Bible Criticism Allows Me to Keep My Jewish Connection
I never intended to be a Bible scholar, but as with so many things in life, when you look back at where you came from and where you ended up, it all makes sense in hindsight.
I grew up in a Conservative household in Canada. We went to shul regularly, where, to entertain myself through the long service, I read the stories in the Chumash. (I wasn’t allowed to bring a novel to stick inside the Chumash, like my brother, because I was apparently less disruptive).
I went to Hebrew school (usually being dragged kicking and screaming) three days a week from Kindergarten through 7th grade, and then once a week through 10th grade. I was bored and grumpy about being there until I met Ms. Schachter in 7th grade, who made Abba Eban’s History of the Jews really come alive. I stopped being sent to the principal’s office quite so often (well, not from her class anyway) and began to pay attention, and in retrospect it seems I absorbed quite a bit, and it settled somewhere deep in my mind in a way that the rest of my religious upbringing really didn’t.
Although my family was fairly observant, and I tried hard to believe in God, that belief never really worked for me. As I learned about our history, and recited the brachas (blessings) by rote, and revelled in the extended family celebrations at Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, and memorized all the songs in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Fiddler on the Roof, I felt thoroughly Jewish. In fact, I couldn’t have forgotten even if I tried, as my brother and I made up half the Jews in my public school, and my mother took it upon herself to bring dreidels and cookies to my class every December to talk about Chanukah. Yet real faith in the divine just never grafted.
For me, Judaism was my culture, my identity as an outsider in public school, and eventually, my history – a history of survival with which I identified deeply and in which I took a great deal of personal pride. My family was also extremely pro-Israel, and I grew up feeling a lot of solidarity with the state that was constantly under attack, physically and in the media.
My identity became firmly enmeshed with that sense of history and Zionism when I traveled to Israel with my family twice in my teenage years. After high school I decided to take a gap year and signed up for an Ulpan on Kibbutz Alonim. The Ulpan featured guest lectures from university professors and a week on an archaeological dig, and I was having the time of my life when the first Gulf War cut the trip short. I worked full-time upon my return home until I had enough money to go back to the Kibbutz the following summer, and the summer after that as well.
In the meantime, I went to university and studied history and philosophy, planning to go to law school. And then, when my partner (at the time) decided to go to the University of California at San Diego to study Cognitive Science, I dredged up my US passport and looked for programs at UCSD that seemed interesting to me.
I found one that advertised itself as a study of ancient Mediterranean religions and cultures, and I applied. Bill Propp was rather disappointed when I got there and later told me it was a slow year for applications. The problem was I had said that I had a knowledge of Hebrew, but all I meant was I could read Hebrew, and could recite much of the prayer book. Anyway, he liked my entrance essay, so they admitted me conditionally.
The rest, as they say, is history. It turned out that ancient Mediterranean religions and cultures was really a program focused on the Hebrew Bible. I’m probably the only one admitted to that program who hadn’t heard of Bill Propp, Noel Freedman z”l, Tom Levy, and Dick Friedman when I applied, but I did my homework over the summer and read a few things, and then I was hooked.
I earned my M.A. in Judaic Studies and my Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible, but I never found faith. Biblical studies made sense to me in the way that Abba Eban’s history had so many years earlier. The prayers, the shul, the theology lessons, had always felt hollow and empty for me, though I recognized that they held deep meaning and content for many others. Instead, I became increasingly comfortable with my identity both as a Jew and as an atheist.
The more I learned about the history of Judaism, the more I came to understand that there is not one kind of Judaism, and further, that there never has been. This is a very liberating notion for me. In fact, diversity in interpretation is central to my work as a biblical scholar.
My research points to different ways of thinking about biblical passages, different ways of understanding gender relations in ancient Israel, different ways of interpreting iconography, and different ways of translating particular Hebrew terms. (And, funnily enough, my name in Hebrew comes out as שׁוֹנָה (“different”)!
As an atheist, I struggled with the question of how to pass along my sense of Judaism to my own children. It was important to me that they also appreciate their heritage, but I couldn’t raise them in the way that I had been raised. I only took the kids to shul on high holidays, so I couldn’t make up for their lack of familiarity with the services. It was hard to find a Hebrew School where I was content to send them, and I couldn’t teach them to pray and believe in God.
But I baked challah with them on Fridays, and took them to my parents’ house for all of the holidays, and told them biblical stories and sang them Jewish songs when they were little. I talked about Israel, I taught them about the Holocaust, and I raised them on the values that I most closely associate with Judaism: tzedakah (charity), gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness), compassion for the oppressed, social justice, the importance of education and intellectual development.
Now that they’re older, we have extensive discussions about identity, history, and my own sense of Judaism. We travelled to Israel several years ago and I had the pleasure of seeing it all come alive for them in the way it had for me at their ages.
Biblical scholarship has allowed me to engage intellectually with my Jewish heritage in a way that I could not have, as an atheist, engaged any other way. It has kept me from drifting away from Jewish affiliations, and as I teach about the Hebrew Bible online, at the university, and in various Jewish community settings – where I’m always welcome – I have come to realize that my role as a Jewish educator fits my intellectual and (lack of) spiritual proclivities.
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May 22, 2021
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Prof. Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego program in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Dolansky is the author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion (Pryor Pettengill Press, Eisenbrauns, 2008) and co-author with Richard E. Friedman of The Bible Now (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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