Professor Noam Pianko, the chair of the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at UW, is spending the summer in Israel as adjunct faculty on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. This post draws upon the seminar on modern Jewish identity that he is teaching the BYFI Fellows this summer. It is republished here with the author’s permission.
This evening our four and half year old daughter, Yona, asked me why we chose Yona as her name. Like many kids this age, Yona tends to ask the same question multiple times and she already knew the answer: since she was born right after Yom Kippur we named her after the prophet Jonah, the protagonist in the haftorah read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
But, then Yona took the conversation in a different direction. “Did the story of Jonah really happen?” she asked. Poor Yona. With a rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies as parents she received a far more complex answer than is appropriate for a four year old. After stuttering and looking at each other to see who would jump in, we tried to explain the difference between historical fact and truth to a four year old. While Yona is a precocious kid—this distinction was clearly lost on her.
While Yona moved on to a far more important topic (a comparison of Israeli and American ice cream flavors), I kept thinking about her question. Yona asked the question that has bothered modern Jewish thinkers since Baruch Spinoza questioned the historical accuracy of the Biblical text in a book (the Theological Political Treatise) published in 1670. Spinoza introduced a radical claim. The obvious historical inconsistencies in the Biblical text, he suggested, undermined the theological claims of the Bible. By introducing what later scholars would call Biblical criticism, Spinoza elevated historical accuracy to be the primary criteria for evaluating the validity of religious belief and practice.