Until Oppression Stays Behind

Getting out of biblical Egypt is the climax of an epic drama full of promises, plagues, and politics. And we sometimes think of escape from Mitzraim as definitive and final:

Oppression behind us;
freedom ahead;
halleluyah!
(On Passover: “Let’s eat.”)

Leaving Mitzraim, however, isn’t just moments of triumph and release: It’s a long, messy, frequently discouraging process.


—– SPOILER ALERT:
After the initial drama, the people spend 27 more chapters of Exodus, followed by Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in the wilderness; the Torah closes, forty years on, with an entire generation having perished on the journey and a river still to cross. —–


Truly seeing ourselves, individually, as “personally coming forth from Egypt” (Pes 116b) means embracing the whole story. Engaging with its complexities can also help us in communal and public approaches.

Leaving Mitzraim

Exodus, and the Passover experience, can appear as modeling a violent parting of oppressor and oppressed peoples. Centuries of commentary offer additional, sometimes quite different, perspectives, however. Shifting our views can serve us in many ways.

The Exodus is defining for Jews. It’s crucial in other faith traditions, including Christianity and Rastafari, and an important literary theme, in- and outside religious contexts. Exodus has also played key roles in U.S. political philosophy, from early colonial ideas to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement and beyond. In particular, the Exodus story is regularly employed to highlight shared values and promote coalition across Jewish and Black communities.

Some uses of the Exodus story have become frozen and no longer serve us well. Shifting some of these conversations is imperative if we are to escape today’s Mitzraim. This book seeks to highlight views of Exodus that can inspire fresh community and coalition building for our day.

Michael Walzer’s 1986 Exodus and Revolution concludes with this now oft-quoted adage about the three-fold Exodus message:

First, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt.
Second, that there is a better place,
a world more attractive, a promised land;
and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there
except by joining together and marching.

The image of “joining together and marching” toward that “better place” has inspired and comforted many. But that imagery can also lull us into thinking that we are marching toward equality and justice, when, instead, we’re dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us.

A more apt characterization, at this point, might be that we are a conflicted people with a history of marching, sometimes ineffectively, toward a liberation that hasn’t yet materialized for all concerned. It’s time we re-examined our basic assumptions and listened more carefully to others on this journey.

As SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva teaches, we can abandon a foundational story that is no longer working for us, we can deny there is any problem, or we can dig deeper and transform the old story.

This book represents an attempt to look deeper into the Exodus story, seeking a shift of perspective that will help us tell a story in which, finally, we’re all free — or at least headed together, respectfully, in a positive direction.


After Mitzraim

Following the tenth plague, hurried departure preparations, and the break in narrative to describe the Passover ritual, we read in this week’s Torah portion:

When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them by the nearer route, for God said: “Lest the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people round-about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds….
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had extracted a vow from the Children of Israel, saying: “God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones with you.”
— Exodus 13:17-19

Here we are, embarking on our journey into new-found freedom….

…And we’re on a roundabout route to avoid fear of potential conflict which might tempt us to turn back.

…We’re carting along old bones, honoring a vow made generations earlier, back when the old Pharoah still knew our ancestor Joseph, then a highly-placed administrator in Egyptian government (Gen 50:24-26 and Ex 1:8).

…And then, as if to underscore the illusory nature of our escape, we are once again trapped in a deadly power struggle, Mitzraim’s army behind us and the Sea of Reeds ahead (Ex 14:1ff).

The portion continues, of course, with God helping Moses to part the waters, the escaping people marching “into the sea on dry ground,” the sea “coming back upon” the pursuing chariots and riders, and, finally, the celebratory dance and Song of the Sea (Exodus 14 and 15).

The Song of the Sea has long been part of Jewish liturgy, as have psalms that celebrate coming out of Mitzraim (Ps. 113-118, sometimes called “Egyptian Hallel”). Celebratory Exodus themes are part of many other moments in the daily, Shabbat and Festival prayers, as well as Passover. But Jewish tradition has always included the bitter along with the sweet and asked us to incorporate alternative understandings into our readings and practice.

  • What can we learn by pausing to explore this precarious spot at the start of our freedom journey?
  • Whose old bones are we carrying? which historical relationships continue to influence our decisions? can acknowledging what we carry help us move forward?
  • Is fear of conflict warping our path? are there (still) good reasons for avoiding the more direct route?

