Critics of God and religion sometimes use the dynamics of interpretation as evidence of the bankruptcy of scripture. The argument goes something like this: that honesty requires scripture to be read literally and that any kind of interpretation and symbolic reading is an attempt to whitewash scriptural problems and evade the ‘truth’. However, I think that we do not need to defend any problems in scripture in a debate about whether God exists. God’s existence or lack of is not contingent on a morally or otherwise perfect scripture (or world for that matter).
To deny readers of scripture the capacity of good faith interpretation is to rob a canon of its capacity for ongoing dynamism and validity throughout the passage of time. I think humans need to take responsibility for the way we read scripture, reading it as an open gateway rather than a closed passage. When there are things that we don’t like we can use this as an impetus to act in the world against those things. We can be in dialogue with scripture so that it opens us to the world as we want it to be, or so that it narrows the world and eats in on itself, without any space for incorporating new realities as they unfold. As the rabbis say, it can be an elixir of life, or a drug of death.
In a famous rabbinic story, the Oven of Akhnai, the rabbis used a biblical verse about deciding according to the majority to actually ban God from interfering in rabbinic disputes, and to disallow the rabbis from bringing supernatural proofs to the argument. The irony here is that the rabbis used their interpretation of the Bible to ensconce their own authority against God. Similarly a Talmudic story recounts a time travel episode with biblical Moses sitting in the classroom of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva is recounting laws and Moses doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about. But at the end Rabbi Akiva says that the laws are from Moses at Sinai, and in the rabbinic text, it says that after Moses heard this he was relieved. This shows the rabbis’ self-consciousness of the radical interpretive nature of their enterprise. They are interpreting Bible but Moses, whose signature is the bible, doesn’t recognise what they are talking about. Valid interpretation can take us that far from the original source that it becomes unrecognisable. At the same time it is still attributed back to its source and maintains its connection in that way.
The goal of calling scripture accountable to philosophical and scientific truth is not solely the domain of atheists; it is also something integral to many religious thinkers. Medieval Maimonides tried to reconcile his belief in the truth of scripture with his commitment to philosophical truth and it was this process that gave birth to metaphorical readings that allowed scripture to continue to ring true as new knowledge was brought to bear upon it. The truth of scripture can also be understood from a more humanistic perspective, in terms of the meaning and authority invested in it by communities of meaning, who often attributed their meaning because of suppositions about the divine inspiration of the text. But evidence of ‘faulty scriptures’ doesn’t ‘disprove’ God. In fact there wouldn’t be a rabbinic tradition without these faults, whose lines spark the creation of midrash. We just use our problem with scripture as part of our social action in the world, whether we are religious, or not.
My observance of Jewish ritual and, even more so, my learning of traditional sources is not invested in any attachment to God’s existence. Even relating to God is more about a sense of directionality towards infinity more than an address to something fixed. I often suggest that students bracket the question of God because it can be a distraction. (Personally I don’t think ‘believe’ is the right verb for God, but that’s another story.) Although the tradition may self-reflectively attribute God as the locus of authority and intention, this attribution has been perpetuated by different communities of interpretation in different ways throughout time and can often be a tiny fraction of the deeply human factors motivating learning and ritual.
Melanie Malka Landau is Lecturer, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Faculty of Arts, Monash University. She also facilitates individual and group processes around relationships, healing and rites of passage.