I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

***

Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

***

Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)

21 thoughts on “Trying Not to Get Annoyed

  1. I chuckled aloud at this:

    Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews

    Shabbat shalom,
    David

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I only know about Contact from seeing the movie, but is it possible that it was something as simple as a way to help the character develop a certain way? It sounds like his mother was at least somewhat religious, so he must have known that the Old Testament wasn’t clear and simple, and “the entire cosmos exists just so that Jewish rabbis can study their holy scriptures, and that if Jews cease this practice, the universe will come to an end.” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure it was about developing the character. I guess it’s just an attitude that frustrates me, even if it is the character’s, not the author’s. Although Wikipedia says Carl Sagan had a Reform background, so it’s unlikely that he thought that the universe exists so Torah can be studied.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Have you seen The Chosen? If so, how do you feel about it? I loved it so much. It was like a nice warm walk with Jesus. I can’t wait for season two. I wish you lived closer. I’d love to pick your brain about The Torah. I have also been turned off by a lot of churches and religion, as I don’t feel Jesus is at the heart of them. I have been seeking Him on my own, and I have a comfort like I’ve never known. Never forget, people like the darkness more than the light. Keep sharing wisdom, my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You wrote very well about why it’s important to know the historical context and other literature around the bible. Tbh my religious abuse is definitely from the twisting of scripture. Eg “the rod” doesn’t mean kids should be beaten, the “clobber verses” used to condemn homosexuality etc.

    I had a time as an angry atheist with little understanding of the bible like that character. I’m kind of wanting to look into all I was never encouraged to do, eg source criticism, various lens like Liberation Theology, various Jewish theological viewpoints and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the tip! Do you know if there’s a particular theology which is sensitive to abuse? I’m wondering because this Catholic friend of mine ever shared with me a particular Jewish viewpoint on forgiveness requiring remorse and amends from perpetrators and it isn’t requited for the victim to forgive but neither does it damn a perpetrator who has genuine remorse and has changed. I found it very validating and comforting.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t know if there’s a theology that’s sensitive to abuse as such. I used to know more about theology when I worked in a non-Orthodox Jewish rabbinical seminary library, where I was dealing with books on pastoral care, theology and inter-faith work, but that was four years ago, so I’m a bit out of the loop these days.

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  5. Open to god, but turned off by religion, yes! (organized religion anyway) That is interesting about the Ferengi. I couldn’t watch any series that featured them prominently. I found them painful.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was interesting to me. I’m currently trying to adjust the way I read the Bible. Growing up fundie Christian, I was taught it was literal. Everything is seen as black-and-white–either the truth or not. I started off with Judaism that way, too, but am now trying to view it differently. A rabbi recommended to me The Rational Bible by Dennis Prager, but the few pages I read of it were a disappointment. It seemed Prager was trying to still be literal, and it wasn’t working. I should probably pick it up again, but I am afraid I’ll be disappointed and it might send me into another existential OCD spiral. Have you read any of his Rational Bible books?

    The other thing is I note that authors really misunderstand religions they haven’t lived in. Growing up I always heard how Jews were trying to earn their way into heaven through good works, yet as a Jew I hear few mentions of heaven and more mentions to do mitzvot because it’s the right thing to do. It sounds like Sagan is viewing Torah through a Christian fundie lens and so he misses the mark even worse.

    Love Cadbury eggs, too. Can’t have them in the house or they’ll be gone in no time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read the Rational Bible books, no.

      I think lots of atheists assume that all religion, or at least all Western religion, functions like fundamentalist Christianity. It’s a weird way of looking at things.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I hear you. There are way more controversial things in the Bible, (Zachor that we just read yesterday for example) than say, science vs. religion or the fact that the characters aren’t perfect. It’s like, if you’re going to diss religion, at least pick a better reason.

    Liked by 1 person

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