I woke up feeling very anxious.  The anxiety was mostly centred on my relationship with E.,  feeling that it’s really special, but worried that external things will stop us ever moving it on.  To be honest, I think I was really worried about other things, but was fixating on that instead.  I find that I do that sometimes, feel anxious about one thing, but focus on an entirely different anxiety, perhaps because it feels “safer” somehow or more manageable.

I went to my second cousin’s house with a bunch of family (my parents, sister and brother-in-law; my Mum’s cousin and her husband; two of my second cousins, their spouses and children).  I hadn’t been to their house before, which I suppose made me a bit anxious, and certainly I was worried how I would feel with so many people and what I would say.  I was also a bit worried about what would happen if I didn’t eat anything there, as my kashrut standards are different to my extended family’s.

In the event I didn’t eat anything, which felt a bit awkward and made me feel a bit self-conscious, but no one seemed to get offended.  I spoke to my cousin and a bit to his wife, but I struggle to talk to the adults sometimes, even though I know them fairly well (I was at school with these two second-cousins and we tend to meet a couple of times a year).  I played with the children a lot, especially the eldest, who has learning disabilities and is fairly non-verbal with us, although apparently she is now using more words with her parents and grandparents.  I suppose I feel a kind of connection with her, even though my autistic social communication impairments are very different to her learning disabilities.

I stayed for about three hours, but I was pretty exhausted by the end.  I had planned to leave after a minimum of one hour, so it was an impressive achievement, but I was exhausted by the end and practically dragging my parents out of the door, especially as I was hungry and knew I was going out again later and would have to recuperate first.


I spent a couple of hours relaxing and eating dinner before going out again to the London School of Jewish Studies.  I was rather tired and peopled out, but I was determined to go as I wanted to hear the speaker, Rabbi Joshua Berman on the historical accuracy of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and to buy his new book Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith.  I would have eagerly devoured his book some years ago, when I was struggling with the concept of historical accuracy and Tanakh.  Nowadays I’ve found a lot of my answers and an approach that works for me, but his lecture re-framed some things I sort of knew, but not entirely and gave a kind of rabbinic imprimatur to some ideas.  I think his book, which is obviously much more wide ranging than his forty-five minute lecture, answers some further questions of mine and I look forward to reading it in the near future (I bought a copy and he signed it).

There were a few people my age there, but most people were my parents’ age or older, as is usually the case at the LSJS.  I saw someone I was at university with, but he didn’t see me.  More surprising was seeing someone from my shul and his wife, someone I see as rather Haredi (ultra-Orthodox).  I was sort of hoping he would see me, but I don’t think he did.  I didn’t go to talk to him after the lecture because I entered the scrum to buy a copy of the book.  I’d like to get the courage to say I saw him when I next see him, just to see if it breaks the ice, but I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to do so.  I guess it’s a lesson in not making assumptions about others, particularly people at my shul.  It’s not the first time I’ve been caught out like that.

I did feel quite tense during the lecture, partly because it was in a packed room, so I literally didn’t have much space to spread out in (and all the anxiety from social interaction and people), but also because I knew I wanted to buy the book afterwards, and although I had emailed last week to reserve a copy, I did not know what the procedure would be to go and get a copy and get it signed.  I was also somewhat socially anxious about getting the book signed, but I think the anxiety over whether I would get a copy came from an autistic anxiety about unknown situations.  It’s the type of thing that bothers me, but not in a debilitating sense, so I haven’t mentioned it in autism assessments in the past, but intend to do so in the future.

The content of the lecture is perhaps of some interest to some readers here; if not, you can skip the rest of the post.  Obviously I can’t summarise a forty-five minute lecture plus question and answer session in one blog post, but this is what I took from it.