Rereading Exodus

This post is the new introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. Until Oppression Stays Behind is the promised redraft of last year’s “Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption,” released as a sort of beta-test publication before Passover 2019. See “Coalition and Redemption” for details and to download or order a print copy.

Comments on the beta publication are most welcome.
Also seeking essays, sermons, or other thoughts — from Jews and non-Jews — for Until Oppression Stays Behind.
Contact songeveryday at gmail.

NOTES

מצרים/Mitzraim is biblical Egypt. Using “Mitzraim” to distinguish
the place of biblical story from any actual country, ancient or contemporary.

צַר — The Hebrew “tzar” means “narrow.” The plural “tzarim” = “narrow straits.” The Zohar (mystical work, 13th Century Spain) thus suggests that Exodus is about God bringing us out of our own “narrow places” including constricted opportunities and narrow-mindedness.

See, e.g., “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness,” by Lesli Koppelman Ross at My Jewish Learning
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בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
שנאמר והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה׳ לי בצאתי ממצרים

In each and every generation, a person must see themself as personally coming forth from Mitzraim. As it is said: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what YHVH did for me when I came forth out of Mitzraim.
— Mishnah Pesachim 10:5-6/Pes 116b
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Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

Babylon and 929

Babylon — in fact, “The Three ‘Bavels'” — is featured this past week on the English portal for “929,” chapter-a-day study in the Hebrew Bible:

The place name, בבל, bavel can refer to: Babel, Babylon, or Babylonia. Each of these ancient “Bavels” suggests a model for the 21st century….

The rise of Bavel/Babylonia was a rejection of Ps 137: it moved Judaism itself from a circle, with the Holy Land at its center, to an ellipse, with two centers defining its orbit. And in creating a second vibrant center, Babylonian Judaism opened up the way for many more “centers” to come, throughout Jewish diasporic history.

These three models – Babel, Babylon, Babylonia – represent three numerical possibilities for sacred centers in our lives…

— “The Three ‘Bavels’: Babel, Babylon, Babylonia” full post

929 is in its second three-year cycle in Hebrew and just launched its first English cycle on July 15, with the help of Drisha Institute in New York. 929 “invites Jews everywhere to read Tanakh, one chapter a day, together with a website with creative readings and pluralistic interpretations, including audio and video, by a wide range of writers, artists, rabbis, educators, and more.” (More at The Forward.)

Follow the English site on Facebook and/or by email. If you land on a page that is all Hebrew and want English instead, look for “EN” at the top left to switch.

Teachers from many corners of the global Jewish community are participating. DC area people might notice that Dr. Erin Leib Smokler, one of the founders of DC Beit Midrash (2002-?), is a contributing author.

Trauma and Migration Studies, The Book of Job, and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 20.2

Chapter 20.1 focused on monsters and storytelling, touching on the intersection of migration experiences and trauma. In follow up (with apologies for the delay), a few notes about the academic fields of migration and trauma studies and their relevance to #ExploringBabylon.

To begin, David W. Stowe discusses the application of trauma and migration theories to biblical studies* and, in particular, to his exploration of Psalm 137.

Migration and Trauma

On trauma theory and bible, Stowe writes:

Certainly the Bible provides voices that resonate with pain caused by the experience of the Exile in Babylon….

Reading the biblical literature through the lens of trauma theory suggests an agonizing experience during the Golah [Babylonian Exile]. Recent work in trauma theory and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows that symptoms associated with psychosis and other mental illness are symptoms of the human psyche struggling against an overload of anguish. Distortions in verbal and written communication [which Stowe and many others identify in the Book of Ezekiel, for example], even a failure to communicate at all — to become mute — reflect strategies of self-defense….
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.8-9

Stowe looks at migration theory in the same context:

Because we learn so much about Moses’ long attempts to win freedom from bondage for his compatriots, we assume that Egyptian slavery must have been harsher [than that of Judean exiles in Babylon]….

