For many people, leaving religion is a philosophical experience, and as part of that books play an important part in their journey.
Richard Dawkins played an important influence in my brother’s journey, for example. For many others, Christopher Hitchens has been a strong influence.
For me, these heretical books did not play a significant part in my journey. I was bothered by many philosophical questions while still religious, but they were not enough to sway me. The final straw was an emotionally influenced breakdown of faith, and by that point I had no patience for intellectualisms of any kind.
I didn’t need convincing.
It’s now almost seven years out, and I’ve finally picked up a copy of How to Read The Bible by the fantastically named James Kugel (oh, the sweet irony).
The book is elegantly written, precise, and doing a great job at dismantling so much of the fundamental religious assumptions I was fed, often unconsciously, from the youngest age.
Not everyone is deeply impacted by religion, even when they were brought up in it. For me, religion and its teachings were a mainstay of my life, I clung to it like my life depended on it – because I was told it did, and because my temperament gravitated towards that.
Thus, there is deep relief to have many of these points brought out into the open, assumptions I didn’t even know I had, framed in the broadest possible historical context.
What Yuval Noach Harari’s Sapiens did for my understanding of humanity, this book is doing for my understanding of Jewish religious thought, as it originated in the Bible.
I’m also observing an interesting dicotomy in my own formative experience:
In his first introductory chapter, Kugel (it doesn’t get old!) talks about the concept of allegory as a crucial part of how Judaism and Christianity managed to distort the words of the Bible to mean whatever they wanted to – the verse has hidden meaning that needs to be interpreted.
(As an aside, this is accomplishing the delicious phenomenon exemplified in the statement “teach a man one religion and he’ll be sold for life, teach him two and he’ll be done in an hour”. I’m finding it very validating to see all the way Christians did the exact same things to the bible that the rabbis did.
Of course, I was carefully sheltered from this fact in the first place, and certainly had I been exposed to it, I’d have been reassured that the Rabbi’s shit was the word of God, while those Christian’s word of God was total shit.)
Growing up, I now realize, allegory was a double edged sword.
I loved learning about the deeper meaning of things. I loved the theory behind it all, the unifying construct that tied it all together. I loved the discovery of things as they weren’t – “you thought it was just a fun story, you didn’t realize it holds the secrets of all creation!”.
The magic in the every day.
The flip side of all this was how destabilizing it all was. A part of me, possibly a neurodivergent part, really needs things to be literal. I had very little appreciation for nuance. I really needed strong boundaries and stable sense of what the world was about and who I was within it.
And the problem with allegory is that there are 1,000 different ways to interpret the same thing, and everyone is right. “The Torah has 70 faces,” and “both contradictory opinions are the word of the living God”.
On a quest for actual guidance, this was worse than useless.
Had Torah been left as just an indulgence, something fun to roll around in for a while, allegory could have been fine, I suppose (although I’m not sure I’d have obsessed over it for 14 hours a day. A Dvar Torah a week would have been enough). But then it got anchored with being a “guidebook” for every minute of the day. And subjecting someone to a manual that dictates every moment of their day without actually telling them what to do, is like, the shittiest manual ever conceived.
As usual, the Rabbis were picking and choosing – they decided that the Torah was hugely important, and that it had deep significance, but beyond that point they couldn’t figure out what was significant, or how to manifest that importance.
So I found myself suspended in the vacuum created by these polar dichotomies, like those tchotchke gadgets that make a ball float by suspending it between two magnets. Neither here nor there, lost in the enticing, but ultimately unfulfilling, infinite universe of man-made allegory.