The Bible as Guidebook for Daily Life

Back in 1995, I began to notice that people who had attended day school became to sound like Evangelicals in that they were referring to the Bible, Talmud, and halakhah as directly accessible to the common sense reader and that the Jewish texts answer questions of daily life. In 1998, I specifically remember someone making a cultural argument from the Jewish sources that had no connection whatsoever to the traditional interpretation and his claim of direct access to the truth through his reading. It was a pre-blog era but it needed to be noted then. In the subsequent decade this grew into an avalanche in the community.

Increasingly, one heard pithy wisdom like the Torah teaches “God helps those who help themselves’ and that God wants one to achieve ones best or that the Torah has answers to the challenges of life. Now there is a whole bookcases in the seforim store of watered-down easy answers from a Torah perspective.People treat them as Jewish philosophy.

There are two elements here. People want to Torah to offer wisdom for everyday life. They do feel a tension to all the castles in the air and abstract answers found in the traditional commentators. They never really wanted that much Talmud or Nachmanides on the Torah. So they found a Torah that speaks to them directly. The second element is that Torah is not in the hands of those trained in rabbinic interpretation, rather is available and close to all.

The New Republic reviewer is as clueless as usual about the Jewish community and thinks Jews never speak like this, but they do. How did the community get here? As a tentative observation
(1) The pop-psych books produced by the Engaged Yeshivish and kiruv world speak like this and make one feel that Torah feels your pain and answers daily life.
(2) The natural needs of suburbia for a moral instruction manual and self-help work. Jews responded to the same needs. This ignorant drivel was actually seen as the most real and relevant and was appreciated by a broad spectrum on the traditional side of the spectrum
(3) The widespread gap-year in Israel empowered people to speak in the name of Torah, but they don’t really relate to agricultural and sacrificial world of the Bible and Mishnah, nor the jurisprudence of the halakhah. Students stopped saying that they know nothing, rather they now have all the ready made answers.
(4) It was the great era of the cultural wars and one needed talking points from one’s own tradition.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book
by Timothy Beal Houghton (Mifflin Harcourt) 256 pp.,
that the Bible was “the go-to book for any serious question we might have, from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to heaven, hell, and why bad things happen to good people.” The Bible was “God’s book of answers, which if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.”

The Rise and Fall of the Bible is Beal’s attempt to shatter this popular understanding of the Bible as a combination of divine instruction manual and self-help book. While there is no denying that the Bible remains central—Beal quotes polls indicating that “65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible ‘answers all or most of the basic questions of life,’ ”—he notes simultaneously that Americans are surprisingly ignorant of what is actually in it.

“More than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse,” he writes. Less than half of all adults can name the four Gospels; only one-third can name five of the Ten Commandments. In his own experience as a college teacher, Beal says, students “come to class on the first day with more ideas about the Bible derived from … The Da Vinci Code than from actual Biblical texts.”

What explains this disparity between Americans’ absolute faith in the Bible and their evident ignorance of it? To Beal, the problem lies with the notion that the Bible is “a divine guidebook, a map for getting through the terra incognita of life.” For as soon as you open it and start reading, it becomes troublingly apparent that the Bible is no such thing. It does not offer answers to problems, especially not to twenty-first-century problems.
Depending on where you read in it, the Bible might give the impression that it is mainly composed of genealogies and agricultural regulations.

The gulf between what readers expect to find in the Bible and what they are actually given produces a kind of paralysis, Beal explains. “For many Christians, this experience of feeling flummoxed by the Bible … [produces] not only frustration but also guilt for doubting the Bible’s integrity.” The Bible-publishing industry feeds on this anxiety, he argues, by endlessly repackaging the Biblical text in ever more watered-down and over-explained forms.

What troubles Beal about these publications is not just the way they dumb down the Bible——but the way they translate and interpret the text according to an undeclared social and political agenda. Read the rest of the New Republic Review here.

6 responses to “The Bible as Guidebook for Daily Life

  1. Still, there is a distinction in that for American Orthodox Jews biblical texts themselves play a very limited role in this literature. Torah means a bit of talmud, a bit of shla”h, a bit of mussar, a bit of R. Dessler. It is also not too hard to come to read R. Soloveitchik with no understanding of what he is talking about and it sounds like yet more psychobabble al hatorah.

    There is also the question of where people today see practical wisdom residing. It has to be in an authoritative text that is specifically addressing your question, not in the perfection of certain virtues.

  2. Are there books targeted to:

    1) Chareidim?
    2) Modern Orthodox?
    3) Baalei Teshuva?

    I suspect that most of this genre is targeted towards Chareidi masses & Baalei Teshuva (and Modern Orthodox consumers of Chareidi mass market literature (i.e. #3 above). I suspect that elites in both Chareidi & MO circles mock this literature, but accept it as good for the masses.

    So this may be part of the rise of mass market chareidi publishing, including fiction, self-help, children’s book & needs to be understood in that context and targeted audiences.

  3. “Ignorant drivel”

    Nice to see you voice an opinion for once 🙂

  4. Can you give a few examples of the types of books you are referring to? Thanks.

  5. While what you write is correct about Chumash and much of the rest of Tanakh, the Wisdom literature (including its offshoots in the post Biblical period, like Avot) does provide the kind of material that answers life’s basic questions, at least for some types of questions. There is a strong self help thread running through it, as well as strong philosophical overtones, but it’s also true that that literature is not as easily accessible as the the Bible-as-Guidebook crowd would like to portray. Still, are they so wrong, from this perspective?

    Yonathan’s point, that from a Jewish perspective, Torah is much more than the Bible, and that the self help, guidebook aspects come mostly from later literature, is IMO an important point, too.

    Finally, I also think that Jon is right about this being mostly a result of the development of mass literature. See Orthodox by Design by Jeremy Stollow for more on how technology is a large reason why this kind of literature developed and how that in turned impacted the way Orthodox Jews read and write books.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

    Isn’t this sense that the Torah provides answers implicit in an educational system which puts so much stress on all the details of chumash? We expect our children to know the stories of Bereshit and Bamidbar as well, or as better, as English grammer, mathematical calculation, and the structure of the daily world as taught in science and social studies classes. They are not taught merely the skills to stand up and leyn in shul. And they are not taught merely halakha and its Talmudic antecedents.

    Frankly, we should be glad they are digesting this into pop psychology rather than advocating for polygamy when they grow up….

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