How Keeping a Journal Helps You Study Torah
By Ruth Ben-Or
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bestseller proving the existence of God or the afterlife or the divine authorship of the Chumash must be followed by another proving the exact opposite. So I am not interested in offering you an inferior version of either. Fundamentalists and atheists (and Jane Austen fans), you can come back into the room now!
The following idea is a 21st century version of an early-modern existential problem: that there is not a unique version of our history as a species, a religion or a people and therefore science disproves religion (of any kind). If this seems otiose to you, dear readers, there are still many people who believe that critical study involves a loss of faith. The abundance of contemporary accounts (either those in other ancient cultures or those that scholars have discovered since) suggests, rather, that none of them was 100% right or wrong. Some pieces of missing evidence had yet to appear and others were suppressed or rejected.
I have kept a diary from a young age but, unfortunately, the first 52 years were lost, which may give our future archaelogists, psychologists, social historians and even theologians some trouble. Did I live in a Platonic cave and emerge suddenly into the modern world with a miraculous capacity to understand how it works? Of course not, and while it would be fairly easy to obtain documents to support evidence of my previous existence, e.g. a birth certificate, school attendance, medical records and later on a passport, what I was actually thinking or what I did with the rest of my time may be a little harder to prove.
Actual letters on paper (if anybody retained them) and photographs give some clues as to who my friends were and what we talked about and what we did for fun. A few of those people, or others who went by the same names, re-appear many years later, after a big chunk of my past was reduced to some legal documents and a box of photographs: first marriage, the birth of children, divorce… they can be found, but the narrative will remain an oral tradition unless somebody else cares to redact it.
The Polaroid era ends roughly where the Facebook era began (for me, not the world in general, which may be on a completely different timescale). Coincidentally, this was the year that a friend gave me a journal, so I started writing again. Some of the entries, especially the ones that dealt with current events, could be corroborated by other sources – rather like the Biblical accounts of kings, queens and battles. Others, dealing with private individuals identifiable by their initials or professions, are known only to me, although perhaps somebody will have fun trying to work those ones out.
Some disappear from the narrative because apparently they are dead or out of contact, whereas others with similar characteristics appear at the same time. Perhaps they are the same people going by other names, or conversely, if the same names recur, were they just common names in the lifetime of the writer?
The use of social media may tell a much wider audience something about my thoughts on religion and politics and even who my friends are, but again, it is not the whole story because a) not all of them use the internet and b) discretion is the better part of a blog, unless one has no inhibitions and is prepared for the consequences.
For the benefit of the aforementioned fundamentalists and atheists, I am working from the point of view that one can study Torah (or subsequent religious texts) from a religious as well as an historic perspective. The documentary theory of the Bible, as with one’s own scribblings, cuttings and typings, presents various complementary rather than antagonistic approaches. My university lecturers, Marxist to a man and woman, did not believe in an authorial voice in literature – but that is another (his or her-)story.
Looking back, I could call this, “How Biblical criticism can help you navigate the modern world,” which sounds simultaneously preachy and narcissistic. Looking forward, I hope those who upload this into their future brain come to some completely undreamt-of conclusion about both the past and the future. For those of you who have are having a leisurely read on paper now, Shabbat shalom!
Ruth Ben-Or is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue