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Question Everything…Learning to Think Clearly for Yourself

Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.
George Carlin

The late George Carlin took nothing at face value. His deep and often cynical analysis of behavior and ideas was always refreshing in a world filled with apathetic acceptance of propaganda swaddled in the guise of politics, religion, culture, class, race, and gender. Forgive me if I left anything off the list. His point, however, is clear. Accept nothing someone tells you or what someone writes and you read. Do not believe the surface for if you do you’ll surely be disappointed. But what does it mean to question everything? What does it actually mean to read critically?

I have one anecdotal piece of evidence, a story that is funny while carrying the seeds of corporate greed at its core. It was widely reported in the late 1980’s that when toilet training one’s children, it is best to wait until the child asks to be trained. In an era of child centered parenting, a period in which I raised my own children, this bit of news reporting seemed to make a great deal of sense until I learned that the studies that were widely reported were funded by manufacturers of disposable diapers. The question arises as to whether the studies results were motivated by a reasonable interpretation of the data or by the profits to be made from selling one or two more years worth of disposable diapers? Fortunately for my kids, they were unable to use disposable diapers so we opted for cloth. The point of this anecdote is to simply point out that when a study is widely reported it is always appropriate to ask where the funding source for the study came from. Does the funder have an economic or idealogical stake in the results of the study.

It is always important to think clearly about claims made that appear on the surface to be quite logical. Another example: An argument made by fundamentalists for whom the literal (surface) meaning in the Bible is without flaw claims that evolution must be wrong by partially making their case that the human eye is too complex an organ to be made other than by divine design. This is an argument from incredulity which, in its simplest form, goes something like this: I can conceive of no other possible solution so X must be the case. The argument from incredulity is one of the weaker forms of argumentation because, for the most part, those who make the argument fail to consider sources outside of those which make them most comfortable. Consulting other sources, scientific sources, that argue for the evolution of the human eye using evidence from many species allows one to argue from extant evidence and not from belief systems or ideology.

Teach your children to read critically, open their eyes to the very idea that there is always more than one way to get to the roof but if you can’t think clearly you might not recognize them.

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

Reconciling Mythology with Reality: Thinking in Jewish 43

In their provocative book, The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, drawing on the most recent archaeological research present to the reader a stunningly new vision of the rise of ancient Israel and how the Hebrew Bible served as a powerful mythology for the Judean kings beginning with the rule of King Josiah in the middle of the 8th century BCE. What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that the Torah and the historical writings from Joshua through Kings I and II provide a picture that is more mythological than historical. Their argument is based on both archaeological data and practicability; could the events recorded in the Bible actually have occurred, do they pass the giggle test.

In terms of the mythological argument, Finkelstein and Silberman present a case that suggests that many of the events have an 8th century BCE contemporary feel that seem to be supportive of Josiah and his ambitions. Many of the “historical” stories presented use 8th century BCE geographical references to cities and peoples that could not have existed in the 15th century BCE when the stories were said to have occurred. Perhaps an example is in order. When the exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred, the People of Israel (they were not yet Jews) took the long way around, wandering in the Southern Sinai for 40 years. Had they taken the Northern route across the Sinai, along the Mediterranean Sea the people would have come in direct contact with a line of Egyptian fortifications which surely would have created an Egyptian response, if only to document the rabble of Israel leaving Egypt. There are any number of Egyptian documents extant today that mention the travel of many peoples but there is no mention anywhere of a rabble of 600,000 people, former slaves in Egypt, leaving as a whole group to cross the desert. To confirm the historicity of the Bible there must be other confirming data, either Egyptian records or archaeological discoveries; neither exist. Crossing the desert with so many people is also beyond reasonable expectations. Small groups of nomads for sure but the population of a small nation crossing the desert and surviving is beyond the capacity of human beings without leaving significant archaeological evidence behind. If the evidence is not there the historicity of the stories fails.

