Ignoramus To Interpret Bible

Shocked to learn that the Bible contains stories of murder and deceit, Slate Deputy Editor David Plotz resolves to read the Bible “fresh” – and blog about it.

My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I’m in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?

He boasts of his intention to eschew most commentary and to rely on translations such as the King James version (although to his credit he’s also using the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim). What’s odd is that this exegesis will be appearing on Slate and not, say, on a MySpace blog.
Full piece.

26 thoughts on “Ignoramus To Interpret Bible

  1. Gee, EV, how do you really feel about this news? I wish you wouldn’t censor yourself like that…
    I applaud all attempts to reconnect with essential documents of heritage, and to try to uncover the history behind whatever culture you deem fundamental to your life. I’m just not sure that there’s ever such a thing as an unmediated reading of the Bible, especially once you reach adulthood. We are all products of our past teachers, our parents, our political, social, cultural and religious environment–and we carry those lessons or biases with us in everything we do and read.
    Also it occurs to me that there’s a case to be made that translation, especially when it comes to the Bible, IS commentary, by virtue of the fact that many of the Hebrew words don’t have an exact English translation, and that many others of the words have MULTIPLE English translations…the mere choice of one translated meaning over another is commentary…
    Nonetheless, I would be interested to see what he uncovers. I hope he doesn’t try to staple his slaves to the door, start stoning any “rebellious sons” he might happen to see, or try to purchase a Red Cow at Duane Reade.

  2. Esther,
    He calls himself ignorant and wallows in it, eager to see what he comes up with without actually learning the context beyond his Hebrew school background and his Old-New Testament (he conflates the two already) Christian high school education. I don’t see the virtue of intellectual laziness, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. I am, as you know, an optimist.

  3. “Ignoramus to Interpret Bible”? What the hell else is new….we’re all amei ha’aretz these days anyway. Well, some of us, on some days (and when we’re not, we pull ourselves together and post to Radical Torah!).

  4. Let he who can discourse on the difference between Heave Offerings and Peace Offerings, and on which skin conditions render pure and impure, cast the first stone against reading the Tanakh without commentary.

  5. Reading without commentary is fine when you’re reading in the original, after studying Biblical grammar…but reading the Bible as if it was a book written for today’s audience is just…well, obnoxious. Is this the same David Plotz from Columbia? If so, the CORE has fattened his head a bit too much. Come down to the little people, David. Learn to read, first. Then read.

  6. Why is this such a bad thing? My personal experience is that religious leaders ignore certain sticky parts and act as apoligist when they find them often coming up with completely unlikely explainations. I don’t know whether James is the worst English translation. The more recent traslations are often translated politically correct.

  7. Dameocrat, have you read the King James Bible? (And which religious leaders are you talking about–Reform Jews, yes? ‘Cause those tend to skip the whole part about how people can’t just love one another and magically procure a state…hence the problem with non- or post-Zionist religious Jews).
    Some of the KJames translation is good. And then the whole Christian thing kicks in. There are a good number of sites online that will place text and translations one next to the other and show you the complications…but think about it for a second: would you trust Pat Buchanan to tell you what the Torah tells you?
    Better translations have come out recently–if our good friend Plotz and others inspired by his awakening need something to help them after waking up and smell the history. The Robert Alter translation is literarily superb, focusing on consistency over (English) grammatical structure, and the Everett Fox is one I like a lot.
    Interestingly, in my view, JPS sucks. What? Yeah, you heard me. The translation is way too rabbinically correct–which is the right term to use in this case.
    Over all, the Torah is not a book. Period. It is a collection of books, of phrases, of divine communication–whether actually communicated by the divine or by someone thinking it was divine. Thus, to read it like a book is to further humanize that which is ungraspable…it’s very good he is reading it, but it should be the start of his (and other’s) journey and no more.

  8. Dameocrat,
    There are “sticky parts” to the commentary too. I wasn’t suggesting he read a bowdlerized version of either the original or of the commentaries or of the larger context. I am certainly not one to insist on hygienic and/or apologetic interpretations of Judaism. On the contrary. But reading a translation of certain Jewish texts, and ignoring the history and evolution and contexts, and claiming that’s the core of the religion, is simply absurd.
    Oh, and King James is about as close to the original as Dame Edna is to Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

  9. Ariel, I wish they wouldn’t skip the conquering of canaan parts, more people would abandon fundamentalism. I admit it doesn’t say you can love people and get land. That is an understatement.

