A couple of weeks ago I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a talk about the way in which one ought to approach the characters of the bible. Not surprisingly he invoked the principle of yeridat ha-dorot (‘the decline of the generations’) which posits that each generation is subsequently spiritually and intellectually inferior to the previous one. This principle is first mentioned in the Talmud in relation to rabbinic authority. In tractate Shabbat 112b the late third century Rav Zeira is quoted as saying: ‘If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men, and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses.’ The implication of this notion is that later rabbis are bound by the authoritative halachic opinions of their predecessors. Whether or not this holds true in practice (there are many exceptions to the rule) is the subject of another essay. The rabbi I was listening to however was not invoking this principle in a legal sense but in a much broader context extending to our perception of biblical characters.
A cursory read of the bible reveals extremely complex characters that are comprised of both good and evil and whose lives are a constant struggle. Adam and Eve are destined for greatness but they succumb to temptation and eat forbidden fruit. Cain gives vent to his jealously by murdering his brother. Noah walks with God but compromises his dignity after the deluge. Abraham is a man of great faith but banishes his own child. Sarah can be both nurturing and cruel. Jacob dupes his old blind father, cheats his brother and favors one son above all others. Judah commits a sin of passion but then achieves personal redemption through assuming responsibility. Joseph displays great fortitude, faith and discipline but exacts revenge on his brothers. Later in the bible it gets even more complicated with King David committing adultery with a married woman and then having her husband killed and King Solomon who besides his harem of a thousand wives appears at the end of his life to be rather ambivalent towards idolatry.
This complexity is what makes the bible not just exciting but more importantly; relevant. It is in the struggles of these men and women that we discover reflections of our own struggles and it is through identifying with the characters that we are able to learn valuable lessons about life.
But there is a growing strand within Orthodox Judaism that feels threatened by such a reading.
This strand represented by the rabbi whose talk I was listening to believes that biblical personalities are beyond reproach and that to even suggest human flaws in their characters is to undermine the bible. And so yeridat ha-dorot is employed to demonstrate that it is just not possible to ascribe to the men and women of the bible human weakness. But how to explain verses that explicitly describe biblical personalities committing sins? The rabbi was unambiguous; ‘they are not really sins in the way you and I might commit a sin. It’s on a totally different level.’
Besides the absurdity of the argument (are there really lower and higher levels of committing deception or adultery?) it undermines the entire relevance of the bible. By rarefying these characters to such a degree they are placed effectively out of reach rendering them irrelevant to the reader who can no longer identify with them.
Why is this necessary? Why is it assumed that we will think any less of an Abraham, a Jacob or a David if we knew that they shared our human strengths and weaknesses? Why is it assumed that we would prefer to be guided by examples of uni-dimensional characters over multi-dimensional ones?
And finally, how is it that the same strand within Orthodox Judaism that insists on the literal reading of the bible when it comes to say, creation of the universe in six days, can so easily insist that the tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs, where they appear to sin, must be allegorised so as not to leave the impression that they were anything else but perfect?
The choice between revering biblical characters and identifying with them is a false one. It’s time we had the maturity and sophistication to recognize this.