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Jewish Journal

Faith and Proof

Finding your way in the Exodus debate between two poles.

by Michael Tolkin

March 21, 2002 | 7:00 pm

The Kurdish father living in Sweden kills his daughter because she dishonored the family when she refused the marriage he arranged for her; Andrea Yates kills her children to spare them from her fundamentalist vision of Hell; a Hindu pogrom against Muslims in India kills hundreds, including children; a mother and father in Upland, Calif., members of a fake Amish cult, refuse medical care for their son and pray over him until he dies of meningitis; in the last 20 years the Catholic Church has paid out almost $1.3 billion as hush money to settle pedophilia lawsuits; Jews and Muslims are killing each other's children in a battle partly ignited over claims to the Temple Mount and the competition for its control, challenging each other's title to their shrines as a lie or a fantasy.

The lonely man of some faith hides from this torment at the cost of sleep and conscience, or he sleeps and maintains the fiction of conscience at the cost of his span of attention. But if he slows down and listens, his instinct tells him that no one with a conscience can still offer religion as a haven from the chaos of the world when religion moves deeper into fundamentalism, in retreat from responsibility for the chaos. He doesn't believe that God is dead, not at all. He believes in God and a created universe, but he's ready to walk away from religion and let them all kill each other. Except that he really doesn't want this sentiment of disgust heard by God as a petition that God might grant, so he tries to keep it muffled.

He believes that religion, when it stands outside of the political system, is the best defense against a bad political system, even though religion is hypocritical, because only religion demands the marriage of personal and social responsibility. Then again, he's a well practiced hypocrite on his own, and maybe because he's such a hypocrite he loves religion, the party of hypocrisy, for the company and the reading.

But if he could lose his faith over the expression of religion, here comes archeology to restore that faith, oh wonderful paradox, by severing the connection between sacred history and whatever actually happened. The lonely man of some faith wants a Bible that's all fiction on every page -- the more fiction, the greater the God.

Archeology presents a challenge. Religion has helped him to define, at least for himself, the pillars of fundamentalism. Those pillars are supported by anyone whose faith depends on a literal reading of a sacred text, anyone whose literal reading of that text convinces him that all the other religions are deceiving themselves.

He could interpret this anxiety as the fear that another religion might have the truth, or that no religion might have the truth, and that so much of a fundamentalist's identity is bound to the complete structure of his religion that any weakening pulls him into free fall. But that's a sympathetic psychological understanding, and in the spectrum of the archeologist's headlamp, he sees at least the outline of what is common to fundamentalists when all other differences lead to war: those who believe in the literal word of their sacred texts are the most violent, and the most violent, when ready to kill each other over their different ways to God, at least agree on two points: the suppression of the free movement of women in ritual and public life and the suppression of homosexuality. He sees a theory that might be a law.

Is that what this is about, that the fundamentalist is afraid of what is in him and in terror of what is not? He won't hold to this like the fanatics among us, even in our city, who say that nothing can change, because of the law.

But the archeologist is not always an ally. We can advance a new category of fundamentalist: any historian or scientist who thinks he disproves the validity of the religion because the historical record denies the sacred.

The archeologist, exploring the old stones, also tears down the temple and must be held to account.

To the fanatic and the barbarian, the lonely man of some faith wants to say that he knows that the books were written over a thousand years by a thousand writers, that the books are the voice of a nation speaking over time, proposing a model society of frail humans who need justice, sacrifice, joy, rest and atonemen. The books are telling the nation the truth about the difficulty of living up to its own imagination. These thousand voices, each of them broken, create a depthless unity, and this collectively created unity is sacred, and in the only leap of faith he'll make, this collection of voices is a hint of the sound of God. He says this quietly.

If Abraham did not send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, but we imagined it; if we had not been slaves but imagined it; if we had not been 600,000 strong at Sinai, but imagined it; if God did not let us cross into the land until a generation had died in the wilderness, but we imagined it; if David did not have Uriah killed so he could marry Bathsheba, but we imagined it; if we imagined the need for a land to create a light for the world, but understood that the land would spit us out if we failed our own vision; if all the contradiction and paradox were not dictated on Sinai in 40 days, but heard by us over those thousand years, and our errors written down and not denied or blamed on someone else, then the book is all the miracle anyone should ask for, and to read it as literal is idolatry.

And here's the paradox about the fundamentalists: Because their faith depends on the literal word, their faith is liable to disappointment. As science advances, they spend ever more furious energy keeping the truth from destroying the structure that holds them together. So they shoot their daughter, drown their children or bring their babies to the West Bank settlements as proof of their faith. If they're willing to do this much, then there must be a God.

Isaac is killed on his father's altar every day. And we know exactly where that altar is. It's on the Temple Mount.

Next year in Jerusalem.


Under Radar by Michael Tolkin


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