Episode 67: Rabbi Andrea Weiss Part 2

Rabbi Andrea Weiss is back on Good God this week talking about her work as a Hebrew Bible scholar. You'll love hearing her talk about the prophets, metaphors for God, and why women's experiences need to be considered in biblical interpretation.

Listen here, read the transcript below, or click here for the full video version.

George Mason: 00:00 How do you read the Bible? Well, different people read the Bible differently and that's actually the point. So how do we listen to all the voices that come from the Bible and then those voices that talk about the Bible as they have read it? We need a lot of those different voices, including women's voices. Andrea Weiss teaches Hebrew Bible. She is a Reform Jew, and she'll be telling us something about metaphor and different kinds of biblical literature on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: 00:43 Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm your host, George Mason and I'm delighted to welcome back to the program today, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, who is both provost and professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College and Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Welcome back. Really glad to have you now. In our first conversation together, we talked about this, your book, American Values, Religious Voices, this 100 letters in the first 100 days that you and some other scholars, 99 other scholars around the country, sent to our new administration in the first part of 2017 and how that book was used and the values of it and all of that. So that was a good excuse to get you on Good God. But while we've got you, I think it's also a wonderful opportunity to talk a little more about your faith, what you do and see the connection with your particular religious tradition and your teaching at Hebrew Union.

George Mason: 01:55 So to begin with, let's situate where you fall in the Jewish continuum. You are a woman rabbi, which for some of our viewers and listeners will say, oh, there is such a thing, right? Because you're part of a branch of Judaism, Reform Judaism, not reformed, but Reform Judaism. Right? It's not finished, it's still going on. It's a really American brand, if you will, in a sense, even though there's Reform Jews around the world, there is a sense that this is kind of a strong American tradition, isn't it?

Andrea Weiss: 02:37 Well, it does have its roots in Germany, much earlier but, certainly. So the Hebrew Union College was founded in 1875 in Cincinnati and really with the mission of training Jewish clergy for this American context. So in that way, certainly HUC is very much an American creation and it's been training rabbis to serve Jewish communities throughout the country, throughout the world since then.

George Mason: 03:05 But it has taken on a kind of understanding of Judaism as it confronts the modern world. And so the Jewish identity and its relationship with non Jews and with culture and those sorts of things. It really from the beginning was really a way of kind of, in a sense, re-imagining in its generation how Jews might think about new discoveries, science and as well as cultural movements and survival questions too.

Andrea Weiss: 03:39 So in my work as a Bible scholar, one of the classes that I teach to our second year rabbinic students on the New York campus has been a class in the biblical profits. And as part of that class, a big theme that I emphasize in studying the Bible is to see various evolution of innovations that take place within the Bible. So for example, in the Ten Commandments, the most, you know, core biblical texts where God says, where we find this notion of transgenerational punishment, that God is going to punish...

George Mason: 04:08 ...from generation to generation, third and fourth generation.

Andrea Weiss: 04:11 Exactly that. And the, you know, the children will be punished for the sins of the parents. But then we study that. And, but then I show how the prophet Ezekiel... so first of all, Jeremiah says that one day that will no longer be the case. And then the prophet Ezekiel declares that no longer will people say, that parents eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. Right. So that is saying that very boldly and the speaker is God. They're saying that that is overturning that notion of transgenerational punishment. So that's a great example of where we see an evolution of a core biblical idea within the very Bible itself changing in response to different circumstances. Here you have the Israelites in exile. And if you say, and that was viewed as being punishment for either their sins or for their ancestors sins. And so if you believe, how are you going to ever get out from under that? So the prophets then, they present an innovative idea, which is that, that that idea no longer exists and that instead what Ezekiel teaches that instead, God says, I'm going to either reward or punish every individual. According to their own behavior.

George Mason: 05:26 Okay. Well, and then you have, I'm sorry, go ahead.

Andrea Weiss: 05:28 No, I was just gonna say that's, so other examples as well because that's really the reformed Jewish spirit, right? That Judaism is ever evolving. It always has been in response to change in circumstances, different times in different places that the core values of our religion remained the same that the texts but that we are adapting to different times in different places while maintaining what is really essential to what it means to be a Jew.

George Mason: 05:57 Well, and so what it means to be a Jew, let's go right there. As a matter of fact, because you also have the tension within the Hebrew Bible on a matter like for example the Torah which wants to have identity markers that are pretty strict. And then along comes the book of Ruth and now we have a Moabite and we have this sort of welcoming of the stranger and the convert. And the question of, you know, how do we put all of this together too, right? So there's a separateness that's important, but there's also the hospitality and the welcome. And here we are today with the question of how do Jews survive intermarriage. Right? And so, because in America at least that's been, you know, difficult on the Jewish community when the default strength of the Christian community is involved. And so this is a constant narrative, isn't it? A constant interaction.

Andrea Weiss: 07:00 Well, it's a constant sense of how do we define ourselves right in the midst of the other people with whom we're living. So if you think about something like kashrut or keeping kosher, you know, what can you eat or not eat? And what does it mean to, and to what extent does that define you as a people separate from other peoples have been other religious practices in ancient Israel, certain things that were adapted and commented on other, among other ancient peoples like sacrifice. Certain practices were okay and others were not allowed. And so there's that constant tension of what defines us as a people. Right? And how are we distinct from the other peoples with whom we are living.

George Mason: 07:45 And social location has a big part of that because you see there's, you know, it's one thing when you're in the land and it's another thing when you're in exile, right? And when you're in the land, there's a way this is your homeland. This is how we define ourselves as a people. And we have a temple and we have a place to worship and to gather. And then suddenly you find yourself now in exile and there you are in Babylon. And here's Jeremiah saying, you know, seek the welfare of the city in which you find yourself because its welfare will be yours and this sort of thing. And so how do you put these two things together? Right? But again, it's always a matter of this living conversation with the community and with God, isn't it?

Andrea Weiss: 08:31 Yeah, exactly. One of my favorite texts these days is from Isaiah 56. A post exilic text or an exilic text. And there the prophet emphasizes the importance of keeping Shabbat, keeping the sabbath. Why? Because once you no longer have a temple, right, then how do you define yourself? So Shabbat in exilic and post exilic text becomes the really critical defining of what it means to be a Jew at that time. And also in that text, what I love about it is that's the text where we read where God says, my house of prayer will be a house of prayer for all peoples and Deuteroisaiah is very much responding with this very wide embrace of those who are non Israelites but wanted, are clinging to the Israelite God want to be part of the Israelite people with this wide and welcoming embrace. And that is really in very directly in opposition to the kind of voices that we see in Ezra, in Nehemiah, who are trying to define the Israelite community by saying, who's out. You can't intermarriage. You can't. So those debates, and that's why this passage now just comes alive to me in such an important way. We are having these same conversations today. Who can come in, who can come in and how, how widely are we gonna open up our gate?

George Mason: 09:51 And this is exactly what's happening in the Christian community as well. So my house will be a house of prayer is something Jesus sites also in his confrontation in the temple with those who had, who were exploiting those who were coming and were unable to buy and sell before they came and they had charged extortionary rates and all that sort of thing. And you know, the emphasis is really on inclusion here and access and opportunity and we make a big deal of him, you know, criticizing the the merchants so to speak. But really what's at the heart of this is that. But Christianity struggles with this very much as well. What are the identity markers that keep you who you are? And what do you do with people who are unlike you? The welcome of the stranger, the hospitality, is supposed to be a really high value for us, but some times our sense of being threatened by the other, really makes us drawback, doesn't it? And we struggle with that in the scripture too.

Andrea Weiss: 11:00 Yeah. And the other question of that text, another text, is who are we going to let in? So you have the ger, the stranger. Who is a non Israelite, but living amongst the Israelites. And we have Leviticus 19, which says not only do you not mistreat the stranger and you've gotta make this stranger, the ger, like a citizen. And then it goes even further, even farther to say, love the stranger. Love the stranger, right? That was right after love your, your fellow. Love your neighbor. So that's, you know, that's a big, that's a wide embrace. Right?

George Mason: 11:36 Well, and it's also probably something about religious maturity, isn't it? That, you know, we can only start maybe at a certain place, but it's never enough. Isn't until the stranger is your friend until the stranger is your sister or brother. Until you understand that we actually all share the divine image and have a right to flourish together and live together in certain ways. Yeah, well, hard work to do. But this is actually, you know, this is actually an interesting thing. I don't know why people think religion is supposed to be easy. I had someone say to me one time, about, we were having a conversation about a particularly challenging religious issue and I said, it's really not all that clear. There are different ways of viewing this. And this person said to me, you know, I don't really want to believe in a god that wouldn't make it really plain to me. It has to be clear. It has to be plain. And so the assumption is that that's the way religion is supposed to be. If there's one thing in the world that's easy, it's supposed to be religion. And I'm sorry to disappoint you.