  10. Ya know, I assume you all read the entire Slate article before condemning the poor guy.
    “For the millions of Jews and Christians who know the Bible intimately, this may seem obscene: Why should an ignoramus write about the stories and lessons that you know by heart and understand well? I don’t intend any kind of insult. My goal is not to find contradictions, mock impossible events, or scoff at hypocrisy. Nor am I quite stupid enough to pretend that Judaism (or Christianity) is just the Bible… So, what can I possibly do? My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.”

  11. Did you guys read the actual first part of his “commentary”?
    It’s not terrible. Look, this is popular writing, it’s supposed to be entertainment.
    EV, I don’t want to jeopardize the generous stipend you provide me and my family for always commenting favorably on your blog entries, but this time, well…okay, never mind, you are 100% correct, as always. I don’t care what ANYBODY says, you are NOT an angry, angry man.

  12. I’m going to write my impressions of being an American, based solely on an interpretive dance inspired by the Federalist Papers.

  13. EeVe, I wouldn’t compare it to an interpretive dance. Now if he would watch “The Ten Commandments” and then blog about Judaism in reaction to it, that would be a good analogy.
    I’d say what Plotz is attempting to do, to borrow your analogy, is like reflect on America’s core beliefs by reading a Stalin Era KGB translation of the Federalist Papers.

  14. Maybe I read it wrong, but it sounded like he was going to focus on Etz Hayim, and supplement with King James. And as far as I’m concerned Etz Hayim is actually pretty good.
    Why don’t we let the man read it, and then he can blog about the differences between that, the JPS, king James, Artscroll, and whatever else you want afterwards

  15. C’mon guys, dude’s like a modern day Spinoza. Without the learnin’. And stuff. Cut the guy some slack!
    How long has it been since we’ve had a really satisfying excommunication, anyway????
    I’ll be clicking between Gawker and Slate ALL DAY.

  16. I think what really gets my goat about Plotz’s project isn’t that he’s ignorant or whatever — I do support “ignorant” people reading the Bible — but that he’s setting up to do it with few real goals, expectations or intelligent insights, and he’s doing it for a well-known publication. So my question is, when can pay ME to write a half-baked, masturbatory blog and get massive publicity for it?
    Ignorant people reading Bible — great. Ignorant people getting paid/recognized to carelessly review Bible — WRONG.

  17. Given how many people are pontificating at us in the name of the Bible they have never read, and how exposed so many of us Jews are to a Rashi-fied Tanakh, Plotz seems like he’s doing a good, and worthwhile, job.
    And I would think that having Genesis 2 taught would at please Rav Soloveitchik.

  18. These comments are so over the top, it’s barely believable. Shocking; obnoxious; absurd; masturbatory? And when did Plotz say – or imply – anything about his effort revealing the core of Judaism? Something about this seemingly innocuous-at-worst proposal must be profoundly threatening to provoke this level of hostility and seething contempt. Indeed, I went back to read the full Slate article after reading the comments, believing that something essential and deeply offensive must have been omitted from the excerpt included in the post. It wasn’t.
    I detected no “wallowing” in ignorance, just a simple acknowledgement of it, which I far prefer to concealing one’s ignorance at all costs, by those for whom the most dreaded phrase in the English language is “I don’t know.” Plotz was also accused of intellectual laziness; though he conceded such laziness regarding his religious practice, this project strikes me as more of an expression of intellectual curiosity than laziness.
    Esther, it seems to me, had a more subtle objection, something akin to the thrust of deconstructionist literary theory. I’d wholly agree that there are an inherently mediated quality and inescapable subjectivity in reading the Bible (or any other “text,” for that matter), and that, as Esther notes, “we carry those lessons or biases with us in everything we do and read.” But the lesson of that insight is to remain conscious of the limitations of our perspective, not to refrain altogether from such intellectual activities as reading the Torah for oneself; doing so, I think, is to give in to terminal passivity.

  19. He boasts of his intention to eschew most commentary and to rely on translations such as the King James version (although to his credit he’s also using the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim).
    I don’t see how he can read the Etz Hayim chumash and ignore the commentary, whish is, after all written for the otherwise educated person with little or not Jewish learning.
    What he should be doing is reading a variety of translations and general-reader commentaries, from Evertt Fox, Gunther Plaut, Etz Hayim, Hertz, and Artscroll (Stone edition), as well as some non-Jewish versions. The he could compare the differences in the translations as well as difference between the ways that the commentaries explain parts that might be troubling to him. I suspect he could then come up with a short list of the most problemmatic passages or commentaries, and with that limited task, he would be able to copntact a selected group of religious scholars across the theological/denomination spectrum, and report on how they explain these difficulties.
    That would actually be a useful product, and I would consider buying the book when it comes out.

