A Yom Kippur Meditation

September 23, 2015

by Avi Davis

Yom Kipur, Jerusalem. The entire country enveloped in preparations for the day. The pilot and the stewards on the El Al flight, all secular, wish us ‘ chatimah tova’ (the Hebrew short hand for the blessing to be inscribed in the Book of Life) as we descend the gangway; same for the customs officials, the airport security officials and the taxi driver. Jerusalem is already awash in a sea of white – white shirts, white dresses, white shrouds – hours before the onset of the Festival. Zion Square, the throbbing heart of the city, looks like one of those mid-western towns in the U.S. through which a tumbleweed might occasionally blow. Except for the sporadic police car, it is eerily silent.

When the public siren sounds at 6:00 pm, signaling the onset of the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the entire country seems to clank to a halt. And as I contemplate the awe that Yom Kipur inspires in the people of Israel – religious and secular alike, my mind is drawn back 42 years ago to the same day when all the young men were forced to leave their families, homes and synagogues and join their battalions in the Sinai Desert and Golan Heights to confront a surprise attack by the country’s enemies. Many would not return. Today, among those soldiers, would be four of my Israeli nephews.

In this part of the world there is a thin line between life and death, peace and war. The prayers on Yom Kipur itself make this clear – who will live and who will die, who will succeed and who will fail? – none of which is known and without exception we all walk the same tightrope. But here, in this country and in this city, that balance seems particularly poignant and relevant. To contemplate our good fortune, to think about our near misses, to give thanks for our fruitful year of life and to dare to hope and pray for another, makes fasting for 25 hours an utterly minor inconvenience – and almost a privilege. May we all merit, through repentance and forgiveness, the gift of life; may we all continue to long for peace, even as we know we must prepare for war; and may we all learn, as one of the central prayers on Yom Kipur implores us, the love of kindness, the elevation of righteousness, the kindling of compassion and the true blessings of life bestowed upon us by G’d.

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

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Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus – A Review

January 27, 2015

by Avi Davis

Director: Tim Mahoney
Release Date: January 19, 2015
In April  2001, 42-year-old Rabbi David Wolpe, regarded as one of the leading Jewish prelates and thinkers in America, dropped a bombshell.  Speaking before his congregation, Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, he admitted that he had little reason to believe that there was much historical basis to the Exodus narrative. As reported in the Los Angeles Times he said:
“The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
The fact that Wolpe was speaking on Passover itself – the Jewish festival which commemorates the Exodus  –  and that the Los Angeles Times was there to cover his sermon, goes a long way to explaining the purpose of Wolpe’s sudden admission: he was engaging in an act of political and theological revisionism (some might even say sabotage) –  attempting to bring Judaism into line with modern scholarship and archaeological research, which, he later averred, had found nothing in 200 years to corroborate the Biblical account of the Israelite departure from Egypt.
The characterization of the Exodus as a fanciful myth has of course some telling consequences.  Among them is that many of the greatest events of the Biblical period may never have actually occurred.  It would mean that there was no historical Moses, no Ten Plagues, no slaughter of the first born, no parting of the Red Sea, no desert wandering, no fall of Jericho and no conquest of the land of Canaan.  It could also just possibly mean that there was no ‘ historical’ Ten Commandments at all.
Without sufficient archaeological evidence to corroborate the Exodus, the entire story can be regarded as no more than a heroic narrative woven out of whole cloth by later chroniclers to lend both legitimacy and purpose to the Israelite claim to the land of Israel.  This of course plays into the hands of an assorted range of secularists, atheists, anti-Semites and Israel bashers who are looking for exactly such a quote from a major Jewish leader to either delegitimize the State of Israel, smear Judaism or else deny the Jewish people’s historical claims to the land.
Wolpe’s admission naturally whipped up a firestorm in the American Jewish community but he was quickly supported by many contemporary Biblical scholars who bewailed the absence of an authoritative archaeological record and who had to sadly admit that the archaeologists may be right.
But what if Biblical archaeology has made some fundamental errors about the historical occurrence of the Exodus?
It is almost universally accepted that the Exodus, if it occurred at all, took place in the 13th Century BCE, during the reign of the greatest of Ancient Egypt’s builders –  Rameses II.  And it is true enough that in this period there is scant archaeological evidence to buttress the Exodus story.
Yet is it possible that Biblical archaeologists for the past 100 years have been looking in the wrong time period?  Could it be that they may have been off the historical mark on the Exodus by up to 300 years? And if so, what would they find if they looked there?
That is the starting point for Tim Mahoney’s elegant documentary Patterns of Evidence, a film which records the personal journey of a film maker seeking to uncover the truth about the Exodus. His journey takes him to several countries – to archaeological sites in Egypt and Israel, to the halls of academia in the United States, England and Germany while attempting to maintain an objective mind  -free, as much as possible, of the pitfalls of bias and prejudice which at one time or another afflicts almost every historical academic discipline.