Andrea Weiss: 12:45 Well for me, that is what, as a Bible scholar what draws me in. Why I dedicated my life to this text because of its complexity, right? Because of its artistry. The idea that there are so many different voices, I mean the bible's an anthology that combines so many different perspectives, different voices, different kinds of literature. So you have a book like Proverbs that is telling us about the world and the way that we would like to believe it exists. If you're good, you'll be rewarded. If you're evil, you'll be punished. And then we have a book like Job, right? And other Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which says that the world doesn't work that way and it's complicated. And in the teaching that I do both at the Hebrew Union College and as I have a chance to teach at synagogues and communities around the country, that is to really let people in and share that complexity both in the artistry of the Bible and to help people become better readers of the biblical texts.

Andrea Weiss: 13:48 And to appreciate the complexity and the nuance of it. And to show how these ancient texts where they come from, they are so old and from such a far away land and time and place and the fact that they can speak with such relevance, still. Like that to me is the power.

George Mason: 14:05 There's the inspiration, there's the inspiration of the spirit. Well, and you know, a lot of people like to say, the Bible says, and to them that that's the end of the conversation. But really it's, the Bible says, now let's get started. You know, because that's the starting point, but it's not the ending point, right? It's an invitation for us to participate in the same conversation today.

Andrea Weiss: 14:30 Right? And we can, and as a bible scholar, I stay in the know. I try to, when teaching my students I try to get them to think about what does the text say? Yes, what does it mean and what does it mean to me? And often people want to get to that. What does it mean to me? But to really start with what is it actually saying and what does it mean? And it's, what does it mean? It's ancient near eastern context, but to get to what does it mean to us today, but whereas I tend to like to exist in the world of trying to figure out what is the plain meaning of the biblical texts, right? Then we've got centuries and the Jewish tradition of biblical commentaries that are, if the biblical text in itself is often ambiguous, but then you've got this multi vocal tradition where you have all these different voices over time or in the same time in different places where people are saying it means x. It means y. Adapting, responding to different times and places what the text means.

George Mason: 15:24 Okay. So I think when we come back from the break, we need to keep pursuing that since you've contributed to this new conversation in commentary and we'll talk about that in a moment.

Andrea Weiss: 15:33 Thank you.

George Mason: 15:37 Thank you for continuing to tune in to Good God. This program is available as many of you already know in various formats. You can take it as a podcast that is delivered to all the places you would go, whether Apple Podcasts or Google Play. And you can hear it weekly and you can subscribe to it. A new episode drops every Thursday morning. And so we invite you to do that and subscribe. You can also find the video format in various places on the Facebook page where we invite you to like Good God. You can also find it on YouTube and on VokalNow, vokalnow.com. Now, so these are various places you can go. I'd also want to tell you that you can go to the website. That's www.goodgodproject.com. And there you can find an archive of all of our previous episodes. If you like what you hear on any given week, you might actually like to have a transcript of the conversation. And if you go to the website, goodgodproject.com, you can find a transcript there also where you can cut and paste and use what's been said in that conversation. So we'd invite you to find various ways to continue to tune in and to enjoy these conversations. One special thing I want to say is thank you to the friends of this program who have contributed financially to make it possible for us to do this without inviting you to have to give. We're grateful for the support of friends of this program and I hope that you will please tell your friends about Good God and continue to tune in. Thanks for being part of it.

George Mason: 17:42 We're back with Andrea Weiss, and we've been talking about her work as a professor of Hebrew Bible and how we teach the Bible, both from what it says to what it means to what it means to me and how important these voices are, not only in the biblical text, but then across the ages and that we have to take account to the continuity of the community engaging with these texts across time as well. But the truth is a lot of those commentators have been men for ages and ages and, there's maybe a loss in that, we know there's a loss in that. And so we have a new commentary that you participated in called The Torah: A Woman's Commentary and it's bringing female voices to the interpretive task of Torah. How did that get started?

Andrea Weiss: 18:45 So the commentary, it got started in 1992 with Cantor Sarah Sager, who's a cantor at Fairmount Temple, Anshe Chesed Fairmont Temple in the Cleveland area. And she was asked to teach about the Torah portion about Abraham, the Akedah, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. And she asked a question, which in 1992 was a more novel question, which is, where is Sarah when Abraham takes his son, in the wood and goes up the mountain. And so she started doing some research and she found that there were women and men in a variety of different contexts who were beginning to ask those kinds of questions and were beginning to uncover more about women in the biblical texts, women in ancient Israel, what their lives were like. But you realize there was no accessible way to access that information.

