The Last of Deuteronomy
The man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her. Deuteronomy 22:29
Looking back, I can tell you the minute I stopped believing the Bible literally. It’s not that I was so faithful to the text before that, but if you had asked me if I believed in the inviolability of the text, I would have attributed any doubts in my mind about it to personal shortcomings. And it is not that I did not take personal exception to the standards of practice that had evolved from Biblical principle to traditional Jewish observance. I was (and remain) a team player – if those were the rules, I would stick with them.
But on a summer morning shortly after I was ordained a rabbi, I became father to a baby girl. To be precise, it was 9:31 a.m. All sorts of emotions washed over me. For example, I had an overwhelming urge to call my parents and apologize for my entire childhood. More to the point, if I had to decide at that moment to affirm my daughter’s basic human rights or to affirm the authority of a rapist to control her life in perpetuity, I would have chosen the newborn over the old-time religion faster than you could say “Apgar.”
I had just been ordained, so this theological earthquake could have been an existential crisis. And I don’t want you to think that during labor and delivery I was busy pondering the instruction on sexual misconduct in the Book of Deuteronomy. On the contrary, I was completely in awe of my wife, the medical team and, fortunately for my chosen profession, God, while the baby was being born. However, from this distant point in my adult life, I now know there was a shift in what I believed at that moment.
Belief is not an all-or-nothing proposition. My friend Rabbi Lawrence Troster, too soon of blessed memory, wrote profoundly of the centrality of what he called “perfect doubt.” He meant it as a counterbalance to the medieval philosopher and super-Jew Moses Maimonides whose thirteen claims to “belief with perfect faith” about the nature of God have been the gold standard for a thousand years. A version of Maimonides’s declaration serves as the concluding hymn in many synagogues every Friday night (and other times) when a catchy melody and desire to get to the waiting cookies prevents a conversation about whether any of us indeed aspire to that level of certainty, including the inerrancy of the Bible delivered verbatim to Moses. Rabbi Troster insisted (around the same time he became the father of twin daughters) that such claims of perfect belief were dangerous, and that only principled skepticism could lift faith above ignorance. He was right.
In my sojourns through the minefields of interfaith conversation, I struggle hard with my partners who affirm a certainty about God’s literal instructions. I suppose I have a desire to channel President Josiah Bartlett, publicly humiliating sanctimonious fundamentalists by selecting instructions like the one above and asking about implementing them. I don’t have a Troster-like sophistication to make the philosophical case; I just know that I, her father, and she, my daughter, should be unwilling to surrender her dignity if, God forbid, she were violently abused. I knew it intellectually as a young man. I knew it with a perfect faith as a new dad. So, there is a profound incredulity that I feel when I encounter kind and spiritual people who harbor such distrust in their own (God-given) skepticism. That it seems too often selective doesn’t help. But even those literalists who are willing to explain away difficult texts – like this one – insist that the internal logic of scripture resolves its own problems. They believe that human beings are here to obey the rules, not make them.
Ask me what I think of the Bible these days and I am likely to answer that I believe it is always true, but not always accurate. That is to say, this sacred document (or, perhaps more accurately, this collection of sacred documents) originates in a well-spring of truth that is transmitted by people somewhat desperate to believe they got it right.
And in my encounters with people of other traditions, I have learned the obvious truth that it is not just Bible-believers who make that mistake. Name your holy scripture and there will be believers who consider it literal and exclusive.
That belief in literalness is a choice. What an irony it is that believers who proselytize others to choose to share their belief close the door to any other choice regarding that belief. Yet, every story of origins begins with a person making a choice, and from that choice flow other choices we make, every one of us every day.
My baby girl exercised her right to choose the person she wished to marry. There was no coercion on anyone’s part, and I will not be receiving fifty silver shekels, now or ever. Like my love for the Bible, my love for her and my other kids has become more nuanced. It is a choice I make.