We need more biblical literacy in America

We need more biblical literacy in America

Video Courtesy of Fox News

Time for a quiz.

  • What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY;  Rehoboth Beach, DE?
  • The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?
  • What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?

While you are pondering the answers to those questions, let us reflect on the fact that President Trump has embraced proposals in six states to offer classes in biblical literacy.

Let me state, at the outset, that this is a bad idea — in practical terms, and for political reasons.

The ACLU is aware of the dangers and risks; a case in Kentucky emphasized that “Bible Literacy” courses may not promote religion or a particular religious viewpoint, test students on matters of religious faith, nor be designed to instill religious life lessons.”

Also: because of the atmosphere in America today, such classes would undoubtedly become part of the culture wars.

And: even the choice of a Bible — especially the choice of a Bible — is a politically partisan choice. King James? Revised Standard Version? New American Version? For the Hebrew Bible — Jewish Publication Society?

Moreover, with the proliferation of religious and cultural diversity in the United States today, growing numbers of American citizens do not find their primary religious inspiration in either the Jewish Bible or the New Testament, but rather, in the Koran, the Vedas, and in other religious texts.

Or, in no religious texts at all.

Having said that, let me also say that America needs more biblical literacy.

First: knowing about the Bible as literature is a crucial part of what it means to be a literate person.

Notice the precision of my language. It is knowing about the Bible; it is certainly not believing the Bible.

Neither is it reading the Bible for the sake of reading the Bible. To put it in Jewish terms: this is treif (unkosher), and has been since 1963, with Abington School District v. Schempp, which ruled Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.

There is a crucial and subtle difference between a faith-oriented approach to teaching Bible (“This is what you should know and this is what you should believe”) and a literacy-based intellectual and academic approach (“This is what you should know about, because this is part of your literaryinheritance.”

Consider what American students have learned, and continue to learn, in their English classes: Greek mythology; Greek theater; Shakespeare; Dickens; Hemingway. Consider the various narratives that they know, just from daily life: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and a plethora of video games that I could not even name.

If they can learn, understand, and appreciate Greek literature for its aesthetic and emotional value, why not the Bible? When I was a teenager, my extraordinarily talented teacher, the late Bob Yesselman, made my soul quiver when I read of the moment when Oedipus learned the truth about his life.

Would there be anything wrong with teenagers having that same moment of catharsis in reading about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son?

If they can learn about Iphigenia, then why not Isaac — especially because he survived? Why not compare those stories?

Second: knowing about the Bible as literature can help us understand some of the motivations of the founders of our nation.

David Gelernter put it this way:

Winthrop, Adams, Lincoln, and thousands of others found a good destiny in the Bible and made it their own. They read about Israel’s covenant with God and took it to heart: They were Israel. (“Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke,” said Winthrop. “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.”) They read about God’s chosen people and took it to heart: They were God’s chosen people, or–as Lincoln put it–God’s “almost chosen people.” The Bible as they interpreted it told them what they could be and would be. Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book.

Take New England, for example. Early American colonists saw themselves in biblical terms. The English monarchy was Pharaoh. England was Egypt. The Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea. Their destination was like the land of Israel. (Tragically, horrifically, this meant that the natives were forced to play the role of the Canaanites, which meant that they had to be defeated and extirpated. That is but one of the problems with American exceptionalism, which itself comes from a biblical source.)

Without biblical literacy, we don’t know the meaning of “a shining city on a hill.” We miss the allusions in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We remain deaf to the references in American patriotic songs and spirituals. We lose large pieces of our understanding of how America came to be, and the vision that permeated that founding.

You need the Bible to understand American history — in a way that no other country other than Israel can claim.

Now, to the answers to the quiz.

  • What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY;  Rehoboth Beach, DE?

Answer: all of those names find their origins in the Hebrew Bible. As I said before, the original English settlers (though not all of them — see Colin Woodard, American Nations) saw their destiny in biblical terms. That is why biblical place names dot the maps of New England and the Middle States — as well as Utah, and various other places.

  • The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?

Answer:  “Endora” is a reference to the Witch of Endor whom King Saul consults in First Samuel, chapter 28. A modicum of biblical literacy is necessary for even popular culture. (Trivia question: in the series, how many times did Endora actually pronounce her son-in-law Darrin’s name correctly?)

  • What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?