To flesh out this monochromatic picture of the Golah experience, scholars have brought to bear analytic tools from the social sciences, in particular the recent field of migration studies….An important contribution in the recent scholarship lies in drawing distinctions between different categories of people who formerly might have been simply labeled “exiles” or “refugees.” These blanket terms obscure a host of subtle variations: between migrants, exiles, refugees, and members of a diaspora; between voluntary and involuntary migrations; between internal migration and migration that crosses political boundaries.
— Stowe, Song of Exile, p.10

Stowe’s specific discussion of Psalm 137 awaits another day and another post. Meanwhile, though, his remarks above link back to Junot Díaz’s Islandborn: how differing immigration experiences lead to different recollections and relationships around the country departed — including, in many cases, a silence hard that can make it difficult for younger generations to learn their family’s past.

Stowe’s remarks also relate to a very different style of biblical study.

The Book of Job

The Book of Job offers linguistic, literary, and theological challenges when it comes to assigning authorship or even declaring the century in which it was committed to writing, in whatever form. See, for example, these authorship pieces by Columbia’s Brennan Breed and Elon Gilad of Haaretz. Moses Sokolow explores Talmudic ideas about authorship and elaborates on those with another suggestion.

Sokolow first argues, in Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual (full citation below), that three or four of the seven Talmudic suggestions for Job’s authorship overlap chronologically so as to suggest a consensus around authorship in the time of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). He then goes on to present a hypothesis:

Since Ezekiel lived during the era of the Chaldeans and was the only biblical author acquainted with Job, it is not a priori unreasonable to ascribe the Book of Job to him, particularly if we now take note of the one Talmudic opinion [of seven] we have thus far omitted: “Iyyov lo’ hayah ve-lo nivra’” – “Job never existed”; his story is only a parable (Bava Batra 15a).

The usual understanding of the Book of Job is that it addresses the question of theodicy….

But what if Job were the personification of the Jewish people? What if the destruction of his home, the loss of his wealth, and the death of his sons were parables for the destruction of the Temple, the forcible exile, and the many concomitant deaths and privations suffered by the Jewish nation? Ezekiel’s prophetic mission was devoted to reassuring the exiles that God’s presence was among them even in Babylonia, and that there would be a return to Zion and a restoration of the Temple. Could the Book of Job, then, not be Ezekiel’s own “Holocaust theology,” offering the conventional explanation for suffering (sin), rejecting it, and replacing it with the reassurance that there was a divine plan for history as there was for nature, and that our inability to perceive the former is in no way different from our like inability to comprehend the latter?
— Sokolow, p.43

Sokolow’s suggestion is presented in a different framework from biblical studies working from predominantly Christian sources. Both methodologies lead, however, to further discussion of trauma and migration in relation to biblical stories.


on this 27th day of the omer, making three weeks and six days

NOTES:

Here are two fairly recent relevant collections on migration, trauma and other theories of exile:

Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts. Ranier Albertz, ed. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of Exile. John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas eds. NY: T & T Clark International (Continuum), 2012.

Note, please, that Stowe, like many other scholars in the field called “biblical studies,” cites predominantly Christian sources. Moreover, some remarks in Song of Exile suggest his exposure to Jews is limited (see Song of Exile page) — which is not uncommon in Christian biblical studies. For more on this topic generally, see also “Babylon and Adventures in Bibleland” as well as “Babylon Basics.”
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Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual: Authorship, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Exegesis, Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy. Moshe Sokolow. NY: Ktav, 2015.
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Toward a Jewish Bible Reader’s Self-Inventory

Most of us are aware that our individual backgrounds strongly influence how we read anything. But how often do we fall into the trap of thinking that wherever we stand is normal, with other views somehow divergent or marginal?

When it comes to the Bible, we are all reading and interpreting through many layers of influence — personal, family, communal, political, etc. How often, however, do we pause to examine our own filters and those of familiar commentaries and background sources?

Fortress Press Self-Inventories

I recently ran across the Bible Readers’ Self-Inventory in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible:

The point of the following self-inventory is that none of us comes to the Bible as a “blank slate.” Its goal is to assist you in identifying and reflecting on some of the factors at work in the way you read or hear the Bible and to gain a stronger sense of your own voice as an interpreter of the Bible.
— p. xxix

Working through the inventory helped me articulate choices I regularly make when selecting Bible commentaries to study and cite. It also helped me better understand many of the factors at work in my reading. The self-inventory also prompted me to re-consider some habits that are not necessarily serving my own, newly articulated, reading and interpretation goals.