 At the beginning of the film Mahoney outlines his mission: “I didn’t go with a preconceived conclusion, but I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt as we searched for the truth. I went to the top people in the world and said: ‘Tell me what you know about this story and what does the archaeology tell you.’ I talked with both sides – people who can’t see any evidence for Exodus and people who see the evidence. It became a balanced approach.”

As the film proceeds the evidence mounts that the period of the Middle Kingdom,(2050 BCE and 1652 BCE) if assessed to be the correct chronological time for the Exodus, rather than the New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE) provides a trove evidence for the existence of a slave tribe which resided in the Nile Delta, its sudden departure from the historical recor , graves which might belong to the twelve sons of Jacob and one grave of which is missing its sarcophagus and might be the grave of the Biblical Joseph.

The film reveals is that there is a body of scholarship – although substantially in the minority, which has found that there is abundant evidence to validate the Exodus, but only if the chronology is shifted back 250 years.  Included in such evidence is a papyrus dated from that time period which recounts an episode of blood in the River Nile and plagues of insects descending on the Nile Delta. In addition to this hieroglyphics on stelae indicating the existence of the Biblical Joseph and  grave sites offering a glimpse into the slave life of the ancient homeland of Azair – the Biblical Goshen  – all of which offer tantalizing evidence to support the Middle Kingdom hypothesis.

So what is keeping archaeologists from making this leap?   Well, first all, this kind of revisionism messes up history big time since the dating of other civilizations is tied to the Ancient Egyptian chronology and calendar. Second, there are reputations to consider since if the key Biblical archaeologists have been getting their chronology wrong all these years what does it say about their credibility as historians?  As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, money, reputation, career advancement and the quest for academic survival can often trump the search for truth in academia. Archaeologists have a great deal to protect in continuing to debunk the Bible as historical fact.

But as I watched the film I was visited by an uneasy feeling.

Arguing that secular scholars are completely wrong or that their opponents are completely right does not serve historical analysis too faithfully.  Could it be that truth falls somewhere in between the position that Mahoney stakes out and the one traditionally advanced by Egyptologists?   It is impossible to either know or to understand this from viewing a two hour film. Real historical research is pounded out in the dialogue between hundreds of articles and papers, and refined in the back and forth of peer review.

By viewing this documentary most people, for instance, would not know that the revised Egyptian chronology is not a new theory at all –  is in fact decades old –  and that it  has been shown to create as many problems for biblical chronology as it solves.

And one thing other thing Mahoney fails to do is to examine in depth the reason Biblical scholarship focuses so intently on the New Kingdom rather than the Middle Kingdom to locate the story of the Exodus.  After all, there is such a thing as carbon dating, as well as comparative literature from the period and other scientific indicators which might justify the time period almost universally accepted by the Biblical scholars.  This question demanded much greater examination.

And of course there are then the philosophical arguments.

In the midst of narrator’s journey Mahoney comes across the writings of Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner – one of the world’s most famous Egyptologists, who admits that all we really have left of the great civilizations that once existed in the desert sands of the Middle East are mere ‘rags and tatters’ –  the detritus of a civilization and not its essential core.

