Sermon: On reading Torah and why it is great

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 December 2013

If you have nothing better to do after Shul you might want to tune in at 2.30 this afternoon to ‘Premier Christian Radio’.  If you do, what you will hear is their weekly show exploring issues around theology and belief, a show called ‘Unbelievable with Justin Brierley’.

This week’s show is inspired by a new dramatisation of the bible – episode one was last week – you can see episode two on Channel Five tonight –  a truly truly abysmal two hours of television – a massive hit in America , but really hideous.  To quote the review in the Telegraph: “It was utter tosh: tosh as television drama and tosh as a retelling of the Bible.”

Anyhow, prompted by this show, ‘Unbelievable’ invited an Evangelical Christian, a liberal (with a small l) rabbi, and a fundamentalist atheist to debate how we should relate to the Old Testament in modern life.

This, you might think, sounds quite interesting.
But somehow it didn’t turn out that way.
Because somehow this heady mix of guests managed to create a very polite, and I fear really rather dull, hour of conversation.

To demonstrate how lacking in fireworks the programme is I’ll give you a moment from the show.  When the liberal – with a small l – rabbi, who, if you haven’t guessed was me – accused the atheist with a big A – who, of course, was Richard Dawkins – of being simplistic in his description of the God of the Old Testament – his answer was: “That’s probably fair”.  Utterly disarming, but not exactly Question Time.

In fact, we agreed a lot.  All three of us.
We agreed that the bible is a foundational text for modern western society, and worth reading if for that reason alone.
We agreed that the Bible has got some good, ethically enlightened stuff in and some not so good stuff.
We agreed that it should not be read uncritically but as the ancient work of theology that it is.

We even agreed that the real question is why we should privilege this work over any other – though we disagreed, exceptionally politely, as to whether we actually should do so.

On one level the experience gave me great hope for a less polarised world, in which we can hear one another and recognise each other’s intellectual and spiritual struggles.
But that does not exactly make for great radio.

Now, as I was there to be the voice of liberal theology, I take no responsibility whatsoever for the dullness of the programme.  It was my job to be reasonable. The other two members of the panel were supposed to be responsible for the dogma.
And only very occasionally did dogma peek through.
When it did come up, it was not, as I had assumed it would be, on the issues of authorship and authority, but on the question of historicity – whether the events of the bible actually took place – what some theologians, very irritatingly, call historical facticity.

To the dogmatic atheist, the biblical stories, particularly the early Torah narratives, have no historicity – and this matters.  Dawkins was quick to point to the absence of archaeological evidence.  And it is clear why he does so.  Because the people of religion to whom Dawkins wants to speak are the person who does read the bible as descriptive (in particular, as describing pre-history, that is, creation) and the one who argues that the authority of biblical commandment comes from the accuracy of the description of revelation (that when the bible says ‘God said’, God actually said it).  It is fundamental to Dawkins’ fundamentalism that bible be read in this way because without it, the caricature with whom he argues (normally an American) disappears.

To the Evangelical Christian, meanwhile the question of historical truth in the early books of the bible is also important.  The idea of Torah as a literary work, as foundational myth, is not sufficient.  It does not give enough weight to the Scriptural text.  So even though he agreed that the Torah could not be read as a history book, as simply descriptive, he also needed a kernel of historicity in order to give it validity.  Of course, this is not a uniquely Christian need.  Go to and you will find articles attempting to reconcile the biblical Joseph narrative we read this morning with the work of modern Egyptologists – because historicity matters to them, too.
The description of God as involved in the world has to be true in order to support the narrative of Jesus, or the narrative of revelation on Sinai.

So what of the rabbi on the show?
Well, this is where I can take my share of the blame for the dullness.  Just when there was the potential for a spark I kinda snuffed it out.  I did so by saying something like: “The truth is, I am supremely indifferent to the question of historicity.”  So the conversation moved on.

But it is true.  Whether the events that Chessy read for us this morning bear any relation to actual events that happened in the world matters to me not at all.  That there is no extra-biblical evidence for the events described in the Torah narrative in no way undermines my religious life.

My relationship with Torah, with bible, is a deeply particularistic one:

It is the foundational story of our people – their explanation of how we came to be (including the good and the nasty);
It is their first attempts to grapple with the big questions of the world – why is stuff happening to us, how did we get here, how do we relate to the land we live on;
It is their poetry, their deepest form of expression;
It is their understanding of themselves, and therefore us, as being in covenantal relationship with God with a set of obligations as a result;
It is all this interwoven with their early legal code – some of which remains powerful, some of which does not;
And, for me, most wonderfully, it would become the basis of the rabbinic exercise which, through a process of dialectic and creative imagination came to form the religious and cultural life that we now live.

That is the answer to the ‘why privilege it’ question – and it is in no way dependent on whether or not it happened. The truth of Torah is not in its historicity but in our relationship with it.  This is as true of the Akedah – which happens to have been the thing that bothered my colleagues on the radio – as it is of the Joseph story we read today, or the defining moments of our narrative, redemption and revelation.

Which is what I wish I’d said on the radio.  With all that passion and resolve.  But I was too busy being nice.  So, it was my fault after all!

So, after Shul, please, please don’t watch Channel Five’s the Bible.  It really is tosh.

If you have nothing better to do (and I really mean, if you have nothing better to do) I suppose you might want to tune in at 2.30pm to ‘Premier Christian Radio’, to ‘Unbelievable with Justin Brierley’.

But, whatever your plans, you might read some Torah, maybe through the eyes of our wonderful rabbis who so loved it.  Because, really, nothing is better to do than that.