The self-inventory was also instructive in ways the authors probably did not intend. The Fortress Press inventories were explicitly designed for students in Christian bible or seminary studies. Some of the questions were, as a consequence, a little awkward for an older, non-student. More importantly, answering questions as a Jew required a fair amount of mental gymnastics to translate Christian assumptions about Bible and Bible-reading influences into something that reflected Jewish experience.

In the end, I found the experience worthwhile, and I recommend the basic practice. I’m also grateful to those who designed the inventories and encouraged students to consider factors at work in their Bible reading. But I think we need, for Jewish readers of the Bible, a self-inventory more in tune with Judaism and Jewish community dynamics.

Jews’ Bible Self-Inventory

Here is the PDF: Jews’ Self Inventory for Bible Readers. Jews and other interested Bible readers willing to test-drive this instrument are invited to use it, comment on it, and share results.

A copy is also posted at Academia.edu, and anyone who uses that forum is encouraged to share and/or comment there.

This DRAFT is based – sometimes closely, more often loosely – on the inventories in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible and Reading from This Place (full citations below). The self-inventory shared here, while indebted to the Fortress Press versions, centers common Jewish encounters with Tanakh [Torah, Prophets and Writings].

If anyone knows of an existing self-inventory aimed at Jewish Bible readers, please advise.

CITATIONS:
“A Self-Inventory for [Christian] Bible Readers” appears in the Peoples’ Companion to the Bible (DeYoung, Gafney, etal., eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, xxix-xxxii.) Find related resources and a link to download “Introduction,” which includes the self-inventory, at this Fortress Press product page.

An earlier version appears in “Framing [Christian] Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary: A Student Self-Inventory on Biblical Hermeneutics,” by N.K. Gottwald. (Reading from This Place, Vol. 1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States. F. F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. 256-261.)

Find links to both versions and some additional information on this resource page.

Babylon and Reception History

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.2

If asked a few months ago, I would have guessed that “reception history” had to do with radio or internet signals or, possibly, some diplomacy pattern. But I’ve learned in the course of #ExploringBabylon that “Reception History of the Bible” is a frequently used, sometimes controversial, approach for many authors who are interested in exile, Babylon, and related topics. There is a lot of current argument about the definition of Reception History, what term to use for the field (more on this below), and its worth.

….In my studies so far, I haven’t found many scholars of Judaism who see themselves as having a dog in this fight (or however academics express it); but I also suspect that some aspects of Reception History are intrinsic to this project, particularly when it comes to disentangling the many ways Babylon has been understood over time, in- and outside Judaism….

This installment of #ExploringBabylon, therefore, offers a few glimpses into Reception History of the Bible, as well as related pursuits, which I hope will be of use as this series unfolds.

Basics

The Introduction to Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011) notes that the “reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over three millenia,” going on to define the field:

[Reception History is] usually—although not always—a scholarly enterprise, consisting of selection and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame.
— Jonathan Roberts, Introduction, p.1

Oxford’s Susan Gillingham explains, in a “Theory and Practice” volume, that she heard the field referred to as ‘biblical studies on holiday,’ and that, while the characterization was intended as condemnation, she finds it helpful in understanding how Reception History works:

…things which really mattered ‘back there’ seem to be not quite as urgent or pressing as you have time to focus on different opportunities – perhaps in art, or music or literature. And you can return with new projects which might complement the older, more familiar ones.

So the metaphor of a ‘holiday’ might work well in defining reception history in relation to biblical studies. It offers a change of perspective….
— Gillingham, p.17
See also Further Adventures #2

In The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, Peter Machinist (now professor emeritas at Harvard) describes Reception History as illuminating two forms of biblical complexity:

The history of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible has been received and dealt with by various human communities (Rezeptionsgeschichte), it may be argued, reveals two perspectives on the problem [of biblical complexity]. The first is historical [the Hebrew Bible as historical artifact]….[In] the second…the Bible is an object of study and appreciation in its own right, the text itself defining, at least primarily, the world within which it is to be read and interpreted [i.e., as religious scripture or as literature].
–Machinist, p.210, 213, The Hebrew Bible

 

Origin

As seen in the Handbook footnote quoted below, the origins of Reception History are traced to German scholars of Christian Scripture, thus many discussions reference German terms:

  • Wirkungsgeschichte,
  • Rezeptionsgeschichte, and
  • Auslegungeschichte.

These are translated, respectively, as follows (more or less):

  • “history of effects,” or influence, including use in homilies, visual arts, etc.
  • “history of reception,” or how faith communities understood the text, and
  • “history of interpretation.”

