Monday, September 9, 2013

Salvaging Leviticus?

Maurice Harris, a progressive rabbi, has written what appears to be a fascinating new book: Leviticus: You Have No Idea. You can find excerpts and a table of contents on his website for the book. Here's a choice quote that convinced me to buy it:
Why do I think Leviticus can be a valuable book for people today who have—for lack of a more precise way of putting it—a progressive approach to religion? Because when it comes to Leviticus, we really have no idea. No idea of the surprisingly relevant questions and insights it contains, and little idea of how to integrate its strange, authoritarian, and intimidating worldview with our commitment to progressive values. 
As with so many other parts of the Bible, we tend to miss a lot of what’s there in Leviticus by not taking the time to explore it and greet it freshly with the question, “What might we learn today from studying this text, from bringing our current problems and struggles into dialog with even this text?” And if, in the course of greeting Leviticus with those questions, we are willing to let our sacred texts be imperfect—let them be a record of our ancestors’ understandings of God, not of God’s literal words beamed down to us never to be challenged—then the potential for what we can learn that’s directly relevant to our moment in human history expands dramatically.
The final message here resonates powerfully with some current work I'm doing on the concept of divine revelation. My philosophical question--rather different from Harris's scriptural one but, I think, leading to complementary insights--is this: What implications does one's view about God have for one's understanding of divine revelation? More precisely, does a particular understanding of God--say, the understanding of God as being essentially loving--require or preclude any specific views about how a God would self-disclose or what content should make us suspect/doubt revelatory origin?

My argument (which should come as no surprise to readers of this blog) is that if we take seriously the view that God is love, we should not expect to encounter God most clearly in the pages of a text, but rather in the context of loving relationships--that is, in the context of loving and being loved (including but not limited to our experience of loving and being loved by the divine, our passional reaching for the infinite and our occasional sense of "being in the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face," to quote Simone Weil's account of her first mystical experience).

But lessons drawn from our experiences of love need to be formulated, and it seems that if God is love then we should place our deepest trust in those lessons that emerge out of a community of loving discourse. In such a community, I think a holy text can serve as the proxy voice of those who have lived long ago. Their wisdom and insights can become part of the loving conversation--not an authoritarian conversation-stopper that we must silence in order to have a loving discourse at all (which is what fundamentalism would turn holy texts into), but a voice in the dialogue, as Harris suggest in the words above.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for citing my book on Leviticus - I'm honored! I do sense we have some common ideas and approaches to religion & spirituality. Now you've sparked my curiosity about your book, God's Final Victory.

    I'm struck by the bit in your post about folks who understand God to be love, and therefore experience divine presence in loving discourse or loving moments. It reminds me a lot of the philosophy of Martin Buber.

    Again, many thanks and blessings in your work!

    Maurice Harris