  20. When someone tells me they’re going to try and go read the Bible, just buying it off a bookshelf and digging in, I get this feeling of intense trepidation. Especially if it’s someone I know and whose opinion I respect. Because I just know they’re going to encounter all the usual problems, contradictions, and questions and because they have taken it upon themselves to read the Torah like a book, they’ll try and fill it in with whatever strategy they use to read books.
    Reading and studying are not the same thing.

  21. Looks, its basically entertainment.
    He wants to see if there is anything interesting from approaching it “naively.”
    Sure, he could do it all serious-like, but that wouldn’t be suitable material for Slate, which is mostly an entertainment website(in the guise of an “online opinion journal.”)
    My main worry is that he won’t be able to last.
    The bible is long, and although some interesting stuff happens, some of it is fairly tedious if you are not really into it.
    My guess is that he’ll end up skipping to the “good bits.”

  22. David Smith,
    Personally, I’m not threatened by Plotz’s self-proclaimed ignorant immersion in the Bible. It’s not like I have some kind of vested interest in keeping people ignorant, and of all of Jewschool’s posters, I’m probably the most ignorant of primary Jewish texts. My problem is that this is being put up, as Flurry mentioned, in Slate, which I consider to be an intelligent, and intellectually rigorous, publication (not merely popular entertainment). Given the myriad contemporary explorations of the Bible that are at once fascinating, erudite and accessible, why is it interesting to hear an ignorant reading of the texts?
    It’s a little hard not to get a whiff of the larger American culture at play here — a culture that idolizes and even fetishizes ignorance and outright stupidity. One might even relate it to the contempt for intelligence of our Commander in Chief, or to the harrowing survey that revealed a majority of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was tied up in the 9/11 attacks. Of course, to compare Plotz’s exegesis to the Saddam-9/11 speculation is asinine in the extreme. Which is why I’m writing it on a blog — and not, say, in Slate.

  23. OK, if EV is going to unsnark, for a moment, then I shall, too. What really, really ticks me off (besides pulling a Spinoza, which, man, so did not work the first time) is that Plotz equates observance and education. That is, he says he’s a “proud jew” who has never been “observant”, hence his need to read the chumash, cover to cover. Umm, since when has non-observant meant the same thing as unread or uneducated? This is the kind of sloppy thinking, and yes, Bush worthy pride in ignorance, that irritated many of us upon reading of Plotz’s plan. Some of the most highly jewishly educated people I know are not “observant”. One can be engaged with Jewish texts without necessarily living a traditional Jewish lifestyle (what Plotz would call “observant”). Once upon a time, this was not such a shocking idea, but, in my opinion, extreme polarization of the Jewish community has made serious secular Jewish education a fairly radical idea, at least radical to a large part of American Jewry.

  24. EV and Rokhl,
    These latter comments place this post in a different light, and raise implications I simply hadn’t been aware of in the discussion of the matter to this point. Your final observation about Jewish polarization seems especially apt, Rokhl, as my own conclusions are frequently more defensive than I’d like as a result viewing such issues through the narrow lens of the ongoing Orthodox–non-Orthodox conflict.
    Alas, it’s all too easy for anyone to convert me to his point of view by citing Bush’s seething anti-intellectualism, or the comparably willful stupidity of American popular culture as a whole. Independent of that vulnerability, however, these comments have placed this endeavor in a broader context, as a result of which other’s skepticism toward Plotz (if not, perhaps, its somewhat startling intensity) makes a great deal more sense. I suspect what is likely to be the ultimate determinant of whether that skepticism is justified is the sincerity and open-mindedness with which Plotz approaches this project. If he goes about the task with some rigor and humility, I think it might lend some real freshness to the experience of reading Torah; if, on the other hand, the intent is to ridicule the very notion of Torah scholarship, the contempt shown here will have been richly earned.

  25. I’m David Plotz from Columbia, and I’ barely know Ariel Beery, although I’m good friends with his ex. I discovered this discussion while googling myself. The David Plotz who wrote the Slate series is my second cousin. As it happens, I have mixed feelings about Ariel’s critique, but I don’t want to get into it. The point is, it wasn’t me, and the Core has not gone to my head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.