What Finkelstein and Silberman argue is that trying to understand the Bible as an historical document of the development of a people is not supported by the historical or archaeological evidence. It is, however, supported by inferential evidence as dating from the reign of King Josiah, a time in the mid 8th century BCE of great power shifts and an accompanying religious revolution. The evidence found in the historical place names in the Hebrew Bible through Kings II have a corollary in the historical record of that time period as found in documentary evidence from outside of the Judean Kingdom and from the archaeological data dating from this time period as well. Understanding the Bible as a cobbling of extant mythological stories and a political document supporting the ambitions and activities of King Josiah and his immediate successors is a more accurate view.

All that being said, the staying power of the texts is nothing less than extraordinary. The mythology of the Torah and the histories took on a life of its own surviving to this very moment as a guide to ethical practice in the world. It is a book of actions leading to understandings, even if those understandings are quite different and perhaps unrecognizable by those of 8th century BCE Israelites for whom the stories related to their contemporary lives.

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

The historian acknowledges that answers are not contained in the questions and effects in the causes. There is in history an indefinite space for freedom and surprise, where human genius and blind fate…exercise their power above any deterministic constraint. Yet, thoughts and ideas cannot be understood historically apart from the social setting in which they were born and apart from the people who produced them.
Gabriele Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Midway between Fargo and Grand Forks North Dakota is a roadside billboard advertising the Bible as “Complete, Unchallenged, Settled.” The very idea that a collection of texts, some related and some quite distinct from one another and redacted into a normative collection that is revered by some but not all between 2,500 and 1,800 years ago, is totally settled, completely unchallenged and a perfectly complete statement of the world and everything in it is, on its face, nonsensical. Bronze Age manuscripts tell the story of a particular people living at a particular time, subject to political and social pressures unique to themselves and their times. They do not reflect the Truth or even the truth for all time prior to and to still be realized. To be completely understood they must be understood in the context (political, social and economic) in which they came to be in the first place. Because the collection of texts that form Scripture are often contradictory it is crucial to understand these contradictions in terms of the chronological order in which they came to be as well. To blindly accept these collections of stories, rules, diatribes and histories as the revealed work of a deity is to turn a blind eye to the politics and social structure that created them.

Now I don’t claim any special knowledge of or expertise in Biblical scholarship; what I do claim is the ability to read and comprehend what Biblical scholars have written, the arguments they make and the ability to make rational judgments as to the reasonableness of the arguments put forward. The application of rationality to the myriad of problems posed by Scriptural texts is necessary if one ever hopes to understand the motivations of those writing the texts in the first place. Understanding motivations as a product of the times when the documents were produced goes a long way to understanding the intellectual history of the documents themselves.

Boccaccini, in his 2002 book, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, From Ezekiel to Daniel, makes a strong case for the development of the Rabbinic Judaism we are familiar with today has its roots in the Babylonian diaspora and the return of a group of exiles to Jerusalem in the priestly followers of Zadok, the Zadokite priests, who re-formed normative Judaism through textual and political innovations that overturns the very notion that Rabbinic Judaism was well formed at the earliest phases of the Second Temple. In Boccaccini’s analysis, the revolution he attributes to the Zadokites begins in exile after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and gathers steam as the Zadokite priests rebuild the Temple along completely new organizational principles. This revolution continues through the Maccabean period, strongly influenced by the mediation of the Pharisaic movement that gains momentum during the Roman occupation of Palestine. By the time of the Roman destruction of Herod’s Temple, there were many Judaisms, the two most prominent being Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism with the final schism occurring at around the time of Constantine.

Boccaccini analyzes contradictions in texts, especially contradictions in priestly lineage, that all tend to revise the contradictions into a tight historical lineage giving the appearance of being more-or-less continuous. At one point he writes that there is no better way to convince people to join in the revolutionary efforts than to convince them that this is the way things always have been.

Far from being the revealed word of YHVH, Rabbinic Judaism’s Scriptures are cleverly redacted to serve the priestly class that wrote them, complied them from multiple sources and reflect the political, social and economic realities of the times in which they were written. Understood in this way, it is easier to read the documents for what they are, a manifesto proclaiming the emergence of a priestly cult that, over time, adapted itself to life without the place of priestly sacrifice into a cult that relies on the combination of prayer and adherence to a specific code of practice which acts as the simulacrum of Temple sacrifice.

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