Interviewing Joshua Berman, scholar of the Bible and Exodus from Egypt

He has written on a variety of topics including the Exodus from Egypt and the current state of biblical studies, and rejects the position that sees the biblical accounts as mere myth.

 Joshua Berman leading his tour at Abu Simbel in Egypt. (photo credit: SANDOR JOFFE)
Joshua Berman leading his tour at Abu Simbel in Egypt.
(photo credit: SANDOR JOFFE)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

In order to get a broader perspective, both scholarly and personal, on Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman’s book, Ani Maamin, and his findings, I interviewed him by email.

Berman, 58, an Orthodox rabbi who has lived in Israel for 35 years, is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University well-known for his strong views on the history of Jewish belief and on biblical source criticism. “Knowledge of the cultural context of the ancient Near East,” he argues, is essential to understanding the Tanach.

Berman earned his BA at Princeton University and his doctorate at Bar-Ilan. He has written on a variety of topics including the Exodus from Egypt and the current state of biblical studies, and rejects the position that sees the biblical accounts as mere myth.

“I have recently returned from leading a trip to Egypt with Kesher Tours – ‘In the Footsteps of the Exodus’ – where we went with Tanach in hand and learned about the immense imprint of ancient Egyptian culture on the Hebrew Bible,” Berman says. “Part of it was demonstrating the basis for a historical Exodus event. And part of it was simply to show how so many readily familiar passages and concepts from the Torah suddenly come to light when seen in this context. The people on the trip were simply floored.” Here is the interview in full:

What were the highlights of your tour to Egypt?

 Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman (credit: Yehoshua Derovan) Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman (credit: Yehoshua Derovan)

To travel to Egypt with a Tanach in hand is to walk in the footsteps of the Exodus. You look on the walls of temples and tombs and read in hieroglyphs the biblical names “Miriam” and “Pinchas.” At the Seder table we recall how God delivered Israel from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” But visit Luxor and you see on many monuments that Egyptian inscriptions routinely describe the Pharaoh as “the mighty hand” and his acts as those of “the outstretched arm.” And then you realize that the Torah describes God in the terms used by the Egyptians to exalt the pharaohs because it is engaging in cultural appropriation. During much of its history, ancient Israel was in Egypt’s shadow. For weak and oppressed peoples, one form of cultural and spiritual resistance is to appropriate the symbols of the oppressor and put them to competitive ideological purposes.

An unexpected highlight was seeing how warmly we were welcomed by everyday Egyptians. In the shuk of Cairo, hawkers routinely called out to us, “Shalom uvrachah!” We had not a nasty incident the entire time we were there.

Who are the people who inspired you, and why?

It’s been now more than a year since his passing, and I’m still picking up the pieces following the death of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was a mentor of mine for 30 years. I saw in Rabbi Sacks my own life writ large. Like Rabbi Sacks, I came to full halachic observance on my own as a young man. Read his work and you see that he became comfortable moving and operating outside of the Jewish world from his time at Cambridge. I know for me, my undergraduate years at Princeton were the most formative years of my life, and not even because of the academics, but because of the opportunity it gave me to participate in the leadership of a heterogeneous Jewish community. And Rabbi Sacks had the audacity to rethink what it meant to teach the word and will of the Almighty, constantly pushing the envelope to become a spokesman for Judaism unlike anyone in our history. His model inspired me to believe that maybe a good Jewish boy could engage in academic Bible study and create a bridge of spiritual and intellectual integrity, which is what I’ve tried to do in my book, Ani Maamin.

What are the greatest challenges you faced and what did you learn from them?

I once penned an essay online calling out a range of biases and agendas that taint the academic study of Bible. I knew that I would have detractors, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught that ensued. On Facebook I saw colleagues engage in a verbal, mocking roast, with me in the starring role of the pig. Another colleague penned a counter-essay ascribing to me opinions I’ve never stated and motivations I’ve never harbored. Although I had the sympathy of many, I had the empathy of none. I knew of no one who had endured this type of public scrutiny – except for Rabbi Sacks.

