By: Yisroel Ben-Porat  | 

The Problem of the Past in Religious Experience

History is problematic for religions. Although it contains a repository of useful traditions, customs, and ideas, history has a pernicious effect on the perception of sacred religious texts. As time passes, such texts fade into the distant realm of history, becoming “ancient” and “primitive.” Practitioners of a particular religion then begin to feel a dissonance with the original culture that produced their religion’s sacred texts. As a result, some reach the conclusion that the text is inapplicable to their “modern” society. This perception creates difficulties for these people, who consequently attempt to navigate the historical gap between the text and their own lives.

The above scenario, presented in abstract, is one aspect of the clash between religion and modernity—a story that is, unfortunately, quite familiar. The passage of time affects all religions, in all places. In the West, the Bible’s authority has increasingly eroded. Today, many people view the Bible as an outdated, barbaric text. To these people, the notion of following the Bible today—at least on the literal level—is laughable. In 2007, A. J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, published The Year of Living Biblically, a bestselling satire describing the author’s year-long “quest” to follow the Bible as literally as possible. Jacobs humorously relates his “attempt” to follow the biblical law against adultery, which the Bible treats as a capital offense; obviously unable to truly fulfill this mandate, Jacobs instead “stoned” an adulterer with pebbles.

Similarly, religions in the East have faced the difficulties of a historical gap from their sacred texts. Confucianism derives its philosophy from an ancient collection of Confucius’ teachings entitled The Analects, which was compiled over two thousand years ago. In several East Asian cultures, especially in China, the Analects was equivalent to the West’s Bible, in terms of its authority and elevated status. Yet, much like their Western counterparts, Chinese people now view the Analects as an ancient historical document that is irrelevant to contemporary China. In 2010, Chinese media personality Yu Dan published Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World, a modernized retelling of the Analects containing Yu Dan’s meditations on Confucius’ “simple truths that every person knows in his or her heart.” The necessity and popularity of Yu Dan’s book stems from her ability to make the Analects relatable to modern Chinese society, despite (as the title implies) its perceived inapplicability to today’s world.

Judaism, unfortunately, is no exception to this phenomenon. Although the Torah is eternal, it cannot be denied that the foundational texts of Judaism—such as Tanach and the Talmud—were written in particular historical contexts. These contexts are foreign to a modern reader; as a result, some material in the Torah seems to be a product of an era no longer relevant to the 21st century. I am not raising a theological issue here, but rather a practical one: how can we find meaning in our religious experience despite the dissonance we feel with our religion’s sacred texts?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the Haggadah. We recently celebrated Pesach, to thank God for redeeming us from enslavement in Egypt—an event that occurred over three thousand years ago. The Haggadah, an ancient Tannaitic text (itself historically distant from the events of the Exodus), declares that all Jews are obligated to view themselves as having left Egypt. This requirement is exceedingly difficult to follow. Nobody alive today has witnessed or experienced the events depicted in the Haggadah. An unequivocal, truly miraculous display of divine intervention has not occurred for millennia. Few have any conception of what life was really like in 1000 BCE. How, then, can we capture the feeling required by the Haggadah?

In that same paragraph, the Haggadah remarks that had God not removed us from Egypt, we would still be enslaved to Pharaoh. On the surface, this statement seems preposterous and unverifiable. Unless the author of the Haggadah was blessed with omniscience or the power of hypothetical prophecy, how could he be so certain of his assertion? Perhaps we would have eventually escaped from Egypt by natural means; alternatively, perhaps the Egyptians, like 19th-century Americans, would have ultimately freed their slaves!

The standard interpretation of this passage suggests that the Haggadah refers to Pharaoh and Egypt in a typological, or symbolic sense, rather than a literal one. In other words, Pharaoh and Egypt represent ideas, and those ideas are eternally relevant. Although we would not have been actual slaves to the specific people and in the particular place described by the Torah, we would have been so in a conceptual sense—embedded in a culture of immorality of which Egypt was emblematic. Thus, when the Haggadah instructs us to try to feel that we have “left Egypt,” our job is to determine how the idea of Egypt applies to contemporary culture.

This notion is a solution to the problem that I have raised in this article. When we have difficulty relating to our ancient sacred texts, we should remember that these texts carry meaning beyond the literal sense. “An eye for an eye,” understood literally, is indeed primitive. What it does mean, however, is a profound idea about the value of the human body that remains true even in 2017. Perhaps this typological approach can help bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern eras and thereby enable a meaningful religious experience.