A pioneer in Reception History defines the field as focusing on reception of the Bible “during the formative centuries of the Christian religion.” Many others are less explicit but assume that “Bible” means Scripture as understood by Christians or simply default to Christian views of scripture. Oxford’s Centre for Reception History of the Bible, for example, does not specify a religious community as primary, but neither does it step very often outside of Christianity, even for comparative talks, such as “Picturing Abraham in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (Dr. Aaron Rosen, Spring 2011).

A few scholars take a more inclusive view, either explicitly or by default.

Issues

Roland Boer objects to “Reception History” on the basis that it “assumes that the text is in some way original, the pad from which subsequent trajectories launch themselves forth.” He goes on to note that, in this view, “‘reception history’ may now be lumped under all those other approaches, like feminist, Marxist….all of which are supposedly anachronistic.” (Bible and Interpretation).

Boer is professor of humanities and social science, University of Newcastle (AU) and author of Rescuing the Bible, “a manifesto for general readers who are interested in the current relations between the bible and politics” (more below). He also has a piece in the “Implication, Difficulties, and Solutions” section of Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice.

Brennan Breed takes a different critical view:

It appears that the supplementary nature of biblical reception adequately describes the entire history of the biblical text, from the beginning of its production until the present day. Those qualities presumed to be “original” by traditional biblical criticism simply do not exist. For this reason, I use the phrase “biblical reception history” to describe the entire history of production and transmission of the Bible – and it is important to note that one cannot delineate between two temporally discrete periods, one of “production” and another of “transmission.”
— Breed, “A Dangerous Supplement

Breed is faculty member of Columbia Theological Seminary and another contributor to Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. His article from that volume is available through Academia(dot)edu.

Many other scholars take issue with Reception History for various reasons, and some wonder if it’s really a new name for something their field has always done. Beyond the basics offered here, for background and orientation, most of the discussion is “academic,” so to speak, and not even tangential to this project.

Instability, Variety, and Giants

Returning to the Oxford Handbook, the Introduction addresses concerns that Reception History does not “coalesce” in one reading:

The more history of reception of the Bible one reads, the clearer it becomes that the human importance of the Bible does not lie in a single foundational meaning that, by dint of scholarly effort, may finally be revealed. This is…an acknowledgment that both inside and outside the doors of academia all of us live in a changing world in which engagements with the Bible are themselves every changing….

It is a recognition of the dynamic, living relationship between texts and readers, rather than an attempt to isolate and stabilize textual meanings from the mutability of human life.
— Roberts, p.1, 8

Responding to the publication and its Introduction, this preliminary review (from 2011, when the volume was brand new) highlighted a few of the challenges faced by the field. The most salient to #ExploringBabylon is “limiting the field of RH to the beliefs of certain, usually dominant, religious groups.” As it happens, the author of this comment is also a co-founder and editor of Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, which has as a policy inclusion of views from “any religious tradition at any point in history.” (So far, the publication appears to be drawing scholars from Christian traditions.)

In addition to editing Relegere, Deane Galbraith teaches religion at the University of Otago (NZ) and blogs at “Remnants of Giants: Biblical Giants and Their Reception.”

Handbook Footnote on Terms

Terms currently being offered to designate the kind of study encourged here include the German terms Wirkungsgeschichte and Rezeptionsgeschichte, harking back to H.-G. Gadamer and its subsequent development by H.R. Jauss, with those terms being translated into English equivalents such as the ‘history of effects’ or ‘reception history’, ‘reception criticism’, ‘reception studies’, ‘reception theory’, ‘biblical reception’, or ‘reception of the Bible’, ‘cultural history’, and in two essay in this volume…’cultural impact’ …and ‘ethology of the Bible’….The popularity of the term reception history, favoured here, is therefore for use now primarily because of its ubiquity, we would argue, and not for its explanatory power.
— Introduction to The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds., p.4
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Rescuing the Bible

Roland Boer, Rescuing the Bible. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007)

My task is to rescue the Bible from the clutches o the religious and political right, its most systematic abusers….
…the Bible is so multi-vocal that it is perfectly plausible to draw from it a deep current of revolutionary themes.
–Boer, from Preface & Introduction

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Sources Cited:
The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

“Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History”
IN Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. Emma England and William John Lyons, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Terms