With so little evidence, not only for the Exodus story but for any civilization or event which once existed, how can archaeologists truly be sure of anything?  Is it not true that the findings of archaeologists lead not to the re-creation of historical  facts, but rather the establishment of theories that are rarely ever so water tight that they can never be challenged?

This kind of discussion also leads to some pretty heavy epistemological arguments, namely, how do we actually ever know anything?  Aren’t those who accept the argument that the Exodus never happened merely transferring their faith from one written version of the past to a faith in another’s scientific methods that they can neither personally nor empirically verify nor corroborate?

I have always marveled at David Wolpe’s reasoning on this level: for surely, as a rabbi who believes in the existence of a G’d, he understands the philosophical contortions through which he must pass in order to state so affirmatively that the Biblical story is almost certainly myth. He is, after all, relying on research that he did not personally conduct and on a historical methodology for establishing a chronology with which he is probably unfamiliar. How can he be so sure that the perspective he has so wholesomely adopted was not itself refracted through bias and prejudice and which might be just as determined not to find any evidence of the Exodus as the film maker’s archaeological subjects are to find it?

People of faith don’t require archaeology to corroborate their beliefs.  If we accept that archaeology is a notoriously inexact method of determining historical truth – given the ‘rags and tatters ‘ theory elucidated above, could it not be that the evidence of the Exodus is still waiting to be discovered beneath the mountains of sand and sediment in the Nile Delta?

Why then the rush to judgement when, in the absence of authoritative proof such as a contemporary manuscript, we have what is essentially a written historical narrative, composed many, many centuries closer to the events than we stand today and which operates as at least a tangential guide to understanding this era?  This amounts to giving the Bible ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as Mahoney states in his introduction and it is what the pre-modern archaeologists certainly did.

The eagerness to debunk the Bible’s historical validity is a default intellectual reflex in today’s secular world- a world riven with satirists, deconstructionists and debunkers who gleefully skewer religion at every available opportunity.

But as Mahoney himself states in his book on the subject, the absence of evidence should never be regarded as evidence of absence. That is a credo that both sides of the divide of this important historical inquiry would be well advised to adopt.

 

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

 

 

 


Honor Thy Father and Mother

December 26, 2014
by Avi Davis

December 15th was my mother’s 76th birthday.   Being a bit of a sentimentalist and, I would hope, a loyal son, I never forget this date.   It is the time at least once a year, although there are many other occasions as well, to honor my parents and I do so with a phone call, flowers and any other gift which I know will bring them joy.

But in Jewish law, this is not truly honoring them.

The Hebrew word kavod in Exodus 20:12 , where the commandment to honor one’s parents first appears – does not really mean honor, which is a poor English translation.  A better translation would be dignity.

How do we know this?

Often to understand the meaning of one word in the Torah , we need to make reference to the same word used in a different context in another part of it.

In this instance, the Hebrew word for “honor” (ka-ved) consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “heavy” (ka-bed). The only difference is a dot in the second letter.

This could be said to mean, that “honor” should be understood as treating  one’s parents with the gravity (heaviness) that their position demands. It is interesting to note that, the Hebrew  opposite of “honor” is “kalel.” The word is always translated as “to curse,” but its literal meaning is to make light of (from the Hebrew “kal,” light). One curses one’s parents not only if one directs curses at them, but, indeed, if one treats them lightly.

In a Talmudic commentary this same word is used to state that human dignity is extremely important. Therefore, in Jewish law the true meaning of the word kavod is associated with dignity rather than honor. Thus, the commandment is to dignify one’s father and mother – or to keep their dignity – as in feeding them, clothing them, and helping them come in and out of their homes, outweighs what in English we would know as ‘honor.’

But this is not the only reference to treat our parents with dignity in the Torah. In Leviticus 19: 3 there is the verse ” You shall fear  your mother and your father.”  In the Talmud  “Fear” is defined as not sitting or standing

hand in hand

in a parent’s designated place and not contradicting a parent, while they are speaking.  This akin to what we would refer to in English as respect.

