BY SARAH CHANIN / AJT //
“So Moses walks into a psychiatrists’ office…”
Thus began the University of Georgia’s Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies Dr. Richard Friedman as he opened his Dec. 5 lecture at Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, Ga. As a past student of his, I’m not only not surprised that he opens with a joke, but I’ve also heard this one before.
Also unsurprising is a subtitle he decides to give his lecture: “Everything You Know is Wrong.” Such a choice only seems appropriate coming from the man who authored the book “Who Wrote the Bible.”
The presentation – officially titled “Monotheism and the Death of the Gods” – addressed the Jewish myth of the death of the gods that were worshipped prior to modern monotheism. Dr. Friedman dispelled the common misconception by citing the Archeological Revolution, in which thousands of towns and whole cities were discovered in Israel, as well as the Critical Scholarship Revolution, in which he is a major player.
These two revolutions prove that there was, in fact, no idol worship in the ancient Middle East; that ancient Jews believed in life after death and practiced ancestor veneration.
“All the rules of the game have changed,” Dr. Friedman said.
It was that change that set Dr. Friedman on his quest to uncover why, in several places in the Torah, G-d speaks in the plural. The result was “Who Wrote the Bible,” which explores where the words in the world’s most famous book actually come from.
Through the course of his lecture, he first explained how “in 1947, a goat makes the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century” by happening upon the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the oldest-known copy of the Bible. Of course, these scrolls were incomplete, as age and exposure had already destroyed some of the pages.
Later in time came the second-oldest version, the Leningrad Codex – of which Dr. Friedman highlighted the irony that the only remaining reference to the Soviet Union and also one of the main sources for the Jewish holy book – and finally the third and youngest source for the modern Bible, a version of the Leningrad Codex written in Greek known as the Septuagint.
Dr. Friedman noted that all three of these sources, written in different time periods and in different locations, all mention G-d speaking in the plural in the same three places in the Torah. All also occur in the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
Dr. Friedman’s argument was that Psalm 82 (“…among the gods He judges…”) provides the basis for the myth of the death of the gods. He also noted that the Tower of Babel story – which happens to occur just after Psalm 82 – is the last time G-d speaks in the plural.
This of course begs the question: If Judaism is a monotheistic religion, why is this myth necessary? According to Dr. Friedman, the first generation of a monotheistic religion had to find a way explain why their family members would have believed in multiple gods.
“For example, if your child came home from religious school and said, ‘My teacher says people who believe in many gods are bad. Grandma believes in many gods. Is she bad?’ You would say, ‘No sweetie, Grandma’s not bad, the gods were bad,’” Friedman said.
The doctor concluded by asserting that the fight for Judaism in the ancient Middle East was also the fight for monotheism, which was a notion not terribly common in the region. He added that to reinforce the notion of oneness also reinforced the notion of togetherness as a people, which is among the most critical elements in Jewish survival over the ages.