Andrea Weiss: 19:30 So she had the idea which she presented to this small regional gathering of Jewish women in 1992, and that was the idea that we should create a feminist Torah commentary. So she was invited by the women of Reform Judaism a year later to their national convention. She gave a big address and at the end she made a very passionate, articulate argument of why we needed a women's Torah commentary. And she charged that group, which is a group of lay leaders. This is not group of rabbis, not group of Bible scholars, but group of engaged Jewish women to create a Torah commentary. And it took 15 years, but that's what it did, that the women of Reform Judaism raised $1.5 million to fund the project. They first engaged my teacher and now colleague Dr Tamara Eskinazi at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles as the editor.

Andrea Weiss: 20:22 I later joined as the associate editor and so it's a commentary in all 54 Torah portions that brings over a hundred Jewish women who've written original commentary on the Torah. And we wanted the commentary, original vision was that it would be multivocal. So that there would be different types of commentary on any given Torah portion. And we saw that both as feminist, the idea of being multivocal, but also definitively Jewish. So if you've ever seen a medieval Jewish Bible, which has the Hebrew texts and Aramaic translation and commentary all around the page or page of Talmud, which is about one opinion, then another, then another. This multivocal engagement in the text, it's really definitively Jewish too. So for every given Torah portion, we have different types of commentary and different commentators that are adding their voices to the text as well.

George Mason: 21:16 So it's important to get a female perspective then or many female perspectives to balance all of that because the way in which women participate in a religious life is both common and different in the community. We were just at an event where David Stern, our friend Rabbi David Stern, was talking before we shared a meal and he was talking about how we can, each of us, eat exactly the same food, but based upon our body chemistry, based upon who we are uniquely, it actually produces different glucose levels. It may nourish us in whatever way, but differently, each of us differently. And it seems to be that that's part of the point, isn't it? That we need to have all these different voices so that we can hear and be nurtured spiritually by as full a meal as we can get.

Andrea Weiss: 22:19 Yeah. That I think that that's a good analogy. And it is a beautiful teaching. And what we really tried to do is to create a Torah commentary for contemporary Jewish women. And that was sort of the target audience, but we wanted it to be received by a much wider audience. Men and women.

George Mason: 22:36 Yeah. I mean, men need to hear this too.

Andrea Weiss: 22:38 Well, and, and what it does is to bring women scholars. It's largely women scholars, some clergy, a wider, and we also have poets and other writers that are responding more creatively to the biblical text. But how does women's scholarship, women's experience shaped the way that we read the text? And the commentary is also very contemporary in terms of bringing the latest scholarship. The book came, was published, was finished in 2007, published in 2008, so we're over 10 years old and still remains a very vital resource in a lot of congregations. But it's really, so it's bringing the latest biblical scholarship, but looking at it, what can we uncover when we have women who are the ones who are interpreting the text, asking different questions, looking at things in a different way, not encumbered by layers of commentary by men, but looking at it to say, what does the text actually say and not what do we wish the text says about women and women's experience? But let's look honestly and openly at what it's actually saying to try to understand it.

George Mason: 23:42 Well, wonderful. Well, so there's that work. There is this work that you have done on American Values and Religious Voices. These are two contributions you've made in publishing, but on an ongoing basis. When you teach Hebrew Bible, one of the interests that you have also is in the use of metaphor in the biblical text. Now, different kinds of language is also important as we read a text and understanding that if someone says you are a rose, we don't literally mean that you're a flower, right? So there's a new layer of meaning immediately. What are some examples of metaphor in the Bible that open up new areas of understanding to us?

Andrea Weiss: 24:32 Well, thanks for asking that question. So my area of research as a doctoral student was in the area of metaphor and biblical prose. I focused on the same narrative and because I teach the prophets, as that's been a regular class that I've taught for 18 years, I became very interested in biblical poetry and particularly in metaphors for God. So before I came up with the idea for American Values, Religious Voices, I was pretty far along on a pretty, on a broad study of metaphors for God in the Bible. And what I am calling God in the biblical imagination, the mechanics and theology of metaphor and looking at both on a very linguistic level of how syntactically metaphors for God operate. And then what is the larger meaning? And I'm categorizing metaphors for God into human and nonhuman. So like a human metaphor would be God as king. God as shepherd. Just to name a few, uh, God as potter and then nonhuman metaphors, one of my favorite my students will tell you, is the image of from Hosea 14 of God being like dew. Providing the very subtle nourishment that allows in that case Israel, personified as a plant, to thrive and allows us to thrive. And then many, many others. God as rock is one of the most prominent, especially in the Psalms, God is a rock. So trying to understand what those metaphors are saying about God. I'm particularly interested in the way that the Bible often combines multiple metaphors for God. Not only in the same passage, but even within the same verse, side by side. We'll put different verses. So an example from Deuteroisaiah where God is pictured as a man of war and a woman in labor, right?

