graduating. That said, something about the method of instruction or the Torah itself had difficulty resonating with me. I felt like perhaps I wasn’t being heard in class/shiur and that I was misunderstood. I know these are the usual feelings of teenagers and young adults, but still…

About 18 months ago I started getting very into Biblical Archaeology. I’ve read two books by Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed and The Forgotten Kingdom. I’ve also read works by Donald Redford, Frank Moore Cross and others.

The ideas presented in these books are controversial within Judaism of the modern orthodox strain or further “right” but they resonated with me. Some things they discuss include the fact Jews didn’t conquer the Canaanites, we were originally Canaanites who gradually shifted from a polytheistic form of worship (Yah-h, El, Asherah, Baal) to a more monotheistic religion. It also discusses the historicity of the Torah, namely that the Torah wasn’t given to Moses at Sinai but was composed of ancient Israelite and Judean myths and narratives that were woven together over generations.

That said, I still subscribe to the supremacy of the Torah and believe an observant Jew must follow its traditions. I think most Jews would generally agree with me that some stuff in the Torah isn’t meant literally – that God didn’t create the world in 6 days less than 6,000 years ago for example. Yet, other ideas that take the Torah “less literally” are considered more highly controversial. I also think as objects like the Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered, which are older than any other Hebrew language version of the text we have, and we notice various P’Sukim that are different from our text we must confront the notion that there wasn’t one unified text originally. It’s remarkable how early we had a unified text, as most texts only became standardized with the printing press, but still in the context of early pastoral Israelites, I don’t see why it’s shocking to realize there were many versions of the text.

Furthermore, I think a lot of MO and to the “rights” focus on rabbinism is somewhat misguided. For example consider to people: A and B. A is a PhD in Bible Studies from Harvard, was raised modern orthodox and did his thesis on some topic in Sefer Vayikrah. Person B was also raised MO, became a little more frum, got Smichah from YU and is now an assistant rabbi in a mid sized shul outside Boston. Person A can present an argument on their interpretation of Mitzvot in Sefer Vayikra through a well reasoned argument based on text, and person B can derive the same conclusion but through a much less cogent argument and yet we believe B because he has Smichah, not A because of his stronger argument. And need I say, if they disagree we follow B.

I don’t want to go too far and say “everyone can pick and choose what they want.” Ultimately beliefs must be based upon the Masoretic text and informed through cogent argument and education but I also think this generation of virtually anything said by either a) the generations prior or b) the majority opinion somewhat forced Judaism into a more monolithic block than it ever was during any period prior to our current Galut.

When I share these ideas generally I’m castigated either as a heretic or as someone who doesn’t care about Torah. This is frustrating as I dare DEEPLY about the Torah and Judaism, if I didn’t why would I spend all my time reading and thinking about them. I don’t know why no one with my upbringing is even willing to consider these ideas. It makes me sad that I think somehow Judaism has itself deviated from what it once was, and while all religions change over time it seems those who disagree with me present it as “always having been this way” (cue astronauts looking at earth meme).

If anyone has suggestions for how I can improve my discussions, or wants to pinpoint where I went wrong or just wants to chat about religion I really don’t have many people to talk to and would love a voice of respectful criticism or ideas or really anything. I recognize this last part is a bit rambly, but please share your thoughts and thank too for reading.

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