The Problematics of Myth

January 1, 2002
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By Neil Gillman

When I was a rabbinical student at the Jew-ish Theological Seminary, theology was taught as a dimension of Jewish intellectual history, what the great Jewish thinkers of old believed. With the notable exception of Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, our teachers were not overly concerned with what we or our congregants-to-be might believe. When I began to teach, I felt it was my responsibility to help my students develop a personal theology that would cohere with the rest of their Seminary education and shape their teaching and preaching as Conservative rabbis. But then, they had the right to expect that I too would share my own theology.

My first encounter with the theological uses of the term myth was in Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. I first read Tillich for my doctoral exams at Columbia, but it was only when I began to teach theology to JTS rabbinical students that I felt the full impact of his thought. That slim book remains central in my teaching and writing to this day.

My core issue was revelation. It continues to be, for me, the central theological issue: how one understands revelation determines how one deals with the authority of Torah on all matters of Jewish belief and practice.

My Seminary education had successfully subverted any literalist understanding of the central Jewish revelational event as described in Exodus 19-20. I was taught that the Torah was a composite document, edited around the 5th century C.E., borrowing from the literature of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. That “critical” approach to the study of the Bible also questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, including the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The evidence for these conclusions struck me as persuasive. In addition, I had begun to question the very possibility of any human attempt to capture God’s nature or activity in literal terms. I could no longer believe that God literally “descends” on Sinai or “speaks” the words of Torah. If God were truly God, then God could not literally “speak.” But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism? It was in this context that I reverted to the notion of myth.

To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie – as in the common practice of contrasting “the myth” with “the facts” or “the reality.” That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it. When I teach “revelation,” I provide my students with a wide range of options, including the traditionalist literal understanding of the issue, along with the more liberal positions from the writings of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Rosensweig. I also teach my own position – that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term.

1.There is no totally objective, human experience of the world. We construct reality from our simple perception of an apple to our most complex scientific theories. To this task we bring everything that makes us who we distinctively are, our genetic make-up, our educational and cultural baggage, and our intuitive, almost pre-conceptual, assumptions about what the world looks like. We perceive the world not through our eyes but through our brain, which applies interpretive structures to what is transmitted to us through our senses. Those structures are analogous to myths. Structural myths are often accompanied by narrative myths; the former describes the structure, while the latter tells how it came to be. Freudian psychoanalytic theory combines both, as does astronomy; Genesis 1 and Exodus 19 are classical narrative myths.

2. Myths, then, are not to be contrasted with facts. Instead, myths are the means by which we identify the significant facts. The more elusive the facts, the more the data elude direct human perception, the more inevitable and indispensable the myth (as in string theory, psychoanalytic theory, the biblical account of the Exodus, creation, and eschatology). In all of these cases, the myth posits an invisible world to account for what it is that we do see. Myths then inform the work of scientists, historians, and theologians.

3. Myths are the connective tissues that knit together the data of experience, thereby enabling these data to form a coherent pattern and acquire meaning – what Rollo May, in his The Cry for Myth, calls the beams of the house that are themselves invisible but without which the house could not stand. To use another metaphor from our childhood, myths are the lines that connect the dots on the page so that we can see the bunny rabbit, except that now the dots are not pre-numbered. We have to choose the dots that we want to connect (i.e. the “facts”), then assign the numbers, then draw the lines. Sometimes, there are different connections to be made, each of which yields a different pattern (Copernicus vs. Ptolemy, Freud vs. Jung, white vs. black perceptions of American life, or Zionist vs. Palestinian perceptions of Middle East politics). It is precisely because these connecting tissues are themselves invisible that myths are frequently viewed as fictions.

4. Myths can be “living,” “broken,” or “dead” (Tillich’s terms). A living myth is one that works for us, that we embrace as “true,” that makes sense of the world as we perceive it. A broken myth is one that has been exposed as our subjective, human construct. Sometimes broken myths die; the contrary data have become overwhelming. (See Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on the life and death of scientific paradigms. Kuhn’s paradigms function as myths.) Many adults experience the death of their personal myths; for many Americans, Vietnam killed the American myth. But broken myths don’t have to die. It is possible to embrace a broken myth as still living. That’s what I try to help my students achieve. The key step is Paul Ricoeur’s felicitous term, “second” or “willed naivete” (in contrast to the pre-critical stage of “primary naivete”). By consciously stepping back into the myth (as, for example, at the Passover seder), we restore its power, even though it is broken. That is by no means an easy step to take, but it is indispensable.

5. Finally, what makes a myth “true”? Clearly not because it corresponds to the facts, simply because we have no independent perception of those facts to compare it with. We cannot escape our humanness. But one myth may do a better job of integrating what we do perceive to be the data of experience; it accounts more adequately for more of what we perceive. For Jews, that myth is canonized in Torah. Myths are singularly tenacious. They also enjoy a certain “plasticity”; they can be reshaped to account for apparently discordant data. (Jews call that process midrash.) Finally, religious myths are existentially true; we make them true for us, they become true when we embrace them and live them. For me, the acid test is liturgy and ritual. Liturgy articulates the myth and ritual brings it vividly alive. My myth is true because I can daven from the traditional liturgy, and because Jewish ritual works brilliantly for me.

I can’t count the number of times colleagues have suggested that I use some other term: midrash, construct, metaphor, paradigm, model. But each of these raises its own problems. The term myth works for me, as does my myth, and I will continue using both.

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Neil Gillman, Chair of the Sh'ma Advisory Board, teaches Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Encountering God in Judaism (Jewish Lights).

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