Andrea Weiss: 26:19 Side-By-Side. And both of which have to do with images of power and strength and sort of the loud voice and that the power that God will come to bring the Israelites back from exile. So how metaphors interact and how they actually work. So I'll share with you, I think one of the insights of that research and really doing the close syntactic look, research to look at how metaphors actually work in the Bible. And one thing that I found is one, well probably the most famous metaphor that people will know is God is my shepherd from Psalm 23. So in the Hebrew it's Adonai Ro’i, which is the noun “Ro,” and then a suffix at the end, the first person suffix. And so one thing that my research has shown is how often metaphors for God have some kind of possessive marker, which is just...

Andrea Weiss: 27:09 So it's actually, it's more rare to have a verse like God is King. Sort of just in the absolute God is, a particular metaphor, but much more often metaphors for God are situational. And our personal... So God is fulfilling a particular metaphoric role for particular individual or entity in response to a particular situation. So that's the kind of research that I'm interested in. What do those metaphors for God tell us about the ways that the ancient Israelites experienced the divine and then which of those metaphors still speak to us today and how might we be inspired by the metaphoric process? So the biblical authors took everything they knew about the world around them. Concrete objects, nature, places, weather, people, relationships, and they used everything that they knew to help them get to the unknown, which was God.

George Mason: 28:06 And you know, I'm often struck with how we use that today. So in Christian tradition, in Christian worship, we often have hymns and spiritual songs that draw upon biblical metaphors. And yet our world is no longer structured with, well, some live in monarchy still, but even those tend not to be monarchies like they were in biblical times, right? So God is my king. We might sing that over and over again. But what does it mean to live in a country which is democratic and we have no king, right? What, what about the language of shepherd when, you know, maybe we work for a hedge fund and you know, how do we think about new metaphors, in our way of thinking about God without jettisoning those biblical metaphors? How do we connect them? Right?

Andrea Weiss: 29:08 Right. So part of that I think is entertaining the metaphor process and what the ancient Israelites were doing were taking everything they knew in the world around them to get from the unknown as they were trying to answer these big questions of who is God? How does God operate in the world? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be a human being in relationship to this deity? What does it mean to be part of the people of Israel in a covenantal relationship with this God? Answering all of those questions, they turned to metaphor and there's no one reigning metaphor. The Bible, there's such diversity throughout the Bible and there's this sense that we need all of those metaphors. That no one metaphor can carry the weight of saying everything that we need to say about who God is and how God operates in the world.

Andrea Weiss: 29:52 So to say that God is father or as some biblical texts say, God is mother. For example, when the Israelites are in exile in Babylon, Deuteroisaiah says, where the Israelites feel that God has forgotten or abandoned them and the prophets, you know, would a mother abandoned her own child? Or just as a child is comforted by his mother, so I will come for you. Because if you want to convey this sense that no matter what, no matter what's happened in the past, you've sinned. You've been punished, you're an exile, right? I still love you. We're still in this committed relationship. I'm still going to bring you back and I'm going to bring you back to the land. So that's why in that particular case, the metaphor of the mother is so powerful.

Andrea Weiss: 30:38 But at other times we need other metaphors. So, to kind of have that metaphoric freedom. And also then to translate the process. So both to think about which of the biblical metaphors still speak to us today. How can we adapt them in a way to find them meaningful? But also what is it that, you know, what are the metaphors in your world? What is it? What is it, the relationship, the objects, the entities that you understand. It might be something with technology, you know, I often do this with kids, for example, it's a great exercise with kids. What metaphors could you create to try to explain how you are thinking about or struggling with God?

George Mason: 31:14 The Lord is my operating system. The Lord is my smartphone. You know, something. Obviously it's more helpful to think through maybe how it works or doesn't work, right? Because we're certainly not going to change our prayers and what not, but involving ourselves in that process is part of the spiritual discipline of using imagination like the prophets did. And so it's a beautiful way to build community. Well, my goodness, we could go on and on with this and that's actually the point, isn't it, Andrea, that we do go on and on with this, beyond a conversation like this, but in our faith life, and one of the beautiful things about these conversations is we have two different religious traditions, but side by side we're learning from each other. Listening. Thank you for all you're doing for all of us.

Andrea Weiss: 32:04 Thank you for inviting me to be part of this conversation.

Speaker 4: 32:11 Good God was created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons.

Good God Project