“Ah, you’ve drawn fire,” he said with glee. “That’s wonderful – it’ll make you stronger!” Never has a child savored his peas from the simple promise they would make him stronger. But Rabbi Sacks’s words were no mere bromide. “Let me tell you how you deal with this. You go through four stages.” I was amazed. It was as if he had a guide to public scorn on the ready even before we spoke. “First, you have to know that every time this happens, it will hurt.” That rang true and I appreciated his humanity. “Second, you’re going to see that they’re just words. You’re going to get up and move on and you’ll see that these words have no long-term impact, and that in turn will make you stronger.”

“Third, you have to internalize that this is not about you. It’s about what you stand for. And once you realize that you’re fighting for this because it’s right no matter who you are, it allows you to get some distance, and the distance, too, makes you stronger, because the critiques are not really about you personally.

“Fourth, you’re going to see that while you’ve made some enemies, many more others are going to be so grateful to you for speaking up, for being the voice they never had. And once you see you’ve made an impact then you become invulnerable. And then buoyed by the impact you’re making and the strength you derive from it, you will suddenly be able to look at your detractors in a different light. They will no longer seem threatening to you, and you will look at them charitably and magnanimously.”

And to my amazement he was right. I was shocked that the criticism had no long-term effect, and that surely I had taken the harsh words to heart more deeply than had anyone else. Knowing that I was fighting not for myself but for what I deemed was right indeed provided distance. The strength and satisfaction of speaking on behalf of others who felt disenfranchised was as buoying as the liftoff of an airplane, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and I could see that my detractors’ barbs were partly a reflection of their insecurity in their own positions. Now, as for looking charitably and magnanimously toward them... alas, let’s just say that I’m a work in progress.

What advice would you give to Jewishly committed parents whose children are no longer interested in Judaism?

The question really begins earlier: what is our strategy for raising our children to be committed Jews? I have counterintuitive beliefs on this. Many parents try to raise walls in the hopes that their children won’t be exposed to the vast range of lifestyles available out there. But it’s hopeless. Our children live in a world filled with infinite choice – and they know it. Instead we have to encourage them to explore and question when they are still at home and become partners in that process rather than its inhibitors. We can’t make our children committed Jews. They have to taste the freedom of choice and make that choice themselves.

And when they choose a lifestyle different from our own, we should do no less than what any Chabad rabbi would do for them. We should offer them an eternal smile and unconditional love; we should celebrate the connection to Judaism they do express, rather than judgmentally dwelling on that which they don’t. And we should serve for them as the very best models we can be of what it means to be a human being and a committed Jew.

What is your family life like?

Challenging – just like everyone else’s! Neither my wife, Michal, nor I were raised in observant homes. The freedom to choose that we were given we have given our own children as well. Some have followed our path and some have not.

We take great pride and satisfaction that all four of them recently decided to go camping together. If they don’t love us – that’s on us, and we work very hard to ensure that they do. If some of them don’t love God—we don’t beat ourselves up about that. Given the tsunami of social forces our children face, it is hubris to believe that we can determine who they will become, if only we do it in some magical “right way.”

How do you see Zionism and Israel developing?

A lot of people decry the divisions within Israeli society. I see just the opposite. We are living through the Great Convergence. In nearly every ideological sector there is a repositioning toward the center from formerly entrenched positions. Religious Zionists no longer want to read their own sectoral newspaper, vote for their own sectoral party, and reside in their own homogeneous walled communities. In growing numbers haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are getting online and gaining exposure to the outside world that a thousand Knesset bills to integrate them could never achieve.

Former MK Shulamit Aloni was the last national voice that stood for a secularism virulently opposed to traditional Judaism. More and more secular Jews today sense that the string of “–isms” that were meant to deliver redemption – socialism, militarism, pacifism, universalism – haven’t delivered the goods, and look to build their own relationship with the wellsprings of the tradition, each on his or her own terms. It’s a blessed time.  ■