He started by saying that biblical and rabbinic (Medieval) Hebrew has no words for “history,” “fact” or “fiction.”  While moderns like us assume that good history is factual, based on research, with no additions and certainly no moral sermonising and is intended rather to inform about the past, to ancient and Medieval audiences, good history told the gist of a known tradition, but with additions at the discretion of the author, the aim being less to accurately describe the past and more to relate traditions in a morally uplifting way.  He contrasted the descriptions of the death of King Shaul (Saul) in the biblical book of Shmuel (Samuel) with the post-biblical Josephus and how Josephus took the bare bones of the biblical story and completely changed the tone and details for the sake of his own meta-narrative (a term Rabbi Berman did not use, which I bring up because as someone with a BA in History and, at one point, an interest in questions of historiography, I was aware that Rabbi Berman was simplifying some complex ideas here).  We assume that if an author departs from fact, then he is writing fiction, but to ancient audiences all that mattered was the essential truth of the narrative, not the factual detail (again, there is probably a lot more that could be said here).  Then he looked at a passage from Yehoshua (Joshua) where the Caananite prostitute Rachav alludes to four of the first five ten commandments in an apparently off-the-cuff piece of dialogue (I wasn’t totally convinced about two of the commandments being alluded to).  Rabbi Berman suggested that this dialogue was contrived and unlikely, and that it was more likely that the dialogue was inserted to make a wider point: that Rachav was a good person who helped the Israelites and that the Israelites were right to spare her.  Ancient audiences would have seen learning this underlying truth as the key thing, not whether the dialogue was accurate and rendered only from primary sources.

In the question and answer session, various points were raised, including what this means for the unique status of the Torah if it is stylistically ancient and includes laws from codes like the Hammurabi Code.  Rabbi Berman quoted Rav Kook’s answer, which I’ve heard before, that God if a general Torah principle was encapsulated in a known and practised non-Jewish law, then at times that would be included in the Torah; he said (which I did not know) that many of the Medieval commentators see Temple ritual as based in some ways on non-Jewish ritual.  There is a general principle, that I was already familiar with, that the Torah speaks the language of man, which he stressed meant that there is no “Divine Esperanto” that God could speak to be understood in the same way by ancients and moderns.  The reality is we understand texts differently.  What is universal is the message of the Torah not its language.

This points up a deeper problem that one questioner raised, that Rabbi Berman was assuming a “core” Divine historical truth clothed in sometimes invented detail by prophetic authors.  As one questioner seemed to be saying, how do we know that the core is true?  Or what do we do if it seems not to be true?  Rabbi Berman’s approach explains details that are apparently contradicted by other biblical or non-biblical texts, but not entire narratives.  I felt Rabbi Berman didn’t really deal with this, although it was somewhat outside the topic of the lecture and potentially a topic in its own right.  I’m not sure if Rabbi Berman’s book deals with this (On the Reliability of the Old Testament by K. A. Kitchen and Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier are books I found useful here).

Overall it was an interesting lecture and worth forcing myself out for, particularly to get the book.

4 thoughts on “Peopling and Ancient Historians

  1. The lecture is above my head, but I found the part interesting about fact versus fiction/stories. (history after all is His Story) You had a FULL people day; I’m an outgoing introvert, and was exhausted reading about your activities!


  2. Thanks for that interesting lecture summary. The parallels for Christian biblical interpretation are similar. There has always been a tension in Christianity between fundamentalism – a very literal interpretation of the scriptures which are also seen as infallible because they are the word of God (divinely inspired) – and more liberal views. The problem with the more liberal interpretations is where do you stop? We end up creating a faith which suits us, and also one which leads to no end of denominational interpretations. I might also add that I have often wondered too about all the direct speech in the scriptures – we have the exact words of many of the characters and I have often thought that even if the events were written down days after they happened, no one would have a good enough memory to do this accurately. And if, as is more likely, the texts are based on oral traditions handed down for many years before being written you would not expect anything near accuracy (Chinese whispers springs to mind). Interesting that this may be far more important to us than it was to them — I never thought that truth might have been seen differently in the past.

    Btw– one question. Where in the book of Joshua does Rahab (Rachav) quote the first four commandments? We’re studying Joshua at my church at the moment and I hadn’t come across this. Is there another source?


    1. There are similar tensions in Judaism, centring around not just the text of the Bible, but the nature of Jewish law.

      Rahab doesn’t quote the commandments directly, merely alludes to them in discussion with Joshua’s spies. I wasn’t convinced that all four allusions were equally convincing. It’s in Joshua chapter 2. In verse 10 she speaks of God “drying the waters of the Red Sea before you when you came from Egypt” which alludes to the first commandment (I think only in the Jewish enumeration of the Ten Commandments), “I am the Lord Your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” In verse 11 she says “for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above, and on earth beneath” which parallels the second commandment (prohibiting idolatry).

      The other two I found less convincing. In verse 12 she asks the spies to “Swear to me by the Lord” which Rabbi Berman saw as an allusion to the prohibition on taking God’s name in vain. And then verse 13 has her ask for her father and mother to be saved, which he saw as an allusion to the fifth commandment of honouring parents, on the grounds that it’s rare for both mother and father to be mentioned in the same verse biblically.


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