Dignity and respect.  Not quite the same understanding of honor we generally attach to the word.

It is of course interesting that the Torah teaches us to ‘honor/ dignify/respect our parents but not to ‘love’ our parents. Unusual, because other commandments admonish us to ” Love thy neighbor as thyself,” “Love the stranger,” “Love God with all your heart …”

Why no love for parents?

The answer is that love for a parent cannot be commanded.  It is instinctive, as we witness anytime we see a child with his or her  mother.   G’d has built that instinct into our genes – there is no need to think about the rightness or wrongness of love for a parent.  There is therefore no need to ‘command’ love.

That love flows instinctively from a child to his or her parent is exampled by the early life of Winston Churchill.  Churchill’s life from his birth until almost his 18th year  was spent in the care of nannies or at boarding schools.  His parents, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Randolph Churchill and his bon vivant socialite wife Jennie, paid him almost no attention and saw both their children as little as possible since they were seen as  hindrances to their upward social mobility.

Yet Churchill maintained an adoration for his missing parents which defies almost all explanation.  In his 30s he wrote a glowing biography of his father extolling his virtues while mentioning none of his many faults  and came to see his flighty mother as his most important adviser and confidante in his developing political career.

But while most children instinctively love their parents, that instinct can be diminished over time.  Some parents have been cruel to their children, some have abused them, some have done things in their own lives that makes a child ashamed. Love that might be instinctive can also be crushed by experience.

I was reminded of this by two encounters I had  on the very same day I celebrated my mother’s birthday.

On that day I spoke with two friends who shared with me the reality of their own family lives.  Both had fathers who had recently passed away. In the first instance, the father had gone through a bitter divorce with the mother many years before, splitting the family in two. My friend told me that her father hadn’t spoken to either her brother or sister for 20 years and they, when notified of his passing, demonstrated no sign of grief.  She too had not spoken to either of her siblings for the same length of time. The family had effectively ceased to exist.

My other friend told me that he was the only one of his three siblings who had maintained a relationship with his father who had similarly divorced their mother three decades before. When he died they had no interest in attending the funeral or dealing with any other details regarding him.  My friend was left alone to deal with the estate and tidy up his father’s personal affairs.

I had to think of the early lives of these rebellious progeny who so despised their parent(s) that that they could not bring themselves to say goodbye or even attend their funerals.    There is no doubt in my mind that they did not always feel this way and that their natural instincts for love had in some way been smothered.

It is doubtful that any commandment could have made these children now love their parents.

So it is here that the commandment to dignify and respect the parent, particularly in old age, when they are infirm and cannot fend for themselves, has its purpose and fills in where love is no longer possible.

This was certainly the case of my two friends who reached out, unlike their siblings, to their fathers in their old age, lending forgiveness for whatever sins they had perpetrated, and offering solace in their last days.

The notion that human beings are imperfect and can make ruinous mistakes is central to Judaism.  It dovetails with the notion of gratitude -an acknowledgement that we owe our very existence to a force outside our own beings  – and to two forces in particular who united to form us.

Therefore we acknowledge that for whatever our parents’ sins, whatever their errors, whatever their failings, we must, in the end, attempt to forgive them in order to help them in their infirmity and through their final days.   For they are responsible for having granted us the greatest gift of all – the gift of life.   We may no longer all have the capacity to love them, but we can dignify and respect our parents and prevent them from passing out of life forgotten.

While many quote the fifth commandment as an admonition to honor parents, they forget or ignore the second part of the same commandment –  “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”   We should note that this is the first commandment to appear with a promise attached.  It is further emphasis that our lives are not separate from our parents’ lives but a continuum.  It suggests that in this continuum in which we, ourselves, would wish for a long life, so we must wish it for those who gave us life.
In this respect ‘ Honor Thy Father and Mother’ stands as not just a  commandment for cementing the bond between a parent and a child, but for securing the very survival of the human race itself.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and blogs at The Intermediate Zone

 


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