Answer: Franklin’s preference for the Great Seal was a depiction of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea — with the motto being “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” As I said earlier, the Exodus from Egypt loomed large in our colonial ancestors’ imaginations.

To repeat: I am not in favor of teaching the Bible in public schools, for the various reasons that I stated earlier. It will only lead to trouble.

That said, I think of the late Mr. Bob Yesselman, my English teacher at Bethpage High School.

He instilled in me a lifelong love of Greek drama and Shakespeare.

Sometimes, I wonder: if I had learned the book of Genesis from him, back when I was a junior in high school, would I have learned to love text a mere five years earlier?

I can only imagine.

Does Alice Walker have a Jewish problem?

Does Alice Walker have a Jewish problem?

Alice Walker (AP photo)

Is author Alice Walker a Jew-hater?

Here is what we know.

Exhibit A: This past Sunday, in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, Ms. Walker endorsed “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” by David Icke: “In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.”

The problem? David Icke is notoriously anti-semitic. In fact, his publisher judged “And The Truth Shall Set You Free” too anti-semitic to release, and so Icke did it on his own.

Icke’s book blames a Jew for the Holocaust and refers to the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, one of the greatest anti-semitic forgeries in history — a document that asserts that there is an international Jewish cabal that controls the world.

Exhibit B: Six years ago, Alice Walker refused to allow her classic book “The Color Purple” to be translated into Hebrew.

This had nothing to do with the typical anti-Israel stuff.

This had everything to do with Hebrew, i.e., the language of the Jews.

This is a curious variant of what it means to be anti-semitic; it is someone who is anti-a particular Semitic language.

Exhibit C: On her website, Alice Walker offers a poem titled, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud.”

And, no — this wasn’t an advertisement for a yeshiva.

The poem engages in your usual anti-Israel screed.

But, then it takes an alarming turn.

We must go back
As grown ups, now,
Not as the gullible children we once were,
And study our programming,
From the beginning.
All of it: The Christian, the Jewish,
The Muslim; even the Buddhist. All of it, without exception,
At the root.

For the study of Israel, of Gaza, of Palestine,
Of the bombed out cities of the Middle East,
Of the creeping Palestination
Of our police, streets, and prisons
In America,
Of war in general,
It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.

She then names every crackpot, out of context, admittedly offensive but a historicized reference in the Talmud that she can find:

Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.

Jews are no stranger to these words, and to these accusations.

There is a long history of anti-Talmud rhetoric in Jewish history. Such rhetoric dates back to the 1200s, when Inquisition officials in Spain put the Talmud on trial.

Over the following centuries, the Talmud was often burnt in public — often with Jews accompanying the volumes into the flames.

Let me tell you the last time that I encountered this vile line of conversation.

It was when I was living in the South. A white supremacist and neo-Nazi sent me hate mail. He started by sending me a list of problematic quotes from the Talmud and rabbinical literature. He had simply copied and pasted them from a hate website.

So, let’s get our minds around this.

When it comes to the Jews, Alice Walker is echoing neo-Nazis.

So, yes. Alice Walker has a problem with the Jews. And, with Judaism. And, of course, with Israel. Her hatred of the Jews illustrates a despicable Venn diagram — in which you find a circle for the left, and a circle for the right — and the overlap is in Jew-hatred.

Ironic, then: just a few days ago, right-wing pundit Anne Coulter let loose — also about the Jews.

On Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox, Coulter said:

“I mean you have the Muslims and the Jews and the various exotic sexual groups and the black church ladies with the college queers …you must hate white men. It’s the one thing they have in common.”

When it comes to the Jews, Alice Walker = Anne Coulter. Pure and simple.

This is not easy for us to say, and it is not easy for us to accept.

Because we tend to ignore, excuse, rationalize, and contextualize the anti-semitism that emerges from our own side of the political spectrum.

In particular, people who are center-left often have difficulty recognizing and naming leftist Jew-hatred when they see it.


Take Alice Walker. She’s an intellectual, an author, a poet, a person who is a member of a minority group that has itself been disempowered. She is our imagined social, intellectual, and cultural peer. She is someone whom we would normally want to like and admire — the literati.

But, Anne Coulter? Please. Who would sympathize with this overly-privileged right-wing bigot?

You have to call out the anti-semitism of those who would otherwise be your allies. If you don’t, then you have allowed your politics to outweigh and out speak your morals.

Not good. Not good for the Jews. Not good for America. Not good for the world.