Worthy Texts : Blog Of The Nation What's the best way to teach morality -- if you don't use a "holy text?
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Worthy Texts

Anyone who's ever heard me toss around Yiddish like a meshuggeneh Grandmother probably knows that I pretty much feel Jewish, regardless of how often I go to shul. I'm close to Reconstructionist in specific matters of faith, but I can't really imagine abandoning my identity as a Jew, despite all that I am unsure of, or even outright disavow. During my college quasi-Marxist phase, I took the required course "Old Testament as Literature," which meant I had to actually read the darn thing. The thing about being Jewish is that as far as holy books go, we've got the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and I'll be honest, they are intimidating texts. The God of the Torah is so angry, and almost capriciously cruel. He demands proof of faith in mercurial, almost mean ways — commanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, wiping out humanity in a massive flood... Even the oldest of all Genesis stories, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, doesn't exactly make God seem like a kind deity. (You can really see why the New Testament appealed — think about it, here comes a new deity, preaching love, and "turn the other cheek." It's such a relief after all the salt pillars and hungry dogs.) During this phase, I started referring to myself as "culturally Jewish." I took Hitchens as my new deity and hammered away at everyone who would listen (or not, sorry random New Yorkers) that God was a "sinister fairy tale," and the Bible a rather sorry bit of writing with a lot of boring bits about hand washing (I actually still stand by that — I defy you to read Leviticus without snoring).

I won't go into the particulars of my own feelings about faith, God, or Judaism. But I will tell you that the experience of briefly rejecting the most holy text of my own religion made me think about the difficulties of actually replacing that text. Finding another sacred — or even secular — writ that expresses a moral structure for all of humanity is as much of a challenge as you might think. After all, there are a few things it has to contain. It has to have the weight of years — a brand new text doesn't work, however much I'd like to nominate something by Steinbeck, or even commission something by Claire Messud. It has to have at least the feeling of an ancient text — otherwise Tolstoy would be in the running (but his works feel so essentially modern that I think we have to let him go). I think it has to be a story — it can't just be a treatise, or an essay — otherwise I suppose I'd nominate Marcus Aurelius. I like the idea of it being an epic, a long human struggle toward goodness, toward God. And it must have good characters — flawed men and women who are both villains and heroes. Strong female characters are a must, as is great language that begs to be spoken aloud. And it must be multi-layered — it must be something you can understand in a multitude of ways at different times in your life.

So, I compiled my list of attributes for a new scripture — a new way to teach life without the Bible. It's an interesting exercise... What it does is essentially force you to think about how you read, and how you live, and where the two intersect in the most useful ways. What I discovered was this: I am less a person of the Book, then I am a person of "the books." It's not actually productive to limit yourself to one text — or to limit yourself at all (including the Bible in all its testaments). There were some I found more useful then others, though, and I almost settled on Homer's Odyssey. Oddly, I found it really seemed to express many of the things I think are most important — everything from loyalty and resourcefulness, to the insidious nature of recreational drugs. Best of all, it is a morality play of great optimism in a harsh world — the story of a a man of great talent, and occasional hubris, making mistake, after mistake, after mistake — who still finds his way home. Here's to Ithaka, BOTNers, and any other texts you consider sacred. Hope your road is a long one.